Impressions of Berlin


While we’ve got a ton of photos and separate posts of specific places in Berlin, I want to start with an overall impressionist piece!  One of the primary reasons I like to visit cities (apart from the transport, of course), is to get a feel for different places – the architecture, the layout, the people, and so forth. 

As always, let me start with a few factoids.  Berlin has about 3.4 million people in the city proper and 5 million in the metropolitan area – making it smaller than most of the major European capitals of London (12-14m), Paris (10-11m), and Madrid (6m) for example.  If you are comparing to the US, Berlin city proper would be the third (behind NY and LA, a bit ahead of Chicago), but only 12th when comparing metropolitan areas after Detroit (can you name the top 10 in the US, in order?).  In terms of people, you might be interested to know that Berlin is the largest Turkish settlement outside of Turkey, with over 250,000 Turks, and also has large numbers of Polish and Russian people. 

So, with those bits out of the way, the first thing to say about Berlin relates to age – it is practically new!  This is true on multiple levels.  First, although settlement can be traced back to 1192, it didn’t really become a European capital until the late 1800s, when it was established as the capital of the new German Empire.  Second, the devastation of the city in the World Wars of the 20th Century (1945 especially) destroyed a lot.  Third, and most importantly (at least in delivering the present situation), the divisions of the Cold War, including the occupation zones/sectors and the Berlin Wall,  led to both the destruction of older buildings that did survive the war (due to the desire to move on in separate ways in the West and East), a lag in modernization (especially in former East Berlin), and ultimately to a bubble of new development in the years since reunification (which actually occurred almost a year after the fall of the wall, with the capital of the new Germany not really moving to Berlin until 1999). 

My point is, especially compared with the rest of Europe, Berlin feels like a very new place.  This applies to the buildings, of course, in that there are really no super-old buildings like you get in most other major European capitals.  As an example, the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) dates from 1905, while St. Paul’s Cathedral in London dates from the late 1600s and Notre Dame in Paris was finished in 1345.  The buildings surrounding the Brandenburg Gate and the adjacent Pariser Platz, which is something of the heart of the city, are mostly from the last ten years.  The newness also manifests itself in the streets; unlike the small, winding streets of many European cities, Berlin is a city of wide and straight boulevards, clearly designed in a more modern age and for more modern vehicles.  Finally, the people also have a bit of newness; not only is the population generally quite young, but like London there are a lot of immigrants, and perhaps the current situation (and prosperity) is still quite new to those from the former East Berlin. 

Berlin reminds me of a mixture of Paris and Washington DC, largely because of the look and feel of the wide boulevards and relatively low buildings.  Of course, Paris is no surprise, given the proximity and the various entanglements with the French during the 1800s, and the timing – much of that grand look of Paris was created in the mid-1800s by the planner Baron Haussmann under the directive of Napoleon III.  I mean, the main square by the Brandenburg Gate is called Pariser Platz (Paris Square)! 

This is the Kurfurstendamm, but it was reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees in Paris - broad tree-lined boulevard with wide sidewalks and fancy shops.

Since Washington was planned by Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant in the 1790s, it makes sense that there are also similarities.  Interestingly, the population density of Washington DC and Berlin are almost identical (at just shy of 10,000 people per square mile), and the proportion of park land is close to the same as well.  Actually, the climates aren’t too different either; Berlin is about 5-10 degrees (F) cooler on average, with somewhat less rain, but the general climate profile is quite similar.

This is Unter den Linden, with the Brandenburg Gate straight ahead, but can’t you see it being in Washington DC?
Overall, the city is pretty poly-centric, meaning that there isn’t a single clear downtown, but a variety of small centers: Brandenburg Gate/Pariser Platz, Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, Museum Insel, the Kufurstendamm, etc.  Partly this is because of the Cold War divide, where both sides had to develop their own centers, but also a result of geography; the whole area is flat, with no big bodies of water, therefore encouraging things to spread out a bit more.  The River Spree flows through the city quite nicely, especially around the Reichstag and Museum Island, but it is quite small and doesn’t serve as a centerpiece (and, therefore, not in any way an impediment to travel). 
Berlin also has a wilder side; there’s a lot of graffiti, and a youthful energy to be found.  Riding through some neighborhoods on trams at night, I saw a healthy number of bars and cafes.  The cultural mix is definitely in keeping with other world melting-pot cities like New York or London.  Let me close with one last impression, about the people, although this was probably influenced at least partially by the weather.  Overall, I found people to be somewhat stoic – not much expression, no one really laughing or the like.  Going to a pub (or biergarten), this improved a bit, but nothing like the rowdy British (which was a refreshing change!).  For example, in simple circumstances where I would typically give a smile or a chuckle, I got stone faces from Berliners.  
 
In summary, I liked Berlin a lot, and would like to go back when it is warm and snow-free to see what the atmosphere is like then, and what the ground looks like! 
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Posted on 03/01/2011, in travel, Travel to Europe and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Suzanne M-G

    Alex,
    I’ve only been there in good weather, so those photos were like looking at a city of which I’d never seen. Berlin is quite wonderful in the summer. check out the museums, too. They are great!
    Suzanne

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