Berlin Calling – from the Radioeins Rooflounge

Berlin Calling – from the Radioeins Rooflounge

Heavenly views of Berlin are always a treat and in summer it seems as if every hotel in the city is competing to have the coolest rooftop venue. But Radio Eins has nailed the prize this year. To celebrate their 20th Anniversary, this radio station has transformed the conference room and roof terrace on the top floor of the RBB tower block into a sensational ‘Dachlounge’ (roof lounge). The initials ‘RBB’ stand for Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, the nationally-affiliated broadcasting company for Berlin-Brandenburg.

Looking up at the RBB tower block

A section of the Berlin Wall in the RBB gardens

‘Radio Eins Ganz Oben’ (‘Radio One right at the top’) opened its Dachlounge on 1st July and plans to close on 31st December. Entry is free – just be prepared to have your bag searched, before being whizzed up to the 14th floor from the outside lift on Theodor-Heuss-Platz in Charlottenburg. Then simply walk straight outside on to the terrace to enjoy the fabulous 360° views. There’s seating there as well and, in fair weather, a shed serving drinks and freshly-barbecued snacks. Last week, we were treated to a torrential downpour, followed by sunshine and a spectacular rainbow over Berlin. The views extended for miles.

Views in every direction

Inside, the RBB conference area has become a bar, a restaurant, a lounge and a studio – all in one space. Large company meetings apparently now take place in the RBB offices in Potsdam (which you can just about see in the distance from the roof terrace). The interior of the Dachlounge has a modern, loft-style feel to it, with orange and dark grey décor and full-length panoramic windows. Radio Eins is a radio station aimed at the over 25 age group and features plenty of timeless pop music as well as current hits, so the Dachlounge atmosphere is smooth rather than edgy.

Inside the Dachlounge

The opening hours are midday until midnight, seven days a week. You can go there for a meal or just call in for a coffee or cocktail. On weekdays, live programmes are broadcast from the Dachlounge between 7pm and 9pm – on these evenings you are advised to make a reservation for dinner. Places are limited to 150 guests. For a feel of the place, just follow this link for a video clip.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sBpFK3OMlc

Radio magic

Of course, the tower block is only one part of the huge RBB complex. Radio and television history are intimately connected with Berlin and the original broadcasting building is the vast and imposing ‘Haus des Rundfunks’ (Broadcasting House) on Masurenallee, opposite the Funkturm (radio tower). The iconic ‘D’ shaped structure of the Haus des Rundfunks was designed by architect Hans Poelzig and built in 1929-31, using dark, shiny, clinker bricks. The transmitting studios radiate from the entrance hall and are enclosed within the offices.

The front of the main building

Close-up of the brickwork

The Haus des Rundfunks remained largely undamaged during the Second World War due to some ingenious methods to disguise its position from Allied bombers. After the war and until 1956, the entire building remained a Soviet enclave in the British Sector of Berlin and, since the Soviets only allowed the other Allies a fraction of the transmitting time, this led to the setting up of RIAS (Radio im Amerikanischen Sektor) in order to broadcast to Berliners the viewpoint of the West. SFB (Sender Freies Berlin,‘Berlin’s Free Broadcaster’) was established in 1956 by a West Berlin parliamentary act to create an independent broadcasting station for West Berlin. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Haus des Rundfunks, which had been left in a desolate state by the Soviets, was rendered operational by the SFB. In the mid-1980s I went on a guided tour of the Haus des Rundfunks and it was a fascinating place to explore. We were shown some of first recording studios in the world, under historic preservation order. The wood panelling around the concert hall where the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded its concerts was taken from just one tree so that the sound absorption is uniform. And when the seats in the auditorium were lifted, they revealed perforations which acted acoustically in the same way as a person occupying the seat.

