A Multiverse of Courtyards

A Multiverse of Courtyards

To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.

Berlin courtyards

Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard

The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.

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Kreuzberg Hinterhof today

The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.

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Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard

There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.

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Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I

An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.

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Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg

Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.

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Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe

On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.

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Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe

Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.Berlin courtyards

Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe

For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’  and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.

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Berlin courtyards – The Missing House

I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.

Meet me at Dussmann

Meet me at Dussmann

Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus. Berlin may be famed for its dark history and decadence, but it also has a reputation as a city bursting with culture. Music, literature and the arts have always flourished in Berlin and never more so than in its current 21st Century, post-unification era. What other cities in the world can boast a huge ‘Cultural Department Store’, open Monday to Friday from 9am until midnight, on Saturday until 11.30pm and on some Sundays, too?

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The iconic Dussmann building

‘Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus’ is a unique store, offering an amazing selection of books, CDs, DVDs, sheet music and stationery. In fact, every product that a culture vulture could dream of. There are also regular cultural events such as readings, book signings and musical performances, and a brilliant café in the basement. The owner, Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann describes her store as “the beating heart as the city” and compares Dussmann to a church; a place where people come together, reflect, and communicate with one another. How much better to browse at Dussmann, with the help of expert advice, than alone at home on the internet.

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Inside Dussmann

Dussmann originally opened in 1997 and immediately raised the bar for international book and music stores. For the past twenty years, whenever I have been anywhere near Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping artery of Berlin’s ‘City East’, the draw of this Aladdin’s cave has proved irresistible. Since February 2017, all five floors of the store have been reorganised and refurbished. Dussmann remained open during the building works and despite the upheaval, the loyal customers kept coming in. Now, everything seems more spacious than ever, as dividing walls have been removed, storerooms knocked through into the shopping area and more seating areas provided.

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The towering atrium

On the third floor are text books and a Berlin Wall Memorial display with touch screens, complete with a piece of Wall signed by Ronald Regan. On the floor below are popular non-fiction books and children’s books. The first floor has novels, audio books and a huge selection of international DVDs. On the ground floor is the most comprehensive selection of books about Berlin in the capital, hundreds of Rock, Jazz and Pop CDs and a tempting range of ‘papeterie’. If you walk through to the back of the ground floor, there is even a separate two-floor English bookshop where ‘Shakespeare meets Auster’. And the basement has a wonderful classical music department with sheet music as well as CDs and space not only to listen to music, but to try it out yourself on an electronic piano.

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DVDs of films set in Berlin

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Classical listening space

Dussmann is a great place to meet up. It’s situated in the cultural heart of Berlin and is not only a unique shopping experience, but also boasts ‘Café-Restaurant Ursprung’ (Source) open from 9am until 9pm, six days a week, where you are encouraged to ‘eat-drink-dream’. Hype aside, this basement refuge has a relaxing vibe and an imaginative menu. You walk through the ‘nave’ of the store to be greeted by a sphinx at the top of the staircase and a vast back wall featuring a 270-square metre vertical garden of over 6,000 tropical plants. This spectacular ‘Mur Végétal’, designed by French botanist and garden architect, Patrick Blanc, has quite a wow factor – rather like the whole Dussmann experience.

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An impressive café entrance

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Inside Café Ursprung

 

City Centre Magic Christmas

City Centre Magic Christmas

Last December I wrote about two fairy-tale Christmas markets on the outer edges of West Berlin. For this year, here are four city centre markets with great atmosphere and historic charm. The setting is a key factor and even without the merest sprinkling of snow, these markets have backdrops that make them special. They are most magical after dusk, when the stalls and trees are strung with lights. Look out for the traditional ‘Herrenhuter Sterne’ (Moravian stars) which originated in 1830; they hang outside stalls and shops all over Germany and have a unique glow.

