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

Fairy-tale Christmas markets

Fairy-tale Christmas markets

For Christmas markets with authentic atmosphere and fewer tourists, it’s best to escape the city centre and head for the Berlin ‘countryside’. Public transport links are so good that most are easily accessible by train or bus. Last weekend I visited two of my favourites which have a more traditional feel.

Stalls at the Grunewald and the Dahlem markets

There are still two more weekends of Advent to catch the market at Domäne Dahlem, an open-air agricultural and food museum with a focus on ecology. The former manor house there dates back over 800 years and the estate provides the perfect backdrop for a traditional Christmas market. Take the U-Bahn (U3) Dahlem Dorf and the Domäne is practically opposite the station.

Pretty Dahlem Dorf station in the snow

The market stalls offer all manner of handmade products from wooden and straw Christmas decorations to beeswax candles, stationery, clothing and food. Permanent arts and craft workshops specialise in gilding, weaving, pottery and furniture restoration and some have their wares on sale. You can dine on goose or waffles under cover of the large shed and warm up with Glühwein or mead as you stroll around the market to the accompaniment of the brass band quartet playing seasonal music. The entrance fee of €3 also includes the Manor House and the Culinarium exhibition in the newly renovated stables.

A stall selling handmade Berlin souvenirs

An even more fairy-tale destination is the annual Adventmarkt in the courtyard of the Jagdschloss Grunewald – the fabulous 16th Century Royal ‘Hunting Palace’ in the Grunewald forest, Berlin’s oldest surviving palace. This market only takes place over the second weekend of Advent and it’s worth planning a trip to Berlin to visit it; the lake-side forest setting is magical – better than any film set could dream up. The 115 or X10 bus routes take you within a 15 minute walk of the Jagdschloss, on forest paths. Alight at Pückler Straße (115) or Königin-Luise-Straße (X10) and take a torch if you are walking back after dark.

The Jagdschloss courtyard after dark

Apart from dozens of market stalls selling hand-made gifts and toys and a variety of tempting food and drink, the Grunewald market is full of music and drama.  A small brass band plays by the courtyard entrance and characters from fairy-tales mingle with the crowd. There’s also a central stage set up in front of the Renaissance Jagdschloss and families gather round to listen to carol-singing or a performance of Hansel and Gretel.

Wicked Frau Holle introducing the play

If the market gets crowded, there’s plenty of room down by the Grunewaldsee behind the palace. With a glass of ‘Feuerzangenbowle’ (German Fire Punch) in one hand and a Bratwurst in the other, you won’t feel the cold and the views are stunning, especially with sunset over the lake.

A lakeside stall selling traditionally-dyed ‘Blaudruck’ (‘blueprint’) cloth products

As an extra treat, the Berlin ‘Weihnachstmarkt für Hunde’ (Christmas Market for dogs!) is only a five minute walk from the Jagdschloss at the Forsthaus Paulsborn. The Grunewald is a popular destination for dog owners as there are not only miles of walks but in summer dogs are allowed to swim in the Grunewaldsee (see post ‘If you go down in the woods today…’ from 16 August 2014).  The annual Christmas Market for dogs started in 2012 and has proved a great success. It’s worth the entrance fee of €1.80 just to catch the canine festive spirit.

Choosing a doggy Christmas gift

Then finish Grunewald Advent experience at the stately Forsthaus Paulsborn before walking back through the forest to the bright city lights. For full details of all Berlin Christmas markets, the Visit Berlin website has a comprehensive list.

The scene outside and inside Forsthaus Paulsborn after dusk

Merry Christmas Markets

Merry Christmas Markets

A German Christmas is something special and Berlin rises to the occasion every year. Throughout December thousands of trees across the city are bedecked with sparkling white lights and the two grand avenues of East and West Berlin, Unter den Linden and Kurfürstendamm, compete for first prize in the illumination stakes. The iconic department store KaDeWe features dazzling decorations and smaller shops make a huge effort with their window displays. At a total of over 80 Christmas Markets the scent of mulled wine and spiced nuts lingers in the air. The only thing missing last weekend was the snow.  (more…)

Bikini Berlin

Bikini Berlin

Summer comes suddenly in Berlin and last week it had already made its entrance. Not quite bikini weather you might think, but then Bikini Berlin is literally something else…

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Having landed at Berlin-Tegel at 9.30 in the morning I was on the Kurfürstendamm only an hour later, sipping a double espresso at Einstein’s on Adenauerplatz. The trees that grace the city centre were in full leaf and the famous Berlin air was warm enough to breakfast on the pavement.  It may be an embarrassment to the Germans that their capital’s new airport hasn’t opened yet, but this Londoner is still making the most of the Heathrow to Tegel link.

My first destination was Bikini Berlin, an urban renewal project which opened its doors to the public in March. As with every other new addition to Berlin’s cityscape, Bikini Berlin comes with plenty of history and baggage. Its centrepiece is the ‘Bikinihaus’, a 1950s building between Berlin Zoo and the symbolic ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at the junction of the Ku’damm and Tauentzienstrasse, West Berlin’s two most prestigious shopping avenues. Berliners love to give their buildings nicknames and the Bikinihaus was so-called because of the impression created by the transparency of second floor. This whole area, including the Europa Center shopping mall, was originally designed to showcase post-war West Berlin.  In the late 1970s it had already started its steady decline when nearby Zoo Station became a haven for drug addicts, drop-outs and rent-boys. After the fall of the Wall the big money went into creating the new high-rise Potsdamer Platz complex and regenerating the centre of East Berlin and the increasingly tawdry ‘City West’ got sidelined. Cinemas and theatres along the Ku’damm closed down and cheap chain stores, sex shops and supermarkets sprang up everywhere. The district of Charlottenburg became known as Charlotttengrad suggesting more than a whiff of Russian mafia.

