What makes Berlin so attractive to us? Kay and I are city people, and when I ask myself why, I am reminded of what Dr. Samuel Johnson said centuries ago about his own city of London: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” If I replace “man” with “man or woman” and “London” with the names of the any of the world’s renowned cities, I have answered my own question. Great cities appeal to us because of their great variety. To “great” I’ll add “surprising.”
For us, a trip to Berlin is worth just being able to shop at Dussmann, the huge book and music store on Friedrichstrasse. Though most of the books are, of course, in German, the store has a separate English-language department housed on two floors. Its selection is great, and its knowledgeable staff so helpful! We always leave Dussmann with an armload of merchandise.
Berlin feels both familiar and new, familiar because we have adopted the neighborhood around East Berlin’s Hackescher Markt as our own and new because each time we visit, we stretch ourselves to see new sights and have new experiences.
Berlin has fine architecture, lovely parks and canals, and a vibrant street life. It has both fine and casual dining. Its cultural offerings are many and run the gamut from high to low.
Then, there is its dramatic and tortured history, so much of it having occurred within our own lifetimes. Allied bombs destroyed much of the city in 1943, the year I was born. By 1945 when the war ended, most of Nazi Berlin lay in ruins. Director Roberto Rossellini documented this destruction through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy in his post-war film Germany Year Zero (1948). The year 1949 witnessed the founding of the German Democratic Republic that came to be known popularly as East Germany. Its territory surrounded and divided Berlin and would have engulfed it completely were it not for the famous, year-long Berlin Airlift that kept the million or so residents of non-Communist West Berlin fed and alive until Stalin abandoned his plan to seize them.
To keep its citizens from fleeing to the West, the Communists built the Berlin Wall in 1961, dividing the city physically as well as ideologically. Its dramatic fall and beginning of the end of the GDR in the winter of 1989 are recent memories for us.
Since German reunification began in the 1990s and Berlin once again became the country’s capital, there has been enormous progress rebuilding the city and reclaiming its historical monuments. The stories and results of this progress are of great interest to us. During each of our visits we see and learn more of them.
This time we toured the Schloss Charlottenburg on Berlin’s western side. This palace, belonging to the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty grew to its present size during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was meant to rival Versailles in size and grandeur and while it falls short of that attempt, it is nevertheless very impressive. Impressive also is the fact of its restoration after being badly damaged by the bombings of 1943.
It has taken many years and an untold fortune to bring it back to its current state of beauty. Its interiors epitomize Rococo decor, especially in the huge state halls.
Frederick the Great (1712-1786), who commissioned Charlottenburg’s large New Wing, loved 18th-century French art and the idea of the Fêtes Gallantes. Among his paintings on display is Watteau’s Embarcation for Cythera.
Beyond the palace itself is its formal garden known as the Parterre and a huge park and carp pond. Kay and I spent an entire day at Charlottenburg taking in the beauty of its art, architecture and surroundings.
The weather that day was lovely, and because our visit occurred during the shoulder season in mid-September, there were relatively few other tourists, in itself, a thing to be thankful for.
The Hohenzollerns ruled from 1701 until 1918, with Berlin as their capital. Other of their imperial residences include Sans Souci at nearby Potsdam and the City Palace on Unter den Linden in the heart of the city. The latter is interesting in that under the GDR the Communists entirely demolished and replaced it with their own Palace of the Republic.
Now, that too is gone and the City Palace is being rebuilt on the ruins to look, from the outside, like an exact replica of the Baroque original. Renamed Humbolt Forum, the huge interior will be completely modern and destined, in part, to house the Museums of Ethnology and Asian Art. It will also be an important center of global culture, hosting temporary exhibitions, conferences, etc. Currently, it is Berlin’s largest construction site, not visible behind construction barriers at ground level but able to be seen from the observation platform of the extravagant Berliner Dom across the avenue.
A relic from the late Prussian period is the ruin of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. It was an important imperial church honoring Kaiser Wilhelm I when it opened in 1895.
Bombed in 1943, all that remains of the church is its vestibule and part of its steeple. It has been kept in its ruined condition as a peace memorial.
The elaborate mosaics on the ceiling of what is now known as the Hall of Remembrance are indications of what was once a beautiful church.
Little is left of Nazi Berlin. Exceptions are Templehof Airport, which I visited on an earlier trip, and the Olympic Stadium that Kay and I toured recently for the first time. As a grandiose showplace for the 1936 Olympics, it was meant to impress the world with the Third Reich’s vision. Its exterior, with its striking colonnade, has been preserved and restored.
