I Love Berlin

Other than the first one, I don't think I've ever been more excited about an issue of Gemütlichkeit. Our four days in Berlin last winter constitute the most interesting and fun travel experience we've had in years.

As someone fortunate enough to have seen Berlin on a fairly regular basis since 1979, I have one word for the changes taking place there: thrilling.

No doubt many readers recall the Iron Curtain days when driving from West Germany to West Berlin through East Germany was 90% boring pain in the rear and 10% butterflies in the stomach. There was that 45 minutes to an hour delay getting through the border, the terrible roads, leaving the Autobahn was forbidden, and one had to dawdle along at 100 kilometers per hour (62.5 mph).

Most of the butterflies were reserved for the crossings. The border guards played their stare-down games and always spoke very quickly only in German (not that I would have understood much better if they had spoken slowly), and I never quite knew how to respond.

So, there was a great feeling of satisfaction when, in the spring of 1990 on our first trip to Berlin after the Wall came down, we were able to blast fearlessly through the newly-deserted border checkpoint at Helmstedt without even slowing down. Already weeds were sprouting between the cracks in the pavement and the ratty collection of buildings was as desolate as if abandoned 100 years before.

When you're seven years old, images get stuck in the memory for good. The pictures of Berlin I carried around until I actually saw the town as an adult were from newsreels, which I saw a lot of in 1944 and 45. For more than 30 years, Berlin to me was burnt-out husks of buildings, streets piled high with rubble, and lines of old women in shawls passing rocks to each other, bucket brigade style. How, I wondered, could such a place ever be put back together? I think I concluded that it couldn't.

Well, what those women started more than 50 years ago is just now being finished; by the best engineering, architectural and construction expertise the late 20th century can muster. It's quite a sight and you ought not to miss it.

What to See, How Long to Stay

Berlin is so big (nine times the area of Paris), and there is so much to take in, we can only hope to hit the high spots and point you in the right direction for more information.

Our story this month covers mainly things that particularly interested us. What we didn't have room for would fill a year's worth of newsletters. For the main sights we recommend Michelin's newly-published Green Guide for Berlin. With respect to what will be happening at the time of your visit, the Berlin Tourist Office (see opposite page) puts out an excellent quarterly magazine with a complete schedule of events plus stories in English on the city's tourist attractions. Berlin's Web Page is promising but we found many links to be dead-ends. Still, it's worth a look.

Rick Steves' Germany, Austria & Switzerland guidebook recommends two days for Berlin. (Of course Mr. Steves doesn't much like what's going on in the city, commenting that "Hitler's dreams of a grand postwar Berlin seem to be resurrected on the Berlin 2005 posters." He goes on to say he fears a "Blade Runner future" a reference to the 1982 science-fiction movie about a soulless, bleak, sprawling city in the year 2019.)

When it comes to traveling in Europe Mr. Steves knows his onions, but we disagree with his see-Berlin-in-two-days recommendation. If that's all the time you have, so be it, but three days should be the minimum and a week is much better.

A three-day visit might include a day of walking in the east through the Mitte to see the Gendarmenmarkt, Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, a revitalized Friedrichstrasse, Unter den Linden and some of the as yet unreconstructed neighborhoods.

You'll want to spend part of another day at the Infobox, visit the Pergamon and Dahlem Museums as well as the new Gemldegalerie. Take half a day to window shop along the Ku'damm, stopping for lunch on the sixth floor of the department store KaDeWe. Other musts are Charlottenburg Palace, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Memorial Church and the Tiergarten.

The foregoing will easily fill three days and we haven't even mentioned Berlin's great zoo; interesting neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Prenzlaur, Savignyplatz and Grunewald; boat tours on the city's network of rivers and lakes; Potsdam; the Olympic Stadium; dozens of museums; and the World War II memorials; Haus der Wannsee-Könferenz and Topographie des Terrors.

Editor's Choices

As you will see, we handed out an unprecedented number of "Editor's Choice" designations this month. Perhaps we were just in a great frame of mind, but I think each of the selections is justified. The Art Nouveau is one of the best big city hotel values we've seen in a long time, the Spree Athen and Ewige Lampe were great fun, the Domus remains a solid choice, the Gendarm is another extraordinary value, the elegant little Luisenhof could nearly double its rates if it was near the Ku'Damm, and the Schlosshotel (not to be confused with the Four Seasons on Gendarmenmarkt) is the epitome of luxury.

With the exception of the Domus and maybe Ewige Lampe, these businesses have all been established since unification.

Oops

Last month we erred in referring readers to the Eur Air Pass. We didn't do our homework. Since no cities in Switzerland or Austria are included in the network of destinations, the service is of very limited use to Gemütlichkeit subscribers.

June 1998