1980s aerial view of the SFB buildings

But despite its modern concept, the Haus des Rundfunks could not live up to the requirements needed for television and so SFB built a new tower block alongside it, on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. This was opened in 1968 and as some of the studios inside are situated directly over the U-Bahn, they are literally ‘suspended’ to prevent any vibrations from the trains running underneath the building. SFB continued to exist until 2003 when it was merged with ORB (Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg East German Radio Brandenburg), based in Potsdam, to form RBB. For guided tours of the RBB studios follow this link: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/haus-des-rundfunks

View of the Funkturm from the Dachlounge terrace

 

 

 

Underneath the Arches

Underneath the Arches

I am in love with Berlin’s elevated railways. These lines are such a joy to ride for the wonderful urban views they offer. The Berlin Stadtbahn (city rail) was completed in 1882 and runs east-west right through the city centre. It is a major visual presence in many of the capital’s iconic sites, crisscrossing the cityscape in a range of viaduct styles.  A ride on the Berlin Stadtbahn from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz gives you a continuous stream of awesome sightseeing from your carriage window. All the details are in ‘Ticket to Ride’, the first chapter of my guidebook, Berlin Unwrapped. But the pleasure of the Berlin Stadtbahn is not just confined to its views. Some of its viaducts were built as a series of brick arches and each arch is large enough to contain rooms, many of which are now used as either shops or restaurants. One even houses the GDR Berlin Motorbike Museum.

Berlin's Stadtbahn, underneath the arches

Empty S-Bahn arches near Zoo in 2009

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DDR Motorrad Museum on Rochstraße

In winter, the restaurants under the Berlin Stadtbahn arches are cosy retreats, with dim lighting and industrial charm. In summer, there are usually tables outside, perhaps opposite a park or with a riverside view. Inevitably, they are also right next to the viaduct, where a train clatters overhead every minute or two. There is something strangely comforting about this urban soundscape; it creates a bubble in time and I can sit for hours in such places, just watching and listening. The German word for arches is ‘Bögen’, which denotes anything bow-shaped and there are plenty of restaurants in the Berlin S-Bahnbögen to choose from. The ‘Ampelmann’ restaurant underneath the viaduct between Museum Island and Hackescher Markt Station is one of my favourites.

The Ampelmann Restaurant at 159 Stadtbahnbogen

You may think that a place named after the dumpy East German traffic light men, who achieved cult status and spawned such popular souvenir items, might be a bit übercommercialised, but this restaurant serves delicious fresh food and has a great location. On summer evenings, you can stretch out on a deckchair, with cocktail in hand, and look out over the River Spree towards the Berlin’s monumental museums and cathedral. My recent trip to the Ampelmann was for breakfast and I can rate the omelettes and the stone-baked bread highly. The historic railway arches beckoned as a welcome refuge from the cold morning air and the waitress even lit a small wood fire by the window.

Breakfast under the Ampelmann ‘Bogen’

Summertime scene at the Ampelmann

On the other side of the Spree, between Friedrichstraße Station and Museum Island, just a stone’s throw from Angela Merkel’s apartment, is another series of S-Bahnbögen along Georgenstraβe. Here, I can recommend the historic ‘Restaurant Nolle’, featured in my blog from 29 May 2016 about the nearby Admiralspalast. Follow this link for more details of The Nolle’s origins.

The Nolle in the 1920s

A modern S-Bahn train emerging from Museum Island

Further along, past the antique shops, at 5 Georgenstraβe, is ‘Deponie No.3’, another restaurant with old Berlin style. There’s plenty of wood and nostalgia here, plus some quirky décor. Its name, which means ‘disposal site’ or ‘dump’ in English, apparently stems from the fact that 25 years ago, in GDR times, these arches were used as a ‘Deponie’ by the National Volksarmee.

Collectors’ items at the Deponie

These days, the Deponie is a popular haunt for locals and University students and has a wide menu which includes tasty, authentic German dishes at reasonable prices. The choice of beers and wines is pretty good too. My last visit was on a sunny May afternoon and we had lunch in the large courtyard at the back, overlooked by a regular procession of red and yellow S-Bahn trains running above us. The service was welcoming and we will soon be back – maybe on a Saturday evening for a shot of Berlin atmosphere in the large, candlelit bar area or late on a Sunday morning to tuck into the excellent buffet brunch after a night out in Mitte.

Blue skies at the Deponie

Historic Crossing Point

Historic Crossing Point

Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.

Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum

The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.

View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today

There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.

Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel

During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.

The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel

In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.

The reconstructed Nikolaikirche

The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Inside the Nikolaikirche

In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.

The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal

The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.

The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now

But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.

The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant

Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.

The monastery ruins

Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight. 