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Traditional Herrenhuter Stern

The market in the grand courtyard of Schloβ Charlottenburg has a tempting variety of food stalls on offer, many of them in festive-shaped constructions. Try the venison goulasch, the suckling pig or the fried green cabbage, as well as any kind of sausage imaginable. Mulled wine comes in different flavours with extra shots and the mug only costs an extra two euros as a souvenir.

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Magical skyline at Charlottenburg

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Every kind of ‘Wurst’

The Charlottenburg market has plenty of Christmas decoration and craft stalls too. Here the traditional wooden ‘Weihnachtspyramide’ and carved figures are better value than in the shops, but make sure they originate from the ‘Erzgebirge’ (Ore mountains) if you want the genuine article. The huge wooden nativity scene and the musicians playing Christmas carols add to the nostalgic feel, but there’s an element of the modern fairground in the mix.

 

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Carols and the ‘candy train’

Another popular market laid out in front of beautiful historic buildings is the ‘Weihnachtszauber’ market on Gendarmenmarkt, where the Konzerthaus, flanked by the impressive twin French and German churches, provides a dream setting. There’s a charge of one euro to enter this market, although it doesn’t seem to keep the numbers down. Last Friday evening it was extremely full and we had to fight our way through the crowds. In the middle of the market is a stage for the live entertainment and many of the stalls are crammed into large tents. It’s all very jolly, especially in the food tents with their Bierfest atmosphere and cheerful service. The Gendarmenmarkt market runs until New Year’s Eve.

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In front of the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt

If you are looking for something more low-key and smaller-scale, take a stroll along Sophienstrasse, just a couple of minutes from the Hackescher Markt. This an ‘Ökomarkt’, where all the goods have ecological or organic pedigree and are generally hand-crafted. Sophienstrasse is lined with beautifully-restored buildings, including the oldest baroque church in Berlin, Sophienkirche. The shops have traditional medieval metal signs hanging outside and the old-fashioned street lamps and metal railings of the church cemetery contribute to a Dickensian atmosphere. This market is only open on Advent weekends until 7pm. No Easyjet revellers here.

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The Advent scene on Sophienstrasse

You can also escape the tourists at the ‘Lucia market’ in Prenzlauer Berg, named after the Nordic goddess of light. Set up in the ‘Kulturbrauerei’, a former brewery complex from the 19th century, the market stalls feature traditional Scandinavian handicrafts, food and drink. The historic brick buildings form a spectacular backdrop and there is a family feel to this market, with its carousels and children’s art gallery. The Glühwein flows for the adults, including several unusual Scandinavian varieties. Next to one of the drink stalls is an added attraction; a wood-fired stove where market-goers can sit on benches warmed by electric radiators and slip their arms into a thick sheepskin coat.

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Something for all the family at the Lucia Markt

Market and Mutter

Market and Mutter

Saturday is a great time to do a Berlin market. The largest ‘Wochenmarkt’ (‘weekly market’) is the Winterfeldtmarkt in Schöneberg, the district where Christopher Isherwood of ‘Cabaret’ fame used to live and still the soul of the Berlin gay and lesbian scene. It’s an area of the city with lots of great cafés and interesting shops – and plenty of edge and style. This market takes place twice weekly, on Wednesdays (8am to 2pm) and Saturdays (8am to 4pm), on Winterfeldtplatz – a large square, only a short walk from Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn Station (Lines 1 and 2). It’s a very colourful affair, with scores of stalls to wander around.

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Locals come to buy fresh supplies and stop to talk to favourite stallholders and friends. Visitors to Berlin just love the buzzing market experience; the sights and smells are an assault on the senses. You can stop for a portion of exotic street food or settle for a traditional German sausage. If you only want a taste, most of the produce stalls offer samples before you buy.

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The craft stalls are wonderful. None of the goods seem banal or commercialised; even the soaps shaped like the Brandenburg Gate are scented with real lemon grass. We tasted the honey made from the pollen of nearby linden and chestnut trees and bought a couple of jars of Rolf’s golden nectar. The cardboard models of retro German cars were also a great hit as gifts for vintage friends.