A roof has been added to cover the seating areas, and today it is once again one of the world’s great sport venues.
Berlin has many examples of great architecture. Museum Island has a trove of them. The Bode Museum, named in honor of Wilhelm von Bode, its first director, is a gem.
It sits like a palace on the tip of the island with a grand staircase, marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and in the entrance hall, a monumental, equestrian sculpture of Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm. It lies only a short, pleasant walk from the Hotel Monbijou where we were staying.
The Bode makes a delightful setting for some important collections. Of particular interest to us are its hundreds of sculptures dating from the Middle Ages through the 19th century.
There is also an important collection of Byzantine art and artifacts, including this extraordinary apse from the deconsecrated church San Michele in Afrisco in Ravenna. Its central figure is a young-looking Christ flanked by angels Michael and Gabriel. There are twelve doves representing the apostles, and seven angels blowing trumpets to announce the Apocalypse. Its mosaics were done in the sixth century and their colors are still as vibrant as they probably were when first installed. Gazing at it, I was reminded that the imperial Germans were great scholars and archeologists and that, without their passion to collect and preserve vestiges of the antique past, much of our heritage would be dispersed and lost.
One of Berlin’s finest attributes is its relatively large number of world-class museums. Beside the Bode, Museum Island contains the Pergamon with its monumental installation of the Zeus Altar and the Neues with its Egyptian collection including the bust of Queen Nefertiti.
Elsewhere, there is the Gemäldegalerie with one of the world’s finest collections of European art from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
What must be the world’s greatest museum of Jewish history and culture is the Judisches Museum housed in architect Daniel Libeskind’s architectural masterpiece. Kay and I discovered it years ago on our first visit to the city, and we feel it is time for another visit.
Kay and I favor a couple of smaller museums, too, located out near the Schloss Charlottenburg. The Brohan has a wonderful collection of applied arts from the 19th century until WWII. Art Nouveau glass and furniture are favorites.
The Museum Berggruen sits directly across from the palace and boasts a collection of 125 Picassos. The man who collected them was an art dealer in Paris after the Second World War and a friend of the artist. Some works of the collection such as “The Yellow Sweater” and the etching entitled “The Frugal Meal” are world-famous.
Berlin hosts many museums of popular culture, too: The Mauer tells the history and horror of the Berlin Wall. The DDR Museum gives the experience of East-German daily life. There is even a museum devoted to currywurst, the city’s favorite casual meal.
Beyond museums, food, shopping, and street life, a key reason we love Berlin is for its exceptional number and variety of classical music venues. In this regard, the highlight of our latest visit was an evening with Berlin friends Jupp and Karin listening to the wonderful Berliner Philharmoniker perform a program of works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ligeti, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Hearing the music of this last composer, an older contemporary of Boulez and Stockhausen, was a new experience for us. His “Concert for Violin and Large Orchestra,” which lasted for 18 minutes, pleased us enormously. The music of Hungarian György Ligeti (1923-2006) was new to us also. Two of his pieces were contrasted with three of Debussy’s in the second half of the program.
We heard this concert in the Philharmonie, the hall designed in the1960s by Hans Scharoun. Its seating is in what our guidebook calls a “terraced vineyard configuration” and contains no bad seats. Ours were in section H-left which put us high but not too high behind the orchestra from where we could watch the conductor and have a detailed view of the percussion section directly below us. The supreme acoustic qualities of the hall meant that I could hear the subtlest notes. What an experience!
Once again, it is thanks to our friendship with Jupp and Karin that we were able to leave Berlin for three days and make a short road trip to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Leipzig, and Dessau, three smaller cities of interest to us. Although familiar with these towns, our friends were willing to see them again in our company and introduce them to us.
Wittenberg was, of course, the place where on October 31, 1517 Augustinian Monk Martin Luther allegedly nailed 95 theses or propositions for debate to the door of the Castle Church. His intent was to protest the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, certificates that purportedly granted the purchaser less time in Purgatory. Luther must have been quite a guy since not only did his actions lead to the Reformation and the creation of the Protestant Church but with his writings, he is credited with creating the modern, High German language. Such is his importance to Wittenberg that the town has added Lutherstadt (Luther City) to its name.
Lutherstadt Wittenberg is a pretty place. Everything we wanted to see is located along the town’s single main avenue. At one end is the castle church. The original doors are long gone and replaced with doors of bronze with the 95 theses in German embossed upon their surface.
