When you jump on a plane in Brisbane and fly for over an hour, you get to Canberra. When you jump on a plane in Rotterdam and fly for over an hour, you get to Berlin. Now that Iâ€™ve done both, I know which one is more exciting.
The first thing that strikes you about Berlin when you arrive at night is how dark it is, as if the city is still under a blackout, expecting to be bombed again into oblivion by RAF and US Air Force. As I walk towards the Brandenburg Gate, somewhere towards my right a searchlight scans the sky, taking me back over seventy years.
It is a weeknight and it is relatively quiet. Tourists still congregate around the Gate taking snaps and selfies. The Gate in real life seems much smaller than it always seems in historical photographs. Berlin on the other side, looking towards Tiergarten, looks asleep. Sometimes there seems to be more police around, probably because the Bundestag and the huge American and British embassies are all situated within a shouting distance of one another.
Iâ€™m just inside the thankfully former East Berlin. A two hundred metres to my west, Berlin Wall used to split the city in two. Timothy Gorton Ash called Berlin of the Cold War the divided heart of the divided heart of Europe. For nearly three decades, the Wall snack just behind the Brandenburg Gate, taking in the Tor for the communists while leaving the former Reichstag for the free West. It cruelly cut one of Berlinâ€™s main arteries in half; Unter den Linden in the east and Strasse des 17 Juni in the west.
Hotel Adlon is a Berlin landmark and institution. One of my favourite fictional private eyes, Bernie Gunther of Phillip Kerrâ€™s Berlin Noir series of the 1930s, was a hotel detective here. It sits on the corner of Pariser Platz, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate. Its twisting fate follows that of much of Berlin, Germany and Central Europe. Built in the optimistic heady days at the start of the 20th century, it saw its heyday in the interwar years. Heavily damaged during the battel of Berlin in 1945, the main building was demolished soon after and Pariser Platz allowed to turn into a weed-overgrown wasteland.
(Red Army soldiers hanging the Soviet flag from a balcony of Adlon)
The smaller building was for a while used as a hotel within the Russian occupation zone. Than the Wall came up, leaving what remained of Adlon permanently stranded on the wrong side. When you look at the map of Berlin you see it stood precisely at the heart of the divided heart of the divided heart of Europe. Eventually, in the 1970s it was converted into accommodation for apprentices, and in the ominous year 1984 that too was demolished, one year before the advent of Gorbachev, together with the staunchness of leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl and John Paul II, signalled the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the German division. After the reunification, in the late 1990s the site was bought by developers, and a new Adlon, its architecture and Art Deco interior design inspired by the original, rose once again, like the proverbial Phoenix out of the ashes of the bloody 20th century. And so here it stands again, a testament to continuity through horror and a monument to bourgeois respectability.
History does sometimes have happy endings. The last century eventually had its. Letâ€™s hope for a gentler landing in the new millennium.
I walk down Wilhelmstrasse looking for a very late dinner. The first open restaurant turns out to be vegetarian. No way am I going to go in, not in Berlin. Fortunately, another one, just down the road is a faux-old Berliner pub with a joint portrait of the two Keisers Wilhelm on the wall. And it serves a curried Berliner sausage with chips and Coke Light which comes in a beer stein. Iâ€™m sold.
(All photos by Arthur Chrenkoff. Except the Red Army soldiers one. That one would have been quite interesting to take)