By Bob Bestor
Probably the most significant event of the 20th century was World War II. Its aftermath is still being played out in Berlin, right now the most "happening" city in Europe.
Travelers to Europe in 1998 and 99 have a rare and fleeting opportunity: to witness the epilogue to the final great battle of World War II in Europe.
That famous last battle, of course, was for Berlin, the German capital. With American forces reined in at the Elbe, a vengeful Russian Army encircled the city and then pulled the noose tight.
Between the damage done at the close of the war by the Russians, and the carnage left by earlier British and American bombing raids, much of the city was leveled. A seventh of all the buildings destroyed in Germany were in Berlin.
Afterward, the western part of the city was restored. The communist eastern sectors, however, were only partially rebuilt and not, for the most part, in a very pleasing style.
Now a unified Germany has reestablished Berlin as its capital and some 50 billion Deutsche Mark are being spent on a huge resurrection, most of it in the eastern part of the city.
Old buildings are being restored; the Reichstag has a futuristic new dome; ghost U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, whose tunnels were sealed when the Berlin Wall was erected, are being refurbished and put back on-line; rivers are being rerouted and the world's best architects and richest entrepreneurs are returning once-famous boulevards to former glory. Potsdamer Platz, before the war the busiest square in town, but reduced to a vacant lot under communist rule, is now the world's largest construction site.
All this makes Berlin a prime destination for the traveler with even a passing interest in 20th century history. And, except for the Wall—small sections of which have been preserved—a lot of that history is still there to see: the reminders of the war and postwar eras, plus the new construction.
In a few years, the only remaining evidence of what happened between 1932 and 1990 will be limited to a few sanitized memorials like the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church in the western part of the town, a few yards of Wall, and whatever memorabilia is to be found in places like the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
Today, though astonishing progress has been made, the reconstruction is far from finished; a fact that will be apparent when you walk through the long-neglected Mitte, formerly the heart of the city. Meander down side streets lined with crumbling gray apartment buildings still defaced by hundreds of bullet holes. Many are occupied and in some cases their residents live without such basics as hot water.
An unusual sight on Oranienburger Strasse is the Tacheles, a decayed former department store occupied by squatters while the building's ownership is being resolved after unification. "Government and businessmen destroy what belongs to the people" reads a banner hanging from fourth story windows. (There's a little bit of Berkeley in Berlin or vise versa. The city's politics have always been left of center; remember, this is a town which never voted for Hitler.)
An adjacent field, scattered with weird metal sculptures and rusted out buses and automobiles, has become a sort of "people's park," attracting not only Berlin's counterculture but its mainstream youth as well. A proper young woman employed by the tourist office told us she goes there often and will be sorry when it's gone.
(An interesting aside about the city's "alternative-culture:" In the past few years, graffiti has proliferated throughout Europe and Berlin seems to have more than its share. There are exceptions, however. One is the restored Gendarmenmarkt. The entire square and its authoritarian, establishment buildings—the Schauspielhaus (theater), the German cathedral and the French cathedral—remain unmarked. Why? No one knows for sure, but it seems that even among what must be an army of spray can-equipped vandals there is respect for the institutions represented there.)
Not far from the Tacheles, along Friedrichstrasse, are the stunning results of some of that 50 billion D-marks. While the food department of the Paris department store Galaries Lafayette, at Friedrichstrasse and Franzöisiche Strasse, doesn't measure up to KaDeWe's in the west, its glass atrium is worth a look.
One of the more appealing of the east's rebirths is the Hackesche Höfe, a linkage of residential buildings and their courtyards designed in 1906 by architect August Endell. Though they survived the war, these properties under communism were principally used for storage and parking. Now they have been beautifully returned to their intended use which was to combine residential space with restaurants, theaters, offices, shops and galleries. Located between Rosenthaler Strasse and Sophienstrasse, Hackesche Höfe's cafés and bars are popular eastern sector yuppie hangouts.
Despite the massive changes in the east and the move toward the Neue Mitte, for the time being most visitors will be more comfortable in the west, near the Kurfürstendamm. The big change in the east is yet to come; the capital remains in Bonn, moving to Berlin in stages over the next two to three years.
Some overanxious businesses that headed east too quickly paid with their lives. The chic restaurant Fofi's is an example. For many years a Ku'damm area fixture, the restaurant discovered that even though it was ready to relocate, its customers weren't. Fofi's moved to the Neue Mitte in 1995 but failed last year.
This is not to say there aren't good hotels and restaurants in the east; it's just that the west has a much greater selection of both plus better shopping and strolling. Thus, our advice is sleep and eat (most of the time, at least) on the western side but don't miss the east. Those who choose to headquarter in the Neue Mitte, however, will find substantially lower prices.
