Monday, January 25, 2016

Back to the Future in Berlin

According to Claudia Schiffer, “Berlin is like being abroad in Germany.” I agree with Claudia. Berlin is idiosyncratic and the best place I know to try to understand German history and culture, both of which cast an enormous shadow over this remarkable city. On every street, at every corner is an Imperial story or a Nazi story or a War story or Divided City story. The list goes on. And if you are younger than I am and interested in the new stuff, there are gay, alternative, techno and graffiti stories – all to be had for a price point considerably less than New York or London. Berlin is old and new, dynamic and depressed, hip and historic – all at the same time.

I was there recently thanks to an optimistic football/soccer supporter and a team that let him down. Convinced that Chelsea Football Club would win the Champions League, the Editor took a large apartment so that our large family could attend. No Champions League final for Chelsea. Instead we invited friends one of whom was a former resident of the great city, to join us for 4 intensive days of tourism. Caveat emptor – if you are looking for a post on the gay/alternative/techno/graffiti scene, you need another blog. We’re too old for that.

Anyway, we had a blast - the monuments, the museums, the restaurants and the coffee houses, all tied together by an efficient and user-friendly public transport system. But, it’s a big city and you have to be strategic about how you tackle it.

A great way to start is to join some kind of city tour that gives you an overview. We splurged with a guide and private car, the advantage being that we were able to pack a ton into half a day: the Victory Column, and Bismark monument, the Bundestag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the site of Hitler’s bunker, Check Point Charlie, sections of the Wall – some decorated - and the Charlottenberg Palace. Our guide, a Brit with a penchant for WWII and strong views on everything, was great. We saw a lot, learned a lot, and the scene was set for the rest of our visit.

Also a good idea is purchasing a Berlin WelcomeCard that includes travel on the public transport system and discounts or free entry to over 200 tourist attractions.

Cultural Highlights

The magic No Crowds moment presented itself on Sunday when we were at the Neues Museum sharp at the opening and had Nefertiti and the entire Egyptian and Trojan collections entirely to ourselves. It’s analogous to having a private moment with the Mona Lisa. Granted it was January. Actually you should go to Berlin in January if you want to avoid crowds. There weren’t any. Yes it was cold but hey, it's winter.

The Pergamonmuseum was also fairly empty, probably because the show-stopping Temple of Miletus was closed for renovation to reopen in 2020 but there is still plenty to see including the Market Gate of Liletus, the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way from Babylon.

The much smaller Kaethe-Kollwitz Museum on the Fasanenstrasse is a great No Crowds experience too, hard work but worth it. Kollwitz was an artist who devoted her career to the eradication of poverty, social injustice and the horrors of war and her work is powerful and moving.

The Neue Synagogue on the Oranienburger Strasse, is well worth a visit with an excellent exhibit on the lives of Berlin’s Jews in the Centrum Judaicom.

It’s also worth the effort to visit the Bundestag. You need to register in advance online and have your application accepted. If you can afford it, a great way to get in to the building is to eat at the Kaefer restaurant at the top of the Dome and they handle the security registration for you. The city views from the restaurant are spectacular and the photos and explanation of the building’s history in the Dome are instructive. Lunch was very good as was the experience. And when we came out there was a massive demonstration against the WTO agreement on agriculture (TIPP) with some very colorful and inventive protestors.

Sadly, the Charlottenberg Palace was also being renovated but the Neuer Fluegel & Neuer Pavilion are open and fun to see, especially if you like over-the-top interiors.

Restaurants and Coffee Houses

Because we were travelling with an insider, we ended up eating and drinking at some wonderful places. Highlights included:

The wine bar attached to Lutter & Wegner in the Gendarmenmarkt, serving Austro-German cuisine with a great wine cellar. Atmospheric.

Zur Letzen Instanz (Waisenstrasse 14-16) in the Nikolaiviertel. The oldest restaurant in Berlin with traditional German food featuring  “Man versus Food” portions. Fun.

Restaurant Heising (Rankestrasse 32), an old fashioned, French mother/daughter run establishment where you feel as if you are dining in someone’s elegant home. An experience.

The Orangerie attached to the Charlottenberg Palace for lunch. Convenient, good atmosphere and food.

And two coffee houses stand out for their old world/Central Europe authenticity and appeal – the Café Einstein (42 Unter den Linden) and Café Wintergarden in Literaturhaus Berlin (Fasanenstraaae 23) which is suppose to be excellent for breakfast.