The long, grand boulevard of the Kurfürstendamm, referred to by Berliners as the Ku’damm, dates back to 1542 and takes its name from the Kurfürsten (Prince Electors) of Brandenburg when it was a bridle-path to their Grunewald hunting lodge. Since the days of the Kaiser this avenue has been lined with shops, hotels, theatres, restaurants and street cafés. Tall, black wrought-iron street lamps bow elegantly above bold pavement display cases introduced by the Nazis and the buildings are set well back from the road to allow plenty of room for promenading. The street corners have quaint kiosks and the old-style ‘Litfaβsäule’, columns plastered with advertisements of all the current shows and concerts. In summer the four rows of magnificent plane trees hide the parked traffic in the central reservation and in winter their branches sparkle with white lights.
Pavement display cases
After the Prussians defeated the French in 1871, Bismarck wanted the Ku’damm to become Berlin’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was widened to about 53 metres and construction started on some of the city’s most prestigious addresses. These buildings had ornate façades with columns, gables, towers, huge bay windows and grand entrances with equally impressive interiors. Over half these magnificent structures were destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War, but many have been lavishly restored.
Commerzbank at 59, Ku’damm
A good way to admire the Ku’damm architecture is to take a ride on the top deck of one of the buses that run up and down the boulevard. Haus Cumberland at 193-194, Ku’damm is among the finest buildings along the route. This listed building was originally constructed in 1911-12 and named after Ernst August of Hanover, Third Duke of Cumberland, who was stripped of his English title when he sided with the Germans in the First World War. Haus Cumberland has a colourful history. It covers 10,000 square metres and was conceived as a ‘Boarding Palast’ or apartment hotel, with three elaborate courtyards forming the heart of the complex. Unfortunately, the owner was declared bankrupt before the final opening. After this venture failed, the building was briefly used by the Imperial Arms and Ammunition Procurement Office and then converted into a grand hotel.
The original ‘Boarding Palace’ in 1912
One of the courtyards and the reading and writing room
In the years that followed the First World War, Haus Cumberland contained the main post office building and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as theatres and cinemas. In the Nazi era it housed government finance offices that played a part in the expropriation and plundering of Jewish property. From 1966 to 2003, the Berlin Regional Tax Office was the new landlord and from 2003 it stood empty, apart from the shops on the ground floor, and the interior was sometimes rented out as a backdrop for Hollywood films.
Haus Cumberland in 1968
After new plans for a luxury hotel failed, the property was sold to a business consortium in 2010.The building was meticulously renovated for heritage status and the Ku’damm façade was returned to its original state. There are now 185 apartments at the rear of the complex and a number of shops at the front.
New apartments and courtyards
Behind the grand entrance to Haus Cumberland is the much-vaunted café-restaurant ‘Grosz’, named after Berlin artist George Grosz (1893-1959), best known for his socially critical paintings from the 1920s, who lived in nearby Savigny Platz during the Golden Twenties.
Entrance to ‘Grosz’
Berlin street scene by Georg Grosz
‘Grosz’ opened its doors to the public in 2012 – a century after Haus Cumberland was originally completed. At the time, the Berlin press proclaimed it as a great example of how the Ku’damm and West Berlin are on the road to being cool and hip again, although the truth of this statement is debatable. But ‘Grosz’ is definitely worth a visit, both for its atmosphere and for its food and drink. Run by the owner of ‘Borchardt’, the famous celebrity dining establishment in Berlin-Mitte, ‘Grosz’ exudes the same sophistication. The interior décor looks genuinely historic and expensive and the waiting staff are crisply-dressed in white and black.
As ‘Grosz’ is a coffee house, bar and restaurant all in one location, you don’t have to order food with your drink. But if you are calling in for coffee it’s hard to resist the display of exquisite cakes by the entrance. Beyond it is a bar area serving fine cocktails which opens into the actual restaurant rooms with the highest ceilings imaginable, ornate pillars and walls covered with antique mirrors and paintings.
