Fifty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall was erected. We explore Mitte, the city suburb once lost in no-man's-land and now buzzing with life and talent.
Germany's east side story
On an afternoon stroll through Berlin's Mitte district, I gaze upon a row of town houses tinged yellow by a low-lying summer sun, casting long shadows over cobblestone streets. One of the buildings stands out because of its stately facade, clean lines and ornate stucco detailing. It's a striking remnant of Prussian Classicism surrounded by modern prefabricated buildings.
Twenty-somethings sit on benches outside a trendy cafe sipping espresso. They appear relaxed, unfazed by the history of their surroundings. One of them is scrolling endlessly on an iPhone, and I can't help but wonder how the course of history might have changed if this same technology had been available sooner, the Arab Spring having proven the power of always staying connected.
The former Soviet-ruled Eastern Bloc takes in Mitte and the street where I stand. As a first-time visitor to Berlin, I find it impossible not to think about its citizens, who woke up one day in 1961 to find a wall had been erected between them and their family and friends in the West, dividing the country.
That day was August 13, 50 years ago next week, when soldiers where given orders to shoot anyone who attempted to defect from East Berlin. Over the next 28 years countless people would try to escape - some lost their lives doing so - and, not surprisingly, it's not an anniversary being celebrated, although, as one Berliner tells me, it's still on Berliners' minds.
The once-dreary old East is now the beating heart and soul of Germany's hippest metropolis. According to the tourism website, www.visitberlin.de, more than 10,000 creative professionals from around the world, including 6,000 artists, call Berlin home - and Mitte is their hub. They rented apartments in the blocky structures built and then abandoned by the communists when nobody else would think of it, relishing in the spaciousness, functionality and affordability they provided.
It's 22 years since the Berlin Wall was toppled, and the East has undergone a massive transformation during this time. Today, the Mitte district is teeming with galleries, quirky retail spaces and design-conscious eateries. Quaint courtyards offer an escape from the mainstream hubbub and the chance to discover some of Berlin's most exclusive independent boutiques.
A good starting point to exploring Berlin's fashion scene is the vibrant Hackesche Höfe courtyard complex, home to an eclectic mix of restaurants and entertainment venues as well as notable boutiques such as the handmade shoe brand Trippen's flagship store, producing an avant-garde selection of clogs and boots made from wood, leather and other sustainable materials, and the Berlin Fashion Network (BFN) Concept Store, which represents around 35 Berlin-based labels under one minimalist roof.
From Hackesche Höfe, it's a short walk to a host of other noteworthy boutiques. Andreas Murkudis is located in a somewhat obscure courtyard called Munztrasse 21-23, a destination in itself for those in the know. Brand names such as Aspesi, Dries Van Noten and Maison Martin Margiela cut clothes in fabrics so soft, I think they'd melt in my hand. As I leaf through cashmere cardigans, structured blazers and angular tunics, I remember my mother's words that I shouldn't wear dark colours, and rule out almost the entire store, bar its stark white walls.
The nearby Firma offers a selection of precision-cut black, grey and, occasionally red, men's and women's wear, as well as an impressive man bag. At first glance it looks like a nondescript black leather briefcase, but the Gropius bag, named after the German minimalist architect Walter Gropius, is a multifunctional piece that can be converted from a laptop bag or briefcase to a spacious weekender via Swiss-made Riri zippers, which I'm told are some of the best in the world.
While many of the shops and labels appear to follow a "form follows function" philosophy, there is some whimsy to be found. At Starstyling, jersey fabrics are printed with holographic prints or bright neon colours. There are quirky accessories such as oversized sun visors, buttons made from vintage tablecloths and sweat bands with one-word statements such as "Fit", "Trend", "Top" and "Safari".
For the visitor who wants to skip the guesswork, tailor-made tours of Berlin's fashion, art and design scenes can be arranged through Go Art Berlin (www.goart-berlin.de).
When staying in a historic city, it seems appropriate to select a hotel that carries a sense of the past without making guests feel like they're stepping back in time. The building that houses the five-star Hotel De Rome was constructed in the 1880s by Ludwig Heim, the government architect of the time, to be the Dresdner Bank headquarters and was later the state bank for communist East Germany before undergoing refurbishment from 2003 to 2006 by Rocco Forte Hotels.
Its unique features have been preserved. Dresdner Bank's spacious two-storey service hall is today an impressive ballroom, with the original stucco ceiling and a Terrazzo floor with mosaics perpetuating the four city names where the bank's head offices were located: Dresden, Bremen, London and Berlin. There's also an original granite staircase in pristine condition, where the smell of old bank files still lingers.
