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Yes, Berlin lures to it all that is fresh and edgy, but, from West to East, the city experience is mired in the gravitas of a past as chilling as it is rich and charming.

With a forkful of the apple cake or apfelkuchen, as Berliners would have it, one is a time traveller back in the city's heady days of the late 1920s. The entire West Side of Berlin - in which I whiled away hours at the famous Literaturhaus restaurant in Charlottenburg - belongs to another era. Under willows in the genteel outdoor garden, the breaded veal and fried potatoes were my madeleine. This was a dish my Grandmother cooked, as a refugee from Berlin, to recreate the taste of home.

Down the old, cold grey stone steps to the antiquated bookshop that lends the establishment its name, I found clues to the area's most charismatic corners.

On Fasanenstrasse stands the notorious Cigar Bar, with an ambience that is smoky in more ways than one. Once frequented by German literary icon Thomas Mann, the bar is now a hotspot hangout for filmmakers at the annual Berlin Film Festival. From the glassfronted room, one looks out at the red lights of the artsy, Delphi cinema, that yesteryear was the haunt of cabaret singer, Marlene Dietrich and her songwriters before she exiled herself to Hollywood in the 1930s.

Just two streets away is the restored and ritzy Kempinski Hotel, where German celebrities drink burnt orange brandy and philosophize, just as journalist Hannah Arendt and her lover did before the Second World War. I asked to see one of the hotel's better rooms and he bellboy lead me upstairs. The bedroom was in semi-darkness. He pulled back the curtain to reveal the destroyed dome of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue. And next to it... a train track. I steadied myself.

I was ready for the modern, hip and trendy Berlin. I was ready for the East Side, the part that was under separate East German jurisdiction before the 1989 Fall of the Wall.

Along the lakes that calm Berlin, driving east toward the Pergamon Museum that houses the cobalt blue mosaic Gates of Babylon and the Neues Museum with its bust of Nefertiti, the taxi driver pointed out the markings of the former Wall at various points along the way.

And then the architecture changed. The exteriors of the buildings in former East Berlin are bleak and still smack of Communism, but inside, the buildings are so very hip. The former Templehof airport where dignitaries landed to meet Hitler, for example, now houses fashion and design shows.

The grey stone of apartment houses is strewn with graffiti. Bicycles are propped against walls on cobbled streets as if in a Francis Bacon painting. The former East feels East Villagey and bursts with creativity.

I checked into the newly opened Berlin Soho House Hotel on Torstrasse. The establishment has a ferociously modern lobby and luxurious - if presumptuous - uncurtained bathtubs in the middle of the bedrooms. Its rooftop pool is peppered with pilatesed pretty people. And just as the past started to fade and it seemed as if this place was a far cry from the old-world apple strudel feel of the former West, I overheard a conversation.

"Did you know", asked a waif in a turquoise bikini bottom, "that this building was the HQ of Hitler Youth? It's where they trained them to... you know."

To forgo a trip to Berlin, is to forgo an understanding of the history of the world.

 

Suzanne Glass is a writer whose novels have included "The Interpreter", used for the film of the same name, and "The Sculptors". She has lived in eight countries, speaks eight languages and currently splits her time between London and New York while writing her third novel.

 

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