While you’re thinking a trip to Europe might be out of the question until “portfolio” has ceased to be a dirty word, a more purse-friendly option in 2009 might be Berlin. The average hotel rate in this city is 93 euros a night, compared to 136 in London, 127 in Paris; a main course in a good restaurant will cost between 9-15 euros, and many five star hotels offer special deals. This year, the city will be marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, with commemorative concerts, street fairs and exhibitions, so even if you’ve been before, between May and November is the perfect time to join the celebrations and check out the city’s dramatic progress.
The Wall served as both the symbolic and actual division of the city divided by two governments and two ideologies. A year later, the city was reunified and in the years since, transformed. The Eastern district is striking in its reincarnation. The blocks of monotonous Soviet-built apartment complexes have given way to streets filled with a new vivacity.
The Prenzlauer neighborhood, for example, has not so much changed as erupted. Its streets are lined with fashionable boutiques upscale apartments and many, many cafes, like the Gugelhof. This was the restaurant chosen for Bill Clinton when he came to break bread with Gerhardt Schroeder in 2000, and not just for its menu; this is the Eastern section’s most youth-packed, well-to-do part of town. Everywhere there are bicycles, baby carriages, tourists. Of course, walking through this good-time neighborhood is also a walk through somber history.
This is where, during the Soviet era, German residents were denied personal freedoms, could not travel to the west, were forced into military service and faced daily challenges like finding simple, needed products in local stores. Bartering got one a new bathroom sink, let’s say, and a shipment of an imported food like the exotic banana meant long lines at the grocer’s and/or paying someone off.
Today, interspersed between the decorative, refurbished buildings are the neglected and crumbling old houses still waiting for monies due from the JCC. This is the Jewish Claims Conference, and the buildings’ owners are due these World War II reparations, finally to be resolved in 2012. Although fifty percent of all structures were destroyed or damaged during heavy bombing raids, a good deal of Berlin’s old architecture survives.
While many people know about the tourist magnet Checkpoint Charlie and section of rebuilt Wall, it’s the 2006 interactive DDR Museum that graphically reveals how life under Soviet rule trudged along. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) had 39 newspapers, two television and four radio stations and everything broadcast was censor-approved by the Socialist Party (SED.) In the museum you can listen to the music, touch clothes that were worn here, see a propaganda video clip created by the then government housing authority. The SED’s own newspaper was required reading; sixty percent of all music had to be performed or composed in East Germany or published by GDR music publishers. While production workers were in demand and factory jobs plentiful, the products made could ultimately not compete in world markets.
Also in the East, the old Gendarmenmarkt with its two Cathedrals, Concert Hall, and Schiller’s statue, looks fresh and polished. There’s a glossy new railroad station, too. The two-seater Velotaxis, a lighthearted way of seeing the city, are the latest way to scoot around town, although the S and U-Bahns (rapid above and below ground trains) are clean and reliable.
West Berlin, too, has had its renewal. A weekend flea market chronicles the then-and-now at the Tiergarten. Here are the crowds and the bargains: the stickpins, “authentic” uniforms, cutlery, binoculars, rugs, you-name-it, some of it left over from the not-so-good-old days.
The dazzling Daimler Chrysler Center, part of the Potsdamer Platz sixteen acre complex designed by Renzo Piano and Christoph Kohlbecker and assisted by five international teams of architects, includes a concert hall, shopping, office buildings, an atrium, futuristic as a sci-fi movie. The American Embassy is Berlin’s newest building, built on the site where the old Embassy had been demolished to make room for the Wall, in 1961. Berlin “confronts the past while forging ahead in the future,” is a telling line found in a tourist guide.
Confronting the past is, for example, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, created by an American architect, Peter Eisenmann. Two thousand seven hundred eleven concrete coffin-like rectangles cover five acres. According to the architect, the number was inspired by the number of the pages of the Talmud, but at the time the memorial was unveiled, there was controversy. Some thought it too abstract; others were outraged by the treatment used to prevent graffiti from adhering to the stone. Ironically, the factory that provided the protective chemicals also produced the gas pellets that were used in concentration camp gas chambers.
Less controversial is the well-known Libeskind Jewish Museum, with its shiny ultra modern exterior and angular window slits. It is said to resemble a deconstructed star of David, and juxtaposed with the Baroque building next to it, symbolizes the vast difference between Hitler’s regime and the Jewish population.
A visit to new Berlin should include the Reichstag, with its glamorous glass dome. This is Berlin’s favorite tourist attraction, probably
because of the spectacular 360 degree views of the city from its roof. In summer there are lines of visitors waiting to get in, but a reservation at the Käfer, a restaurant at its top, guarantees a quick entry. Dusk is when it’s at its best, when the city lights begin to glimmer and the city below, new and old, looks like a picture postcard you’d want to send home.
Marlene Fanta Shyer writes for adults and children – and sometimes about Larchmont, where she lived for many years.