An American tourist named Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, visited Berlin in the late 19th century and called it "the German Chicago." "It is a new city," he wrote, "the newest I have ever seen. Chicago would seem venerable beside it."
Through the miracle of channeling and the World Wide Web, Gemütlichkeit was recently able contact Mr. C and give him a brief Berlin update:
First off, Mr. Clemens, when's the last time you strolled Unter den Linden? Really? As long as that, eh? Well, since then, you see, they've had kind of a construction boom over there. More than one in fact.
You must have missed it, but after 1945 there was quite a mess. It took about 20 years to clean it up and even then they weren't able to finish the job... What's that? Well, it was a big mess. Anyway, as I was saying, they only got around to rebuilding part of Berlin because one neighborhood was kind of on the shorts and didn't have enough cash to by new lumber and stuff and so they pretty much had to leave things as they were, bullets holes and all. But a few years ago the first neighborhood and some of their rich overseas pals loaned their neighbors some bread - actually a lot of bread - and these days the town is pretty much the place to be if you own a construction crane or can pound a nail straight.
What happened over the last 120 years to warrant all this activity? Well, Mr. Clemens, that's a really long story but you should jump on some of these low airfares and go back. You'd probably still say Berlin looks newer than Chicago.
You Are Leaving the American Sector
Mark Twain preceded us to Berlin by a little over 100 years. At the time, I didn't know he liked it but it instantly became one of our favorite cities. An avid reader of John Le Carré and Len Deighton, my imagination took wing. I saw spies and international intrigue everywhere. A visit to the city, surrounded on all sides by the "evil empire," was a bit of living on the edge, in some ways like an amusement park ride - sort of exciting but deep down you know you're as safe as if you were home in bed, except that every now and then...
We've been back a couple of times since the wall came down and maybe this is heresy but I prefer Berlin the way it was then. At the site of the former Checkpoint Charlie stands a scaled-down replica of the Statue of Liberty. Very nice but not what I came to see. The somewhat amateurish but riveting Checkpoint Charlie Museum hangs on by its fingernails but doesn't seem to capture the fancy of the powers that be. Privately owned, its survival is not assured. Others must feel as I do, because Berlin's tourism fell 18% last year.
Don't misunderstand, I'm all for unification and delighted we are now able to easily visit such treasure cities as Weimar and Dresden, but I miss the little thrill of adventure when crossing into the mysterious, decaying East. I also miss that feeling of relief upon returning to the West and the familiar sight of big fast cars, lively crowds and vibrant commercialism. Sure, I know it was an ersatz, utterly safe and somewhat manufactured thrill but that's the kind I like. No skydiving or Nepal mountain climbing expeditions for this lad.
Despite the fact that it's tamer these days, Berlin remains a fascinating town, even for a Walter Mitty-type like me. And it's going to get even more interesting. Currently there are about 2,000 construction sites in the city. In fact, Berlin's center is gradually relocating from the Kurfürstendamm/Europa Center area to the prewar city center on the Eastern side. Springing up are Hiltons, Hyatts and Marriotts and, in the bad news category, a Planet Hollywood, no doubt complete with deafening music, greasy burgers and life-size photos of Sylvester Stallone. (A more likely hangout for Gemütlichkeit readers is one of our favorite restaurants anywhere, Fofi's Estiatorio, a Greek restaurant that's moved from the old Ku'damm center to the East.)
Soon to be started is the conversion of the old German Democratic Republic airport at Schönfeld into the new Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport.
Many of these construction sites, such as the resurrection of the famous Adlon Hotel on Pariser Platz and the mammoth Potsdamer Platz project, welcome visitors.
In 1981, standing on a little platform on the west side of the wall, I got my first look at the famous Potsdamer Platz. There were no buildings, no streets, nothing; just desolate, weed-grown vacant land, part of the "death strip" between East and West Berlin. Yet, for nearly half of this century it was Europe's busiest crossroads, roaring with streetcars, automobiles and crowds of pedestrians. Now it is reputed to be the world's largest construction site, attracting 10,000 visitors daily. Potsdamer Platz will be a city-within-a city and the corporate homes of Daimler Benz and Sony.
Headquarters for visitors to the site is the three-story Info Box, where computer graphics help tell the story of this complex project. There are models of the planned buildings plus displays that explain how the huge amounts of soil moved from the site are disposed of and what kind of power, water and communications lines are being laid underground. There is also a sort of virtual reality in which the visitor can enter buildings and conveyances which do not yet exist, such as the high-tech casino or the magnetic levitation train.
