But Berlin is best discovered on foot; so comfortable shoes are vital to an enjoyment of its offerings. It helps to remember that the city was once divided into two parts: East Berlin and West Berlin–by a Wall (the Fall of which we are celebrating today, twenty years after it momentously crumbled). Though history has rendered that divide merely a current curiosity, there is enough difference between the two parts easily discernible by even the laziest eye to suggest that a massive ideological difference once characterized the segregation.
The Brandenburg Gate was built by Karl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791 under a commission from King Frederick William II of Prussia. Twelve Doric columns support a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses and Victoria, Roman goddess of Victory, sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow.Anyone who has been to Athens, will recognize it easily as being based on the Prophylaea, the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. The Nazis used the gate as a party symbol. Though it suffered extensive damage during the bombing of World War II, its structure retained its integrity standing tall amidst the ruins of the Paritzer Platz which surrounds it.
As you take in the Neo-Classical lines of this landmark, let your eyes stray towards the Adlon Kempinski Hotel, one of the world’s most luxurious buildings that gained recent notoriety from the fact that the late Michael Jackson dangled his baby from a third floor balcony of this stately building only a few years ago. He wasn’t called Wacko Jacko for nothing!
Your next stop would be the Reischstag—the country’s Parliament Building, where the Bundestag, i.e. Parliament, meets. This 1894 structure hosted the German Parliament until 1933 when it was burned down. A recent restoration has returned it to its former glory and crowned it with a glass dome, the handiwork of British architect Sir Norman Foster. Those familiar with the collapsed glass pudding that is the City Hall building on London’s South Bank will see similarities in Foster’s style with Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei who also uses glass liberally in his creations (remember the Pyramid in the central square of the Louvre in Paris?). It is worth joining the queue to see Parliament in session as well as to climb the spiral walkway to the very top of the Dome that offers multiple reflections in its mirrored walls as well as lovely views of the City astride both banks of the River Spree.
Though your appetite might have suffered by this mental bombardment, it would make sense to stop at this point for apfel streudel and hot chocolate. Traffic flows peacefully today in the many broad streets and avenues and there is little to suggest that life was once so fraught with emotional hardships for families split on both sides of the divide.
While a walking tour of 20th century Berlin can leave the visitor rather respondent, the city offers other far more mood-uplifting quarters, many of which were built in the 18th century. It is helpful to keep in mind as you cover the erstwhile royal portions of the city that most Prussian kings were called Fredriech or Wilhelm and when their parents were being particularly creative, they were named Fredreich Wilhem!
If you make a left out of the University gates, and head further along Unter der Linden, you arrive at Museum Island, location of the Lustgarten with the Altes Museum, a splendid Neo-Classical structure that houses Greek and Roman Antiquities and is considered one of the finest such buildings in Europe. Its most treasured item is a bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, a study in haughtiness.
Of the many beautiful churches that dot the capital—from the Baroque to the Modernist—there are two that most visitors choose to see: First, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gestadtkirsche whose profile with its bombed steeple is striking even from a distance. Because it is so intriguing, it warrants investigation.
Visitors enter the Memorial Hall that used to be the main entrance to the original church that has stood on this site since 1904 when it was inaugurated by the Kaiser. During World War II, it was bombed to smithereens though its tower remained, a ghastly reminder of happier times. The church, however, boasted some unimaginably intricate mosaics in the Byzantine style, many of which miraculously survived the bombing. When the war ended and the reconstruction of Germany began, it was decided that the tower should be retained though the rest of the ruins were demolished. The surviving mosaics were carefully moved and relocated to the main tower together with several others that had originally stood there. Today, these mosaics are the main attraction of the tower that has been converted into a Memorial Hall. A newer, far more modern church (that some think resembles a compactor!), was fashioned out of thousands of pieces of sapphire blue glass that glow as the sunlight streams through them. It makes for a quiet place of contemplation.
No first time visitor can leave Berlin without being struck by its wealth of art and architectural artifacts. To see all the museums of Berlin one would need a month and to appreciate them from the outside would require another! Each building is stunning and forms a very fitting receptacle for the collection that lies concealed within.
Two museums that one would be loathe to leave out are The Gemaldegalerie at the Kulturforum and the Pergammon Museum. The Kulturforum is a part of Berlin in which the arts and culture are omnipresent through the Philharmonic Building, the National Library and, of course, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Gemaldegalerie.
Berlin boasts so heavenly a collection of paintings as to make art-lover feels as if they have reached the Gates of Paradise. The Nazis were huge supporters of culture and patronized their artists enthusiastically. Hence, they amassed a vast treasure trove of fine art by the Old Masters. When the War ended, this collection was divided between East and West Germany, its reunification becoming possible only by the Fall of the Wall. The new Gemaldegalerie, created to house this treasure, is a Modernist space custom designed and built specifically for the purpose—and it is truly one of the finest museum buildings to be seen. It boasts an interesting layout, and paintings hung against light-absorbing walls so that daylight makes only a subdued presence felt on the canvases that suffer no artificial light upon their surfaces at all.
If the Gemaldegalerie presents high quality fine art, probably the piece de resistance among Berlin’s museums is the Pergammonmuseum, located on what is called Museum Island. Audio Guides in English provide a very comprehensive commentary on the Museum’s Highlights.
