Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Seeing Berlin top to bottom: Excitement of the new, allure of the old

The only reason I went to Berlin was to see certain works of art in its museums, but that isn't the only reason I want to go back.

The museums - I had six of the city's 180 on my must-see list for the five days I would be there. The three I saw - Neues and Pergamon on Museum Island - and the Mauermuseum at Checkpoint Charlie - were everything I had anticipated and more. The friezes from the Altar of Zeus taken from Pergamon and the Ishtar Gate were as spectacular as I had imagined. The bust of Nefertiti was every bit as mesmerizing as promised and the stories, documents and artifacts of East Berliners' struggle for freedom had me in tears.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the city's beauty, spirit and the exhilaration of what the world's young people are doing and creating amid the streets and alleys, war-damaged and renovated buildings of East Berlin.

Seeing even a small bit of it all made for a memorable whirlwind that began early in the morning and lasted well into the wee smalls of the next.

Colleague Carol Timblin and I traveled by train from Leipzig to Berlin and were met at that amazing, seven-level train station by her friend, journalist Stefan Elfenbein. He immediately whisked us off to the Reichstag Building where the Bundestag meets to see the crystal dome, a symbol of the city's reunification. It wasn't on any of my lists but charming Stefan was impossible to defy so I went and was gobsmacked by the line of people waiting to get in. It seemed to stretch for a quarter-mile into the Tiergarten.

"We don't do that," said Stefan, "we have reservations at the restaurant."

Tip: A reservation at the roof terrace restaurant gets you to the front of the line immediately. After coffee, breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can catch the elevator to the striking dome which is well worth a visit. You can pick up a free "Outlooks" pamphlet that I.D.s significant parts of the panorama you are viewing; a great way to get your bearings. There is a ramp rather than steps up to the top of the cupola and it slopes gently enough for Levelers to make the ascent.

That was our introduction to Berlin, from above. Later and below, Stefan showed us the line where the wall had been, pointed us in several appropriate directions and said he would meet us that night at our hotel for another tour.

The day was bright and sunny so rather than see anything from the inside, we chose to see more of the city from the outside, by boat. Had no idea Berlin was a city of canals. According to the narration during out cruise along the Spee River, with 650 bridges, Berlin has more than Venice, Amsterdam and Stockholm combined. Try that as a bar bet sometimes.

Tip: Levelers, there are 19 steps down to the Reederei Winkler boats behind the Friederichstrasse train station and seven steps to the top deck. No big challenge.

See, as we did, the artsy Orianienburger, part of the former East Berlin, at night, preferably midnight or later. The area is known for alleyways that open into courtyards often surrounded by interesting galleries and shops. "Always go into the back yard," Stefan advised, "it's where things happen."

At Tacheles it surely is. Once one of the largest department stores in Berlin, it was bombed in the middle during then war and scheduled for dynamiting by the Russians afterward. Instead, young artists moved in, set up ateliers and refused to move.

Now they have a lease, can live there as long as it is open to the public and have created a popular gathering place with bars, galleries, an open, dirt-floored courtyard where bonfires provide light and warmth and sculptors have cobbled work and living spaces. Didn't see any inspiring work but by living, eating and working together the young artists have achieved more of the socialist ideal than communism could ever impose.

Nearby, German cuisine, swing music and dancers filled Clarchens Ballhaus in an irresistible melange of good food, drink and endless energy. Next door and upstairs in the Mirror Salon, ballroom dancers circled a once grand ballroom in more formalized movements.

Funky shops and intriguing galleries tempted us to return in daylight if only there had been time.

In another yard we went upstairs and listened to electronic music from The Dead Chickens whose version of a Muppet Show song must make Jim Henson most uncomfortable in his grave.

The next day, a fitfully rainy one, we headed for museums, any one of which deserved several visits

Tip: In the Pergamon Museum there is a lift next to the coat racks but you will have to decide for yourself if you are up for climbing up and down the 27 very steep steps (no handrails) to the frieze of Telephos in the recreated temple. There are lifts to all the floors in the Neues.

Another element in East Berlin worth exploring - restaurants and cafes where you never know who is in the kitchen and the food comes with no prices, literally. Chefs from all over volunteer their services to be able to cook what they want and customers select from the night's limited menu, help themselves to a plethora of wine and at the end, pay what they think it was worth. Amazingly, many have been around for more than seven years.

Our last views of Berlin came via the hop on, hop off tour bus on a day when winter and its rain had taken over. At least we rode by what most tourists visit. Next time I'll do it on a clear day or two.

Other than the Brandenburg Gate, I missed many of the major tourist attractions Berlin offers but thanks to Stefan, I had a much more interesting insight into the city that is to come. It's one I want to revisit often.



Post a Comment