5-9 October 2018
(All photographs by John Holder)
On a misty morning 17 travellers (including two ladies from neighbouring U3As) made their way independently to Gatwick by 6.30 a.m. Unfortunately we soon discovered that the foggy weather had delayed most easyJet flights. Confusion reigned when our flight disappeared from the departure board and the information desk was unable to confirm our gate number with certainty. Although the flight never reappeared on the board, somehow all of us eventually boarded the plane, which took off 2 hours 45 minutes late. Happily that was the end of our troubles.
At Berlin’s secondary airport, Schonefeld, we were greeted by Thomas Abbott. Tom was to be our guide for the whole of our trip and was key to its success. During the next few days we gleaned that Tom hailed from Minnesota, but had lived in Germany for 30 years. He holds degrees in the History of Art and Architecture from both US and German universities and his knowledge of those subjects as well as the modern history of Berlin is remarkable. He is also a conservator of two of the Royal Palaces we visited. Just as importantly, he quickly picked up our names, shepherded his flock well and was considerate of those of us needing help. He was concerned that we were always ‘biologically comfortable’ and doled out 50 cents coins when needed. He spoke loudly and clearly with a distinctive style, exaggerating his vowels in a manner reminiscent of Loyd Grossman. His pronunciation was idiosyncratic, his mannerisms were camp and his humour was engaging. I doubt anyone begrudged him a generous tip on departure.
Due to our late arrival, we had to pick up something to eat at the airport. We then headed into the City centre for a guided coach tour of the main sights such as Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery murals including the famous Brezhnev/Honecker kiss.
After the tour we checked into the Park Inn, a busy conference hotel with over 1000 rooms, and were allocated rooms ranging from floors 5 to 35. Although not ideal for a small group, the hotel was centrally located on
Alexanderplatz, parking for coaches was easy, the views were good and it stood out as a landmark for finding ones way back. As one of the highest buildings in Berlin it featured a roof garden on the 40th floor and base flying (akin to bungee jumping) from the top so that the odd body was seen plummeting past our windows. Dating from the days of the GDR, the hotel had been refurbished and the lifts were efficient, if congested at breakfast time. Adjacent were a department store, a Primark and a lively Christmas market open in the evening. On the first evening only we were provided with a decent meal in the cosy restaurant. Otherwise we enjoyed a comprehensive self-service breakfast each day.
On our second day we journeyed for an hour by coach to Potsdam, heading first for Cecilienhof. This palace, built for Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Cecilie, was completed in 1917, but resembles a Tudor manor house with many ornate chimney stacks. Occupied in 1945 by the Soviets, the palace hosted the conference at which Churchill (succeeded by Attlee), Truman and Stalin agreed the zoning of Berlin and the controversial redrawing of the Polish/German border. As we stood by the conference table, Tom gave us a fascinating account of the reasons why Stalin was able to steal a march on the others. We then headed into the city centre for lunch and free time. Many of us wandered round the old Dutch quarter of this charming city surrounded by lakes. In the afternoon we enjoyed a guided tour of Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great of Prussia. This elegant villa in the rococo style overlooks Versailles-like gardens in which we were free to stroll.
On Sunday morning we made the short journey to Charlottenburg, via an avenue filled with modern detached embassies, those for Saudi Arabia, India,Turkey,Japan and Scandinavia reflecting national architectural styles. The palace was built for Sophie Charlotte, wife of Frederick 1 and sister of King George 1. Although badly bomb-damaged in the second World War, it has been reconstructed and we were treated to what amounted to a private viewing of the recently restored Knobelsdorff Wing. Highlights included a beautiful sculpture of Queen Louise reclining on her death bed, the elaborate rococo Golden Gallery and a collection of French paintings. Tom gave us an expert appreciation of Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint.
In our lunch break we were free to visit nearby museums including the Berggruen collection of paintings by the likes of Picasso, Klee and Matisse and the excellent Brohan Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture and artefacts.
Our afternoon was spent at the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The building itself is in the postmodern deconstructivist style and is full of symbolism. It featured slanting corridors, dead ends, voids and slit windows. We were led to the Holocaust Tower and the Garden of Exile. For many the most memorable exhibit was Fallen Leaves, in which we were able to walk noisily on a carpet of 10,000 steel faces in a dark confined space. Berlin has clearly decided to confront the horrors of the Nazi era. Elsewhere in the City centre we passed on several occasions the so-called Holocaust Memorial, which comprises 2700 grey concrete slabs of various shapes and sizes set on a sloping field.
On Monday we walked to the Museum Island complex. Some of us explored the New Museum housing an Egyptian collection including a famous bust of Nefertiti, while others relaxed on a one-hour boat trip on the Spree river with commentary. We reassembled for a guided tour of the Pergamon Museum with it huge reconstruction of the Market Gate from Miletus and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
In the afternoon we had all pre-booked a visit to the Reichstag to which we travelled by coach passing through the Federal District with its landscaped Government buildings. After generous portions of cake and coffee in the rooftop restaurant we were free to enter the spectacular dome designed by Norman Foster as part of the reconstruction of the ruined building. A 230-metre-long ramp spirals up and down round the all-glass dome, affording impressive views. We returned via the Brandenburg Gate, where Tom had to compete for our attention with a near-naked political protester haranguing a small crowd.
On our final morning we had some leisure time before boarding the coach for the journey to the main Tegel airport for our 4.25pm flight. On the way we stopped off at the Allied Museum containing memorabilia of the Airlift and the Cold War years. We were unable to board the Hastings aircraft, but the section of the Berlin spy tunnel was interesting. Our flight home landed early, but Julie can add a bizarre postscript.
None of us had the energy to sample Berlin’s legendary nightlife and thoughts of Fat Billy may fade, but we are grateful to Jim for organising such a memorable trip for his swansong.