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Berlin: still a work in progress

Berlin has been the shining success story in German tourism in the last few years.

Its historical and political importance attracts mainstream visitors, while its trendy alternative culture and heady nightlife makes it appealing for the younger traveller.

I was in the city this weekend for the first time in three years, and can report that it is jammed with people and humming with energy. It is, however, still very much a work in progress, still a city in a state of change. It doesn’t feel like it has finally made up its mind quite what to be, and for who.

Sure, there’s the heavyweight government stuff, the Reichstag, the embassies, and the Berlin state buildings (more of which are being re-created with the project to rebuild the Berlin palace).

Then there are the trendy, dishevelled quarters taken over by artists and ethnic minorities, although I thought those had either started to look either a bit tired, or a bit mainstream, on this visit.

Then there’s the historical side, the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie (appealingly scruffy) and all the Jewish history, the Jewish museum and the Jewish memorial.

But the city lacks any real centre, with Unter den Linden frankly dull and the newly rebuilt Potsdamer Platz pretty dismal as a focus. Architecturally, Berlin is lacking any real elegance or grace; its buildings are, for the most part, brutal and ugly. Moreover its transport system is pretty backward if you compare it to other German cities.

But it is hard to feel critical with all the outpouring of energy that it generates.  In the course of just two days I attended a choral concert outside the Bode museum and listened to a Serb string quartet playing on the steps of the Friedrichstrasse station, both excellent and both free of charge. And then after the Bode concert I watched a clown in Hackescher Markt shadowing and imitating couples and groups of friends walking through, with moments of real hilarity. He didn’t seem to want any reward other than approval for those looking on.

Then there was the food. The yoghurt and blackberry ice-cream I had at half time in the choral concert by the Bode was the best half-time ice cream I’ve ever had, and the kebab from the stall on Oranienburgerstrasse was truly first class for only €3. I didn’t get the currywurst thing, though. But then I guess lots of people don’t ‘get’ our fish and chips.

Overall, though, while Berlin may not know quite where it is going, it remains a great place to go.

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