Ever since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, travellers have been flocking to East Berlin while West Berlin has been forgotten. However as the East fills up with airbnbs and the foreign tourists who frequent them, here in the old Western sector nothing much has changed. In these leafy backstreets you’ll find bars and cafés that have hardly altered since I first came here all those years ago – places no hip backpacker would dream of visiting, which retain the faded elan of old Berlin.
Since my first visit in 1991 I’ve been back to Berlin more times than I can count, and though my working days are in the East I always stay in the West, in one of the small hotels just off the Kurfurstendamm, West Berlin’s main boulevard. East Berlin is frenetic (and for a reporter, it’s full of stories) but West Berlin is the place where Berlin’s historic ambience – what locals call the Berliner Luft – survives. This is the Cold War Berlin of Iggy Pop and David Bowie – an island in an alien land, even without the Wall.
I have nostalgic reasons for staying here – my grandparents lived just off the Ku’damm in the 30s. I still have a photo of their old apartment, draped with Swastika banners – it was destroyed by Allied bombers during the War. Yet even without that family connection, this would still be my favourite neighbourhood. Eating and drinking in these corner cafés, you’re surrounded by folk who live here, not just rootless people passing through.
I used to imagine this quiet enclave of West Berlin (called Wilmersdorf) was my little secret, but returning after two years away I can see that something’s shifted: a shabby old shopping centre has been reborn as Bikini Berlin, a funky boutique for fashionistas; celebrity chef Tim Raue has opened a chic new restaurant around the corner. Berlin’s leading photography gallery, C/O has moved from East to West, to a stunning new site (the recently renovated Amerika Haus) beside Zoo Station. Behind the station, in a bombastic old building which used to be a clubhouse for Prussian officers, is the Helmut Newton Foundation, which showcases the collection of this Berlin-born photographer.
Newton used to dine at the Paris Bar, a cosy bistro just down the road, a celebrity hang-out throughout the Cold War and beyond. Names to drop include Jeff Koons, Yves Saint Laurent and German artist Martin Kippenberger (who used to pay for meals with paintings – some still adorn the walls). Yet it’s not at all starry, and the regulars are utterly indifferent to celebrity. I once tagged along at a dinner party here hosted by Newton’s stylish widow, June. The other guests included Rupert Everett. No-one gave him a second glance.
I usually book a room at Hotel Bleibtreu, but this time I stayed at Max Brown Ku’damm. This sleek hotel sums up how sleepy Wilmersdorf has come alive. The retro bedrooms are tranquil but the downstairs bar is buzzing. The queue for tables snakes through the lobby. It’s open around the clock, serving breakfast night and day.
Yet the old haunts remain: Diener Tattersall on Grolmanstrasse, a spit and sawdust bar that’s been going strong since the days of the last Kaiser; the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse, beside the Kathe Kollwitz Museum – a great spot for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), especially out in the garden if the weather’s fine. In a chaotic metropolis that’s constantly reinventing itself, what’s remarkable about West Berlin is not how much, but how little it has changed.