The palms of Babylon

Klosterstraße station

A Poignant Wilderness

A Poignant Wilderness

The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee is one of the largest and most beautiful Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Earlier this month, I was strolling along its many sun-dappled paths together with Berlin friends. Stopping to read the inscriptions on the headstones, we reflected on over a century of European history. We all felt fortunate to be alive in a united Germany that welcomed people of all races and nationalities, and a Europe trying to work together for peace and stability in the global community. It seemed as if we had come such a long way along the road of cooperation and enlightenment since the terrible events of the 20th Century. And now, in late June 2016, Great Britain has decided to distance itself from the European Union. It hardly seems credible.

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At the entrance of the cemetery is a Holocaust memorial. Translated into English, the inscription on the central headstone reads, ‘Always remember what happened to us. Dedicated to the memory of our brothers and sisters 1933-45 and to the living who are to fulfil the legacy of the dead.’ This headstone is surrounded by further stones, each with the names of concentration camps. Next to it is a memorial, dedicated in 1927, to 12,000 Berlin Jews who lost their lives during the First World War, and also a commemorative plaque to those who resisted the Nazis.

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The Holocaust Memorial at Weissensee

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In 1995 the Bundeswehr paid tribute to the 400 Jewish soldiers buried in Weissensee, who fought and died for Germany in the First World War

The graves of Berliners who died in the Holocaust cannot, of course, be found in Weissensee but there are many individual memorials to them scattered amongst the actual graves and their names have sometimes been added to the headstones of family members.

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A memorial to a father and his sister who both died in Ausschwitz

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A 1971 headstone with a dedication to a mother murdered in Riga in 1941

On the map, the Weissensee cemetery looks like a Renaissance garden; a geometric pattern of rectangles, trapeziums and triangles. The avenues criss-cross each other in circles and squares. But when you enter the grounds, you feel you have stepped into a place of enchantment. Among the high trees and thickets there are columns, stones, mausoleums, ivy and lilac. And it is all so peaceful. Few people are aware that the cemetery grounds are classified as a historical monument.

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Photo taken in 1907

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‘Section 1, Field B’ photo taken in June 2016

The significance of the cemetery lies not only in its extraordinary graves, whose variety and splendour today seem almost incredible, but also its fate, which is so closely entwined with that of Berlin. When you explore the cemetery on foot, it is like walking through a history book. The list of famous artists, philosophers, lawyers, architects, doctors, religious teachers and publishers who are buried here is endless. The Berlin department store founders Adolf Janert (KaDeWe) and Herman Tietz (Hertie) are among them, the artist Lesser Ury, whose works were banned by the Nazis, the publisher Samuel Fischer (S. Fischer Verlag), Berthold Kempinski, who gave his name to the famous luxury hotel chain and Rudolf Mosse, who once owned the largest publishing house in Europe.

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Grave of Lesser Ury (1861-1931) painter of Berlin landscapes

The Weissensee Cemetery opened in 1880. The old Jewish cemetery in Große Hamburger Straße, opened in 1672, had reached its full capacity in 1827 and the second cemetery in Schönhauser Allee, opened in the same year, reached its capacity in the 1880s.The very first person to be buried in Weissensee on 22nd September 1880 was not a celebrity, but Louis Gruenbaum, the former director of an old peoples’ home. On the side of his gravestone is a large number ‘1’. The fact that it is still standing is because a Jewish cemetery is created for eternity. The graves are not levelled and there are no expiry dates, as in other German cemeteries. On every gravestone in Weissensee there is a sequential number.There are also many gravestones where the date of death is given according the Jewish calendar which starts on the day Adam and Eve were created.

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The Landecker brothers died in the years 5,661 and 5,678 …

Over 115,000 people are buried in the cemetery. Simple headstones stand alongside splendid mausoleums from the art nouveau or art deco eras. Some graves were designed by Bauhaus architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Some of them seem fanciful, others impress with their monumental style. Yet, although the money available to spend on the creation of each grave must have varied greatly at the time, today they are similar; mostly crumbling, overgrown, forgotten. In places, hardly a ray of light can pierce the massive treetops to reach down on to the graves. The Holocaust not only destroyed the lives of millions but also destroyed the memory of them. In the 1930s there were 170,000 Jews living in Berlin, at the end of the war only 5,000 remained.