Art Nouveau Hotel-Pension
Open only a few months, this is a wonderful bargain in a very desirable neighborhood. Big, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, each with its own decor. You might ask for Number 10, a corner double with hardwood floors and a niche with a love seat, or Number 8 which is very large, though on the street side.
One block from Ewige Lampe and around the corner from Spree Athen (see under restaurants).
• Daily Rates: Singles 155 DM ($86), doubles 180 DM ($100), suite 210 DM ($117). Prices are about 20% higher during trade fairs and conventions.
Contact: Art Nouveau Leibnizstr. 59, D-10629 Berlin, tel. +49/030/327 7440, fax 327 744 40.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
One of western Berlin's best values. In a good neighborhood with a nice selection of restaurants and only a five-minute walk from the Ku'damm.
Our large corner room (Number 319) had a separate sitting area, recessed lighting, and a very comfortable bed with a high-quality, soft cotton duvet and pillow covers.
The high-ceilinged breakfast room is cheery and bright with a spare, modern decor. The buffet was good but the orange juice had a tinny taste.
Location and price make this longtime Gemütlichkeit favorite an Editor's Choice.
• Daily Rates: Singles 139 to 165 DM ($77-$92), doubles 198 to 265 DM ($110-$147).
Contact: Hotel Domus, Uhlandstrasse 49, 10719 Berlin, (Berlin-Wilmersdorf), tel. +49/030/8803440, fax 88034444
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Arty, elegant hotel in the area between the Ku'damm and Savignyplatz. Imaginative design and appointments make the small guestrooms seem bigger than they actually are.
An interesting, charming city hotel but prices seem out of line to us. Nearby Hotel-Pension Art Nouveau has much larger rooms at half the price.
• Daily Rates: Singles 234 to 344 DM ($130-$191), doubles 274 to 384 DM ($152-$213). Breakfast is an additional 25 DM ($14) per person.
Contact: Bleibtreu Hotel Bleibtreustraße 31, 10707 Berlin (Berlin-Charlottenburg), tel. +49/030/884740, fax 88474444
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 7/20
Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten
Ignore the Adlon Hotel hype, this is Berlin's best hotel. Combines great charm with authentic luxury. Built at the beginning of the century for the Kaiser's personal attorney, it was the city's most beautiful and expensive home. Now, after an eventful 90 years, it may well be, as a rival Berlin innkeeper put it, "Germany's finest hotel." The remodeling job, directed by the famous German designer Karl Lagerfeld, cost one million DM ($550,000) per room.
The hotel sits on lovely grounds behind high walls and a gated entrance in Berlin's neighborhood of great mansions, the Grunewald. Unfortunately, the center of Berlin is 10-15 minutes away by public transport.
Among the five best hotels we've ever seen.
• Daily Rates: Singles 545 to 675 DM ($303-$375), doubles 595 to 725 DM ($331-$403)
Contact: Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten Brahmsstrasse 10, D-14193 Berlin, tel. +49/030/895 840, fax 8958 4800
Rating: Quality 19.5/20, Value 13/20
Nice interior in an ugly shell. Nonetheless, a top value in the Mitte. Directly on Gendarmenmarkt, the buildings exterior, which still shows a few bullet holes, had not been redone as of December 1997 but soon will be.
Ask for Room #37, a double at 160 DM ($89). Number 33, a corner suite with splendid views of the Gendarmenmarkt's stately buildings, is one of Berlin's best bargains at 200 DM ($111).
• Daily Rates: Singles 140 to 160 DM ($78-$89), doubles 150 to 180 DM ($83-$100), suites 200 DM ($111)
Contact: Hotel Gendarm Charlottenstrasse 60, 10117 Berlin, (Berlin-Mitte), tel. +49/030/2044626, fax 2082482
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
This 27-room townhouse-style hotel is an elegant oasis in what is still a rather drab neighborhood near the Mitte. For this level of comfort west of the Brandenburg Gate, one pays about 20% more.
Most of the Mitte's attractions are within walking distance. Otherwise the Heinrich-Heine (U8) underground station is only a couple of blocks away.
The best hotel in this group, save the Schlosshotel Vier Jahreszeiten.
• Daily Rates: Singles 175 to 290 DM ($97-$161), doubles 210 to 290 DM ($117-$161). Weekend rates are 175 DM ($97) single and 185 DM ($103) double.
Contact: Hotel Luisenhof, Köpenicker Strasse 92, 10179 Berlin (Berlin-Mitte), tel. +49/030/2415906, fax 2792983
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 15/20
The Spree Athen experience is this: dinner in the living room of an old Berlin house listening to old Berlin music.
The former is a six-course, fixed-price (78 DM/$43 per person) meal, and the latter, at least the night we were there, was a young cabaret singer accompanied by a piano. She wasn't Lotte Lenya or Marlene Dietrich, but her throaty contralto voice singing Kurt Weill songs, the homey setting, just a little imagination, and we were in prewar Berlin.
