Nicole Röbel was ten years old when the Berlin Wall fell.Living behind the barrier of brick and barbed wire, she had a childlike bewilderment about her life in the communist east of the city. Why, for instance, did her school teachers want to know what kind of clock appeared on the TV screen she was watching at home?
It was a trick of course. East German TV was broadcast with an analogue clock; the programmes that were widely, but illicitly, picked up from across the border displayed a digital image. “It was an easy way for them to tell whether we were obeying the rules,” she recalls now. The wrong answer meant a dressing-down for her parents from an officer of the state. Those who persisted in their defiance would have their children taken off them. To be “re-educated”. Was it really less than 30 years ago?
Today there’s little physical evidence of Berlin’s brutal division – there are only three places where the wall has been preserved (see panel, right). The Cold War anachronisms remain, though. It’s a city with two zoos (the west had theirs, so the not-to-be-outdone east had to follow suit) and three opera houses – this time it was the west of the city playing catch-up.
Though there are said to be some among the older generation who yearn for a return to the days of state-assisted certainty – of full employment, of housing for all and a long stint in the Stasi slammer for those who rebelled – it’s a city that fizzes with self-confidence.
One example of that municipal vitality is why I’m here in the eastern part of the city with Röbel, who’s showing me round its newest attraction. As London prepares for its annual orgy of floral decadence at the Chelsea Flower Show, Berlin has just unveiled its own international garden festival. Not that there’s really any comparison. While Chelsea is a compact and colourful posy of a show, the Berlin exhibition, which runs until 15 October, is a huge and elaborate bouquet – the €20 entry price even includes a six-minute cable car ride that delivers you to the heart of the site from the festival underground station. It certainly beats the walk from Sloane Square Tube station.
The Chinese garden
Taking two-and-a-half years to develop and landscape at a cost of 100 million euros, the IGA (Internationale Gartenausstellung) is a glorious mix of the familiar and the curious. There are stunning interpretations of gardens from around the world – including an English walled garden and a meadow garden designed by Chelsea gold medal-winner Tom Stuart-Smith – a flower hall, a huge 50m-high tropical glasshouse with its own depiction of a Balinese village and, of course, extensive planting around the vast 100 hectare site. Notably, 320,000 bulbs, 6,000 rose bushes, 50,000 perennials, 4,000 trees and shrubs and 600,000 annuals, which are likely to be replanted two or three times during the course of the festival.
“Quality-wise Chelsea is the best and that is what we are aiming for,” says project manager and head gardener Stefan Wegner. “We are hoping that we will have the same wow effect but here it is also about more space and getting close to nature.”
The water playground
So much for the familiar, what of the curious? Well, how about cemetery gardening? The festival site has a specially dedicated area that combines headstones and horticulture. A collaboration between stonemasons and gardeners, there are 87 memorials providing German visitors – and perhaps far-sighted British ones – a glimpse of life not beyond the grave, but directly above it.
“There is no garden show in Germany without a cemetery garden,” explains Wegner. “It will be one of the most popular features among German visitors. Before you die you want to have all the planning completed. What type of memorial, what’s written on it and what flowers should be planted. It’s a very German thing.”
It turns out that gardening is also a very German thing. “The German dream is to have a house with a garden,” he says. “The older generation like a Prussian, orderly style of planting, while for today’s generation, it’s a bit more relaxed.”
And “relaxed” is very much the vibe you get across all of this friendly city. Yes, Berliners retain a critical eye on the past – they do Second World War contrition faultlessly and very publicly – but both feet are planted very firmly in the present.
Terry Payne was a guest of Andel’s Hotel Berlin. See viennahouse.com for details. For more information on the International Garden Festival, go to visitberlin.de
Radio Times Travel holidays
Five-star Berlin, 3 nights from £239pp: return flight from London, three nights’ five-star accommodation at the Kempinski Hotel Bristol, Berlin, bed & breakfast basis. Click here for more details
Berlin, Dresden, Meissen and Colditz, 4 nights from £549pp. On this intriguingly varied tour, we visit two of Europe’s great cultural cities, Berlin and Dresden, both having endured violent interludes and now returned to their former glory at the heart of the new Europe of the 21st century. Another face of Germany is medieval Meissen where the most stunningly beautiful porcelain is crafted by highly skilled artisans in the only factory in Europe where the processes are still completed entirely by hand. Finally and in complete contrast we visit Colditz Castle, the famous Second World War Prisoner of War camp for serial would-be escapees including the legless fighter pilot Douglas Bader. Click here for more details and to book