City Report: Berlin

June 10 – 13, 2011
Photo set on Flickr

Upon arrival, it is not hard to see why Berlin isn’t ranked as a premier travel destination. Often-used descriptions of the German capital include “cool”, “energetic”, “confident”… but never “beautiful”. That’s appropriate, as out of all the European cities I have been to, Berlin definitely falls into the unappealing side of the spectrum.

We rented an apartment near Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in the former East Berlin. Between our apartment and Alexanderplatz, where the hideous Fernsehturm (TV Tower) is located, are blocks of Communist-era apartment buildings. Everyday we would take this path to our favorite place in all of Berlin – the Museum Island. Berlin might not have awe-inspiring cathedrals or palaces, but its handful of top-notch museums are as good as any in the world.

Photogenic

The Reichstag, Berlin

Berlin is the least visually appealing European city I have been to, and it is not particularly close. I have heard Manchester and Liverpool are worse, but those industrial cities aren’t world-class destinations like Berlin.

Berlin was razed to the ground during World War II, and the Cold War years hadn’t been kind to it either. West Berlin was rebuilt with a blueprint of a typical North American city, while the cityscape on the Eastern side was filled with Soviet style apartment blocks. Cutting the city in half was the no-man’s zone known as the Berlin Wall.

Reunification has brought vital cash and manpower to the capital, and the German capital has undergone an ever continuing construction boom since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is starting to emerge – the Reichstag and its glass dome is the most eye-catching; a symbol of Germany’s hope to move away from its unsettling past and into a transparent and democratic nation-state. But no amount of modern architecture can completely wipe away the destruction and insipid reconstruction of the 20th century.

Attractions

Museum Island

Altes Museum, Museum Island

The Museum Island is actually the northern part of a much bigger island. The complex is made up of five separate museums:

  1. The Altes Museum (Old Museum) – Classical (Greek and Roman) Antiquities
  2. The Neues Museum (New Museum) – Egyptian and Prehistory collections
  3. The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) – Paintings
  4. The Bode Museum – Sculpture and Byzantine art
  5. The Pergamon Museum – Reconstructed buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus, Middle East Antiquities and Islamic art

Of the five, I had visited the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum and the Bode Museum. Consistent with our experience on this trip, there was no lineup at any of these museums.

Admission was covered by our three-day Berlin WelcomeCard.

I am usually not a big fan of audio guides, but the free ones provided at these museums are very comprehensive and add much value to the overall experience.

Pergamon Museum 

Pergamon Museum, Museum Island

Surrounded by a river, an elevated railway track, the Bode Museum and the Neues Museum, the Pergamon has the least impressive looking exterior of all the museums on the island. From the outside, its warehouse-like appearance resembles nothing like one of the prominent museum in the world.

Once inside, however, the Pergamon Museum wasted no time to make an impression: the Pergamon Altar is located in the very first hall. The building was specifically designed to house the Pergamon Altar after it was excavated and relocated from the Turkish city that shares the same name back in the late 19th century.

The two halls immediately to the right shelter the Market Gate of Miletus and the Ishtar Gate. These three monuments alone justify the Pergamon’s reputation as one of the finest museum in the world, and its collection contains many other worthwhile attractions such as the Aleppo Room on the second floor.

Neues Museum 

A deep fascination of the ancient Egyptian civilization swept across Europe during much of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Not content with merely studying about this great civilization’s language and architecture, the increasingly imperialistic European nation-states such as England and Germany led numerous expeditions to the Land of the Pharaohs to excavate and transfer valuable artifacts back to their home countries.

To house these artifacts, the Neues Museum was established in 1855 in Berlin, but ninety years later the destruction brought along by the Second World War almost wiped the building and its irreplaceable collections off the face of the earth. Endured much neglect during the Cold War Era under the GDR (East Germany) regime, the Neues Museum’s reconstruction, headed by the British architect David Chipperfield, finally gained steam after the German Reunification. The museum was opened to the public once again in October 2009. To me, the Neues Museum, even more so than the Berlin Wall, is a microcosm of Berlin in the 20th century.