Sweet treats ……
….. and the bar
The ambience of ‘Grosz’ is best described as a mixture between a Vienna café of the Art Nouveau era and a French Brasserie. I went there for dinner soon after it opened and had a memorable meal. The menu focuses around classics like oysters served on a silver pedestal, various steak cuts and seasonal dishes with a French twist. At lunchtime there is always a plat du jour. Five years ago, the food and the service were both excellent, but the place was rather empty and I felt that things had yet to get into their stride. Recently, I have returned to ‘Grosz’ both for an evening drink and for a Berlin-style Sunday breakfast. It seems to have a more laid-back feel to it now, without losing its elegance and wow factor and almost succeeds in capturing the elusive Berlin feeling of bygone days.
A ‘Grosz’ breakfast
A cool dog at the next table
‘Grosz’ is only a few bus stops from Zoo Station or a 20-minute can stroll up the Ku’damm. All the location details and menus can be found on the Grosz website at http://grosz-berlin.de/?lang=en For an interesting read about the Ku’damm’s history and buildings, I can highly recommend ‘A Walk Along The Ku’damm: Playground and Battlefield of Weimar Berlin’ by Brendan Nash.
Saturday was bitterly cold in Berlin, but with bright sunshine. For lunch, we headed off to the beautiful Bergmannkiez. In this gentrified neighbourhood of multi-cultural Kreuzberg there are endless colourful restaurants, cafés and small shops to dive into – not to mention the Marheineke Martkhalle indoor market, a paradise for foodies. Today, our main destination was Umami, one of the best-rated Asian-style restaurants in the capital. The first Umami opened in Knaackstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg in 2014 and was so successful that another one established itself two years later, at 97 Bergmannstrasse, alongside the legendary Knofi with its Mediterranean epicurean delights.
In Japanese, the word ‘umami’ roughly means ‘delicious’, and refers to the fifth taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It’s a moreish, savoury flavour only recently identified by western scientists, but which has been recognised in the Orient since ancient times. Umami in Kreuzberg certainly fulfilled the promise of its name. And with its mellow vibe and exciting menu of Indochinese cooking, it is incredibly popular.
We came in from the cold to a warm, dimly-lit haven. The lanterns, the wooden tables and benches, the pictures of 1950s Indochina and the haunting Asian music transported us back in time. And as advertised on its website, we discovered that Umami really does serve food that an Asian ‘Mami’ would cook. We ordered a selection of dishes from the inspired menu of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. ‘Angry Calamari’, ‘Tongkin’s Roastduck’, ‘BanhBhao Burger’ and ‘Shaolin Bowl’ all looked and tasted amazing. And the drinks we chose met with universal approval. Next time we’ll leave room for one of the tempting starters or desserts.
The service was fast and friendly and the bill was very reasonable; about 12 euros a head for a main course. Families can even order a six-course banquet for just 23 euros. Behind the main restaurant area, there is a cosy screened-off room with floor seating. Even the pretty loos echoed the Asian theme, adorned with lanterns, bamboo mirrors and Ming-style pots.
After lunch, we headed across the road for some retail therapy to Toko Satu, selling Asian silks, ornaments and gifts. In warmer weather, the Bergmannkiez is the perfect neighbourhood for ‘flanieren’ – the German word (taken from French) for strolling along and savouring the scene.
A walk around Chamissoplatz is an absolute must. The stucco facades, cobblestone streets and courtyards of the imperial apartment buildings are stunning.
But by late afternoon, the temperature had dropped to zero in the shade and we couldn’t resist a coffee stop at the original Barcomi’s, followed by a wander through the indoor market stalls of the Marheineke Markthalle. Since I was last there, a first floor has been added especially for Vegans. Kreuzberg is always at the front of the queue when it comes to inclusiveness.