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Hand-made jewellery and clothes made of natural materials such as wool, felt, fur and cotton, are another temptation. The stallholders are passionate about their products and are happy to explain more about them – in English, if necessary. German markets specialise in leather goods, pottery and traditional kitchen utensils made of wood and metal. They all have ecological pedigree and hippy Berliners of all ages would much rather buy the real thing than a mass-produced item. You can sometimes haggle about the price, but a Wochenmarkt is not the same as a ‘Flohmarkt’ where bric a brac and antiques never really have a fixed price.

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Winterfeldtplatz is surrounded by streets packed with cafés and bars. Berlin Unwrapped has several recommendations listed under Schöneberg in the ‘Café Society’ chapter and you can explore the streets of this neighbourhood in greater detail in ‘Small Worlds’. But here’s a new discovery for a perfect lunch stop. Leave the market at the top end of the square, by the church, then turn right, walk about 100 metres and ‘Mutter’ is at 4, Hohenstaufenstraβe. Although the word ‘Mutter’ usually translates as ‘mother’, here it refers to a ‘nut’ – as in ‘nut and bolt’ – as is obvious from the large logo over the front door.

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Mutter’s website explains the Indo-European derivation of the restaurant’s name, but leaves us to guess why they chose it. A clue may be in its warm embrace and the heavenly Thai dishes at reasonable prices. The restaurant lighting is from dimmed chandeliers above wooden tables and an illuminated bar with considerable style. There is another bar area for drinks only and in summer, tables spill out onto the street. Mutter is open seven days a week, from 11am until late. ‘Blue Hour’ is from 8pm until 10pm and ‘all night long’ on Sundays, when cocktails cost just €6.50.

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The coolest of squares

The coolest of squares

There’s nothing like a pretty square in a busy city – a place to sit and chill, take a break from the rush and linger over a meal or drink. Savignyplatz in Charlottenburg offers all this and more, yet remains far from the madding crowd, despite its central location. Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain may be ‘on trend’, but the nightlife around Savignyplatz is just as buzzing, with less hype and more substance. And by day, it’s perfect for lunch at a pavement café and a starting point for a stroll around local shops off the Ku’damm. It’s easy to get to as well – only one stop from Zoo Station on the S-Bahn.

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Arriving at Savignyplatz by S Bahn

Like many other places in Berlin, Savignyplatz has French origins in its design and its name. The square was originally laid out in 1862 as part of the Hobrecht Plan for urban Berlin, based on the boulevards and squares of Hausmann’s renovation of Paris under Napoleon III. In 1887, it was named after Karl Friedrich von Savigny, a well-connected lawyer who played an important role in Berlin political and academic life in the mid-19th Century. In French, the pronunciation of the word ‘Savigny’ puts the stress on the last syllable, but Berliners resolutely call it ‘Sav-ee-gny’.

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Savignyplatz in 1902

Savignyplatz is dissected by the broad avenue of Kantstraβe which runs east-west, and a total of seven streets fan out from the two halves of the square. In 1892, it became a public park and four years later, Savignyplatz S-Bahn station was opened, with the overhead railway running atmospherically along the south side of the square. Herbaceous borders and shaded arbours were added in 1926 and two identical bronze sculptures of a ‘Knabe mit Ziege’ (‘Boy with goat’)  were placed on the northern part of the square in 1931. When they were replaced after the war in 1955, only one was an original – the other is a copy.

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Views of the square today

For much of the post-war period Savignyplatz remained rather neglected, although the surrounding area of Charlottenburg was one of the hubs of West Berlin’s nightlife. This area was also the centre of the student demonstrations in the 1960s. It still attracts students, as well as the ‘Alte 68er’ – a term Germans give to what we call loosely describe as ‘ageing left-wing intellectuals’. In 1987, it was given a facelift for the celebrations of the 750th Anniversary of Berlin. The original kiosk designed by Grenander, the architect responsible for many of Berlin’s U-Bahn stations, was rebuilt and is now a popular currywurst stand. The brick cabin dating back to 1926 wasn’t reconstructed until 2007 and features an eye-catching contemporary art installation illuminated at night.

