A Long Weekend in Berlin

March 2013



Easter weekend, March 2013, it is cold, even snowing at times, in Berlin which is surprising but makes us more energetic to get where we are going. The only downside is that the Tiergarten is uninviting as the paths are muddy so we only get to admire it from the top of the double decker bus as we circle it many times. Once the hunting ground for the Electors of Brandenburg, this was later transformed into a public park, but largely deforested after 1944 as it served as a source of firewood. Nowadays it houses several governmental buildings and works of art, over a 5.17 square kilometers area.

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Berlin does not have one typical architectural style or even any kind of homogeneity. It is still showing the scars of the war and the ensuing separation.
What is left of the wall is now treated like a museum

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And “Checkpoint Charlie” is now a tourist attraction

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But it also displays the symbols and effects of the reunification, such as this sculpture on Kurfürstendamm

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and the numerous cranes everywhere.

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Having said this, there are still some beautiful old buildings standing, such as the Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island.

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This is an impressive building whether you see it from the road or the water, yet…once inside it feels oddly small…. and I do not know why….

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Speaking of the Museum Island…what a treasure that is!
We visited two of them: the Pergamon Museum and the Neues Museum.

The Pergamon Museum contains, among other things, the Pergamon Altar from the 2nd century BC, with a 113 meters (371 ft.) long sculptural frieze depicting the struggle of the gods and the giants,

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and the Gate of Miletus from Roman antiquity.

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But my favorite exhibits were the Ishtar Gate

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and the Procession Way of Babylon together with the throne room facade of Nebuchadrezzar II

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The Neues Museum required a reservation that we got by showing up an hour before the opening with coffee and pastries in hand. A well worth it precaution. The building itself is a beautiful restoration after severe damage caused during the war.
The star of this museum is Nefertiti…. you walk through rooms that tell you all about the archeologist who found her, building up your anticipation…and I must say she does not disappoint…. this is a beautiful head of a gorgeous woman…

Speaking of restoration, the most spectacular in my mind has to be the Reichstag building. Originally opened in 1894, it suffered a series of mishaps and destruction over the years and had to be gutted and rebuilt. This was completed in 1999.

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At first it looks like a regular “old” building, but as soon as you step in, you notice that it is anything but. The most spectacular part of the building is the huge glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola, giving an impressive view over the city. The inner structure is as amazing as it is spectacular! It has a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The main hall of the parliament below can also be seen from inside the dome, and natural light from above radiates down to the parliament floor. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but dazzle those below. 

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Needless to say the view from up there is amazing…Among other things we got to see the top of the Brandenburg gate from above, before going to see it up close.

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This is iconic landmark of Berlin is a must on any visitor’s list. Throughout its existence, the Brandenburg Gate was often site for major historical events. Today it is considered a symbol of both tumultuous European and German history, and European unity and peace. Legend had it that the horses were facing the other way during the separation.

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Meandering in the area we came upon Gendarmenmarkt: two symmetric churches flanking a concert hall… a lovely place to stop and have lunch, or a concert.

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Speaking of concerts we did attend one at the Charlottenburg Palace.

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It was by candlelight and the performers wore period costumes… 

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Very chic, but what impressed me more was visiting the palace. The entire palace is fully furnished with furniture and outstanding artwork. One room was filled to the rafters with a collection of Chinese porcelain that made me quite envious. The palace is surrounded by gardens that are reminiscent of Versailles. 

Berlin is as much about modern architecture as it is about preserving the old.  And it is not always smooth sailing. There is a huge controversy raging about plans to rebuild the Royal Palace the “Atadtschloss”. The original palace was already a complete wreck in 1945 due to severe bombing. In 1950 the government decided to make way for a large square and demolished the ruin. In 2007, the parliament did make a definitive decision to rebuild the exterior but maintain a modern interior. Yet the project has been delayed some more because of opposition to its cost.

There are however several ultra modern buildings gracing the skies of Berlin. The highest and most spectacular high-rises can be found in Potsdamer Platz. This location that started out as a thoroughfare in the 1600, was later a gate into the city in the 1800, and ended up split in two by the wall after the war. It has become an almost futuristic corner.

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Other interesting new buildings include the government offices built over the river Spree to symbolize the reunification of  the east and the west.

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As this river runs through the entire city, cruising on it is a good way to see Berlin.

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This was a short visit and we did not get to see everything BUT we did visit an amazing museum that made me feel as if I had walked into a game of “Masterpiece”. Not only was the art of an outstanding caliber but also the building itself was comfortable, light and airy, with plenty of benches to sit on, a rarity in Europe where museums are notoriously stuffy. It is called the Gemäldegalerie. It is said to hold one of the world's leading collections of European paintings from the 13th to the 18th centuries. A MUST (in my book).

Berlin offers so many museums on so many topics. We missed those dealing with the holocaust, not for lack of interest but rather lack of time. We did visit the “History of Berlin Museum” as well as the “DDR Museum”, but, though informative, they were not memorable.

One very memorable thing is the Berlin Zoo!! It was Easter Monday, museums and stores were closed, but the zoo was open. So although I prefer to watch animals in the wild, this was a fun visit. Opened in 1844 the Berlin zoo covers 34 hectares (84 acres). With almost 1,500 different species and around 19,500 animals, it presents the most comprehensive collection of species in the world.
I had fun making videos of elephants making snowballs with their trunks and wolves howling, but here are a few of the photos.

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There is an entire building dedicated to primates. Although I find them fascinating, it is also troubling to watch those not so distant cousins on the wrong side of the glass.

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The aquarium is very nice also.

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I mentioned stores being closed. We did not have much time to shop anyway, but we did go into one store that blew me away. It is called Kaufhaus des Westens, department store of the west, better known as “KaDeWe”. I was so impressed because the 6th and 7th floors are entirely devoted to food, and advertisements tout the place as having two football fields of food. The 6th floor has around 110 cooks and 40 bakers and confectioners supplying more than 30 gourmet counters offering about 33,000 different items – thousands of types of sausages, and meats, and cheeses and hundreds of types of bread. The sell 10,000 lobsters and oysters each week.  The top floor is a restaurant surrounded by an all windowed wall offering a view over the Wittenbergplatz.

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Speaking of food, we ate very well, trying out a variety of German dishes. One area that offers several interesting eateries is Savignyplatz.
And of course we tried as much German beer as we could hold. This one rang a bell….

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All in all a great trip even given the cold. I would love to return for a longer stay…in summer to visit all the parks.