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One of the larger mausoleum-style family graves

Yet Weissensee cemetery was never closed during the war years. Jewish children played there when it became too dangerous for them on the streets of Berlin. Martin Riesenburger, who later became rabbi of East Berlin’s Jewish community, survived the Holocaust with his wife by hiding in the cemetery. Between 1943 and 1944, he not only buried the Jewish dead there, but conducted religious services in the grounds. He was also able to rescue religious ritual objects, including numerous Torah Scrolls and silver ornaments, by hiding them in the cemetery. Many other Jews were able to save themselves by hiding within the vast grounds, including inside the burial vault of opera singer Joseph Schwarz. Details surrounding the Gestapo’s discovery of this hiding place came to light through a report written by Christoph Hein. He described the Gestapo’s gruesome torture of those whose hiding places were discovered.

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These happy photos were taken in 1942 in the Jewish Cemetery. The boys survived the war, but the girls were deported and murdered.

As Weissensee Cemetery is situated on the outskirts of the former capital of the GDR, after the war it fell into further oblivion. It wasn’t possible for the tiny Jewish community of East Berlin to control the spreading wilderness. In their helplessness, the administration decided to leave the main part of the cemetery to nature and just have a few representative plots near the entrance where burials could still take place. Since reunification, the cemetery staff are trying to restore the individual graves one by one.

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GDR children playing games along the tops of graves in the 1970s

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Some current low-key clearing and renovation taking place

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The beautifully-restored Hall of Mourning

With an estimated 40,000 members, the Jewish community in Berlin today is the largest in Germany. This is partly due to the number of Jews who have immigrated from the former Soviet Union. The customs and traditions these families have brought from their old homeland are the latest and most exciting chapter in the Weissensee history because funerals are still taking place in these historic grounds. On our walk, we saw several family members tending recent graves where the headstones were mostly in Russian or Hebrew.

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Newer graves with Hebrew and Russian inscriptions

Weissensee is now a thriving suburb of north-east Berlin, just beyond trendy Prenzlauer Berg. When the Jewish Cemetery opened there, it was a small village. There are still those who jokingly say that the cemetery is ‘just outside Poland’, although in 1880 family members thought nothing of making the journey by horse-drawn tram from Alexanderplatz. Today the M4 tram whisks you out to Weissensee in no time. The cemetery is only a 5 minute walk from stop 14 at Albertinenstrasse.

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One of the prettiest graves, with metalwork freshly re-painted

In 2011, a wonderful film was made about the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee: ‘Im Himmel und unter Erde’ (In Heaven and under the Earth). Follow this link to see the trailer – the narration is in German, but you get a real feel for the atmosphere of the cemetery and its historic significance. There is also a captivating book about the cemetery, ‘The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery – Moments in History’, published by be.bra verlag. The photographs are truly beautiful (I have used a few for this blog) and the text is in both German and English.

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Cover photo for the book

Finally, you can read more information about the cemetery – including contact details and opening times – on the website of the Berlin Jewish Community. It was here I discovered that the famous writer and former GDR legislator Stefan Heym, who died in Israel on 16th December 2001, was buried in Weissensee five days after his death. In November 1994, Heym said, “People expect us to deal with and establish acceptable, socially just conditions… a coalition of reason… This, however, requires a coalition of reasonable people…” (“Die Menschen erwarten, dass wir uns als Wichtigstes mit der Herstellung akzeptabler sozial gerechter … Verhältnisse beschäftigen … eine Koalition der Vernunft, die eine Koalition der Vernünftigen voraussetzt”). How these words resonate today.

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Putting on the Ritz – at Berlin’s Admiralspalast

Putting on the Ritz – at Berlin’s Admiralspalast

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A night out at the Admiralspalast

The words ‘Berlin’ and ‘cabaret’ are synonymous. The songs from the 1920s and 1930s echo down the years, and capture the essential Berlin feeling. Like a magic carpet of sound they transport you effortlessly back to a time when the German capital was renowned for its creativity and risqué edginess. Packed with catchy melodies and witty lyrics, the popular hits from the Weimar era paint a musical picture of the Zeitgeist. Nobody plays them better than the iconic Berlin-based band, Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, and the historic Admiralspalast next to Friedrichstraße Station provides the perfect setting. Last month, the band was back there, with their sell-our show, ‘Eine Nacht in Berlin’ (A Night in Berlin) and I had made sure of tickets by booking six months ahead.