But West Berlin has fought back and the Ku’damm sparkles with elegant confidence once more – and not just when the plane trees are magically draped in Christmas lights. The modern high-rise architecture of Neues Kranzler Eck and the Ku’damm Eck started the trend with their slick steel and glass exteriors. Then shopfronts began to smarten up their act. Notable newcomers in the past two years are the 1920s style Café Grosz at number 193 and Apple at number 26, both with beautifully renovated facades. The landmark Kino Zoo Palast has been upgraded and refurbished without losing its former charm and the Zoofenster skyscraper containing the Waldorf Astoria hotel has brought West Berlin firmly into the 21st Century.  But where is the shabby chic which has attracted so many well-heeled visitors to Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin? Enter Bikini Berlin, describing itself as a Concept Mall – ‘a unique combination of shopping,working, cinema, recreation, urban oasis and hotel’.

Marveling at the hugeness and blueness of the Berlin sky, I crossed Breitscheidtplatz and looked up at the ‘Hollow Tooth’ (the Berliners’ nickname for the ruined spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which has been left standing as a war memorial). On my last few visits it has been covered with ugly hoarding whilst it undergoes much-needed restoration, but now the top part is visible and hopefully the rest will be revealed soon. The next step would be to get rid of the tacky wooden snack food stalls crowding its base.

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From across the road Bikini Berlin doesn’t really catch the eye – it just looks as if the existing post-war building complex has been smartened up. But then I climbed up the flight of steps to the right of the Zoo Palast cinema and the wow factor of Bikini Berlin kicked in. It was as if I had climbed up the Magic Faraway Tree (you have to be an Enid Blyton fan to understand this concept). Although I wasn’t quite above the clouds, I was in another world which was invisible from ground level. I could walk around outside on the rooftop terrace or explore the designer stores and cafés on three levels inside the shopping mall.  In the photo below, visitors to Bikini Berlin are enjoying the view into the monkey enclosures. Most of them seemed to be Berliners or Germans from other parts of the country: Bikini Berlin clearly hasn’t found its way into the guide books yet.

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Inside the shopping mall is the ‘Bikini Berlin Pool’ with twenty pop-up stores, the Berlin Bikini Boxes, which can be rented for one year. The Pool also includes Supernova, a large event or exhibition space, currently devoted to The Future of Football. Apparently Bikini Berlin wants to attract ‘a discerning, trend and style-conscious international audience with high standards on quality and shopping experience’, but I’m sure the market will find its own level.

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Once I had enjoyed another hit of coffee and a scoop of La Luna ice cream I headed for the 25hours Bikini Berlin Hotel. This ten-storey tower block is built on top of Bikinihaus ‘between the green zoo and the urban jungle’ and reaches into the vast Berlin sky. I took the funky dark lift to the top and enjoyed the stunning views from the Monkey Bar with its tiered benches inside and tables outside on the balcony. In the Zeni Restaurant the menus were tempting and the views equally good, but you need to book well ahead. The concrete staircases with stencilled animals on the walls give this hotel a raw Berlin warehouse feel but back on the ground floor the mood is calm and relaxing.  The Bakery serves coffee and pastries and a hammock invites you to ease off the day and scan the Zoo for large mammals.

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Bikini Berlin combines a great location with clever retro and modern architecture and when the landscaping has matured it will be an attractive urban oasis. But will it create enough interest and have sufficient edge to put West Berlin back on the map?

 

 

Shopping with Angela

Shopping with Angela

I always head to KaDeWe if I need a new pair of shoes. There is a vast selection, the staff are really helpful and the prices are no higher than anywhere else. In fact they are considerably lower than in some of the innocent-looking little boutiques in trendy Mitte. For the uninitiated, KaDeWe stands for Kaufhaus des Westens (Store of the West) and is the flagship department store of Berlin, an equivalent of Harrods or Selfridges in London. It has a wonderful food department on the sixth floor and a conservatory-style restaurant under the glass dome above – both great places for Saturday brunch.

 

But back to shoes… I  chose a couple of pairs I liked and sat down to try them on. As I stood up to look in the mirror I was confronted with a familiar figure walking towards the display stands behind me. It was Angela Merkel, completely on her own. For a second, I thought I would have to say something, but she cleverly averted my gaze and an eager sales assistant rushed to her side to offer help. A couple of men in suits were strategically placed a few yards away quietly observing everyone’s movements and all the customers nearby were surreptitiously smiling at each other and reaching for their mobile phones to record the moment in a text message. No photos were taken though. I was struck by the calmness of the situation. Frau Merkel had defined the atmosphere in her own quiet and unobtrusive manner. It was 5.30 p.m. and apparently the German Chancellor often pops into KaDeWe after a busy day at the office. When I told some Berlin friends I had seen her they weren’t a bit surprised. ‘We saw her picking up asparagus in the food hall only a couple of weeks ago’ they said.

A new addition to Tauentzienstrasse, only a stone’s throw from KaDeWe on the other side of the street, is the first Uniqlo store in Germany. It opened to the public on April 11th to a considerable amount of hype including huge street posters (see below) featuring Daniel Brühl, a ‘Berliner since 2001’. I don’t suppose Angela will shop here though. The bright red flashing neon city names along the steps of the main staircase freaked me out. Just not Angela’s understated style, even if the assistants are über helpful.