Potsdam, Brandenburg, Germany Monday, August 18, 2008
An uneventful motorway run across rolling German countryside brought us to Potsdam, in spite of Tom-Tom Jane insisting that we travel in the opposite direction. Strangely, when we left the motorway Jane insisted we head west, whilst we knew
we had to go east. After 10 miles of "turn around when possible" I switched her off. Even stranger, when we reached the campsite and I switched her on again, she told us we had reached our destination. The campsite, Sanssouci-Gaisberg is situated
by the lakeside with a sandy beach and boating. When we arrived it was very crowded and cramped, but during the course of the week people drifted away and it is now very pleasant.
Our plan was to spend two days in Berlin, with a day apart, but the Berlin Welcome card gave substantial discounts and unlimited train/bus/tram travel over a 48 hour period, which squeezed our visit into two very tiring days. The campsite ran a free shuttle bus to the tram terminus, a 20-minute tram ride takes us to Potsdamer Hauptbahnhof, then a 30-minute fast train into the heart of Berlin. Whilst the U- and S- Bahns (underground and suburban trains) in Berlin are excellent, the trams seem to cover only the old East German quarter and the buses, if you can work out which one you want, were all packed anyway. The situation is compounded by the geography of the city. The Reichstag/Brandenburg gate area, the Museum Insel (Island) where the main museums and galleries are and the new Cultural Centre, where the concert halls and galleries are, are not served by U- or S- Bahn, whilst the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin's new, ultra modern all singing all dancing international train station is built in the middle of nowhere, a twenty minute walk to the nearest place of interest. Fortunately there are other stations at which to leave the train.
Berlin can best be described as a fascinating city of extreme contrasts. The former East German suburbs are depressing and glum. The Eastern part of the city centre is full of new building, wealthy and vibrant, and well maintained historical buildings, like the museums and university. The old Western part is similar, but a bit older. Between the two are derelict buildings and building sites. It was impossible to view a superb masterpiece of ultra modern architecture, of which there were many, without seeing dereliction next door. As someone once said of Rome, "it will be nice when it is finished". The centrepiece is Potsdamer Plaza, which was the hub of pre war Berlin and was split by the wall. Re-united it has become a centre for astonishing architectural experiment, largest of which is the Sony Centre, which Lesley described as "Blade Runner without the rain"!
There are fragments of the wall remaining, as memorials and as tourist attractions. Behind the longest section is a building site where they are building a huge memorial museum, the Topography of Terror, on the site of the old SS headquarters. In the meantime along the side of the wall is about 100 yards of photographic displays of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. A very moving experience, and many looking at these were reduced to tears.
Nearby was Checkpoint Charlie, so named because it is there to make a Charlie out of any gullible tourist. It is a poor copy of the original building, 50 yards from where it should have been. There were touts dressed as American and Soviet soldiers willing to have their photos taken with you, for a fee of course, and it was possible, if you were prepared to stand in line, to have your passport stamped, again for a fee.
But walking north from there,
into the heart of the old East Berlin, the shops and restaurants become smarter and posher and more and more expensive, culminating in the corner of FriedrichStrasse and Unter den Linden, where the Ferrari shop is over the road from the dealer showing off
Bentleys and a Bugatti Veyron in his window. Like so many of the former Iron Curtain countries, it seems that some of Germany has made a lot of money out of re-unification, whilst the proletariat still suffers, perhaps even more than of old. We
read in the Times recently (hastening to add that this is not our paper of choice, we have to take what we can get in Europe), that there is a block of flats being built in East Berlin where each flat has its own glass lift, large enough to take the family
car, so when you spend so much money on your Bugatti, you can at least look at it form your living room.
Berlin has over 150 museums and galleries. We managed only three. To see them all would take weeks, particularly given the queues at each one. The Pergamon museum contains almost all the Pergamon Altar, making our custody of the Elgin Marbles look like petty theft in comparison. The Altes Museum has a wonderful display of Egyptian relics, including a beautiful head of Nefertiti. The Gemaldegalerie, in the new Cultural Centre, is a state of the art modern building with a wide range of masterpieces.
Overall our impression of Berlin was glad to have seen it but we had seen enough. We would not have missed it, but it is not on our list of must go back to's. The same would not be said of Potsdam. A beautiful, relaxed and peaceful city. Described as the Versailles of Berlin it has a huge park containing not one palace the size of Versailles but two, plus three other large buildings containing state apartments of one sort of another. All set in a park which makes Windsor Great Park look like the Queen's back yard. It took us four hours to wander round, and that is without going into the two main buildings.