Its history aside, the Neues Museum boasts a comprehensive collection of antiquities, highlighted by the bust of Nefertiti, that ranges from the Old Kingdom (4000 BC) up to the Roman Period. It was quite enlightening to follow the audio guide and retraced the long history of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Even though I had been to several Egyptian exhibitions before, including the one at the British Museum, this was the first time that I had noticed the artistic differences between the statues of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.

I was barely able to cover the Egyptian collection in three hours, which left me only fifteen minutes before the closing of the museum to take a quick walk through the Prehistoric exhibition.

Bode Museum 

Bode Museum, Museumsinsel

I have always envied people who live in cities with world-class museums. When out of things to do, they always have these engrossing exhibitions as last resort.

That’s how I ended up spending two hours at the Bode Museum. Having nothing planned for my last day in Berlin except for the ballet show Snow White at the Deutsche Oper Berlin at 6 pm, I walked to the Museum Island and went inside the first museum in sight, which turned out to be the Bode Museum. It was almost completely empty inside; apparently sculpture collection and Byzantine art is not a big draw.

A good museum is like an additive hobby – it always caused me to lose track of time. I was barely able to cover the sculpture collection during my two hours at the Bode Museum. The free audio guide added much valuable background to many of the major pieces and grinded down my progress.

For those who are short in time, I would recommend at least a quick look at the outlandish Rococo sculpture Maria by Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer.

DDR Museum

For a change, a museum full of people!

The DDR Museum’s popularity, especially for those who travel with children, is easy to understand. Instead of millennium old antiquities, this interactive museum showcases how it was like to live under the communist regime of East Germany. Most popular were displays of the Stasi’s spying methods and some grainy videos of East Germans spending their holidays in nude.

I personally didn’t find this small museum that targeted children and adolescents very interesting, and if not for the other visitors who were constantly blocking my way, I could have been done with the DDR Museum in 15 minutes.

East Side Gallery 

East Side Gallery

During the Cold War, the 154.5 km long Berlin Wall separated the city into two opposing sides. In February 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a 1.3 km section of the wall near Ostbahnhof (East Train Station) was designated as the East Side Gallery for preservation. Artists from 21 countries commemorated the historic reunification of Germany by painting 105 different murals side by side on the wall. Major restoration work had been performed on the gallery in 2009 in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We walked along the wall for about an hour from Ostbabnhof to Warschauer Straße station. It took us awhile to locate the wall as there was no signage at Ostbabnhof.

The Berlin Wall, one of the most daunting symbols of the Cold War era, has been transformed by the power of art into something much more uplifting. A common theme of the murals is the denouncement of the communist regimes that suppressed the human spirit and the celebration of the freedom and prosperity in the Western World.

Holocaust Memorial 

Holocaust Memorial

Sometimes reading too much about a place you are about to visit will cause you to start believing in the hyperboles people invariably like to use to justify their experiences.

Here is an example: “The Holocaust Memorial is my favorite place in Berlin. To think about all the lost lives, all the sufferings associated with this terrible event – these concrete blocks ensure that we will never forget about what had happened. Leaning against the cold concrete while closing my eyes allows me to do some deep reflection.”

I don’t know under what condition could someone dig deep for some soul-searching at the Holocaust Memorial, but it definitely won’t happen in a warm summer afternoon. A dozen or so children took full advantage of the site’s 2,711 grid-patterned concrete slabs and decided to play hide-and-seek at the supposedly solemn memorial. Not what I expected, but I appreciate how Berlin manages to manifest its tumultuous history into a communal hangout for its future generations.

Brandenburg Gate 

Brandenburg Gate at Night

The gate itself, beyond its historical significance, is actually very ordinary looking. The adjacent Pariser Platz is slightly more interesting and offers some people-watching opportunities. The few hours I spent there I bumped into countless tourists, many street performers, a few weddings and a Yemeni activist demonstration.

Day trip

Potsdam 

Sanssouci, Potsdam

The crowd showed up in full force at Sanssouci, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. I arrived at the ticketing office at 1:30 pm. The palace was accessible only with an official guided tour and I was able to get a spot at 16:45, which was the last tour of the day. The admission price was €8.

