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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Stepping Back in Time

Berlin, March 2008: I have visited this city twice before. Once during the Cold War, when I stared at the Brandenburg Gate from both sides of the Wall. The second time in November 1989, when, by chance, I was in the city the day the Wall fell. Now friend Chris, on his first visit, and I were spending a long weekend here, culture vultures by day and clubbers at night.

We made the mistake of coming during ITB, the world's largest travel fair. Beds were at a premium, and we ended up paying €110 (£85 / $170) a night in A&O - a chain of hostels masquerading as a hotel - in Köpenickerstrasse. Yes, we were teenagers once, but that didn't mean we welcomed their noise echoing through the walls and corridors at 7 in the morning.
And we were not impressed to arrive at lunchtime and be told that rooms were only available after 4pm. On the other hand, we were within walking distance of Unter den Linden, the cultural heart of Berlin, and we decided to stroll there to get a feel of the city.

The skies were leaden. The apartment blocks lining the streets were a lighter shade of the same grey. The streets were inexplicably empty. We passed a large power station and the entrance of an apparently deserted underground station. In the distance we could see the occasional car and pedestrian.

"This is Thursday, isn't it?" I asked Chris. "The early afternoon? Near the centre of a capital city with a population of over three million people? So why does it feel like the sequel of Twenty-Eight Days Later or I am Legend?"

Later we learned that there was a bus and underground strike but that was only part of the answer. We were in old East Berlin which, almost twenty years after reunification has not yet shaken off its aura of desolation. As we headed further into the heart of the city, we came to an large deserted site where a massive concrete structure was frozen in the midst of destruction, its rusting iron girders thrusting through empty space and its concrete walls silent and motionless.

On Unter den Linden a few brave souls, all apparently tourists, braved the cold and wind. We found a restaurant in the basement of the the Staatsoper - State Opera. It was large, warm, baroque and empty apart from a bürgerliche couple at a well- plenished table, complete with towering glasses of beer, and two tall well-built, handsome and shaven-head waiters.

We sat back on comfortable seats and worked our way through red wine, large plates of well-presented and strongly-flavoured quiche, herring, potatoes, salad, apple strudel on swirls of custard and chocolate and a cappucino. The bill came to €55 (£42, $84) for the two of us. We still didn't understand Berlin, but we knew we were beginning to like it.

Daytime Berlin

Berlin may be young in European terms - it only came into being in the late thirteenth century - but it is above all a city of history. That rich past can be glimpsed through many different windows...

Early civilisation is on display on Museum Island. Many of its Graeco-Roman style buildings are currently under renovation, but the exhibitions are still accessible. We spent a couple of hours in the Altes Museum, drawn there by the Nefertiti bust at the heart of the Ancient Egyptian exhibition. The bonus was the extensive section on ancient Greece and the dozen or so vases and plates displaying several sexual activities where only men were involved...

Behind the Altes Museum are the National Gallery and the Pergamon Museum with a breathtaking collection of Near East and Islamic art. Check the website for current events at these and other museums run by the city.

A fascination with handsome naked young men is reflected in much of the city's public art. On top of buildings, lining bridges and in fountains, adonises can be seen fighting, dying, wrestling, relaxing, cavorting and dreaming in postures that display their anatomies to their best advantage, and usually at an angle which allows the viewer to contemplate their every asset (and frontet).
for male nude statues in Paris, click here

The pride and strength of eighteenth and nineteenth century Prussia is epitomised in the city's Cathedral, destroyed by the Second World War but now almost completely renovated. The view from the dome is not spectacular - Berlin's buildings are best appreciated from street level, but the 267-step climb is good for the heart and helps visitors appreciate the scale of the building. Website

After the defeat of Germany in the First World War, the 1920s saw great hardship, with inflation so high that it cost 2 billion marks to put a stamp on a letter. It also saw a nightlife as varied and decadent as London in the early years of the 21st century. Every self-respecting gay visitor should spend at least two hours reviewing this and other homosexual history at the Schwules (Queer) Museum.

Covering the last 250 years, it shows how German gay men consistently fought, even in the worst days of Nazi repression, to maintain their lives, their dignity and their right to meet, interact and live with other gay men.

In addition to documentation and artefacts, there are also many works of art on display. Sascha Schneider painted many pictures in the early 20th century, although modern gay men may find his models too young (see picture above). My personal preference is for Jürgen Wittdorf (see top of page). Living in East Germany, his works reflected the prevaling ideology of men from all nations working together; the only difference is the Wittdorf's men were always good-looking, frequently bare-chested and on many occasions bare-legged too.