Some remarkable things are being done. Early this year, the ballroom of the bombed-out Hotel Esplanade, all that remained of the turn-of-the-century hotel, was moved 75 yards along a specially built track to make room for a road.
Amazingly, Potsdamer Platz is said to be the world's largest underwater construction site. Divers work at the bottom of a pit, under the water table, to lay the foundation for the Daimler Benz building.
The Info Box, tel. 49 30/215-9868, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tours conducted by art:berlin, tel. 49 30/215-9868, fax 49 30 215-3089, are $10.
The great prewar Berlin business and entertainment street was Friedrichstrasse. It bisects Unter den Linden about five blocks east of the Brandenburg Gate.
Here cavorted the likes of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Sol Hurok, Bertolt Brecht, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Werner von Braun, Vladimir Horowitz, Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler.
After the war, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) wanted to widen Friedrichstrasse and build great hotels and shops, but of course there was no money and the plan died along with the street.
Now a glorious rebirth is underway which will return the street to its twenties prominence. Some of it has already happened:
Recently completed is the Friedrichstadtpassage in which the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette has opened.
Also dotted along its length are: at 158-164, the Maritim Grand Hotel; at the corner of Unter den Linden are exclusive restaurants including a branch of the famous Café Bauer and shops in the DM 500 million ($333,000) Lindencorso; two blocks south are the Hofgarten on Gendarmenmarkt and the new Four Seasons Hotel; then come the previously mentioned Galeries Lafayette; the dazzling mosaics of Quartier 206 and, near the old Checkpoint Charlie, the American Business Center.
Only a few prewar buildings remain, the most important are located between Behrenstrasse and Franzsische Strasse.
A memorial is planned for the Checkpoint Charlie site, but the old wooden building is gone. RHB
Getting Around Berlin
The Berlin Potsdam WelcomeCard for €29 DM ($19.33) entitles the holder (plus up to three children) to 48 hours free bus and train travel throughout the city. With it come vouchers for free admissions or 50% discounts on sight-seeing tours, museums and recreational facilities in Berlin and Potsdam. There is also a 24-hour WelcomeCard.
The topography of Berlin is mainly flat but the area is so spread out that it is practical to tour only the central neighborhoods on foot. For the rest of it there is a good network of bike paths. Only experienced, urban cyclists should attempt the main roads. The local cycling association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrradclub), Brunnenstr. 28, D-10119 Berlin, tel. 448-4724, fax 448-4729) offers a map which color codes streets as to safety for cyclists. The club also offers excursions through the city.
BVG (Berlin's public transport system) allows bikes on the U- and S Bahn, on ferries and in some cases even on the trams (space permitting) for the price of an additional ticket (DM 3.90). Bikes can be rented throughout the city and cost 15-30 DM ($10-$20) per day. Reserve in advance and inquire about special weekend or long-term rates.
• Quo Radis, Tegeler Weg 105, D-10589 Berlin (Chartottenburg), tel. 34436 I5
• Zweirad-Bardt im Zentrum GmbH, Kantstr. 88-91, D-10623 Berlin (Charlottenburg), tel. 323 8129.
• Berlin by Bike, Mockernstr. 92, D-10963 Berlin (Kreuzberg), tel. 216 91 77
• Mietzner Fahrrad GmbH, Hagelbergerstr. 53, D-10965 Berlin (Kreuzberg), tel. 785 94 88
• Motor- und Radsport, Gross-Ziehtener Str. 2, D-12309 Berlin (Lichtenrade), tel. 745 80 98
• Fa. Kohnke Albrechtstr. 18, D-10117 Berlin (Mitte), tel. 281 66 87
• Ostrad GmbH, Greifswalder Str. 9, D-10405 Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg), tel. 425 96 95
• Fahrradvermietung Berlin am Europa Center, Europa-Center, D-10789 Berlin (Charlottenburg), tel. 26120 94.
• City-Rad Potsdam, Am Bahnhof Potsdam Stadt, D-14473 Potsdam, tel. 0331/6190
Places to Stay
Among the salutary effects of the Berlin construction boom has been a number of new hotels. The supply of hotel rooms is now better able to meet demand and, while rack rates remain high, some hotels will deal. When inquiring about rooms, be sure to ask about corporate, weekend, senior citizen and other special rates.
Artfully remodeled, turn-of-the-century apartment building with works of art and halogen lighting. Conveniently located in the heart of the western section of Berlin, not far from the Kurfürstendamm. Very elegant.
