Berlin: Expectations Exceeded on All Fronts

Smoked fish among the delicacies at Rogacki

By Jean and Peter Richards

Rarely does a visit to a city exceed expectations. Our trip to Berlin did by far.

In nine days, as March transitioned to April, daily excursions yielded a bounty of magnificent art, splendid public spaces, fine things to eat, pleasant weather, easy public transit and interesting people.

Berlin is big — eight times the size of Paris by some estimates — and laid out on a grand scale. Biscuit-colored neo-Classical, grey Soviet Era and gleaming post-modern architecture border broad avenues surrounding the 520 acre Tiergarten park at its core.

It is orderly. Public transit runs on time. People wait at crosswalks for lights to change even when there is no traffic. Public facilities are meticulously clean. Litter is conspicuously absent.

It is old-fashioned in appealing ways. Berliners dress with an emphasis on quality rather than flash. Multicultural restaurants offer traditional fare, well prepared, at modest prices. Noise levels are muted. Cafe life enlivens its squares and thoroughfares.

Best of all for us, Berlin is a city rich in art, but finding it can be confusing. Major reconstruction is on-going. Information is often sparse or inaccurate. Museum Island off the beautiful Unter den Linden along the River Spree where five important museums form the center of culture is not to be confused with the Kulturforum near Potsdammer Place where the decorative arts (Kunstgewerbe) and old master (Gemäldergalerie) museums, concert hall and state library are found.

On Museum Island the Neue Gallerie is old but recently renewed, the Old Gallery is newer than the Old Museum, the Kaiser Friedrich is now the Bode and the Pergamon itself more than justifies a journey.

Sculptures from the Pergamon altar

Half a day was hardly enough in the Pergamon. The monumental and mesmerizing second century B.C. Hellenistic altar surrounded by high relief friezes depicting the battle between Giants and Olympian Gods is but one astonishing sight in the museum which also holds the stunning cobalt blue and turquoise Ishtar Gate from Babylon, the market gate of Miletus, the Mshatta Facade from Jordan, an Aleppo merchant’s richly decorated room and galleries of singularly beautiful objects.

Pergamon altar

The 3,300-year old limestone and plaster bust of Nefertiti in the Neue Gallerie is so compelling that we hobbled all the way back through the galleries to see it again before leaving. Her beauty outshines the otherwise rare papyri and tomb figures from Egypt throughout the museum.

Museums often require timed tickets for blockbuster exhibitions, but at the above timed tickets are the norm.

We waltzed into the Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum on a Sunday to see Northern Renaissance works by Breughel, Cranach, Christus, Durer, Hals, Memling, Rembrandt, Vermeer and other masters. Holbein’s portrait of merchant Georg Giese bursting with symbols gave a foretaste of a visit a week later to Lübeck, seat of the Hanseatic League in its heyday and its recent resurrection. Across the way the Kunstgewerbe Decorative Arts Museum is as rich in skilled craftsmanship as its neighbor is in fine arts.

The powerful work of Käthe Kollwitz is revered in Berlin and is no better seen than in the museum which exhibits her sculpture and print series of the Weavers’ Revolt and Peasant War. It borders the grounds of the popular cafe, Literaturhaus. We would have missed it but for a chance encounter with a couple from Luxembourg at Lutter and Wegner’s fine restaurant across from the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square with its opera house flanked by French and German cathedrals.

Wiener Schnitzel at Lutter & Wegner

Wiener Schnitzel is a staple of the Berlin diet and nowhere did we enjoy it more than in the cave à vin of Lutter and Wegner where bottles are binned floor to ceiling like books, light emanates from the flickering candelabra on tables and the schnitzel fills a large plate. In the pleasantly clubby brasserie room of Borchardt, also nearby, the veal was sadly overcooked.

The German penchant for potatoes manifests itself in tasty preparations: pancakes fried to a golden hue, hash browns, baked with cheese, salads and soups. We had a flavorful soup at the sixth floor food hall of Kaufhaus des Westens, a department store in the grand tradition, known to all as Ka-De-We. It is better than Harrod’s and less expensive as well.