Russian Berlin – Berlin’s relationship with Russia is unique. There are now an estimated 300,000 Russians living in the German capital, many of them Russian-Germans who arrived after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. One hundred years ago, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, thousands of Russian emigrés fled to the German capital. Many of them made their home in the borough of Charlottenburg, which soon earned the nickname ‘Charlottengrad’. At the Russian supermarket, next to Charlottenburg station, you can still buy Russian dumplings, wine, vodka and the classic Alyonka chocolate. The shop assistants all wear the same red t-shirt emblazoned proudly with the word ‘Russia’, in blue and white Cyrillic letters.
There is also a score of good Russian restaurants in Russian Berlin. Top of the list is ‘Pasternak’ in Prenzlauer Berg, which occupies a large and picturesque corner site opposite ‘Dicker Hermann’ (‘Fat Hermann’), Berlin’s oldest water tower. I love the feel of this restaurant, especially in the evening. The dark wood bar and furniture, parquet-flooring, old posters, crystal chandeliers and piano combine to create an intimate and authentic atmosphere.
Pasternak after dark
The building was lovingly restored by its owner, a Russian-Jewish immigrant in the 1990s and just around the corner in Rykestrasse is the largest synagogue in Germany, originally built in 1903-1904.
I revisited Pasternak for dinner on a Sunday with friends, a couple of weeks ago. Our waitress was Latvian – full of good humour and helpful suggestions. We started off with mixed platters of Russian hors d’oeuvre. They were a sight to behold and everything tasted as good as it looked, especially washed down with the glass of vodka.
We chose red wine from Georgia – one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world – to accompany the main course and each of us selected something different from the wide choice of Russian and Jewish specialities. They were all delicious.
Finally, we couldn’t resist finishing off the evening with a portion of blinis served with hot cherries and a serving of Russian ice cream. This was probably a bridge too far, but the retro extravagance of the desserts proved irresistible. Having paid the very reasonable bill, we walked outside into the rain and were further tempted by the bright lights of ‘Bar Gagarin’ on the other side of Rykestrasse. This is most definitely a cosy little corner of Russian Berlin.
Bar Gargarin at night
Another very popular Russian haunt in Russian Berlin is the Tadschikische Teestube, this time almost next to the historic Neue Synagoge at 27, Oranienburgerstrasse in Mitte, an area which has attracted many Russian-Jewish immigrants. The whole place was a gift to the GDR from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan who brought the interior and the design to the Leipzig Trade Fair in the 1970s. In 1976, the Teestube opened on Unter den Linden as a permanent tea parlour and restaurant, complete with carved wooden columns, carpets and hassocks with low tables and kitchenware imported from Tajikistan. It was moved to its current location five years ago.
There are over 20 varieties of tea to savour at the Tadschikische Teestube and for a special occasion you can book a Samovar ceremony. The restaurant menu is suitably Russian too and apart from the magical interior, there is a beautiful courtyard outside. If you understand German, Monday evenings are reserved for the telling of Russian fairy-tales.
But Berliners have not always welcomed the Russians. When the Soviets marched into the city in April 1945, their invasion was characterised by the most terrible bloodshed, rape and pillage. On 20th April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery began shelling Berlin and did not stop until the city surrendered. According to one source, “the weight of ordnance delivered by Soviet artillery during the battle was greater than the total tonnage dropped by Western Allied bombers”. When the Soviets raised the Red Flag from the top of the Reichstag on 2nd May to signal their victory, Berlin was at its lowest ebb in history.
Iconic painting of the Red Flag
Things didn’t improve much during the years of the city’s division when the Soviets took over the eastern sector of Berlin after the war. During the workers’ demonstrations in East Berlin on 17th June1953, Soviet tanks and soldiers were brought in to quell the uprising, and hundreds of East Berlin citizens were killed. The Soviet Union was always proclaimed as the ‘great friend’ of the GDR Government, but many of its citizens would beg to differ.
