This is Berlin. Culture hotspot. UNESCO City of Design. And “Testicle of the West”. This lesser known accolade was bestowed on it in 1963, from the then leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. His declaration finished no less assertively: “When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”
Two years earlier in 1961, Khrushchev himself had given the green light to his East German counterpart to begin construction of the Berlin Wall. It was sold as “protection” against the “fascist” element challenging the creation of a socialist state. But, of course, it served only to prevent mass–emigration and defection to the free city of West Berlin. The socialist state failed. The wall fell in November 1989. The rest is history.
As dusk falls on a wintry January evening, what’s left of the wall looks, admittedly, a bit bleak. Parked alongside it, a stone’s throw from the River Spree, it’s about as stark a contrast as is possible to achieve when viewed from the sumptuous interior of the new Rapide S. In here, it’s a temperature–controlled 21ºC, with a soft glow from the organic electroluminescent displays and cool ambient lighting. Out there, it’s minus two and there’s a lot of concrete.
This is the East Side Gallery, or Kunstmeile (“art mile”) — the last remaining bit of the Berlin Wall in its original location
You needn’t travel here to view such history, though: sections of the wall now live all over the world, including in the CIA’s headquarters at Langley, in the Vatican Gardens and even supporting a run of urinals in a Vegas casino.
Not long after the border opened, 118 artists from 21 different countries converged to spray celebratory graffiti here. These 100–plus works of art are now arguably the most famous political graffiti in the entire world, confirmed by the sea of selfie sticks pogoing around in front of it even now, as night falls. Opposite the gallery, a new Berlin makes its presence felt, with a giant, 17,000–seater arena and a brand new complex of vast, glass–fronted modern offices. Across this vibrant city, it’s the same story: wherever there is history, there is also bold new development.
And now there’s also loud noise. The explosive combustion note from the Rapide’s new generation AM29 6.0–litre V12 is positively obscene. And utterly addictive. It rips through the cold air with such ferocity that the selfie sticks all swivel around en masse to steal a shot. In doing so, they’ve proved that culture–defining art comes in many forms. Savvy bunch.
This new Rapide S is faster, leaner and cleaner than its predecessor and it is still, undeniably, the world’s most beautiful four–door sports car. Power is up to 552bhp (an increase of more than 18 per cent on the first Rapide), with a 0–60mph sprint dispatched effortlessly in just 4.2 seconds. Carbon emissions are cleaner at 300g/km and fuel economy extends to a leaner 31mpg. Despite this, top speed increases to 203mph.
Threading west through the Mitte district, there’s zero danger of achieving anything like that — Berlin is still growing, with new construction at every corner. The drive is, nonetheless, effortless. A car this large and this powerful should prove at least slightly bothersome around the city. Illogically, it’s sublime. Agile. Balanced. Controlled. The new Touchtronic III 8–speed gearbox is beyond competent: in standard automatic, your wishes are its commands before you’ve even had time to think of them. On the open road, with paddle–shifts as quick as 130 milliseconds, the smile widens.
Driving south across the Spree, past the enormous Berlin Cathedral and Reichstag — the seat of Germany’s parliament, complete with Norman Foster–designed dome — we head for the new Bikini Berlin–Haus mall, on KurfÃ¼rstendamm. This main shopping area for the city has never tried to be cool. Bikini is trying to change that, with its world–first “concept mall” of boutiques, pop–up stores, flagship brands and gastronomy. Families, couples, teenagers and now hipsters show up here, milling around in its swish, clean boxes. In warmer months, the roof terrace affords views of Berlin zoo, just next door.
Alas, as it’s positively Baltic, we head to the 25Hours Bikini hotel, where an express elevator takes us to the 10th floor and two of Berlin’s hottest tickets: the restaurant NENI and its accompanying venue, Monkey Bar. With panoramic views of Berlin, the Tiergarten park and zoo, both are heaving. In NENI, the food spans much of Europe, with dishes served in pots and pans directly from the kitchen, encouraging everyone to try a little of something. Tourists and locals alike are hoovering it up.
Opposite, in the Monkey Bar, draft beers, cocktails, mocktails and a DJ keep the party going until 2am (Friday–Saturday), at which point, patrons and even the staff decamp to bars in the east to carry on the fun. But not before they’ve grabbed a currywurst — sausage, curry powder and fries — from nearby Curry 36, now considered one of the best of the new breed of Berlin currywurst institutions.
Just five minutes from here, Hotel am Steinplatz offers boutique luxury to the travel–weary in a stunning 102–year–old art–nouveau building. The ace up this hotel’s sleeve is the much–lauded Restaurant am Steinplatz, where regional products are used to execute classic Berlin recipes such as boiled pork knuckle, imaginatively reinterpreted by chef Stefan Hartmann.
Or there’s also the Waldorf Astoria. Looming large opposite 25Hours, its fine dining French restaurant Les Solistes was awarded a Michelin star in its first year — no mean feat. Directly opposite: the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, complete with bomb–damaged spire after a direct hit from the RAF in 1943. This is Berlin in 2015. Old. And new. With hipster ever–present.
We journey east, through the Tiergarten park and on to the famous Brandenburg Gate. At night, thousands of cars swirl around this 18th–century neoclassical triumphal arch before targeting the city centre and its outer districts. On the huge Straße des Juni 17 leading up to it, the Rapide S has a chance to open up. Committed acceleration pulls you sharply into the seat, where the soft, ventilated leather cossets you like a newborn. It’s like riding in a space shuttle launch, only with all the trappings of first class.
Swinging south through trendy Kreuzberg, the gastronomy tour continues. Local favourite Kimchi Princess serves up Korean dishes in its concrete–cool, modernist dining room. But French cuisine is clearly booming in Berlin and Kreuzberg has one of the best, Restaurant Richard. Empty tanks can fill up here with up to seven courses from the contemporary haute cuisine menu that changes every few weeks.