The City of Contrasts
One of the most famous landmarks in Berlin is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche, a Neo-Romansque church consecrated in 1895 but almost destroyed by bombs during World War II. All that remains of the original complex is the enormous front tower, which today houses a memorial hall and some of the objects recovered from the ruins. Years after the war, an octagonal blue-glass church and freestanding bell tower were constructed. Side by side, these buildings are a study in contrasts…as is much of this reunified city that is still living in the shadow of its tumultuous 20th Century history.
Berlin was reviled as the center of power of the Nazi regime, and much of it was destroyed by the bombs of the Allies. Then came the painful post-war period, when the city was bitterly divided, both literally, by a wall, and figuratively, by ideology. In 1948, the USSR’s Joseph Stalin blockaded access to and from West Berlin, which was under the control of the U.S., Britain, and France. To save West Berliners from starvation, the three Western powers launched the Berlin Airlift, dropping tons of food, medicine, and other supplies into the city for almost a year.
While more than three million East Germans successfully escaped or emigrated to West Germany between 1946, when Germany was divided, and 1989, when it was reunified, the division took its toll of human casualties. More than 1,000 people were killed trying to escape East Germany for West; 215 of those were murdered by East German guards as they tried to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin.
“The Mortal Kiss” painting was based on a news photo that showed fellow communists Erich Honecker, of East Germany, and Leonid Brezhnev, of the USSR, kissing on the mouth. Brezhnev was often carried away by his emotions. The painting is a part of 100 painted on a remnant of the Berlin Wall at Muehlenstrasse by 100 artists from all over the world in 1990.
Remnants of these dark days – including a piece of the Berlin Wall – can still be found in the city, but in the last decade or so Berlin has been undergoing something of a renaissance, as its citizens redevelop, restore, and renovate, especially in the drab former East Berlin. Centuries-old buildings and monuments in a variety of pleasing architectural styles sit side by side with modern buildings, and the juxtaposition is fascinating for visitors.
If this is your first visit to Berlin, some of our own first-visit experiences and observations may prove helpful. You will be introduced to Germany’s legendary efficiency as soon as you step off the plane at the Berlin Airport. A far cry from the airports in post-9/11 America, Berlin’s airport is organized so that all services – including checking in passengers and baggage plus customs, immigration, and security – are within 100 feet of your gate. The employees move from gate to gate. Berlin also has excellent, on-time mass transportation, which is heavily subsidized by the government to the tune of, while we were there, 18.5 Euros per ride on a fare of about two Euros.
Downtown Berlin is beautiful, neat, and organized, with wide boulevards and sidewalks. While it’s a great walking city, stay out of the bicycle lanes, which are marked by colored stones. Downtown bicyclists are bound for work and dead serious. They’ll suddenly swoop up behind you and ring their bells furiously if you impede their progress. Some intersections have traffic lights, pedestrian lights, and bicycle lights.
Much of the formerly sterile East Berlin is not yet up to the snuff of its western cousin. Sections of it are covered with graffiti that has been painted since the reunification.
More Tips for Visitors
Berliners do not act or dress like Americans. They are largely somber and directed folks who dress well and prefer neutral colors, such as beige, navy, and especially black. Berliners obey all signs, and if you jaywalk you’re likely to get a scowl or even a lecture. They don’t smile at strangers; and, thankfully, in a restaurant you will never hear, “Hi! My name is Hans and I’ll be your waiter today!” While the staff may be unsmiling, customer service is topnotch and tipping is not encouraged. We worked with a very determined concierge who found us three front-and-center seats to the sold-out opera “La Traviata” at the Staatsoper (State Opera House) on Unter den Linden, considered to be Berlin’s grandest avenue.
Our visit to the opera clued us in on another Berliner quality: They are very punctual. The opera was to begin at 7:30 and when we arrived at 7:20 nearly everyone was already seated. In fact, the only empty seats were to be occupied by two other Americans who arrived at 7:25! Berliners do love their music…especially classical, which is performed even by the street musicians. We had two free nights during our Berlin visit – Tuesday and Wednesday – and were astonished that no less than seven operas and symphonies were scheduled for that period, all in major venues. We learned that one reason there are so many concert halls is that during the years of the east/west division the Soviets considered East Berlin to be a showcase of the success of Communism and therefore ensured that appropriate concert halls were rebuilt. As a result, reunified Berlin has at least twice as many venues as you would expect.
Property owners in East Berlin are working hard to remodel their buildings to match standards of the more technologically advanced west. Progress can be slow, however. Stoves are often still the heating source. In the winter, residents in apartments like this one must haul coal up a few flights of stairs.
Among the sites not to miss in Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate – called “the quintessential symbol of Berlin.” The gate was located in East Berlin during the Cold War and stood watch over the divided city. It has been meticulously restored.
Berlin is home to numerous museums. A must see on the Museum Island complex is the Pergamonmuseum, which displays one of the most famous collections of antiquities in Europe. The museum is the result of the fact that German archeologists were extremely active and productive at the turn of the last century. A highlight is the Pergamon Altar, for which the museum is named, created in 160 B.C. for the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Another is the magnificent Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way built during the reign of Nebucchadnezzar II (604 to 562 B.C.) in the ancient city of Babylon. Only part of this has been reconstructed; the original avenue was 590 feet long.
In the same general area you’ll find the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace), the residence of the heirs to the royal throne until the abolition of the monarchy. The late-Neoclassical palace currently houses the Deutsches Historiches (German History) Museum collection.
Finally, no trip to Berlin is complete without a visit to Kaufhaus Des Western, or KaDeWe, as it is popularly known. It is the largest department store in Europe and besides featuring clothes, appliances, and all the other usual department store wares, KaDeWe is a gourmet’s paradise. You’ll find the biggest collection of foodstuffs in Europe, including, for example, 100 varieties of tea and more than 2,400 wines.
In Potsdam, the Rococo-style Schloss Sanssouci was built in 1744. It was the favorite palace of Friedrich II (Frederick the Great) and features a view of artificial ruins.