Russian tanks in East Berlin, 1953
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet military left East Berlin and the American, British and French military left West Berlin. But the Russians have left behind so many more tangible memories than the Western Allies. They lost over 30,000 soldiers in the Battle for Berlin and the huge Soviet War Memorials in Treptower Park and on 17. Juni Strasse, near the Brandenburg Gate, bear witness to the massive price that Russia had to pay. For a detailed account of German-Russian relations, the Deutsch-Russisches Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst is well-worth a visit. It is only a pity that they no longer have the large-scale model of the Battle for Berlin which used to fill a whole room in the 1980s. It was apparently taken back to Moscow after reunification.
Celebrations in Treptower Park, 2015
You can actually get a feel for Moscow in the centre of Berlin. Just take a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor and marvel at the chunky Moscow-style apartment blocks erected in the 1950s, when this boulevard was named ‘Stalinallee’. On the right-hand side you will pass Café Moskau, a striking 1960s-era building, originally built as an ‘international restaurant’ and conference rooms. Now it is the upmarket ‘Avenue’ night club and an event venue. Further along Karl-Marx-Allee, just before Franfurter Tor, is the aptly-named ‘Kosmos’, also now a large event venue and once the largest cinema in the GDR.
The Russians have certainly left their mark on Russian Berlin and continue to shape its culture. It is worth remembering that Angela Merkel speaks excellent Russian, which she learnt as her first language during her GDR education and that Vladimir Putin spent five years living in Dresden, East Germany, when he worked for the KGB.
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 with the Radioeins Rooflounge. 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 (Radioeins Rooflounge) 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 from the Radioeins Rooflounge
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 (Radioeins Rooflounge)
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
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
Kreuzberg has always been a district on the edge – literally and metaphorically. When the city was divided, this West Berlin neighbourhood was enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Rents were cheap and it attracted hippies and artists, immigrants and squatters. These days, parts of Kreuzberg may be more gentrified and upmarket, but there is still an undercurrent of edginess in its multicultural landscape. The streets of Kreuzberg are noisy and colourful, yet it is always possible to find quiet corners where you can escape the hustle and bustle. One of my favourites is the Engelbecken (‘Angel’s Pool’), opposite Michaelkirchplatz.
Escape from the madding crowd
This man-made pool was once part of the Luisenstadt Canal, constructed in the mid-19th Century to link the Landwehr Canal with the River Spree. However, the Luisenstadt Canal wasn’t used sufficiently and its waters became stagnant. Between 1926 and 1932, the canal was partially filled in and transformed into sunken gardens, although the Engelbecken was retained as an ornamental pool and fountains were added.
Luisenstadt Canal in 1905
Engelbecken in 1937
During World War II, the gardens were badly damaged and later filled in with rubble. Then in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed along the northern part of the former route of the canal and the Engelbecken simply became part of ‘no man’s land’ – the photograph below shows clearly how it had been filled in and flattened.
The Berlin Wall along the border of Kreuzberg
Since 1991, many of the destroyed gardens have been restored to their original design and the Engelbecken once again provides a perfect inner-city oasis. The Café am Engelbecken has generous terraces by the water’s edge where you can sit among rustling green reeds, watching swans glide past and the sun playing on the water’s surface. It’s a great tip for an ‘anytime’ meal. I love it for brunch, for its salads and pizzas and for magical cocktails at dusk. Follow this link for further details.
Behind the Engelbecken, among tall trees, are the ruins of St Michael’s Church (Michaelkirche), dedicated to the Archangel Michael, who gives his name to the lake. It was designed by architect August Stoller, dates back to the 1850s and was only the second Roman Catholic church to be built in Berlin after the Reformation. Theodor Fontane, the great German novelist of the 19th Century, thought St Michael’s to be the most beautiful church in Berlin. Sadly, it suffered terribly in bombing raids in 1944, but much of the exterior survived and walking through its grounds, you can still sense its former grandeur – even if it is now impossible to imagine it blocked off by the Berlin Wall.