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The modernised kiosk and cabin 

Savignyplatz has always had an alternative vibe. In the 1920s it attracted scores of artists, writers and celebrities. The Expressionist painter, Georg Grosz, lived at 5 Savignyplatz, before he emigrated to the States in the 1930s and the poet Mascha Kaléko was just around the corner in Bleibtreustraβe. When she also left in 1938, she published these haunting lines in the ‘Aufbau’ journal of German emigrés in America. They translate literally as: “I travelled around the world a lot before those ‘thousand years‘. Foreign lands were beautiful, only a substitute. The name of my homesickness was Savignyplatz.”:

“Ich bin vor jenen ‘tausend Jahren’, viel in der Welt herumgefahren. Schön war die Fremde, doch Ersatz. Mein Heimweh hieβ Savignyplatz.“

There is indeed something nostalgic about Savignyplatz, which finds its echo in many of the surrounding restaurants and bars housed in grand Wilhemine-style buildings. My favourite is the café that never sleeps – Schwarzes Café (‘Black Café’) at 148 Kantstraβe, two minutes from the square. It’s open round the clock and epitomises laid-back, dimly-lit Berlin café society. David Bowie and Iggy Pop hung out there in the late 1970s when it first opened. The more upmarket Paris Bar, a little further along Kantstraβe, has a glitzy cult following and a degree of egotism. Glossy photos on the walls bear witness to all the actors and film stars who have dined there. This was once the West Berlin restaurant to be seen in. By contrast, the wonderful Florian, tucked away at 52 Grolmanstraβe, is where the illustrious go to escape attention. Unsurprisingly, both the food and the service are both outstanding. Everything is organic and the menu has a South German accent. It’s open every day from 6pm and the kitchen serves food until midnight. Booking is essential.

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Looking into the Schwarzes Café and Florian

For a traditional German meal in a cosy pub atmosphere complete with wooden panelling and curios, a visit to the Die Dicke Wirtin (‘The Fat Landlady’) on the north side of Savignyplatz is a must. This Berlin institution has been going strong for over 80 years and has the ‘quaint’ factor, and tends to attract group bookings by tour bus companies, so a table reservation is recommended here too.

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The quaint interior of the Dicke Wirtin

For a retro feel though, I prefer the Zwiebelfisch (‘Onion Fish’) a café bar at 7-8 Savignyplatz, open from midday until six in the morning and still frequented by aspiring bohemians. Time stopped here in the 1960s and it’s still a perfect place for putting the world to rights in the early hours, surrounded by old posters and photos from West Berlin days. The Spectator magazine seems to agree with me. It describes the Zwiebelfisch as simply the best bar in the world.

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Chilling in the Zwiebelfisch

While on the subject of bars, the cool Hefner Bar on the corner of Savignyplatz and Kantstraβe, serves first-class cocktails to start or end the evening. It has that slick lounge bar quality that comes at a price. By contrast, the Gainsbourg le Club Americain, which has now moved to the south side of the square in the Jeanne-Mammen-Bogen, is an old Savignyplatz haunt with all the smoky Parisian hip and great cocktails its name promises, but in a Berlin setting under the S-Bahn arches. There’s live music from Thursdays to Saturdays.

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Inside Hefner and outside Gainsbourg

But the most well-known music venues in this area are the A-Trane and Quasi Modo. A-Trane has a good restaurant as well as being a great jazz club. Quasi Modo, nearer Zoo Station, is a basement club under the Delphi-Filmpalast cinema and next to the Theater des Westens. It opened back in 1975 in what used to be a student pub and has a wide programme of live music as well as some cabaret and comedy. Both A-Trane and Quasi Modo have websites giving details of their music events in English.

