You'll find the entrepreneurial spirit of Cold War-era Berlin alive and well on a visit to the near-mythical crossing point at Checkpoint Charlie
The first thing you notice about Checkpoint Charlie is that there isn’t much to notice. That bleak, open space, the soldiers’ booths, Berlin’s fearful Wall – all have disappeared. Swept away by the reunification of a city and a nation. The only obvious reminder – and even this is semi-permanent – is a replica guardhouse in the middle of Friedrichstrasse, fringed on the old East Berlin side by neat rows of sandbags.
Standing in front of this rather forlorn arrangement is a man wearing an unidentifiable greatcoat and military cap, waving a Stars and Stripes above his head and, when you approach, camera in hand, to grab that souvenir snap, pointing you towards the sign that demands €1 for the pleasure. He’s young enough to have been in short pants when the Wall came tumbling down in 1989, but coy enough not to give his name when asked. He did admit he was an ‘Ossie’ (the nickname for former East Berliners), and agreed that his entrepreneurial nous – no, let’s face it, his downright nerve – would have had his Communist forefathers spinning in their graves.
I said I wasn’t going to pay, as he was on a public street, but I took his photo anyway and told him to sue me. I was amazed, though, at the number of tourists – Americans, Scandinavians, Japanese, even Germans – who obligingly dropped their coins into his heavy-looking sack. Talk about making a fast buck. Sorry, euro.
It must be something in the air around this former haunt of spies and informers, border guards and hopeful relatives parted by a barrier that came to symbolise the difference between East and West. Old movies and half-remembered newspaper reports left me thinking there was something romantic about Checkpoint Charlie, where the American sector of West Berlin ended and the faceless East began.
In truth, I think it was always a place for people on the make. And a visit to the nearby Checkpoint Charlie museum confirmed my suspicions. This is no state-run entity; it’s a private enterprise, set up in a couple of old houses within spitting distance of the former border crossing. The collection may be spread across a couple of dozen rooms; the lighting may be dingy and the exit, through a souvenir shop, is nothing short of cynical. But don’t let that put you off. This is an important record of a miserable era but one that also inspired great ingenuity.
The museum showcases the collection of Rainer Hildebrandt, a journalist, activist and escape facilitator who died in January 2004 having lived long enough to see his dream of spreading the word about the Wall realised. The rooms are full of old suitcases, shopping trolleys, shot-up cars, home-made gliders, passports from non-existent countries... the Ossies lacked nothing in imagination when it came to fleeing the German Democratic Republic.
There are videos and photographs and documents explaining every facet of the division between East and West, and in the new wing – which overlooks the site of the crossing – a copy of the sign in four languages to mark the limit of West Berlin. Down below, Porsches and BMWs and Volkswagens head past the original sign and along Friedrichstrasse at a constant speed. Their drivers probably don’t give a second thought to the barrier that once stood here.
Back on the street you can buy anything from a Checkpoint Charlie postcard to a mobile phone case. And, of course, a chunk of the Wall. Berlin’s retailers have probably sold enough ‘original’ pieces to have circled the world three times, but they’re still turning them out. The spirit of capitalism burns brightly in the reunited German capital, which is perhaps the only lasting memorial Checkpoint Charlie needs.
KLM, Lufthansa, BMI, British Airways, Air Berlin and Brussels Airlines have regular flights throughout the day to Berlin Tegel from London airports. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and regional airports (including Glasgow) to Berlin Schoenefeld, and Ryanair has flights from Stansted to Schoenefeld.
Where to stay
ABRI Apartments Berlin Mitte, like many of the city’s apartment hotels, is stylish, well furnished and inexpensive.
Mercure Hotel & Residenz Checkpoint Charlie is on the doorstep of the old crossing point; big, clean, inexpensive rooms.
NH Berlin Friedrichstrasse, part of the near-worldwide chain, is a safe bet: top notch rooms, service and good food. Very central.
NH Berlin Heinrich Heine, is another apartment hotel, a bit further east but excellent value and big rooms. A bit of a walk to the U-bahn but the quiet residential area is attractive and room prices are outstanding.
Adina Apartment Hotel Checkpoint Charlie is another small, friendly hotel close to the landmark. Recently opened, big on service and comfortable, good value rooms.
Hotel Adlon Kempinski, on beautiful Unter den Linden. is for those wishing to push the boat out. Stunning hotel, wonderful location; you can spoil yourselves rotten and, this being Berlin, it won’t cost an arm and a leg.
Where to eat
Berlin is full of Imbiss stalls – fast food outlets that specialise in sausages; they’re delicious and cheap and, increasingly, dabble in Asian cuisine.
The city’s great department store, KaDeWe, on Kurfurstendamm, is foodie heaven. Not only are their food halls among the finest in the world but there are also champagne, seafood, snack and all manner of other food bars on the sixth floor, while one level up is the restaurant court. You could eat here every day for a week and still go back for more.
Max und Moritz (Oranienstrasse 162, Kreuzberg) serves outstanding traditional fare like goulash soup, pork, dumplings, schnitzels, sauerbraten and vegetarian dishes too. Good value.
Weinbar Rutz (Chausseestrasse 8, Mitte) serves top quality modern cuisine in its bistro or restaurant. And, of course, the wine is very fine.
Cafe Zitrone (Dieffenbachstrasse 56, Neukölln) has big terraces, a friendly interior and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine (though with a few local favourites), good bread and heavenly pastries. A favourite for weekend brunch.
Another brunch favourite is the quasi-Mexican Frida Kahlo (Lychenerstrasse 37, Prenzlauerberg). Good food and lots of it – and, with a mammoth cocktail menu, you may not get out of there till Monday morning.