When I was a child, Berlin and Tokyo were the center of all evil, since I was a child of World War II. (As an adult Inow know more about the subtleties of life.)
I suppose that is why, when we signed up for a recent trip, it was a bit difficult to admit, even to myself, that I was going to visit the German capital.
However, my natural curiosity got the better of me. I was anxious to see the metamorphosis of this formerly stark, divided city. The travel magazines had lately been full of the changes in Berlin in the decade since the Wall came down.
Berlin does not disappoint. I found it vital, and on the move. It is, as they say, a “happening place.” There is a lot more work to be done, but it appears that Berlin will continue to be a vibrant important city.
We stayed in (formerly) East Berlin, at the Westin Grand Hotel at the confluence of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden. The area is called Mitte, meaning, they say, that it is in the middle of the city. After four days, I concluded that it was a great location. (When I go back I might stay several days here and several days in West Berlin’s Ku’damm area, there is so much to see.)
We were in the best part of the former East Berlin: between the Brandenburg Gate and the Gendarmenmarkt, in a Hotel built by the Japanese and enjoyed by the communists in their last days.
Now, however, this same area is studded with the brand names of capitalism: Hermes, Galeries Lafayette, the Gap, the Guggenheim, and the Four Seasons Hotel, to name only a few.
Out for a short stroll on our first evening, we found ourselves near the Reichstag. It was about 6 P.M., and we had heard that the crowds (lined up to see the new roof)thinned out at the end of the day. We decided to race right over, before dinner, to get a first hand look at the much-touted glass canopy covering the building. Designed by the renowned English architect, Sir Norman Foster, it is a huge glass dome (called a kuppel, which I think must be the German for cupola) covering the center of the Reichstag. Inside this dome are two circular ramps by which one can walk to the top of the cupola. As you can imagine, the views of Berlin from this vantage point are staggering, especially as the evening lights begin to come on all over the city. Also up top is a very smart looking restaurant, which I would recommend for the views alone, but I hear the food is very good. One MUST book way ahead, I gather.
Since architecture is so very popular these days, this glass dome has been touted in all the travel magazines from the moment it was installed, and the lines to get in are long. We waited 20 minutes, using the time to discuss whether the new rage for architecture is obscuring what buildings actually contain. We were not disappointed, except for the fact that we didn’t have enough time to fully experience the phenomenon, due to hunger pangs and a dinner date. The center of the cupola, and what seems to hold it up, is a sort of reverse pyramid of mirrored planes. I was told that the sun shines on the desk of each parliamentarian at least once a day from these mirrors. I was also told that the mirrors are meant to shed light on parliamentary deliberations. Either way, it’s a good thought.
There is a plethora of new architecture in Berlin, not all of which is universally applauded. Nevertheless, the Potsdamer Platz is well worth investigation. It is the modern showplace, and if nothing else, the strange buildings are vastly entertaining. (Some critic called it a life-size computer simulation impersonal, soulless.)
We enjoyed classical music concerts three out of the four evenings we were in Berlin, but during the day we were free to explore this restored city, and newly re-designated as the capital of Germany. It seems to me I spent all those days at museums, but we never did get to see all of them, or even some of the greats.
There is a whole island of museums, not far from the hotel where we stayed. Here one can see the great Pergamon Museum, with its marvelous Hellenistic altar. Several other museums here hold various German collections, and are definitely on our list for another trip.
I concentrated on a couple of out of the way museums, not quite so well known, but well worth the journey. The first was the Museum for the Present, housed in the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former train station, which had previously been used as a museum of Transportation. The current use is ever so much better. Although this space is not on a par with the elegant Musee d’Orsay in Paris (another former train station) it holds a wonderful collection of AnselmKiefer, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg, Dan Flavin, Cy Twombly, etc. There is a lot of space and light here, and the journey is fun. We took a taxi to a part of town where we might not otherwise go, unless we got sick. There is a huge hospital complex not far from the museum, so we got a look at Berlin hospital architecture, which like most of ours, is not great.
After our visit, we hot-footed down to the K de W, which is the shortcut way of saying the name of the Harrod’s of Berlin, a huge department store, the food halls of which put Harrod’s to shame. I really mean it. I could have stayed all day just checking out various kinds of food from all over the world. In fact I went back the next day, and had lunch again. There are more than 20 different little cafes offering different kinds of ethnic food. One day we had crepes, the next I had sushi. I know, not very German, but who likes sausages and potatoes for lunch?
I’ve run out of space, but there is so much to tell about Berlin, that I must ask you to stay tuned for a sequel.
Betsy Shequine just realized that Berlin is a huge city sowhy shouldn’t it take at least two columns to describe its attractions?