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The A-Trane entrance

Facing Savignyplatz itself there are about 10 restaurants to choose from. They all spill out on to the pavement and even in colder weather, people sit outside to enjoy the prospect of the square, huddled under the blankets provided. It’s always fun to walk around the square studying the different menus. I love Brel for its total Frenchness and the AndaLucia tapas café for its Spanish warmth. There are several perfectly good Italian restaurants to choose from, but nothing to beat the pizza at the 12 Apostel in the passage leading to the S-Bahn station. If you like Vietnamese food, I can recommend both Mr Hai and Friends and Pho Nguyen.

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Pavement café society

Finally, you can browse for hours in the shops on and around Savignyplatz. Bücherbogen has beautiful art books and Marga Schoeller in Knesebeckstraβe stocks a large range of books in English. Kantstraβe is well known for its design shops and galleries and there are boutiques up and down Bleibtreustraβe and Knesebeckstraβe. Berlin Unwrapped has all the details in the Charlottenburg section of ‘Buy, buy Berlin’. But here are two additions; at 88 Knesebeckstraβe is Berliner ZInnfiguren, a collector’s dream shop selling antique tin soldiers and cake enthusiasts should head for the colourful Der Kuchenladen (‘The Cake Shop’) at 138 Kantstraβe. This shop and café has one of the best selections of cakes in Berlin and with over 50 to choose from, you may have to go back time and again. It’s open every day from 10am until 10pm.

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Books, cakes and tin soldiers

A Temple of Consumption

A Temple of Consumption

I’m not a great fan of shopping malls. In fact, quite the opposite. But curiosity eventually drew me to the crassly-named ‘Mall of Berlin’, the largest and newest shopping centre in Berlin. It opened last summer to great razzamatazz and also some controversy, as the Rumanian construction workers claimed they had not been paid and dubbed it the ‘Mall of Shame’.

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Construction workers on the march

My main reason for seeking it out was its location on Leipziger Platz. Before the war, this was the site of the biggest department store in Europe. This jewel in the crown of the ‘Wertheim’ chain was built in 1896 and featured 83 lifts and a glass-covered atrium. Georg Wertheim, the owner, was Jewish and his stores were expropriated by the Nazis in 1937. The Jewish workers lost their jobs and the Wertheim family was forced to sell all their holdings. They tried to avoid losing control of the company by making Georg’s ‘Aryan’ wife, Ursula, the principal shareholder. But in the end, this was unsuccessful, even though the couple divorced to keep the shares in purely ‘Aryan’ hands.

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The Wertheim store in the 1920s

The Leipziger Platz building was badly damaged in the war, its ruins were demolished in the 1950s and then the site ended up in no-man’s land between East and West Berlin when the city was divided. After reunification, the area soon sprang to life again and in 1991, one of the world’s most famous techno clubs, ‘Tresor’ (in German, ‘safe’ or ‘vault’) opened in the only remnant left of the Wertheim store, its giant underground vault. The club closed in 2005.

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‘Tresor’ in 2003

In the meantime, the Wertheim site had become embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute between the family’s descendants and several German companies and was finally settled out of court in 2007. For many years there were two remaining stores in Berlin which operated under the Wertheim name, even though they were owned by Karstadt. The flagship store, built in 1969-1971, was on the Kurfürstendamm and converted into a Karstadt store in 2008. The other store, in the West Berlin district of Steglitz, was demolished in 2009 for construction of the glitzy new Schloßstraße shopping mall.

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The Wertheim store (lower right) on the Ku’damm in 2003

The €1bn ‘Mall of Berlin’, an entire new quarter of the city centre with 270 shops, a Hard Candy fitness centre owned by Madonna, a hotel, offices and flats, marks the spot where the grand Wertheim store once stood. At the opening ceremony in September 2015, the then Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, paid tribute to its original Jewish owners. “It’s really great that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve finally managed to close the gap where the great Wertheim store once stood … Leipziger Platz has a historic importance in Berlin. Wertheim stood for quality and innovation and we’re looking forward to continuing that tradition.”

