WILLKOMMEN, BIENVENUE, WELCOME
by Barbara Barton Sloane
Berlin has had a more wrenching history than most cities on earth. No European city in recent times has changed as much, in the process transforming itself from a divided geopolitical anomaly into a modern mainstream capital and undergoing a major overhaul at every level. Old landmarks have been renovated, new ones acquired and others wiped out altogether, including what was once the most famous Berlin landmark of them all, the Wall. It was a divided city during the Cold War when Soviet and American tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie and, finally, the biggest historical moment of all – in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Out of such chaos has grown a city that’s adaptable in the extreme. Its waves of immigrants, expats and creatives ensure that tolerance is its greatest value.
“Is there anything left of the Wall?,” the first question many visitors ask. The answer is not much. A short section has been preserved and is in pristine condition. However, there is a stretch of the Wall called the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving section and the world’s largest open-air gallery, showing the work of 118 artists from 21 countries. I stood gazing up at the artwork, some touching and evocative, some irreverent and some very much of the moment. No trip to Berlin would be complete without coming and paying homage to this most iconic site.
I flew to Germany on Air Berlin, the country’s second largest airline. Preparing myself to arrive and immediately need a long, restful snooze, I was glad to find that this wasn’t the case and I hit the ground running. Why? With one of the newest fleets of any airline, my flight was superior in all ways. From the moment I boarded, I felt I was in good hands and would be well cared for. (I was). The food was inventive and quite good, the seats cozy, and the thick, plush comforter that I snuggled under was icing on the cake. No jet lag for me.
I checked into the A&O Mitte Hotel, budget-priced but with all the amenities necessary for a comfortable stay. The lobby was pretty and modern and my room had everything I needed, a reading light above the bed, fresh white bed linens, an ample desk, windows that opened wide to cool breezes, an internet café and it included a TV! Annette Kuhner at the A&O Mitte was most helpful and efficient and made my stay particularly pleasant. Livening up the place: Robert, the handsome on-site Karaoke-man. He showed patience and forbearance as I struggled (and embarrassed myself) belting out “Rocky Mountain High.” (Note to self: don’t try that again!). My breakfast the next morning offered delectable rolls, a selection of cold cuts, cheese, juice and good, strong coffee. Oh, and berliners! (That’s the German word for Danish pastry). Shall we now, finally, put to rest memories of the gaffe President Kennedy made when he visited this city and proclaimed “Ich Bin Ein Berliner?” Oh well, the crowd loved him anyway - loved him so much, in fact, that they’ve built, in his honor, the fascinating Kennedy Museum, a collection containing an impressive mix of personal items, historical documents and private and political photos which provide an insight into the continuing fascination of this family.
Much To Do About…Everything!
I only had three days in Berlin but I tried to see as many of the not-to-be-missed sights as I could. The Brandenburg Gate is Berlin’s signature icon and once marked the turbulent division of East and West Berlin. It now stands at the head of a pedestrian plaza just blocks from the German Parliament. This Neo-Classical structure, located in former East Berlin, stood watch over a divided city until the Wall came down. The Gate is reached by walking down one of Berlin’s most famous streets, Unter den Linden, a grand boulevard lined with 18th century buildings restored after WWII.
From here various new landmarks catch the eye: the postmodern towers of Potsdamer Platz, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Norman Foster’s revamped Reichstag complete with a visitable glass cupola. A walk to the top is a must. What makes a visit to these landmarks vastly important is that they all lie along the line of the former Wall and, in one way or another, are intended to heal that wound of history and stitch the city back together. Other post-Wall additions to the landscape include the Judisches Museum in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood – housed in a remarkable building by Daniel Libeskind, a whole slew of new embassies, and a huge new Berlin Haupbahnhof, Europe’s largest railway station.
Berlin has more art galleries than any other city in Europe and is a hot spot for rising artists. Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Europe’s largest connected museum area. There are five museums in this complex: The Old National Gallery with ancient Greek and Roman artifacts, The Bode Museum containing a vast collection of sculptures, The Neues Museum with Egyptian works of art including the renowned sculpture of one of the most famous women in the world: Nefertiti, The Altes Museum, built by this city’s greatest architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and The Pergamon Museum replete with Babylonian antiquities. Add to all of this culture the fact that Berlin’s nightlife is akin to a religious rite and dining here offers a sumptuous smorgasbord of choices, what you’ve got is a new, scintillating, international city that begs to be discovered.
If you go:
Hotels for the Budget Conscious
A&O Berlin Mitte A&O Berlin Friedrichshain
127-129 Kopenicker Str. 73 Boxhagenere Str.
Luxury Hotels, Berlin
The Brandenburger Hof The Westin Grand
The Grand Hyatt The Ritz Carlton
Fischers Fritz Vox
The Kennedy Museum Berlin Tourism
Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography