The metro map - Berlin style

In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Five
Proceed at your own risk….

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 17 May at the Newcastle Art Centre, which is at the city end of Westgate Road and more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.

Remember...a splendid time is guaranteed for all.



Sunday morning’s sunshine found me at my little café over the road slurping coffee and wolfing apfelnussrollen as if there was a world shortage.  By the time I’d finished, there was.

I was trying to formulate today’s plan of action; an ongoing strategy for continuing my systematic onslaught on Berlin’s tourist attractions - the sort of places you have to see if you visit the city.  But my attention was continually distracted by a conversation two American blokes were having at the table next to mine.  I didn’t need to eavesdrop; they were distracting the whole of Schöneberg.

They were on one of those whistle-stop, whirlwind tours so beloved of our American cousins:  If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.  Only it was Sunday and this was Berlin.

And Berlin was, in a way, the topic of their discussion.  Why, they asked each other, were capital cities so badly placed and so often?  Why didn’t someone have the foresight to place them somewhere near the centre of their respective countries, like the Spanish did with Madrid?

My mind started rambling to the rhythm of their chat.  I gulped another mouthful of coffee, took a bite out of my fourth apfelnussrolle, whipped out my trusty notebook and scribbled this worthless and entirely trivial essay...


'If the Earth has a God of Small Geographical Things - and it damned well ought to - there are one or two questions I’d like to put.  Why, for example, did Norway and New Zealand, two of the least accessible countries on the planet, get all the prettiest fjords and sea-girt mountains?  What stark raving lunacy necessitated the invention of Belgium?  Why is Africa so big and inhospitable compared to everywhere else? 

And why are capital cities very often so awkwardly placed in the countries they are meant to be the centre of?

If you were designing the UK from scratch, you wouldn’t put London
there, would you?  Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of these sceptr’d isles, it’s about as accessible for most people as the Moon; it might as well be in another country altogether.

Cardiff and Edinburgh are clumsily-sited, too, and in the same way.  It’s feels like a conspiracy -
go south and east!

But let’s not be totally insular about this.  Washington DC is hardly down with the kids and Norway doesn’t just have all those fjords; it also has Oslo, which may as well be in Sweden.  And Sweden has Stockholm, mis-sited as far away from the rest of the country as it’s possible to get and still be in Sweden.

And - although I’m sure it’s a fine city - Copenhagen doesn’t do Denmark any favours, either.  It’s even on an island, or several islands, stuck out on that country’s east coast.  What was the God of Small Geographical Things thinking?

She came a cropper in Germany, too.  It’s 20 minutes by train from Berlin to the Polish border but
5 hours to Munich or Cologne.  Under those circumstances, it must be difficult for Bavarians to feel any sense of commonality with Berliners, as it for Geordies with Londoners.

Which reminds me - I’m in Berlin - it’s Sunday morning - and I have things to do….'

I asked for another apfelnussrolle but, mysteriously, there weren’t any left.


Two minutes’ walk brought me to Wittenbergplatz, a large and breezy square lined with bars and shops (including the KaDeWe, Berlin’s most prestigious department store) and dotted with cafés.  I was in no hurry so I sat down to look at the large and lumpy fountain at the square’s centre.  It was surrounded by sculptures of bathers and sun-worshippers which must have looked quite striking had the fountain been working but which looked strangely silly without water splashing all over them.   
The fountain on Wittenbergplatz

Much less silly was the metro station over the road, a building of unmistakably Hitlerian vintage.  Its Third Reich overtones were emphasised rather than mollified by a panel outside the main entrance.  Under a heading which read Places of terror which we must never forget, it lists twelve of Hitler’s most notorious concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. 
Outside the metro station: 
the 'places of terror we must never forget'

No-one could ever seriously suggest that Germany doesn’t acknowledge the horrors of its past in its capital city.  As I looked at the panel, and remembered the other memorials I’d seen yesterday, I wondered if other cities might not learn useful lessons in Berlin. 