After reserving a table earlier in the day, we were seated on a slightly raised platform in the main salon. The piano is in an adjacent hallway and the singer roams between the two principal rooms. Walls are hung with an eclectic variety of 20s and 30s art and doo-dads. Suspended from the ceiling is a grotesque chandelier so ugly its beautiful, perfectly evoking a prewar Berlin bourgeois household.
There are white tablecloths, candles, roses, and big-bowled, long-stemmed red wine glasses.
Immediately after sitting down, a Kaiserbowle (a mixture of champagne and grapefruit juice, we guessed) was slid under our noses. The table had already been supplied with bread, raw vegetables and a couple of creamy dips. Next, came an onion and bacon tart, then an intensely-flavored wild mushroom soup, a winter salad in a balsamic dressing and finally roast lamb with a tarragon sauce with bundles of tiny green beans and fried, diced potatoes. Dessert was a caramel mousse with fruit.
The food was good, not great, the service warm and well-timed. A delightful evening; we highly recommend it.
• Spree Athen, Leibnizstrasse 60, D-10629 Berlin, tel. +49/030/324-1733. Reservations advised.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 12/20
Die Möwe is ideal for those seeking good food at affordable prices and an elegant, dress-up night out. It is located on the second floor of the Festhalle, behind the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism, in the city's Mitte.
Decor is formal and rather grand; dim lighting, red banquettes, white tablecloths, very tall windows on two sides, huge oval mirrors, and candles in hurricane glass covers. There is a pianist and waiters are formally dressed.
A better than average degree of creativity and refinement marked the dishes we chose: salad with terrine of goose; baby wild pig with sautéed carrots, turnips, and three mashed potato cakes flavored with parsley and ham; and roast lamb in a peppery tarragon sauce with crunchy pan-fried potatoes. Without beverages the meal for two persons was 83 DM ($46), a very good value. A bottle of middling Bordeaux, Chateau Listrac, cost 69 DM ($38).
• Die Möwe, Am Festungsgraben 1, D-10117 Berlin (Mitte), tel. +49/030/201 2039, fax 201 2081. Reservations advised.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
A Berlin institution, well-known even before WWII: old men waiters, traditional food and smoky "old-Berlin" atmosphere. There was a big glitch the night we were there; the computer went kaput and we were invisible to waiters for at least 20 minutes. When the food finally did come we waited another 10 minutes for something to drink with it.
In a word, service was lousy, but perhaps that was because of the computer problem.
A little band—guitar, saxophone, accordion—came through, played one number in our room and then passed the hat. A young woman moved from table to table giving away free cigarette samples.
This place is no bargain. A decent, greaseless, Wienerschnitzel with roast potatoes and salad cost 29.5 DM ($16.38), and a somewhat chewy Jägerschnitzel in a thick mushroom gravy and pommes frites is 23.5 DM ($13). Budvar, the Czech beer is 6.5 DM ($3.61).
• Hardtke's Meinekestrasse 27a, tel. 881 9827.
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 8/20
Odds and Ends
Just east of the Adlon Hotel on Unter den Linden. Pleasant, bistro-style place that's good for lunch. A small (.3 liter) beer was 4.5 DM ($2.50), housemade tomato soup 6.9 DM ($3.38), a platter of Erbensupe mit Wurst 7.5 DM ($4.16), and Bockwurst with potato salad 9.5 DM ($5.27). Lunch for two cost 32 DM ($18).
• Café Lebensart, Unter den Linden 69-73.
Funky, cozy wine bar on Uhlandstrasse near the Hotel Domus. Good place for a late beverage, dessert or light meal. Art on the wall is for sale. Desserts and drinks are about 5 DM ($2.77).
• Besenwirtschaff, Uhlandstrasse between Ku'damm and Pariser Platz
For a very late-night snack or final-final beverage on Uhlandstrasse, Hamlet has a slick 90s bistro atmosphere and is open until 3am. More chic and more expensive than homey Besenwirtschaff just up the street.
• Hamlet, Uhlandstrasse 47, tel. 882 1361
A pleasant lunch or drink stop in the Prenzlauer district (Prenzlauer, we are told, is the trendy neighborhood of the 90s; Kreuzberg was the place of the 80s). A small beer (.3 liters) was 3.8 DM ($2.11) and coffee was 3 DM ($1.67).
