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Back to the future
Catching a glimpse of Berlin past and present at the famous Hotel Adlon Kempinski
Standing under the canopy of the Hotel Adlon I am confronted by the familiar – though I have never been here before. To my left, in Pariser Platz, stands the magnificent Brandenburg Gate; to the right Unter den Linden, the city’s main boulevard, which runs east through the middle of former East Berlin.
I may have never seen the Gate before, but this monumental end to Unter den Linden has long been the symbol of Berlin. It was from here, after the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, that Napoleon stole the Quadriga that now, returned, sits atop the Acropolis-based gateway. It was here that the Soviet soldiers flew the red flag to mark the end of Hitler’s ‘thousand-year empire’. And it was here that the city’s Cold War division was most keenly felt – and where world leaders came to heal the two sides afterwards.
While you can feel history in the air at this magnificent monument, so too can you sense it at the Adlon Kempinski, which has an intriguing past all its own.
The Adlon was first opened in 1907 by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had long supported the cobbler’s son Lorenz Adlon’s dream of building and running the world’s most luxurious hotel. The Kaiser insisted that he himself would be its first guest. Later the German Emperor would suggest to those wishing to stay at his own palace, “Friends, why don’t you stay at the Adlon instead? It’s cold and draughty in the palace and there’s no warm water in the bathrooms, either.”
But it wasn’t just the hot running water that helped this hotel stand out from the rest. Sumptuous interior decorations and furnishing combined with the day’s most cutting-edge technologies – including telephones in all rooms, individually regulated heating, en-suite bathrooms, heated towel rails, electric lighting, an on-site laundry, letter chutes throughout the building, and a discreet lighting system to summon the bellboy – meaning none of that noisy bell-ringing.
Through its doors came the rich and the beautiful to marvel at the extravagance. The Kaiser’s uncle, King Edward VII, paid a visit, as did Tsar Nicholas II, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Thomas Mann. Marlene Dietrich was discovered here, while Charlie Chaplin, mobbed by the crowds who had turned out for the City Lights premiere, had to run for the lift with his trousers falling down because all his buttons had been torn off for souvenirs.
Charlie Chaplin had to run for the lift with his trousers falling down, because all his buttons had been torn off for souvenirs
Although the Adlon was one of very few structures to survive the Berlin bombings at the end of World War II, excited Soviet soldiers raided the wine cellars and within a matter of minutes the entire hotel was ablaze. All that was left was a solitary side wing – in ruins. This, however, was enough for the Adlon to continue in some capacity. Eventually it became state property, suffered a stint as an apprentices’ hostel in the 1970s, and was finally demolished in 1984.
However, following cries for its revival after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, today it has regained its status at 1 Unter den Linden, that stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, bigger, taller and more splendid than ever before. Ten years ago, German President Roman Herzog gave the hotel, now a Kempinski, its second unveiling by a German head of state.
The hotel retains the state-of-the-art technology and opulence for which it was always famous. The lighting in my room was adjusted by a control panel in the bedside drawers, where I could also set a traffic-light do-not-disturb system – a throwback to the lighting system once used to call the bellboy. My en-suite offered a choice of basins, a bath and shower, and once in the shower a choice between two different showerheads, no less. Oh, and should standing in the shower be too much of a chore, there’s a stone slab seat to rest on. A television, with seemingly all the world’s channels, is hidden at the end of the bed, and wireless internet access is also available, though sadly this will cost you extra. A separate lift, mean while, will take you directly to the hotel’s spa, complete with pool, sauna, steam room, plunge pool, jacuzzi and all manner of treatments.
In the centre of the lobby, Berliners and non-Berliners eat fine pastries and share the latest news around an ornate fountain, decorated with stone elephants and frogs. The hotel’s restaurants, one of which holds a Michelin star, are one floor above, overlooking the famous gateway.
So it’s no surprise that the Hotel Adlon Kempinski continues to attract the rich and the beautiful through its doors. Queen Elizabeth II, like her great-grandfather before her, came to stay, as did Prince Albert of Monaco, Liza Minnelli, Pele, Christopher Lee, and perhaps the most famous entertainer of our time, Michael Jackson, who instead of nearly dropping his trousers, nearly let go of his baby from a hotel balcony. While the city around it has gone through the biggest of changes, the Adlon remains a sanctuary of calm, fit for a king.