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The hot ticket

The German word ‘Palast’ (palace) says it all; both the band and the building have style and glamour. It is sheer professionalism and a unique sound that makes Max Raabe & Palast Orchester so special. Their shows are slick and seamless and capture the sound of those pre-war years that the Americans call‘Roaring’ and the Germans call ‘Golden’ – and the heyday of the Admiralspalast. Max Raabe founded the Palast Orchester in 1986, with 11 fellow students at the Berlin Academy of Arts, where he graduated as a baritone singer. The band initially used original musical arrangements from the 1920s and 1930s that Raabe picked up at various Berlin flea markets. Then they worked on learning them before giving their first public performance in 1987. They had their first hit 5 years later, with an original song, ‘Kein Schwein ruft mich an’ (Nobody calls me up). You can follow this link to listen and read more about Max Raabe on the Goethe Institute website.

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Max Raabe & Palast Orchester

The band’s repertoire is mainly a homage to composers from the pre-war era of German and American popular songs, but they also perform contemporary music in the same vintage musical style. Non-German speakers might miss the humour in some of the lyrics, but Max Raabe’s singing is so accomplished and expressive that it hardly matters. There are instrumental numbers too, and in true jazz style the band members – who are traditionally all male, with the exception of the violinist – have a chance to show off their individual talent.

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Queuing to get into the show

On the evening I heard them at the Admiralspalast we were treated to six extra numbers in English at the end of the show, as it was being recorded for an American TV channel. They included perfect renderings of ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. Next season the band is appearing in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the past they have performed in the Cadogan Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and in Israel. But to really tune into the band’s Berlin connection, it has to be the Admiralspalast. Tickets are already on sale for March 2017 on the band’s website.

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Street view of the Admiralspalast

The Admiralspalast is one of the few Weimar theatres left in Berlin and like many survivors, it has had to re-invent itself to adapt to changing times. Its history dates back to 1867 when a saltwater spring was discovered on this site. The ‘Admiralsgartenbad’ opened in 1873 and soon became one of the leading public baths in Imperial Berlin. This building was demolished in 1910 and replaced a year later with the luxurious four-storey Admiralspalast, containing a skating rink, bowling alleys, restaurants, a cinema – and, allegedly, a bordello. The whole complex had over 900 rooms.

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The ladies’ baths in the Admiralsgartenbad

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The ice-skating rink at the Admiralspalast

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An English cartoon from the 1920s

In 1920, the concept of the Admiralspalast was changed and the central skating rink was turned into a variety theatre in art déco style, with two dress circles and 1,065 seats. Ten years later the auditorium was enlarged to seat 2,200 and given a new, expressionist design. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Admiralspalast was used mainly for the performance of operettas. In 1939, on the orders of Goebbels, it was given the plain, classical interior that it has retained to this day. A ‘Führerloge’(Führer’s box) was added in 1940;  Hitler often slipped into the theatre to watch his favourite operetta, ‘Die lustige Witwe’ (The Merry Widow).admiralspalast-berlin-theatersaal_ni2844[1]

The Admiralspalast auditorium

The Admiralspalast escaped the World War II bombing relatively unscathed. After the war, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany in the Soviet Occupation Zone held a historic convention at the Admiralspalast where they merged to become the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was to rule the GDR for 40 years. The building then became home to the Berlin State Opera until 1955, when restoration of the opera house on Unter den Linden was completed. During the GDR years, revues and operettas continued to be performed at the Admiralspalast, but under the name of the Metropol-Theater.  The GDR Union of Journalists also had its offices inside the Admiralspalast.

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The Admiralspalast as home to the Berlin State Opera

After reunification, the Admiralspalast put on shows until 1997, when it was closed and threatened with demolition. The site stood empty for several years, but was finally rescued and renovated. On August 11th, 2006, when the restoration work was still incomplete, it officially reopened with Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer. This was followed by ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and, in the summer of 2009, it became the first venue in Germany to stage Mel Brook’s cult comedy ‘The Producers’. Follow this link for an interesting review of this Nazi-lampooning show. These days, it’s mainly concerts and comedy shows that are held in the main auditorium of the Admiralspalast. Sometimes the seats are folded away – then everyone parties and dances the night away. The Admiralspalast’s website gives all the details of their entertainment programme in English.