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Grand opening of The Mall of Berlin in 2015

Harald Huth, developer of the three-storey structure, has also paid tribute to the Wertheim store by including giant pictures of it on the walls of the mall and modelling the glass-covered arcade on the one in the original building. These historic touches are, for me, the best thing about the ‘Mall of Berlin’.

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Old photographs of the Wertheim store  on the walls and around the top of the escalators

I also like the political sayings embedded into the flooring; they literally make you stop and think. Barak Obama’s words in the photograph below translate as: ‘Peoples of the world, look at Berlin where a wall fell and a continent united, And the course of history has proved that no challenge is too great for a world that stands together.’ Little did I imagine when I read these words that the United Kingdom was about to vote to leave the European Union.

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The Barak Obama quote, in German

Once you are inside the ‘Mall of Berlin’, you could be anywhere in the world. There are all the usual international high-end brands alongside the high-street chains and the layout is pretty predictable too. In general, the ground floor and the first floor are all about fashion, the second floor is dedicated to shoes, children, and a food court and the basement is home to various stores selling sporting goods, electronics and food. I found a couple of shops selling something unique to Berlin and then we headed to the highlight of the mall – its elegant and airy piazza.

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‘I’ve looked around and we are the trendiest people here’

This open space, with its perfect view of the front façade of the Bundesrat (German equivalent of the House of Lords) has hosted two fantastic classical music flashmobs. There was one last September and another only a couple of months back when 1,000 amateur musicians joined the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester to play Wagner, Verdi and Berlioz under the baton of Kent Nagano. Follow this You Tube link to hear how they sounded.

Teilnehmer des "Symphonic Mob" musizieren am 19.09.2015 in Berlin unter der Leitung des Dirigenten Manuel Nawri (M) in der Mall of Berlin. Der Musik-Flashmob war von dem Deutschen Symphonie-Orchester organsiert worden. Foto: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Flashmobbing in the Mall of Berlin

Another good thing about the Mall of Berlin is its central location on Leipziger Platz, so close to many of Berlin’s historic sites – only a ten minute stroll from both the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. The main entrance to the mall is just by the exit of Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn station, while the Wilhelmstraße entrance is very close to the Mohrenstraße U-Bahn station. Buses M48 and 200 stop in front of the mall at ‘U Mohrenstraße’ or ‘Leipziger Straße / Wilhelmstraße’, while all the S-Bahn trains and buses stopping at Potsdamer Platz are only a couple of minutes’ walk from the mall. The Mall of Berlin also boasts 1,000 underground parking spaces, open 24 hours a day.

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A view of the Bundesrat from the piazza

People often ask me where to go for ‘good shopping’ in Berlin. If you are short of time and want to find everything under one roof, then the Mall of Berlin is the obvious choice. But this cathedral of consumerism, beautifully-lit and with classy shop fronts, lacks any true Berlin feeling, other than the fact that it stands on such a historic site. We emerged from its bright lights into the early evening sunshine, and contemplated its essence from a pavement table at a great little Italian café on Leipziger Platz. The verdict was ‘decidedly dull’.

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Restaurant tip on Leipziger Platz

But the scene outside had its merits. The sleek, high buildings of Potsdamer Platz punctured the blue sky and there were groups of locals setting up picnics on the grass in front of us. On the face of it, life felt good; the wasteland of the Berlin Wall death strip has almost disappeared. But I worry that these areas have now been filled up with ministries, embassies, office blocks and hotels. And lots of shops – too many of them. On the plus side, no armoured vehicles on the streets and a United Europe……

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Remnant of the Berlin Wall on Leipziger Platz