Café-Restaurant Weitzmann, Husemannstr. 2, tel. 442 7125
Population: 3.5 million
Altitude: 40 meters/131 feet
* Dresden 192 Km/120 miles
* Frankfurt 566 Km/354 miles
* Hamburg 289 Km/181 miles
* Munich 585 Km/366 miles
* Paris 1069 Km/668 miles
* Vienna 642 Km/401 miles
* Zürich 852 Km/533 miles
* Berlin Tourism USA, 245 Fifth Ave., Suite 2204, New York NY 10016, tel. 212-896-3333, fax 212-896-3342
* Berlin Tourist Office, Am Karlsbad 11, D-10785 Berlin, tel. +49/030/2647 4812, fax 2647 4899 (from the U.S. don't dial first "0")
* Berlin Tourist Office 24-hour hotline for hotel bookings: +49/030/250025
* Web site: visitberlin.de/en
Other Important Stuff
• The Berlin WelcomeCard for 29 DM ($16), good for three days of unlimited travel on Berlin's extensive U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines, is essential. Though the pass comes with a stack of coupons good for various discounts at many of the attractions you'll want to see, it's a superior deal just for the transportation alone.
• A cheap and easy way to see many of Berlin's current attractions is to board a double-decker #100 bus at the Bahnhof Zoo station to Alexanderplatz in the Mitte. Along the way it passes such attractions as the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Siegassäule (Victory Column) in the Tiergarten, the Bellevue Palace, the World Cultural Center, the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Humboldt University, the Deutsche Staatsoper and St. Hedwig's Cathedral. Disembark at Alexanderplatz. The ride is free with the Berlin WelcomeCard.
• Persons who book at least one hotel night through the Berlin Tourist Office (see above) are eligible for a Rail Inclusive Tour (RIT). Sample round trip prices include: Dresden $60 first class, $39 second class; Hamburg $108 first class, $72 second class; Munich $139 first class, $93 second class. These are substantial savings on regular point-to-point German rail fares.
• To "sidewalk supervise" the huge construction project at Potsdamer Platz, visit the bright red Infobox's viewing platform which overlooks the site. In addition, models, film, 3-D animation and computer simulations illustrate what the new heart of Berlin will look like. The Infobox is free and open 9am to 7pm weekdays except Thursdays when it is open until 9pm and 11am to 7pm weekends. Infobox, Leipziger Platz 21, tel. 226 62424. Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations.
• Haus at Checkpoint Charlie, the museum which documents the history of the Berlin Wall and the many East-to-West escape attempts, is not to be missed. A small surviving section of the Wall can be reached from here via Zimmerstrasse. Checkpoint Charlie Museum, 43-44 Friedrichstrasse. Admission 7.5 DM ($4.16) (25% discount with WelcomeCard), open 9am to 10pm.
• The last preserved original Wall watchtower, now the Museum der Verbotenen Kunst (Forbidden Art), offers photos, uniforms and various border guard paraphernalia. Museum der Verbotenen Kunst, Berlin-Trepow, Schlesischer Busch, Schlesische Strasse & Puschkinallee.
• Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz is a permanent exhibition on the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where top Nazi officials decided on the "final solution"—the extermination of all European Jews. Called a memorial rather than a museum. Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, Zehlendorf, Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58. Open Tues- Fri 10am-6pm, Sat & Sun 2pm- 6pm. Take the S-Bahn to Wannsee, then bus #114.
• Another memorial, the Topographie des Terrors is in what was once a Gestapo interrogation room. It illustrates the crimes of the Nazi era. Topographie des Terrors, Kreuzberg, Stresemannstrasse 110, open 10am-6pm daily.
• This summer Berlin observes the 50th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. The Tempelhof Airport and the Berlin Airlift is a guided tour conducted by airlift historian, Frank Schmitz, and costs 16 DM ($9) per person. Tours are at 3pm on the third Saturday of each month through September. Contact the Berlin Tourist Office.
• The 38th German-American Volks Fest is scheduled for July 24 through August 16, 1998. Commemorating the bond between Berliners and Americans, its 1998 theme is "Arizona: the Grand Canyon state." Location: Hüttenweg (Dahlem).
• The Berlin Festival of Jugglers and Acrobats is July 31 through August 9. Location: Forum Fridericianum, Unter den Linden between Staatsoper and the Kronprinzenpalais.
• Berlin's new Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery), displaying some 1,300 paintings, hung on 2.8 kilometers of wall space, opens this month.
This priceless collection from the 13th to 18th centuries is now together for the first time in more than 50 years. At the end of WWII, the paintings were divided and removed by Allied forces. American troops took some works to the U.S. and the Russians transported paintings from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum to the Soviet Union.
After long and difficult postwar negotiations, the collection was returned to Germany; some paintings went to the Dahlem Museum in West Berlin, others to Museum Island in East Berlin.
Based on a core of works that once belonged to Frederick the Great of Prussia, the collection includes works by Cranach, Drer, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Gainsborough, Watteau, Giotto, Titian, Raffael and Caravaggio.
• Gemäldegalerie Kulturforn, Berlin-Tiergarten, Matthäikirchplatz. Open Tues.-Fri. 10am-6pm, Sat.-Sun. 11am-6pm. U-Bahn/S-Bahn Potsdamer Platz. Admission 8 DM ($4.44.)