metropolitan life: next weekend in Berlin

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Its guttural cabaret artistes and trenchcoat-clad cold-warriors may be things of the past, but Berlin remains a key city of the 20th- century imagination. There is no doubt that it has a special atmosphere, which some believe is enhanced in the brisk winter climate; but the traditional lures of political history and polymorphous perversity currently take second place to feelgood-factor Christmas shopping. For in December Berlin becomes a haven of seasonal gemutlichkeit in the shape of its Weihnachtsmarkte, or Christmas markets.

Many of the streets and squares are decorated with stands selling all kinds of goods from tat to handicrafts and antiques, interspersed with stalls offering gingerbread and hot wine, and nativity displays and street entertainment such as merry-go-rounds and travel organs. They are a feast for the ear and the eye: indeed, there is something particularly striking about listening to carols sung in German, especially when accompanied by a glockenspiel. Forget the unfavourable exchange rate, fortify yourself with a couple of Steins and a Wurst, and shop and sightsee in equal parts.

The traditional Christmas market - the biggest in Germany - is in the suburb of Spandau. While that name may be forever linked with the prison that once held Rudolf Hess, Spandau is a pretty old town with lots of medieval sights including an ancient citadel. Its market takes place in the Altstadt on the four weekends before Christmas. Many other Berlin suburbs also have markets, including Tempelhof, Wedding and villagey Dahlem, where the market centres on traditional arts and crafts. Most districts have other reasons to visit, Dahlem especially, for its fantastic art gallery and the state museum, housed "temporarily" during the war and still there.

The western centre of Berlin is also laden with market stalls. Along the Kurfurstendamm and at the Kaiser Wilhelm Church there are many stands covered in plants and Christmas lights selling items such as like candles and cribs. In the Mitte - the eastern centre of Berlin - one can combine the Christmas market at Marx-Engels-Platz with a sightseeing tour of the baroque architecture of Fischerinsel at the eastern end of the stately corridor, Unter den Linden. Other notable markets include Breitscheidplatz, Charlottenburg and the hip east Berlin area of Prenzlauer Berg.

With all this competition, the shops make a special effort too. One of the frustrating things about Berlin is that normal Saturday opening hours are 9am-2pm, except on those days designated Langer Samstag, which include the four Saturdays preceding Christmas. Another annual Berlin event in December is the Menschen Tiere Sensation, a circus that has run for more than half a century.

Berlin's permanent markets are worth a look, too, and winter seems to be an appropriate time to browse along the stalls and banter with the warmly wrapped stallholders, most of whom speak English. In Strasse des 17 Juni, a brisk walk from the Brandenburg Gate, a long stretch of market sells antiques, clothes and bric-a-brac, though like London's Brick Lane it is often more expensive than it looks. Try the cheaper, western end for German antiques and leather jackets. Back up near the Brandenburg Gate there are several tourist-trap stalls at Pariser Platz selling Cold War memorabilia: among the dust-gathering bits of "authenticated" Berlin Wall one may find chunky Red Army watches, boots and insignia, but watch out for those prices. Happy Christmas - or Frohe Weihnachten, as they say in Germany.

how to get there

Citybreaks are available from companies such as Travelscene (0181 427 4445), DER Travel Service (the agent for Lufthansa Tours) (0171 290 1111), or Moswin Tours (0116 271 9922). British Airways and Lufthansa fly every day; if the trip includes a weekend it is cheaper. For information, call the German National Tourist Office on 0171 493 0080 between 10am and noon, and 2pm to 4pm. When in Berlin, the key tourist office is Europa- Center, Budapester Strasse. open Mon-Sat 8am to 10.30pm; Sun 9am-9pm. Tel (00 49 30) 262 60 31.