Wallflowers? Not In Berlin!
Twenty Years Since The Fall Of The Wall
text and images by Robert La Bua
Berlin old and new
It seems hard to believe that a generation has grown up since 9 November 1989, the day the world was glued to the television telewitnessing amazing footage of Germans young and old smashing the Berlin Wall with sledgehammers and dancing the night away on top of what was once the scene of merciless execution for anyone desperate enough to make the run across East Berlin’s No Man’s Land. Massive slabs of concrete were toppled and the East Germans crossed that No Man’s Land into the Neverland of Western consumerism at the height of Germany’s economic might.
One of the last sections of the Berlin Wall still standing is found in the middle of Potsdamer Platz.
For almost fifty years, West Berlin was a haven for alternate lifestylists of every deviation; their collective creative energy benefited and generous social benefits collected by residents of the Western city within an Eastern country made for a relatively comfortable life for those uncomfortable elsewhere. Berlin is no longer the enigma it once was, but it is still a special place, especially in June when gay people and their friends celebrate what is known in the German-speaking world as Christopher Street Day and as Gay Pride everywhere else. Berlin’s Christopher Street Day is one of the most vivacious in Europe; all are welcome. Not that the city is devoid of gay life other times of the year. As one of the world’s centres of gay tourism, Berlin attracts men and women from across the planet keen to revel in an openness rivalled by few other destinations. This means there is always something of gay interest happening in town, even if it’s just another Sunday morning dawning over the excesses of Fuggerstrasse.
Nollendorfplatz U-bahn entrance
Or the Tiergarten, which means ‘animal park’ in German. Needless to say, in giving the term a figurative meaning as well, locals take up the challenge admirably. Berlin is a city of parks; there are huge swathes of greenery everywhere, making it one of the most outdoorsy of European capitals. A detour into the enormous Tiergarten will illustrate just how comfortable Germans are with nudity. These people can’t get their clothes off fast enough; in high summer, it’s not unusual to come across nude sunbathers in the parks or find underclad athletes honing their skills in a variety of outdoor activities—and I do mean a variety. For culture vultures, Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island), one of the world’s highest concentrations of priceless artworks, is a must. Museumsinsel is currently undergoing a remarkable makeover in which all the major buildings will be linked by an underground corridor, making the entire island, in effect, one big museum.
The Greta Garbo Suite at Grand Hyatt Berlin is the perfect pied-à-terre for a stylish stay in Berlin.
Berlin, however, is still a city where art is not merely admired, but also created. A stroll through the funky, up and coming Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain neighbourhoods reveals avant-garde art galleries alongside experimental fashion boutiques and well-patronised cafés.
one of several gay monuments around the city
While the future is enticing, the past is not forgotten. Berlin’s cathedral in the former West Berlin remains un-reconstructed as a reminder of wartime destruction. That bit of rubble seems oddly anachronistic when contemplating Potsdamer Platz, the shiny new city centre where 21st-century Germany comes alive. Here, among the cafés and glass skyscrapers, a sense the optimism still lingers from heady days of post-Wall freedom. A thin brick line across the expansive plaza recalls the location of the Berlin Wall, of which captioned pieces are still left as graffitied memorials to the past. Now that the Wall is gone, everyone wants to see it; the city even provides portable devices called Mauer Guides (Wall Guides) that offer images of the Wall so that visitors can see what it looked like at the exact spot where they are standing at any given moment.
Classical beauty decorates the streets of Berlin, but not all the sculpted muscles in Berlin are made of stone
The Potsdamer Platz area is also the location of Grand Hyatt Berlin, where gorgeous staff and atmosphere welcome guests to its Marlene-Dietrich-Platz address. Another mysterious icon of the entertainment world is honoured by the hotel in the elegant Greta Garbo Suite, in which the highly private actress would no doubt have been very comfortable in this spacious one-bedroom suite overlooking the theatre across the street. As would be expected in a Hyatt property in a stylish European capital, the rooms are spacious and smartly designed. For travellers keeping fit on the road, the top-floor Club Olympus is impressively equipped and a treatment at its spa makes an excellent tonic for mornings after if lying out on the sun terrace unpampered is too taxing a proposition. A workout may be necessary after indulging in the hotel’s Mesa restaurant, where the Spanish-influenced kitchen offers delectable fare. Mesa is only one of the restaurants at Grand Hyatt Berlin, which prides itself on the high quality of its dining venues and offers guests the opportunity to work with a chef for a day in its popular cooking classes, the next one of which is scheduled for 28 November.
Very close to the hotel is the subdued gay Holocaust memorial—and no one gay or straight should leave Berlin without visiting the Gay Museum, known in German as the Schwules Museum. Don’t expect to see solid-gold condoms or personalised latex gloves; the Gay Museum’s goal is to show the variety of gay lifestyles and remedy cliché and prejudice. This it does admirably. From our local hairdresser to favourite film stars, we are not always aware of the vast diversity and huge impact gay people have on popular culture and on us as individuals. The museum houses photos, paintings, costumes, books, and other memorabilia depicting aspects of gay life both normal and extraordinary. Don’t miss it. There are also interesting temporary exhibits on display; last year’s inspiring exhibit on the history of lesbian participation in the fight for women’s rights was the first of its kind in Germany—surprising in a country with a female head of state.
SAS offers excellent options for travellers to Europe; at 354 kilometres, Copenhagen is Berlin’s closest airport linking the city with Asian gateways such as Bangkok, Beijing, and Tokyo, all of which are stopover choices available for travellers from Australia, who may also return via the US, making a de facto ’round the world fare for the price of a return ticket. SAS is one of the few airlines to have a dedicated page for LGBT travellers with lots of helpful tips about gay travel in Scandinavia. For more information about Berlin’s many sights, visit the Berlin Tourism website, which offers a comprehensive overview of the city’s attractions and activities. The Berlin Tourism gay page offers specific information for Schwulesbi travellers like us; other websites like Berlin Life and Berlin Info offer information, too.