Further along is the Marktplatz with its large white Rathaus and large statues of Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, his intellectual collaborator. We think there should also be a memorial to the Elector Frederick the Wise who ruled Wittenberg and protected Luther from the wrath of the Church.
Just beyond the Marktplatz is Stadtkirche St Marien, the site of many landmark Protestant events. Today, the church is a kind of museum with a large painted altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder. One large panel depicts the Last Supper at a circular table with John resting his head against the Christ’s chest and Luther depicted as serving drink to another of the disciples.
During the afternoon, Jupp and I discussed why Luther succeeded while earlier would-be reformers, such as Jan Huss in Prague failed and were executed. One factor was certainly the support Luther received from Frederick the Wise. Another was the fact that by Luther’s time the printing press had been invented so that his message could be distributed more widely.
We spent the second day of our road trip in the dynamic city of Leipzig where, among other sites, we were in search of those closely associated with Johann Sebastian Bach. Our first stop was the Nikkoli Church that dates from Bach’s time and before. Its exterior is not remarkable, but within, it’s a different story. Its tall columns are all painted a soft pink with the capitals shaped like light green palm tree fronds complete with coconuts. We’d read about this but had never seen anything like it.
Leipzig’s Old Town is famous for its passageways lined with interesting shops and cafes. We admired one called the Messepalast Specks Hof. At the entrance was our friends’ favorite coffee house, a venerable one named Riquet done in Art Nouveau style. There we sat for a while over cups of tea.
Next, we visited Leipzig University on Augustusplatz to look at the new buildings and especially the modern chapel, which contains a historic altarpiece and several medallions set against its bright, white walls.
Augustusplatz also contains the Oper Leipzig that is under renovation and the Neues Gewandhaus, the concert hall that is home to Leipzig’s famous orchestra.
Following lunch, we went into the nearby Thomaskirche where Bach served as cantor during the last 27 years of his life. He is buried there beneath a plaque in the chancel.
Later in the afternoon Kay and I went into the Bach Museum for a surprisingly interesting visit. The museum is highly interactive, and we were supplied with audio guides that helped us navigate its different displays. In one room there were sound tubes suspended from the ceiling. By griping a tube and putting an ear to an opening, we could hear a recording of a Bach composition. Several tubes gave a selection of different works.
Another room contained Baroque musical instruments. Around the walls were illustrations of individual performers playing these obscure instruments. An orchestral recording filled the room, and by pressing a button associated with a particular instrument, that instrument’s sound was amplified so we could hear its timbre.
After some much needed rest at the apartment where we were staying, the four of us headed out again for dinner at Auerbach’s Keller, a Saxon restaurant that must be more than 200 years old because Goethe set a scene from his tragic play Faust there. Various murals and other displays around the large restaurant depict the characters Faust and Mephistopheles in different settings and attitudes.
On day three, our last stop at Dessau was shorter but very interesting. We stopped to see what remains of the original classic Bauhaus buildings. Due to road and building construction we had trouble, at first, finding our way to where we wanted to go. In the end, the visit was a success. The restored Bauhaus looks great. With its large windows, the flat roof, and the rectangular shapes, its style was the starting point of modernism in the early 1920s.
Although it is being used as a school of design today, many of the large spaces are vacant and without furniture. There was a special exhibition about Carl Fieger, a consummate draftsman and innovator who was one of the early members of the Bauhaus. The show highlighted some of his designs. The Kornhaus, a restaurant, still exists at a site on the Elbe.
Another design was for a circular dwelling, which we looked at first as a scale model and then as a full-size, tent-like structure with soft walls and windows and doorway outlined in black.
We ate a pleasant lunch in the Bauhaus café before walking half a mile to look at the exteriors of what are known as the Meisterhauser, the four houses built in the Bauhaus style that were occupied by Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy and Lyonel Feininger, and Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The houses were badly damaged during World War II and a couple are still being restored.
Back in Berlin Kay and I had days more to shop, explore, and generally enjoy the city. Many Berliners get around by bicycle. For those of us who don’t, there is a comprehensive and efficient public transportation system. As tourists, we bought fare cards for the days we would be in town. Once validated and in our possession, we only had to walk up and board the S Bahn and U Bahn trains or the buses and trams. There were no turnstiles or additional barriers to negotiate.
For us, Berlin is an exciting, relaxed and friendly city. We’ll be back.