There is a green hill … not far away

There is a green hill … not far away

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Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg is the perfect choice for a sunny spring afternoon. This pretty park comes complete with an impressive historic monument, an artificial waterfall, fabulous 360° views from the top of the hill and a cool Biergarten. Who could ask for more?  Few cities can compete with Berlin when it comes to green spaces and water. In fine weather, people flock to the Tiergarten and fill pleasure boats on the Spree. Or they head off to the outer edges, full of forests and awash with lakes. But why get caught up in the crowds or leave the city centre when there is a green hill, not so far away?

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The park in summer

Viktoriapark’s history is fascinating. In 1821, on a hill known for its vineyards and originally called the ‘Tempelhof Berg’ or ‘Runder Berg’, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel unveiled his national monument to commemorate the Wars of Liberation.  Schinkel’s neo-gothic cast-iron edifice consists of a 20-metre high column, adorned with twelve statues symbolising the twelve major battles against Napoleon and topped by a huge iron cross. It was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who instituted the award of the Iron Cross in 1813. In 1821 the hill was duly renamed the ‘Kreuzberg’ (Cross Hill).

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Cast-iron statues around the monument

In 1878, the monument was made even more impressive by being elevated on to a massive granite and sandstone base. It was around this time that the land on the slopes of the hill was laid out as a public park and named after Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and wife of the future Kaiser Friedrich III.

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The monument seen from its base

Then, ten years later, Berlin’s Director of City Parks decided to give the park a mountain-like character by adding a 24-metre high waterfall, a miniature replica of the Wodospad Podgórnej waterfall in Poland, once a popular tourist destination for wealthy Berliners. As there isn’t a natural source of water on the Kreuzberg itself, water is pumped up the hill to feed the waterfall and the water circulation is now 13,000 litres per minute. The cascade over the rocks is an amazing sight and remains a big attraction.

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Admiring the waterfall from above

Greater Berlin was formed in 1920 by merging Berlin’s suburbs into 20 boroughs and Viktoriapark found itself in ‘Hallesches Tor’. Only a year later, this borough was renamed Kreuzberg after its illustrious hill and now it is one of the most multi-cultural and liveliest areas of Berlin, known for its cafés, bars and nightlife. The fireworks in Viktoriapark on New Year’s Eve and the May Day street fairs all add to Kreuzberg’s explosive colour.

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Artist’s impression of colourful Kreuzberg (Martin Schwartz)

But last week in Viktoriapark, I felt a million miles away from any urban vibes. We had taken the U-Bahn to Mehringdamm, then turned right into busy Yorckstrasse.  We paused for a few moments of peace in the wonderfully-restored Sankt Bonifatius Church and then strolled through the calm courtyards of Riehmer’s Hofgarten towards Viktoriapark. We were already in another world.

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The entrance to Riehmer’s Hofgarten

Viktoriapark was a haven of budding trees and birdsong. We climbed the winding path up to the monument and noticed several people walking or sitting among the rocks by the waterfall.  Once at the top, the view across the city is fabulous. You might not see the Brandenburg Gate, but there are plenty of other landmarks to pick out, including Potsdamer Platz and Tempelhof Airport.

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The Fernsehturm, seen through the spires of Sankt Bonifatius

When we’d soaked up enough afternoon sun and read every inscription on the 12-sided spire, we wandered down the grassy slopes to the legendary Golgatha Biergarten at the back of the park. Only a few tables and benches were occupied and the large sandy playgrounds were relatively empty.

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One of several large playparks

In summer, it’s a very different picture.  As the temperature rises, the atmosphere in Viktoriapark heats up too. The open spaces are packed with sunbathers, picnickers and musicians, and dogs and children frolic about in the waterfall. Watching the sunset from the steps around the monument is a must and Golgatha’s opening hours are from 9.00 am for breakfast until ‘Open End’.

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Golgatha in early Spring

Although we didn’t come across it, there is apparently still a small vineyard in Viktoriapark which produces ‘Kreuz-Neuroberger’ wine. It was founded in 1968 when the vines were donated to the Borough of Kreuzberg by the town of Wiesbaden.  Only about 300 bottles are pressed each year and they are mostly used as ‘prestigious gifts’ presented on special occasions.  But I have heard that a 10 euro donation at the ‘district office’ will get you at a half-bottle. I will be following this up on my next visit to Kreuzberg. In the meantime you can find an interesting feature on the vineyards of Berlin by following this link.

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