British history is stained with unremarked and unremembered bloodshed - we invented the very idea of concentration camps, after all; Turkey refuses to acknowledge its Armenian genocide; and both the French and the Dutch have a lot of owning-up to do; they hide their obscene levels of collaboration with the Nazis behind German guilt.  There are no self-referential holocaust memorials in France or Holland - and there ought to be.
An original mural inside the station.
The image on the right is of the world's first-ever electric train, which ran in Berlin in 1879.

On the metro...part of a game I played to find the longest composite German word.  Here, it's Beförderungsbedingungen - 'conditions of carriage'

I took the metro to Alexanderplatz and discovered, to my undoing, that Berlin has trams.  Lovely, bright, new, yellow, shiney, friendly trams.  Such is my addiction to these monsters of the streets that I travelled two stops on one of them, thus giving myself much further to walk to my ultimate destination:  the Cathedral, Museum Island and the Humboldt Box.
The sacred trams at Alexanderplatz

My walk involved a stroll by Berlin’s river - the Spree (say shpray).  To be honest, I felt a bit cheated.  Most great cities of Berlin’s status stand on great and noble rivers - the Thames, the Seine, the Hudson, the Tiber, the Arno, the Danube.  Berlin, on the other hand, stands on the German equivalent of the Gaunless or the Coquet; perfectly ordinary in its way, but a mere excuse for a metropolitan waterway.

The view across it, though, to the flamboyantly baroque cathedral, redeems its mediocrity.  And as I walked over the bridge to Museum Island, I could hear bagpipes….

Bagpipes.  Not of the squealing and irritating Scottish variety, though; nor of the sweetly mellifluous Northumbrian breed, either.  These bagpipes made a raw and gutsy sound that blasted down to the Museum Island from centuries before.  They were European Celtic pipes - and they were wonderful.

I stopped to listen to the pipers on the bridge - and their two accompanying drummers - for almost an hour (plus or minus a coffee or two).  The tunes as well as the instruments were basic and guttural and extraordinary.  One of the pipers (Henk) gave me a potted history of bagpipes; how the ancient Mediterranean echoed to their sounds, how the prehistoric Celtic tribes lent them to the Greeks and the Romans and also carried them across ‘Dark Age‘ and mediaeval Europe.

Now, of course, bagpipes survive only where Celtic culture survives - in Scotland, Ireland and Brittany - though not in Wales - and the sound has changed, too, to the raucous, ear-splitting skirl we’re used to.  These pipes were different, though.  They were plaintive and mournful.  They were the sound of standing stones, druids and mystic, mist-bound moors.


The sun was getting warmer and, so far at least, my day had consisted entirely of distractions of one kind or another.  I decided that a more business-like approach was necessary.  Sadly, I turned away from the pipers on the bridge, walked onto the Lustgarten (the ‘pleasure garden’) and finally got a full-frontal view of my goal:  the Humboldt Box.


First things first.

To a certain extent, the Humboldt brothers are symptomatic of the ‘isolationist‘ nature of British education.  Whereas almost everyone in the world has heard of our heroes - Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton - we tend never to have heard of theirs.  And, in this case, that means brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt; so extolled in Germany that the university of Berlin is named after them.
The wise words of Wilhelm Humboldt...
'The study of languages is the world history of human thought and perception'

These two towering, 19th-century intellectuals blazed many trails in the study of language and linguistics, physics, education, meteorology and exploration.  They were gifted with boundless curiosity, wonder and incisive intelligence.  They were kind and gentle men, too, whose only aim was to increase the sum of human knowledge and wisdom.

Alexander even reconstructed a dead South American language from the 40 or so words of it remembered by a parrot.

Someone should certainly write a book in English about them.  So far, nobody has.
Someone has, though, bought a mug with Wilhelm und Alexander und Ich printed on it.  Me.

The Humboldt Box is a queer, polygonal structure built by the German government to raise money for something much grander.  It sits on the site of the old Prussian royal palace, which was demolished by the Communists in 1951.  They replaced one palace with another - the ‘Palace of the Republic‘ - which was, in its turn, demolished after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 because of serious asbestos pollution.