• Brandenburger Hof Hotel GmbH, Eislebener Strasse 14, D-10789 Berlin, tel. 030/214050, fax 030/21405100, singles 250 to 395 DM ($167-$263), doubles 290 to 445 DM ($193-$297)
Radisson Plaza Hotel Berlin
Built in 1979 for officials and guests of the former East German government, this huge, 600-room hotel was brightened and extensively remodeled in 1992. Located in the center of activity in the East, just off Unter den Linden. Check on special weekend rates currently as low as $130 per night for a double room with breakfast. Travelers 65 or over may qualify for even better discounts. Phone 800-333-3333 to book. Not a lot of charm but this is a five-star hotel with all the services, in a central location, for a super price. The rack rates listed below are another matter.
• Radisson Plaza Hotel Berlin Karl-Liebknecht Strasse 5, D-10178 Berlin, tel. 030/23828, fax 030/23827590, U.S. booking 800-333-3333. Singles 290/440 DM ($193-$293), doubles 340/490 DM ($227-$327).
The best small hotel value we've found in the western part of Berlin is the Domus, an eight-minute walk south on Uhlandstrasse from the Ku'damm. Its 73 spacious, spotlessly maintained, guestrooms are rented only to independent travelers not groups. Some are designated "no smoking" and there is free parking. Ask for a corner room.
• Hotel Domus, Uhlandstrasse 49, D-10719 Berlin (Berlin-Wilmersdorf), tel. 030/882041, fax 030/8820410. Singles 159 ($106), doubles 209 to 235 DM ($139-$157).
At the west end of the Ku'damm, is the Kronprinz, a small, turn-of-the-century town house priced below the more centrally located hotels. The hotel's Biergarten, under half a dozen chestnut trees, is a lovely spot on a warm evening and, in winter, one of the tall chestnuts is set ablaze with thousands of lights.
Hotel Kronprinz Berlin Kronprinzendamm 1, D-10711 Berlin, (Berlin-Wilmersdorf), tel. 030/896030, fax 030/8931215, singles 145 to 185 DM ($97-$123), doubles 185 to 240 DM ($123-$160).
Novotel Berlin Airport
Travelers arriving on late flights or departing in the early morning may want to spend a night close to the airport. The most convenient hotel for Berlin-Tegel airport is the Novotel Berlin Airport. There is a shuttle bus to the airport.
• Novotel Berlin Airport Kurt-Schumacher-Damm 202, D-13405 Berlin, tel. 030/41060, fax 030/4106700, singles 187 DM ($125), doubles 219 DM ($146).
Places to Eat
Berlin: Das Magazine recommends places to eat and drink in the emerging sections of town:
Galeries Lafayette Center, Friedrichstrasse/ Franzsische Strasse. Food stalls on the ground floor feature cuisine from the Mediterranean coasts.
Café Adler Kreuzberg, Friedrichstrasse 206, tel. 25189 65. In an historic pharmacy at the former Checkpoint Charlie. No doubt many spies hung out here. During the Cold War it was the only restaurant with a view of the border fortifications.
Café Bauer im Grand Hotel, Center, Friedrichstrasse 158-164, tel. 20 27 32 03. The atmosphere is Berlin in the twenties.
Café Lebensart, Center, Unter den Linden 69-73, tel. 229 0018. Near the Brandenburg Gate.
Café Einstein Center, Unter den Linden 42, tel. 204 36 32. A new branch of a famous café.
Borchardt Center, Französische Strasse 47, tel. 238 54 50. A beautifully restored bistro dating from the 1870s.
Sale e Tabacchi Kreuzberg, Kochstrasse 18, tel. 252 1 I 55. Refined cuisine.
Fofi's Estiatorio, Center, Rathausstrasse 25, tel. 242 34 35. Longtime Gemütlichkeit favorite has relocated to the new center.
Porta Brandenburgo, Center, Wilhelmstrasse 87188, tel. 229 95 87. Italian.
Skales, Center, Rosenthaler Strasse 12, tel. 283 30 06. Greek. Chic.
Oren, Center, Oranienburger Strasse 28, tel. 282 82 28. Middle eastern.
Recommended Berlin Reading
1. Vassiltchikov, Marie. Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
2. Clare, George. Before the Wall, Berlin Days, 1946-1948. Dutton, 1990.
3. Shirer, William L. Berlin Diary, The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941. The American Past, Book-of-the-Month-Club, Inc., 1987.
4. Friedrich, Otto. Before the Deluge, A Portrait of Berlin in 1920s. Harper & Row, 1972.