I went to Berlin last week for the first time since I left it as a toddler. I come from a background that leads me to avoid Germany rather than to visit it. The sound of the language grates on my ear. Gemütlichkeit is a mask for horror.
But virtually everyone I know who has visited Berlin in recent years has urged me to go, saying it's the most exciting city in Europe at the moment, young, arty, happening. And Gene wanted to go, so we went.
It was confusing. There's no attempt to hide the Nazi era. If anything, it's right in your face in the center of town. The Topography of Terror Museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum, all upfront. Lots of acknowledgement, but somehow...
I noticed occasional metal squares placed in the sidewalk in front of buildings, random buildings anyone might have lived in, some pre-war, some newly built, probably after being bombed during the war. These two said that Hanna Niegho, 22 years of age, and Elvira Niegho, 4 years old, had lived there before being deported and murdered at Auschwitz.
Much of Berlin is post war construction, since the city was bombed to bits by the Allies. During the Occupation the city was divided into four zones, Russian, US, British and French. Crossing between them meant crossing a border, with all the attendant limitations. Today Checkpoint Charlie remains, non-functional except for providing a photo opportunity for tourists.
On Unter den Linden, the once-fashionable boulevard leading eastward from the Brandenburg Gate that found itself in the Russian zone after partition, the huge Stalinist Russian embassy remains, more functional than Checkpoint Charlie.
There's still a lot of construction going on and areas that had been empty for years are filled with highrises. There are occasional pre-war buildings and a walk in the streets of Charlottenburg can give you some feeling for what this upscale area must have been like in the early 20th century.
The art in Berlin is phenomenal, both what you find in the many, many superb museums as well as in the numerous galleries scattered all over town. We finally felt sated by the German Expressionist work we saw at the gorgeous Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, with a show called "Modern Times" in the galleries below ground,
at the "Max Liebermann's Rivals" exhibition at Liebermann Haus next to the Brandenburg Gate, and the wonderful auction house we wandered into where hundreds of works were being previewed before an auction to take place on the following day.
We also went to the Gemäldegalerie, enormous and nearly deserted, to see art from the 13th to 17th centuries. I was exhausted, ready to leave, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a Botticelli Venus in a room I hadn't even gotten to. We had to spend another few minutes after all.
The museum I knew I wanted to visit was the Pergamon, which holds many of the spoils of 19th century German archeology. The huge Pergamon Altar, Nebuchadnezzar's Ishtar Gate were on my childhood bucket list.
We had breakfast one morning at the Reichstag.
I had heard that it was difficult to get permission to visit the building and Sir Norman Foster's Dome at its center, but that restaurant patrons were sure to be allowed to visit, so I emailed for reservations. After sending our full legal names and birth dates 48 hours ahead of time to be screened, we arrived to get in the security line, pass through the metal detectors, and wait for a jam-packed elevator to take us to the top. Security lines guarded by German uniforms and elbow-to-elbow crowded spaces didn't feel great, I must admit, but we got to the top and found this fabulous structure.
Oh, and there's a view.
Music, another highlight of German culture, was also on the list. We saw a lovely production of Mozart's Magic Flute and managed to get tickets to Daniel Barenboim conducting a program of Mozart and Mahler at the Philharmonie. What else? Sports? We arrived in Berlin to find the streets awash with blue-shirted soccer fans in town for the Germany Cup. Later that night the streets were more litterily [sic] awash with beer and plastic cups.
There're still tons to do and see. We drove through the Tiergarten but didn't walk or picnic. We were too late to get a boat ride on the river the day we arrived and never had the time afterwards. We never got to Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg, the younger, supposedly hipper areas of town. We didn't see the other three museums on the Museum Island, or the contemporary art at the Hamburger Bahnhof, or the Berggruen Museum's Klees, Picassos and Matisses. We saw art that we wanted to buy but didn't in galleries in the West but never got to see the more 'street' artists' work in the East. It was a full visit.
I think it's my last.