All there is now is a vast and untidy open space with the Humboldt Box on it.  They’re hoping that the money raised from entrance fees to the Box will pay for the reconstruction of the old royal palace façade.  Behind the shell, though, the new building will be the home of the ‘Humboldt Forum’, a modern German showpiece for international art, science, research, and the exchange of ideas.

It all sounded splendid to me, so I paid my four euros and went in.

The main floor features a startling model of what this part of old imperial Berlin looked like before the Second World War.  Grand boulevards, palaces, halls, churches, the Cathedral and the many museums and galleries.  The long and stately Unter den Linden led to the Brandenburg Gate and, beyond it, to the Column of Victory.  I was seriously amazed at how magnificent it must have been; Berlin was truly a rival to Paris, St Petersburg, Rome or Istanbul.
While I was looking at the model of Berlin’s past glory, an old man wearing a Guide badge approached me.  ‘Mais maintenant - rien!’ he said.  This means ‘But now - nothing!‘ in French, although he said it in an unmistakably thick, German accent.  I told him I was English and he apologised for not being able to speak my language.  No matter, we thought.  Why don’t we talk to each other in the one language we both know a little?

Thus it was that a German and an Englishman communicated with each other for over an hour in French, a language foreign to both of them.

Hans-Georg is 87 and can thus remember the war vividly.  And how Berlin looked before the war, too.  He looked sadly at the model.  ‘It’s almost all gone’, he said.  ‘Berlin was a happy place.  It was free and friendly.  Everyone was welcome.  Everyone was loved and in love’.

I pretended to be looking at the model but I was looking at Hans-Georg.

‘That war!  That war!‘  There was real and very deep-seated bitterness and anger in his old voice.  ‘Why always war, my English friend?  It destroys and kills.  Always, always, always.  They should leave us alone, you and I, and all the people like us - to become friends and to talk’.

Sometimes, when you think you can hear someone’s voice breaking with emotion, you are only imagining it.  So perhaps I was only imagining it.

Hans-Georg was the only person I spoke to about the war while I was in Germany and I am so glad my itinerary gave us that chance.  I will not forget him and I hope that he is well.


The view from open-air café at the top of the Box lays modern Berlin out at your feet.  Behind you, the dreary tenements of Communist East Berlin; to your right, the telecom tower and the Cathedral; to your left, Under den Linden; and directly ahead, the cultural treasure-chest of Museum Island.
Berlin Cathedral:  the Dom

There’s enough brain-food there to nourish an average human culture-vulture for decades.  The Pergamonmuseum, the Altes Museum, the Bodemuseum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Neues Museum.  All of them are still in one stage or another of complete restoration and, taken together, they are one of the world’s greatest centres of art.
The Lustgarten and Museum Island

During my stay in Berlin, I didn’t visit a single one of them.  It’s always best, as far as I am concerned, to keep something in reserve so you have a reason to go back.

By the time I left the Humboldt Box, I realised I already had a dozen reasons to come back to Berlin.

Wilhelm und Alexander und Ich.  Indeed.


I enjoyed the walk back to Alexanderplatz metro station.  It took me through a sliver of ‘East’ Berlin and past some inordinately lumpen statues of Marx and Engels, who must surely be turning in their graves.
Herr Marx and Herr Engels

It was quite late by the time I’d finished writing up my notes back at the hotel.  I needed food, a drink and some conversation before my day was through.  So I set out to wander around Schöneberg in search of all three, rentboys notwithstanding.

I meandered past many pubs and clubs and shops and cinemas, many of them gay and most of them with lurid reputations of one kind or another.  I’m not, of course, making judgments - except about me.  Darkroom excitement has its place in the wonderful array of gay life.  But not for a bespectacled, trend-free, old and tired Englishman.

Food, drink and conversation.  I found all three at the Eckstein café.  A couple of German pork chops, a glass of ‘white beer’ - and the unforgettable Doktor Pfeier.


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