Berlin: Palaces and Pride

Sanssouci

In 2004 we went on our first holiday together, to Berlin. It was January, blisteringly cold and snow fell periodically on the grey city. But I fell in love with it.

We always said we’d return to see the German capital in summer and we finally got round to it in July 2016, when we found a very different Berlin. This time the streets were full of colour, and packed with locals and visitors. Temperatures peaked at 30C.

In summer, Berliners live life on the streets. Cafes, bars and restaurants pack the pavements and squares with seating and deck chairs and market stalls line the streets. We spotted temporary basketball courts outside the main train station.

The Fernsehturm towers over the city
The Fernsehturm towers over the city

At bustling Alexanderplatz, food stalls, temporary bars and colourful fairground attractions took the edge off the austere architecture and the works being carried out on the tramlines.

Our hotel, the Indigo, was nearby and we arrived late on the Friday, fresh from an orgy of champagne in the BA First Lounge at Heathrow, just in time to enjoy a few beers in one of the square’s open-air bars. A shocking shooting attack in Munich that day may have left some of us feeling a bit edgy but it didn’t stop us filling up on sausages and beer.

We walked among the stalls and spotted an elderly drunk guy, who looked as if he was a member of Berlin’s surprisingly large community of homeless people, dancing topless for an appreciative late-night crowd.

On our first visit to the city, we’d done most of the touristy things. We’d climbed the dazzling glass dome at the Reichstag, visited Checkpoint Charlie at Potsdamer Platz and discovered the horrors of Nazi persecution at the excellent but disturbing Topography of Terror – in the days before it was a swanky museum.

The Reichstag
The Reichstag

And we’d taken the lift to the top of the Fernsehturm, the magnificent TV tower that dominates the Berlin skyline, where we’d marvelled at the views and dined on delicious fried potatoes in the revolving restaurant. There was no need to repeat it all but nothing could stop me marvelling at the tower every time I saw it. It’s my favourite building in Berlin, a great example of post-war architecture.

So on our first full day we plumped instead for the suburb of Potsdam and the Park Sanssouci, because we love a palace and a dollop of imperial grandeur.

It was a bit of a trek. We walked in the sizzling heat to the Hauptbahnhof, through the Mitte district, and discovered a city still in the throes of massive redevelopment – just as it had been in 2004. Cranes were everywhere, Museum Island a mass of scaffolding and renovation, the government district filled with yet more blocks in various states of completion. The construction of a new underground rail line through the city centre brought more mess but at least the area around the Reichstag, on the Spree River, had been completed, and very good it looked too.

Gardens at Sanssouci
Gardens at Sanssouci

The train was busy with locals heading out for a day at the lakes amid the city’s lush forests, or perhaps to their summer chalets and allotments.

Potsdam was a grand affair, imperial, somewhat pompous and clearly doing rather well for itself, but we only saw it from the bus because we were running late. Dropped at the park’s grand Dutch windmill, we found a restaurant and gorged on beer and sausage.

The Park Sanssouci, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a true pleasure ground for the 18th century king Frederick the Great and many of his descendants. The palace that bears its name stands overlooking a terrace of vines, lawns and fountains. But as palaces go, it’s a modest, single-storey affair, designed to be more of a summer retreat from Berlin than a showpiece. Frederick was finally buried in the grounds that he loved, as was his wish, after German reunification.

Inside, it’s a riot of rococo but not as over the top as some palaces I’ve visited. The highlight was the sunlit, oval Marble Hall, with much wonderful gilding and great views.

The Chinese House
The Chinese House

After our brief tour around we explored the busy grounds, stopping at the Chinese House, a beautiful building, all gold and rococo and Chinoiserie.

We walked on to the New Palace, a building on an altogether grander scale than Sanssouci. Austere and Prussian, we visited in the midst of a major restoration programme.

Built by Frederick but much extended over the years, parts of it are rather gloomy but there are some glorious rooms too. Highlights include the grotto hall, with its walls and ceiling decorated with shells, stones, marble, quartz and semi-precious stones. It’s not something you expect to see indoors, let alone in a palace.

The grotto hall in Potsdam's New Palace
The grotto hall in Potsdam’s New Palace

The southern Marble Hall is reminiscent of Versailles but above the grotto room is the main Marble Hall, a stunning mix of (surprise, surprise) marble, gilt and baroque art that was once used as a ballroom until folk realised that the floor lacked the strength to support all the gaiety. The hall had only just been reopened after major restoration and it was absolutely breathtaking.

It was late afternoon by the time we left, walking back through the park to catch the bus, passing the local university’s botanic gardens and a collection of other imperial buildings, formal gardens and water features, our feet sore.

Back in Berlin we ate outdoors by the Spree at the Brauhaus Georgbraeu. It was rather touristy and my pork knuckle was the size of a small car, but they brewed their own lager and very nice it was too.

And then we headed over to the Brandenburg Gate because, purely by chance, we found ourselves in Berlin on Christopher Street Day – the city’s version of Pride. The gate, where the main stage was situated, was lit in rainbow colours and all around were partygoers in various states of disrepair, many of whom looked as if they’d been at it since the lunchtime parade.

The Marble Hall
The Marble Hall

A large number of stalls, bars and party buses with pounding music, a bungee jump and loos lined the Strasse des 17 Juni for many hundreds of metres, and I stopped to enjoy a talented drummer entertaining an enthusiastic crowd.

We downed beers, soaked up the atmosphere and spotted the occasional naked man dancing with his fully clothed buddies. Back at the main stage, the music continued and I danced and bathed in the warm glow of being among people united by love rather than divided by hate.

And for me this party space in front of the city’s great landmark represented the essence of the city. There’s an atmosphere of acceptance in Berlin, regardless of who you are, and sadly that makes it a rare beast.