Berlin: Resilient, Reunited, and Reborn
Berlin is back, resuming its place as a great European capital. We climb the Reichstag's glass dome, sway at a modern-day cabaret, and pop a few chocolates in the now thriving eastern sector. Along with Germany's finest art, complicated Berlin also has hidden remnants of its fascist and communist past. In a city that's rebounding and rebuilding, we crane our necks at Potsdamer Platz, Europe's newest Times Square.
- Read the script from the show.
The parliament building — the heart of German democracy — has a short but complicated and emotional history. When it was inaugurated in the 1890s, the last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, disdainfully called it the "house for chatting." It was from here that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918. In 1933, this symbol of democracy nearly burned down. While the Nazis blamed a Communist plot, some believe that Hitler himself (who needed what we'd call today a "new Pearl Harbor ") planned the fire, using it as a handy excuse to frame the Communists and grab power. As World War II drew to a close, Stalin ordered his troops to take the Reichstag from the Nazis by May 1 (the workers' holiday). More than 1,500 Nazis (mostly French SS troops) made their last stand here — extending World War II by two days. On April 30, 1945, it fell to the Red Army. It was hardly used from 1933 to 1999. For the building's 101st birthday in 1995, the Bulgarian-American artist Christo wrapped it in silvery-gold cloth. It was then wrapped again in scaffolding, rebuilt by British architect Lord Norman Foster, and turned into the new parliamentary home of the Bundestag (Germany's lower house). To many Germans, the proud resurrection of the Reichstag symbolizes the end of a terrible chapter in German history (wait in line to go up — good street musicians, metal detectors, no big luggage allowed, some hour-long English tours when parliament is not sitting, Platz der Republik 1, S- or U-Bahn: Friedrichstrasse or Brandenburger Tor, tel. 030/2273-2152).
Germany's top collection of 13th-through 18th-century European paintings (more than 1,400 canvases) is beautifully displayed in a building that's a work of art in itself. Follow the excellent free audioguide. The North Wing starts with German paintings of the 13th to 16th centuries, including eight by Dürer. Then come the Dutch and Flemish — Jan Van Eyck, Brueghel, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, and Vermeer. The wing finishes with German, English, and French 18th-century art, such as Gainsborough and Watteau. An octagonal hall at the end features an impressive stash of Rembrandts. The South Wing is saved for the Italians — Giotto, Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, and Caravaggio (S- or U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, then walk along Potsdamer Platz; Matthäikirchplatz 4, tel. 030/266-2951).
EurAide is an English-speaking information desk in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof with answers to your questions about train travel around Europe. It operates from a single counter in the underground shopping level Reisezentrum (follow signs to tracks 5–6). It's American-run, so communication is simple. This is an especially good place to make fast-train and couchette reservations for later in your trip. EurAide also gives out a helpful, free city map.
This is the most established operation, with the most serious tours aiming at a clientele with a longer attention span. They don't offer "free tours" or pub crawls, and their guides are professionals. I've enjoyed the help of O.B.W.'s high-quality, high-energy guides for many years, and routinely hire them when my tour groups are in town. I've always been impressed with the caliber of the guides that founder Nick Gay has assembled. There's no need to reserve ahead — just show up. All tours meet at the taxi stand in front of the Bahnhof Zoo, and start at 10:00 unless otherwise noted. The Discover Berlin and Jewish Life tours have a second departure point 30 minutes later opposite eastern Berlin's Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station, outside the Weihenstephaner Restaurant; if you're staying in the East, save time by showing up here.
While the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors is long gone, its memory is preserved by one of Europe's most interesting, though cluttered, museums. During the Cold War, the House at Checkpoint Charlie stood defiantly — spitting distance from the border guards — showing off all the clever escapes over, under, and through the Wall. Today, while the drama is over and hunks of the Wall stand like victory scalps at its door, the museum still tells a gripping history of the Wall, recounts the many ingenious escape attempts (early years — with a cruder wall — saw more escapes), and includes plenty of video coverage of those heady days when people-power tore down the Wall. While dusty, disorganized, and slightly overpriced, with lots of reading, all of that just adds to its borderline-kitschy charm (U-6 to Kochstrasse or — better from Zoo — U-2 to Stadtmitte, Friedrichstrasse 43-45, tel. 030/253-7250). If you're pressed for time, this is a good after-dinner sight. With extra time, consider the "Hear We Go" audioguide about the Wall that takes you outside the museum.