The museum website is only in German, but on site there is good detailed English guide to the permanent display. Either before or after your visit, have something to drink at the Schwuz cafe at the entrance of the Museum. It's tired and run-down, but it's been a centre of Berlin gay life for many decades.
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The Third Reich (1933 - 1945) is the period in German history that most foreigners are familiar with, but even that knowledge is sketchy. We took a Third Reich walking tour from Insider Tours.

Advertised as three to four hours, we were blessed with guide Mike, an enthusiastic New Zealander who moved to Berlin five years ago to indulge his passion for German history. No detail was too small for him to pass on to us as we traipsed our way across grass and rubble, stopping to stare at building after building, monument after monument. As the tour wore on and we wore down, Mike became more and more enthusiastic, striding confidently backwards down streets as we meekly followed, his voice rising in pitch and volume as he narrated the events, almost day by day, of the final act of the German and European tragedy. More than five hours after we started, as the tour ended at the site of Hitler's bunker, we were finally able to drag ourselves away, most definitely enriched by the experience, but in dire need of food and drink...
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The Divided City. The end of the Second World War (1945) saw Western Germany occupied by the Americans, British and French and the East occupied by the Soviets. Berlin was an island in East Germany, occupied by all four powers. After a brief period in 1949 when the Soviets tried to starve West Berlin into submission, an uneasy peace reigned until 1961. In that year, unable to stop the flow of East Berliners into the Western half of the city, the East German government built the Wall, 155 km (100 miles) of concrete intended to prevent refugees from fleeing. On the whole, it worked, although dozens lost their lives, shot by East German guards as they tried to cross the line, and dozens more fled through ingenious escape routes. The events of 1989 led to most of the wall being destroyed, but it is preserved in part, as well as in exhibitions and museums around the city. Your first checkpoint for this stage of German history should be the museum at Checkpoint Charlie.
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We're here, we're queer, so let's go... The Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin was the heart of the city's Shopping Experience, but like most modern cities it now offers only the globalised shops you meet across the world, with the exception being that most shops are closed on Sundays. I bought a hat and some socks in H&M and that was it. We did come across two
weekend markets near the Museum Island, where I bought a couple of books to add to my collection of erotica and a Russian-style fake-fur hat, complete with ear muffs and Soviet badge.

I'd also recommend Cimp jewelery shop in Bleibtreustrasse, not far from the Kurfürstendamm. Yes, the owner, the very handsome Wirun Kaochalard, is a friend, but his designs are genuinely innovative, attractive and reasonably priced. His calling card is on the right. You can get directions to Cimp on the website.

Nighttime (Gay) Berlin

The local magazines list over 200 bars, clubs, restaurants, services and shops. We sampled half a dozen of them. Our impressions?

Cogai aka Co Gai Vietnamese restaurant in Bülowstrasse 9, very near the gay Nollendorfplatz district. Make sure you get a comfortable bench seat. Excellent authentic dishes and very cute waiters; we particularly liked the S&M tie that one of them was wearing.

Connection bar in the appropriately named Fuggerstrasse. Nicely designed small bar and small dance floor with a racially mixed and friendly crowd. You can stay there to drink and talk, or at 0.59, enter a side door which leads to a much bigger and darker world to explore.

Goya on Nollendorfplatz is a converted theatre that hosts occasional gay nights. We were there for Propaganda, billed as the gay event of the month, and we were highly impressed by the decor and balconies and video display. But the lighting was a little too bright for our taste, the go-go boys were disappointing and although there were many good-looking young men, everyone seemed a little restrained, as if Mummy and Daddy were watching and they wanted to show them that gays could be nice, respectable people too. We left around two in the morning. Maybe that was the moment when the scene came alive, but we doubt it.

Heile Welt bar (Motzstrasse 9 in the Nollendorfplatz gay area) is a good local bar for those who prefer civilian gear to leather. You'll hear English as often as German. If all the comfortable seats at the front are taken, squeeze past the bottleneck (what on earth was the designer thinking about?) to relax in the smoking area at the back.

Roses bar (Oranienstrasse 187, in the racially mixed Kreuzberg area) is a throwback to another era, although we are not sure what era that is. Walls and ceiling coverd in pink fur. Disco globes, fairy lights, wings on loudspeakers, comfortable chairs. Definitely for locals who know each other, but we hung around long enough to get served the ubiquitous Beck's beer.

Tom's bar (Motzstrasse 19, in the Nollendorfplatz gay area). It wasn't fair to visit this bar on our last night, a Sunday, in the middle of a transport strike, before midnight. The few customers who came in, drawn to the darkroom which we didn't get round to visit, seemed to be as old as we were and no more attractive. Personally, I wouldn't go back, but it's one of the oldest bars and I know people who like it, so don't take my word for it...

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