The very first ‘room’ in the Pergammon is breathtaking. As soon as you walk in, you find yourself standing right in front of the altar from the Greek Temple at Pergammon in modern-day Turkey—it is from this Temple that the Museum gets its name. Now, though the history of the museum is long and fascinating, suffice it to note that in the early part of the 19th century, German archeologists were exceptionally active in sites all over the Middle East. A great deal of their excavations and discoveries led to the uncovering of ancient civilizations whose mementoes would have been lost to the world. As a reward for their endeavors, they were permitted to bring these ‘structures’ to Germany where these specially constructed museums served to house them safe from the destruction that could be wrought by the elements.
The Temple of Athena in the next room is just as dazzling. What is mind blowing is the sheer size of these works and the scale of the rooms that allow these towering temples, columns and altars to be accommodated indoors! And I hadn’t yet arrived at the Ishtar Gate! Next door to the Athena Temple are the Gates of Miletus, colossal Classical columns holding a decorative gateway that once existed at the entrance to the Market in Miletus in Asia Minor. Though badly damaged and undergoing restoration, these gates are truly splendid. Here, too, visitors walk right through the gates, feeling as if they have actually arrived in these ancient worlds.
And then you reach the most impressive exhibit of all—the Babylonian Ishtar Gates. These stunning gates composed almost entirely of sapphire ceramic glazed bricks were built during the reign of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (604-542 BC). To reach them, one needed to pass through what was known as the ‘Processional Way’—originally 590 feet long. In the Pergammon, the Inner Gates and a large part of the Processional Way allow the viewer to marvel at the quality of the artistry that went into the design and construction of so exquisite a work. Although many of the upper parts of the structure have been restored (it is very easy to see where the original tiles end and the modern ones begin), the animals that adorn the walls (horses, ibex, and lions—loads of lions) are original. These are not merely embedded into the walls but jut out like bas relief—all of which makes them not just impossible to describe but impossible to stop raving over.
Other more significant parts of the Pergammon’s collection are the Façade of the Mshatta Palace which once stood in Jordan—the parts in the museum once concealed the entrance to a palace and a small mosque. The Allepo Zimmer, a spectacular paneled room that came from a merchant’s home in the Syrian city of Aleppo, is also fascinating. Apart from its obvious treasures, one of the most exquisite objects in this collection is a Roman Sarcophagus of the 2nd century AD upon which is carved the entire chilling story of Medea—truly Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!
Though it is located rather remotely compared to most of the city’s other attractions, no trip to Berlin would be complete without a visit to the Jewish Historic Museum. This quite recent addition to the city skyline is the design of American Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind who has created a structure inspired by the Star of David turned inside-out. To call it sheer genius would be an understatement. It is so superbly conceived and so amazingly implemented that I marveled at Libeskind’s vision with each step I took further and further into the maze-like building.
In the basement is the Holocaust Tower—a structure which represents various things to various people. It is a tall column that you enter underground. You will find yourself in an unlit and unheated space (and believe me, the contrast in temperatures is striking at any time of year). The only light is natural—coming from a small slit in the walls. It represents the imprisonment of the prisoners in the various concentration camps around Europe and their surmounting hopelessness.
I then stepped into the Garden of Exile, a series of granite columns with olive trees growing at the top—olives, of course, symbolizing the Promised Land. Taking the elevator to the top floor, I got off in the Medieval section which details the persecutions that Jews encountered throughout history.
In a capital city that, like others in Europe, is fast becoming internationalized, it is good to know that foodies can still find treats that are essentially indigenous. KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens), the magnificent Art Deco mansion to Mamon built in 1907 by Berlin merchant Adolf Jandorf is a must-eat venue. It’s Gourmet Floor rivals that of London’s Harrods boasting 3,400 wines and 1,300 kinds of cheese alone. If you are a connoisseur of all things edible, you cannot possibly be disappointed for it is not only the taste of the items you will purchase but their presentation that will have you composing symphonies to your taste buds.
As for Chocoholics, nirvana is promised at Fassbender and Rausch near the Gendarmenmarkt. This upscale chocolatier has picture windows that display chocolate replicas of the Brandenburg Gate, the Kaiser Wilheim Gedatschkirsch and, somewhat inexplicably, the Titanic! When you have admired the craftsmanship that has created these confections, you can agonize for hours as you gaze at a selection of choicest treats from individually molded pralines and hand-rolled truffles to take home in a signature box. Then climb a floor higher to the restaurant, settle by a window that overlooks the imposing dome of the Cathedral and order a Black Forest Chocolate pastry (I love the name in German—Schwartzwalden Torte!) Cherries, soaked in kirsche (cherry liqueur) are frozen into the sponge. They thaw into minscule shots with each chocolately bite! Heavenly!
Berlin, will no doubt, have awed and moved you in turn as you rambled through its centuries of changing fortunes. Fight the plummeting temperature in such a spot as you soak it all in. Get your hands out of those coat pockets and let your frigid fingers curl around a cup of dark hot chocolate laced with Ecuadorian chilli as you contemplate the fact that you became a part of its checkered history, if only for a few wintry days one January!