back to Charlie, and other mysteries checked & marked

A late start. We walk to Senefelderplatz U-bahn. Take the number 2 to Alexanderplatz. Cross underneath the station and directly below the Fernsehturm join – at the very last moment – the Fat Tire Bike Tour.

There are 22 in our group. A Belgian couple, a Brazilian, an Indian, one or two Australians – that’s strange, says our guide. Usually you’re all Ozzies -, several English and Americans. And us. The left-out country.

With a peremptory, Well, now that we’ve bonded, let’s get on with it, we set off. Our guide we’ve learnt is part Swedish, part Japanese. Lived in London. And in Paris. Her accent slides all over the place as a result. In English. Which is idiomatic. Full of phrases intended for this audience to key in to.

First stop – Marienkirche. The bones are twelth century. We don’t venture inside but are told there is famously a danse macabre depicted inside.

We look back at the TV tower itself. Pope’s revenge. Since for all of Honegger’s good Communist insistence on removing all the crosses from public facades and buildings in East Berlin, as soon as the sun comes out, the pattern of its reflection on the golf ball at the top makes a giant cross. It’s not a cross, says Honegger. It’s a plus sign.

Palace of the Republic. What I have been calling the Schloss, the old Prussian palace, didn’t come down in the war. It was blown up, we are told, because an emblem of the monarchy and of the decadent bourgeois culture Communism wants to replace. With a Palace for the people. Which as well as housing some of the important organs of the state also had bowling alleys, cafes, theatres, areas for the people’s recreation.

The next phase of its existence is as I have already described – gutted after re-unification for having asbestos in it and two years ago the huge job of dismantling it finally achieved a … field. Where, yes, there might stand one day a rebuilt Royal Palace. But work has been shelved for another five years or so. Since – and our guide wears the T-shirt – Berlin is poor but sexy. Too poor to afford the millions necessary.

We cross behind the Staatsoper – the first public opera house in Europe – to Bebelplatz where the bookburning of 1933 took place. 20 000 volumes were burned. By students inveigled into the act. Students from the Humboldt, the model for all subsequent universities. A Nobel prize factory. Through the halls of which have passed Nietzsche, Kant, Schopenhauer, Brecht, Einstein and so on. The institution so embarrassed by the fact that its own enlightened students lit the fires that burned the books now sells second-hand books outside its gates and donates the money to charity.

Gendarmenmarkt, with its Huguenot history. The French cathedral on one side of the square facing, over Schiller’s head – with a set of the grumpiest Muses -, the German. The Swedish occupation is described, during the 30 year war, in which the Swedish cocktail was administered: bodies swollen force fed by hose down the throat with oil and sewage, kicked until they burst.

Hitler’s bunker under a carpark in the middle of a low-rise housing estate built under the DDR as a show-piece and housing diplomats, government officials and the occasional sports’ star. Left for many years unmarked lest neo-Nazis treat it as a shrine.

Then Checkpoint Charlie, which I found strangely moving. Since so close to where we used to live. Now. Seeing it now the sense of time having changed the area and the city utterly. A sense of historic time having moved at a pace bearing no relation to the time of personal experience, having moved on, having left what we experienced there 27 years before far far in the past. Distant.

We were treated to a viewing of remaining piece of the Wall and, in a side street, a watchtower still standing, incongruously. The only one left in situ.

At the Jewish monument, we were given another story of an institution embarrassed by its former complicity: the monument required graffiti-proof paint; the company supplying it was found to be the very same responsible for supplying the gas to the camps. Said company has taken on the upkeep of the monument, guaranteeing that it will remain graffiti-free and in addition undertaking any repairs to the cracking concrete, for the next twenty years. Because Berlin – poor but sexy. Written on our guide’s T-shirt.

After cycling under the Brandenburger Tor – the oldest structure still standing in Berlin – we entered the beautiful feathery leafiness and cool of the Tiergarten, stopped for lunch and Weissbier at a biergarten, with the best Kartoffolensalat ever, and then rode, past Bellevue – the royal hunting-lodge and now the president’s house – down the Spree towards the Reichstag. On the way passing the cultural centre referred to as the pregnant oyster, which I remember having had pointed out to us in the eighties, and the Bundeskanzleramt, called the Waschmaschine. The latter a brilliant building, with arms reaching out over the river. Chancellor Angela Merkel allegedly only uses her penthouse here if she really has to, being a woman of modest tastes, and an Osti.

The finale to our tour came with the description of the ‘fall’ of the wall in 1989 and re-unification in 1990. If it was a ‘fall’ it was a fall from grace, a bureaucratic embarrassment that caused the Wall to be breached – a tide once released never able to be contained again.