Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Berlin in six hours and 70 years

Berlin. Call me when it's finished.

Construction, renovation, scaffolding, fencing, cranes, detours, ugliness. Everywhere I walk there are new buildings going up and a new underground going down.

I'm on a mere six-hour layover en route to Corfu from Paris. I've never been to Berlin, and have heard so many proclamations of love for the city that I had to sample it.

I've never actually "got" Germany. I love German beer but I hate the stodgy food. I have no affinity for the language. I don't care for cars, Kraftwerk or cabaret.

Granted, this is only my second time in the country (well, third if we're counting such brief blitzes as these; I took a day trip from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden in 2009 to see the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's fascinating mountaintop teahouse) but a week-long trip by public ferry boat five years ago to see the castles, towns and villages of the Rhine left me alarmed at my indifference. Much of it either seemed pretend, like a kind of Disneyland, or sterile, where flat soulless malls and assembly pavers filled bombed out centres once graced with pinnacled churches and cobblestone streets.

Now I'm staring in disbelief at these horrendous, riveted industrial pipes that pop up all over Berlin. The size of tree trunks and painted blue or pink, they thrust into the air and twist around buildings and blocks and over streets like a giant Tinker Toy oil refinery. The only other such pragmatic disregard I've seen for urban aesthetics is the vital but ugly system to funnel heat from Ulaanbaatar's powerhouse into the city centre from the outskirts so the residents don't all die in the frigid Mongolian winters.

Yet there are pockets here of deep beauty. The cupolas of the Neo-Renaissance Berliner Dom and the ionic columns of the Altes Museum flanking the lime trees in the 16th-century Lustgarten. The enormous Baroque churches of the Gendarmenmarkt, mirroring each other across the grand plaza of the Konzerthaus, where Beethoven's ninth premiered.

It occurs to me as I return to the airport that I may be missing the point of Berlin. It buzzes with birth and growth and vitality as the fifth German republic in a hundred years adds its own signature to the city's eclectic blend of architecture while galleries of young artists sprout inside extinct factories.

Or maybe I'm just delirious inside this 45 degree oven masquerading as a 45-minute airport bus.

Two views of Berlin

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