You do not go hungry in the food hall at Ka-De-W

Rogacki ranks as one of the world’s great delicatessens. We grabbed an opening at one of the stand up tables as lunchtime crowds descended to sample the weisswurst and a bockwurst before sharing a fish fillet fresh from the fryer with an eggy potato salad for an amazing 4€88. It was just as well that we ate before surveying the shop where shellfish, flatfish and herring are arrayed in seemingly infinite variety. Cases brim with fine cuts of meat. A small bar serves up more refined daily specials and the cheese department could tempt even a Frenchman straying abroad.

Turks have a long history in Germany. Recent immigration levels are controversial, but their food is enthusiastically embraced. To sit in the sun outside of the original branch of Hasir in the Kreuzberg area savoring tripe soup, eggplant puree and perfect kebabs was a treat. Then we overdid it on baklava at the bakery up the street.

Had it not been for dinner at another Turkish place, Baba Angora in the Charlottenburg district, we would not have experienced one of the most delightful aspects of this trip. As we were preparing to leave and wished the young German couple dining next to us a good evening, the man asked in English where we were from. Two or three minutes of conversation culminated in an invitation to visit with them in Potsdam that weekend. Sunday lunch on their terrace with their family was rich in conversation, insight and laughter followed by a tour of historic Potsdam including the beautiful yellow-hued, understated Sanssouci palace of Frederick the Great and by the confiscated properties in which Potsdam conferees stayed. It was a splendid afternoon.

Berlin doesn’t wallow in the emotion of its history; it treats it as fact and honors it with taste no better witnessed than at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe across from the American Embassy and meters from the Brandenburg Gate. Two thousand seven hundred and eleven charcoal gray stele planted on an undulating field not far from the administrative center of the Holocaust are, in their abstraction, a stunningly disturbing reminder.

A powerful War Memorial

Equally moving is the War Memorial in a neo-classical Prussian guard house on Unter den Linden where Käthe Kollwitz’s eloquent sculpture “Mother and Dead Son” is setunder an oculus open to the elements to memorialize civilian suffering during World War II.

We would like to have liked Daniel Liebskind’s design for The Jewish Museum, but we did not. The design is harsh; the zig-zag layout is incredibly confusing. Worst of all, the design seems to obscure that which it is meant to illuminate — the considerable history of Jewish people in Berlin. It is too bad because there is a lot that can be learned from the museum exhibits once they are found.

The Jewish Museum covers a lot of ground

One of the most arresting moments came out of a small video screen tucked into a corner — Hannah Arendt being interviewed by Gunther Gaus about the Holocaust: “We did not know…we did not believe.” It was so restrained and so powerful that it should have been broadcast across a wall.

Books, or the absence of them, drew us to the hole in the ground at Bebelplatz in front of Humboldt University law faculty building where the first of the notorious book burnings took place on May 10,1933, not far from the

Gendarmenmarkt Square. A glass window in the center of the square looks down on empty shelves. The void is difficult to see in the daytime though said to be hauntingly lit at night. A middle-aged Chinese man from Melbourne introduced himself and joined me peering down, looked up and said, “This was so terrible and it is still happening in China.”

Checkpoint Charlie has a lot of grim stories to tell

Today’s tourist might be hard pressed to find evidence other than at Checkpoint Charlie that little more than two decades ago Berlin was a city in which half the population was walled within an enclave surrounded by Soviet-ruled East Germany. The simple wooden hut of the American

forces marking the most famous spot where East confronted West on Friedrichstrasse is but a replica of the original and a top tourist attraction frequented not just by those who remember the Cold War, but by those born after the wall came down as well.

All these events and more reaching back centuries are addressed succinctly in the German History Museum on Unter den Linden. We couldn’t even begin to get more than a gloss but quickly learned how very little we knew about nineteenth century European history. We were, however, impressed by the forthright manner in which Germany’s role in World Wars I and II was presented. It was chilling to be reminded how easily people could be manipulated by political rhetoric.

China-bound containers tower above a harbor cruise

Hamburg pales in comparison to the verve of Berlin, but we spent three pleasant days in its center, at its fine museum and on the waterway of this important port whereenormous container ships were being piled high with goods destined for China. Nearby Lübeck retains fine Medieval and Renaissance reminders of its prominence as the seat of power in Hanseatic League times.

As a beautiful coda to a wonderful trip we drove back to France through Holland to see massive fields of spring bulbs in bloom and to visit the Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse. The gardens, re-planted annually, are open only for the blooming season from the end of March through late May. It is a colorful and inspiriting burst of renewal.

Copyright © 2011 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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