During the long wait, I covered the entire ground of Sanssouci Park, including the terraced gardens, the Chinese House and the New Palace, although none of the points of interest intrigued me enough to slow down my pace. What’s far more novel to me was the open policy adopted by the park management – the former royal park acted like a huge city park and was free for all to roam about. People were enjoying themselves under the warm glow of the sun. Some were biking, some were having beer, some were chasing their kids around… the relaxed atmosphere was a welcome departure from my accustomed experience of the confined spaces of European castles and palaces.

It was time to head back to Sanssouci Palace. The single-story villa contains twelve adjoining rooms which are thoroughly decorated in the Rococo style. The guide allowed around a minute or two in each room and the entire tour took fifteen minutes.

I came away with a mixed feeling: the palace was a little underwhelming and didn’t justify the long wait, yet without the long lineup I wouldn’t have spent a pleasant afternoon in Sanssouci Park.

Dessau

The Bauhaus Dessau

We took a break in Dessau on the way from Weimar to Berlin, but it is easily doable as a day trip from the capital.

For many architectural buffs, a visit to the Bauhaus Dessau is a pilgrimage of sort. Since I am not one of them, I didn’t share the same adrenaline rush. We walked around the campus in a lazy early summer afternoon when much of the school was on summer holiday. As a direct tribute to the success of the Bauhaus movement, the school’s once revolutionary buildings appear rather ordinary today because its style has been copied across the globe. The surprisingly meager exhibition at the basement of the main building also didn’t provide much insight to the Bauhaus movement or the Bauhaus Dessau. In comparison, the Bauhaus Museum in Weimar gave me a much better perspective on what Bauhaus stands for and the turbulent era that defined the movement between the two World Wars.

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Georgium Garden, one of the several English gardens in the area that forms the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz – an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whatever significance the Georgium Garden might have exhibited to its contemporary in the 19th century can only be appreciated by historians. As the way it is in the present, the garden is nothing more than a pleasant city park.

Cost

A quick breakdown of some of the expenses during our four days in Berlin:

  • Apartment for 4 nights – €316 (€79 per)
  • Three-Day Berlin WelcomeCard – €22.90. (Covered all transportation and attraction admission price except for Sanssouci Palace)
  • We cooked most of our meals at our apartment, but of the couple of times we dined out, an entree cost around €12 – €15

For a Western European city, Berlin is quite cheap and shouldn’t induce severe financial pain to those who wants to linger for a few days.

Intangibles

Berlin, more than any other place on Earth, symbolizes WWII and the Cold War. The once divided city is gradually integrating; life before the unification might be forever ingrained in the minds of those who have lived through it, yet any sign of the Cold War in the new Berlin can only be found through the Berlin Wall and similar relics of this foregone era.

What’s truly applaudable is how Berlin is able to be defined by more than its history and develop into a progressive city that focuses on the present. With the memory of the Cold War gradually fading, Berlin is at the forefront of Germany’s effort in establishing a national identity that can move beyond its turbulent history of the past two-hundred years. While post-unification Berlin still has a long way to go to catch up to the western and southern parts of Germany economically, its cheap rent has been a magnet for young people and immigrants; it exudes an edginess that’s less stuffy and more forward-looking than other major European capitals like Paris or Rome.

Unpretentious and efficient aren’t characteristics that make for great travel marketing material, but these lay the foundation for Berlin in its quest to progress as the capital of Germany – the leading economic and political power in an integrating Europe.

Recommendation

Berlin has good public transportation and is extremely easy to get around. The city is clean and its people are generally friendly and helpful. Our time in Berlin was stress-free and easy. It is also different from the rest of Germany; a large amount of expat lives here and often you hear English more than German spoken by local patrons at bars and restaurants. Edginess is a term Berliner often use to describe their city and that’s noticeable all over East Berlin – the bar next to our apartment was called “White Trash”. Berlin is both cosmopolitan and German, and which side you see depends on which area you linger most.

The city is one of the uglier major cities in Western Europe. That said, I wish I had more time to explore the rougher edges and gallery scene of Berlin. What I did see was a city, despite great historic burden and a tormented 20th century, ready to step up to the plate as the capital of the leading power of Europe.

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