My junior suite is spacious (50 square metres) and tastefully decorated in Pompeii red. From the LCD television to the stainless steel bathroom fittings, there is not a hint of the old, and it strikes me that the architects (Aukett + Heese) and interior designers (Olga Polizzi in collaboration with Tommaso Ziffer) knew exactly what to keep and what to edit so that history does not impose on modern comforts.
While many of Berlin's key attractions are located in Mitte and within walking distance of Hotel de Rome, I decide to take a bike-taxi tour for the sheer novelty of riding in a German-designed pedicab, which has more in common with the pod Lady Gaga turned up in at the Grammys than it does with its poor cousin, the rickshaw. Fitted with a 500-watt electric motor, it's a quick way to cover ground and get an overall layout of the inner city. If Thomas, my guide, is anything to go by, you will also hear a frank and personal account of Berlin's recent past.
Zipping along the main drag, Unter de Linden, towards the Brandenberg Gate, I lap up the crisp fresh air. Berlin is a green city, even at its urban core. Sycamores, or plane trees, provide a leafy cover over monumental boulevards where grass grows in a naturally unruly fashion.
Lines of cobblestones two abreast snake along beside us, symbolising where the Berlin Wall once stood. We take a break and one of the tour guides in our procession alights from his pod to explain the significance. "If I stand here, I'm in East Berlin," he says, before hopping to the other side. "If I stand here, I'm in the West." I get it.
Rounding the Reichstag, the parliament building, I feel fortunate not to be one of the tourists queuing to get inside. Norman Foster's massive glass dome sits atop the original 19th-century structure in a striking contrast between old and new. Visitors can take a tour the dome where 360-degree views of Berlin's glistening skyline await (www.bundestag.de).
Thomas explains that the city's funds have been exhausted through ambitious developments and urban renewal initiatives. He quotes the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, who said: "We are poor but we are sexy".
We stop for lunch at a cafe called Teehaus im Englischen Garten (Teahouse in an English Garden), nestled in the 210-hectare Tiergarten park, part of which borders the Mitte district. Tiergarten, which translates to "animal garden", is where the prince-electors of Brandenburg hunted game in the 16th century. Peter Joseph Lenne, the famous landscape gardener, tamed it in the 1830s.
Queen Elizabeth II visited this tranquil spot a few years ago, bringing with her a gift from Windsor Garden, a tree that she reputedly planted herself just behind the cafe. In a typically understated fashion, there is no sign or plaque; the tree simply blends in unceremoniously with the other woolly mammoths that stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see.
Even outside the tranquility of the park, Berlin is a city that allows you to contemplate key attractions without much disturbance. I spent an afternoon wandering along the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km stretch of the remaining Berlin Wall that is sandwiched between the picturesque Spree River and the indoor arena, O2 World. Here, you can tell the Berliners from the tourists: the former walk briskly, looking straight ahead; the latter pause to view the brightly coloured graffiti art painted on the wall in 1990 by artists from around the world to create a monument to a unified Germany.
As I meander along, I half-expect a hawker to offer to sell me the latest "Louis Vuitton" handbag but that, thankfully, never happens. I am left alone to enjoy some of the 100-odd murals, most recognisably The Mortal Kiss by Dimitri Vrubel, of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev embracing passionately, and Birgit Kinder's East German Trabant (Trabi) car smashing a hole through the wall.
I recall Thomas telling me his account of the night the wall was toppled. A friend in Boston, of all places, had called him to see if it was true that the first checkpoint had opened as he'd seen on the news. Thomas cycled there and caught sight of East Berliners coursing through the gates, crying and embracing those that met them on the other side.
He went home to bed but awoke at 3am and biked to the wall, where he got a leg up by some fellow revellers to climb over to the East. It was dark and desolate on the other side - he was roughly three kilometres from any checkpoint. Unable to climb back over by himself, and without his trusty bike, he suddenly felt very nervous that it had all been a hoax or the rules had reverted and he'd be trapped there, away from his wife and children. Thomas said that three-kilometre walk to the nearest checkpoint was the longest of his life.
The Berlin Wall, once such an effective weapon of oppression, is today an international symbol of freedom. Fifty years since it was erected, it remains one of the city's most clearly visible scars, but what has become of it and the drab part of town it concealed for so long is, quite simply, remarkable.
If you go
Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) flies from Dubai to Berlin from Dh2,328 return, including taxes.
A double room at the Hotel de Rome (www.hotelderome.com; 00 49 30 460 60 90) costs from €220 (Dh1,149) per night including taxes.