Weimar memories: walk-to Berlin … in a flaneur’s footsteps

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Armed with Franz Hessels cult guidebook, Walking in Berlin, published in 1929, Vanessa Thorpe is transported back to the citys decadent period

Time travel is still a long way off as a short break option, but merrily there are some good approximations. Last month, in a very chilly but sunny Berlin, I opened up a transcript of Franz Hessels cult 1929 guidebook, Walking in Berlin: A Flneur in the Capital, and, sure enough, the jaunty, literary tone of the book , now published in English for the first time, is just a private invitation back to the citys most beguiling era.

Hessel had an appetite for cafe culture and people-watching, although his own life was easily as colourful as the life he observed around him. His open relationship with his wife, fellow writer Helen Grund, inspired Henri-Pierre Rochs famous mnage-a-trois novel Jules et Jim . He was, to use his preferred French term, a flneur a man of means at ease in the cosmopolitan hub of Weimar Germany.

My tour in his footsteps starts simply off Kurfrstendamm on the edge of Charlottenburg. My base is a room in the smaller, bohemian hotel, Pension Funk, once the apartment of the Danish silent movie star Asta Nielsen. Its 19 th-century lifts, high ceilings and walls hung with images of the decadent Nielsen perfectly capture the Weimar mood, as does the grand Literaturhaus cafe across the road, standing next to an equally stylish museum dedicated to the artist Kthe Kollwitz.

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Start of the tour the city is brought to life by Hessels pages. Photograph: Alamy

The city that comes to life on Hessels pages could be straight out of Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwoods novel Goodbye to Berlin. Although Hessel was Jewish, and ultimately under threat, his Berlin is one of hope; an international melting pot where taboos are abruptly falling away. Somehow this makes his words all the more poignant. They mark a free, open-minded moment in time.

Setting off in my less-than-Weimar woolly hat I look through Hessels eyes at the town houses in the smart streets around my hotel: a mix of Parisian, Czech, even Finnish architecture reflecting the traditions of the foreign merchants drawn in during the boom years. Charlottenburg, I learn, was originally an independent entity and grew up around a royal palace to become a glamorous base for artists and actors because it neighboured the film studios.

For Hessel, its blurring with the rest of Berlin was already old news. A gatehouse standing between the two sister cities was phoney, he felt: Theres just as little proof here as anywhere else that a border exists between Berlin and Charlottenburg. This area is also home to the famous Paris Bar where Bowie and Iggy Pop would often drink; one journalist compared the scene to Degas The Absinthe Drinker Hessel would no doubt have approved.

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Stimulating an entryway Danish silent movie star Asta Nielsen. Photo: Keystone-France/ Getty Images

He clearly welcomed the citys sexual freedom and loosen of class strictures. He loved the surviving rooftop Kranzler cafe and, of course, the nightclubs or ballrooms, with their table telephones.

Visitors who still fancy dialling up the talent on other tables can do so at a dark nightclub called Ballhaus Berlin, in the central Mitte district, where telephone flirting is still going strong.

For Hessel, the freshly licensed gender ambiguity once a bold protest against the dominant moral statutes was now a rather harmless pleasure, and guests who like to dance with the opposite sex are also allowed into these mellowed debaucheries. The closest I get to a mellowed revelry is a mistaken but happy encounter with two kinds of savoury dumpling, one a starter, one a main course( both were delicious) in a eatery named Lubitsch.

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A slice of history the breakfast room at the Pension Funk, once the apartment of Asta Nielsen. Photograph: Alamy

Hessels Berlin is still evident near my hotel, where you can see the remains of a large synagogue opened in 1912 and destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938. Now its a Jewish education centre, guarded around the clock. Yet for Hessel the way in which wealthy Jews were once made to pay up to integrate seemed quite humorous at the time. Canny Frederick the Great, he wrote, induced these incomers buy royal china from his porcelain factory if they wanted to take up residence, open a business, or marry.

As Hessel admits, he was not a political animal and his bluffers introduction to activities underneath the massive beauty of the Reichstag dome underscores the point. Orient yourself properly, he jokingly indicates, so that you dont mistake the communists for the nationalists and vice versa.

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The ultimate flaneur Franz Hessel. Photograph: Ullstein Bild

Hessels observations are detailed, but using his volume today is partly an imaginative exert. Many of the landmarks are run, victims of allied bombing. And even some that appear to survive, such as the famous Hotel Adlon, are actually replicas. Hessel himself relished attempting out the older shapes behind the modern buildings, although he had no idea of the destruction that was coming. His own touchstone was a Berlin guidebook by Hans Mackowsky. Read it, he promised, and the bygone city concealing within the current one will materialise right before your eyes.

The same applies it is now time his own volume. Irreverent and yet always enthusiastic, his 88 -year-old love letter to this city is a true map of the tracings of a bygone world.

Way to go

EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Berlin Schoenefeld. Rates at the Hotel Pension Funk start at 45 for a single with breakfast( shared bathroom ), or 75 with private bathroom. Walking in Berlin: A Flneur in the Capitalby Franz Hessel is published by Scribe at 12.99

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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