Sometimes a city means more to you when you know it less well, especially when it’s a city whose history and monuments you’re acutely aware of in other ways, from a distance. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it certainly diminishes the power that a city possesses to gobsmack you in virtue of its history, and its most emblematic monuments. Over time, and when you get to know the street-level detail of a city, the awe that you might have felt on first arrival becomes a distant memory. Showing visitors around can help to revive a sense of excitement, but only partially.

Nowadays, it’s not often that I go to a large European city whose streets I hardly know, but which in another sense I know well. Yesterday I travelled to Berlin from Prague. The city is just four and half hours away by train, but in twenty-three and a half years of living in the Czech Republic I’ve visited it only once, briefly, for a business conference in a far-flung suburb, and just once before that, in early 1989 when I was helping an East German to escape to the West by pretending a relationship that didn’t in fact exist (an exit visa to the West was finally issued two days before the Wall came down).

Yesterday, arriving at the main railway station in Berlin I suddenly felt that feeling of awe that I probably last felt more than twenty years ago, when. for example, I found myself hardly believing that I was standing in front of the actual Roman Forum, and in the actual Vatican – a sense of unbelievable privilege that I could actually get to see these things.

It was a glimpse of Norman Foster’s dome on the Reichstag that did it for me yesterday, and then, as a taxi took me to the Plan B Gallery (to look at the Serban Savu paintings I wrote about some days ago), the Brandenburg Gate and the double-brick line in the streets that marks where the Wall once stood. I was no longer, for a moment, the jaded business ‘road warrior’ who’s seen it all. It was almost like being young again, capable, once again, of awe and excitement. And it all looked so different from 1989.

What is Berlin to me?

  • The 1930s city of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and stories and Liza Minelli’s Cabaret.
  • The 1920s and 1930s city of Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht.
  • The city of the Reichstag fire of 1933, set by the Nazis but blamed on the Communist Georgi Dimitrov, who went on to rule Bulgaria.
  • The city of Hitler’s rise to power and the enabling act passed with apparent legality in the Reichstag, but in reality under duress, that let Hitler rule by decree
  • The city that was reduced to rubble in 1944
  • The city of Hitler’s bunker and, finally, his suicide
  • The city of Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and the airlift of emergency supplies when the Soviets cut off the city
  • The city of architect Albert Speer’s monstrous plans for the capital of a post-war Germania
  • The city of the Pergamon Museum containing, amongst other artefacts, the head of Queen Nephertiti
  • The city of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • The city of John le Carre’s spy novels and of Checkpoint Charlie
  • The city of the superb historical thrillers of David Downing which are set in the 1920s and 1930s and which I read a year or so ago
  • The libertarian and cosmopolitan city or artists and (before the fall of the Wall) young German draft dodgers
  • The city of the fall of the Wall in 1989 and of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth near the Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Day 1990

Sad, then, that yesterday I had just three hours in the city before catching a flight to Warsaw.

Serban Savu’s paintings were as wonderful as I expected and I’m going to buy The Allegory of Painting rather than The Guardian,  and after a tiny bit of haggling, this one ‘thrown in’ for good measure (it’s smaller than it looks):


The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

Now I’m in Warsaw on the way to look at this one:






Oradea – City Under Wraps

Oradea, since 1945 a Romanian city, is a city that’s under wraps, still recovering from the depredations  of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War that followed. It must get back to where it was before it can become something more. Over the last hundred years it’s been Hungarian twice (as Nagyvarad), and Romanian twice, and you can still hear both languages used interchangeably in the street, though sadly you can no longer hear the Yiddish or German that the large Jewish community spoke before the Holocaust.

IMG_2227 IMG_2246   IMG_2229

The cities of Hungary,to the West, such as Debrecen, and Miskolc, have recovered from history, and gone further. They have renovated and inhabited the shabby, rundown, sometimes bullet-scarred buildings of the Habsburg era. But many of Oradea’s wonderful Jugendstil apartment blocks and institutional buildings are still vacant, shrouded to protect pedestrians from the crumbling, falling stucco. It’s a sorry sight and no doubt a matter of money, not intent or confidence. But underneath the wrappings are architectural wonders waiting to be restored and used again.

There are, of course, some delightful exceptions, such as this restored hotel.


Another exception is the splendid theatre, designed by the astonishingly productive architectural partnership of Fellner and Helmer, who were to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its theatres what Mimar Sinan was to the Ottoman Empire some centuries earlier, though Sinan generally stuck to mosques, madrasas and the occasional bridge. I don’t believe he ever built a theatre.

Wrappings put me in mind of Christo (and Jeanne-Claude), the Bulgarian wrapper-up of the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf in Paris.


pont neuf

Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t claim to mean anything by their art beyond the immediate impression they elicit, but it’s hard to explain the strong emotional reaction we feel on seeing these powerful symbols tamed by drapes. It’s certainly not the melancholy induced by Oradea’s buildings. Wikipedia quotes art critic David Bourdon, who says it’s all about “revelation through concealment.” But I think it’s simpler than that (art critics so rarely write sentences that means anything).

Wrapping up means presents, generosity and pleasure (think of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music – ‘brown paper packages wrapped up in string’). Wrapping up implies manageability and control. Wrapping reminds us that we can encompass the mechanical, the monstrous, the powerful, the irrational. We can defuse these things if we care to. It’s telling that the Reichstag was wrapped (and thereby disarmed) just five years after the reunification of Germany. Indeed I’d like to see Christo go further. He could wrap up a nuclear bomb, a tank, a Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin, or even this revolting dish (Women’s Fancy) that I foolishly ordered in Oradea for my dinner (looks like vomit on a plate).

women's fancy 2