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The new Berlin

ONE OF EUROPE’S HOTTEST DESTINATIONS

Like a Grande Dame sporting a skillful facelift, Berlin has put her past behind her. The scars are there – the remnants of the Berlin wall, a museum where  Checkpoint Charlie was, bullet-riddled facades, the skeleton of a city-centre church – but these traces of the dark days of the city’s 20th century are bathed now in a touristic 21st century glow.

Controversial architecture has transformed the city’s urban wastelands into futuristic landscapes; the influence of artists, writers, musicians and craftsmen, attracted to the former East German sector by affordable workshops, can be sensed all over the city. Nine times the size of Paris, Berlin hums with clubs that have no closing hours.   Luckily, it has a good public transport system, too.

Today’s Berlin has survived devastation, partition, reconstruction and economic meltdown to become one of Europe’s most popular destinations yet again. Willkomen, bienvenue, welcome….

What’s new:

1) A visit to the restored Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament is currently Berlin’s top attraction.  Circumvent the long entry queue by making a reservation in Kaefer Dachgarten, the Reichstag rooftop restaurant. Reservation number in hand, you’ll enter the side door and go straight on through to the lift. In addition to a meal of German specialties, you’ll enjoy a 180-degree view of Eastern Berlin and see Norman Foster’s reconstruction of the historic building as well.

Reservations required for breakfast, lunch or dinner: Kaefer Dachgarten, Platz der Republik 1 (Reichstag),TG
Tel:030/ 22 62 99 33

2) Potsdammer Platz, the pride of the new Berlin, is a modern urban centre transmuted from rubble to rooftops in five years. What was once a desolate no-man’s land between East and West is now a showplace of prestigious building by famous architects. What it lacks in soul it makes up for in style.  Fragments of the Berlin Wall stand at a nearby street corner, along with mounted photos of the old Potsdammer Platz ‘before and after’ the war.

For more leading edge architecture, visit Pariser Platz, Leipziger Platz, and Friedrichstraße.

3) Brandenburger Tor.  the city’s iconic gateway is the centerpiece of a rebuilt, refurbished plaza. From the archway, the elegant Unter den Linden stretches eastward. Among the new constructions surrounding the Tor, Gerhy’s Deutches Banque is the most interesting; its relatively conservative exterior masks a banking hall as exciting as you’d expect from the architect of the famous Bilbao Museum.

4) Not far from the Brandenburger Tor, and just down from the cemented-over remains of Hitler’s underground bunker, is the city’s most sobering monument; 2, 711 grey stone pillars in memory of the victims of Europe’s Holocaust. The stones, which range from only a few centimeters high to almost 5 meters, appear to make up a geometric grid. But move between them and you find it is less a grid then a warped and chaotic field of stone. That’s deliberate. According to the monument’s designer, the New York architect Peter Eisenman, a walk between the pillars is meant to be an unsettling experience. It is. Even more unsettling are victims’ personal records in the underground information centre.

Worth doing:

1) Visit the modern chapel next to the ruin of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche. Often disregarded, with its uninspiring façade of glass and cement, it seems to cower beside the destroyed church that is such a familiar element of the city’s landscape.   But step inside and you will experience a world a million miles away from noisy Ku’damm. You are bathed in silence and unearthly light; the 20,000 small stained glass windows envelope the interior in blue.

2) Go to one museum on museum island; the three neoclassic buildings hold such a wealth of beautiful objects it’s impossible to do them justice in one visit.  Choose the Alte Nationalgalerie for the collection of 19th century art housed in its top floor. Make it the Altes Museum if you’d prefer a tour through Greek history, illustrated by its fine antiquities. (You’ll find the temporary home of the Egyptian Museum in this building, too, with its hauntingly lovely bust of Queen Nefertiti.) My own favourite of the three is the Pergamon Museum, home of the Greek Pergamon Altar and the unforgettable tiled Ishtar Gate; built in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar (about 600 B.C.) it was reconstructed from fragments in 1930.

3) Get a feel for what it used to be like on the other side of the wall in the Mitte district, now the center of Berlin’s famous art scene. Still shabby, it is where the artists and craftsmen cluster, attracted by small rents and big spaces. Typical is the Kunste Werke, Berlin’s Museum of Modern Art, housed in what was once a late-19th century margarine factory. Extensively refurbished and with two new buildings added to the complex, the KW possesses some 2,000 square meters of exhibition space extending over five floors, six artists’ studios in the front side wings, and one of the most striking courtyards in central Berlin. The Museum has no collection of its own but hosts exhibitions by international contemporary artists.

Closed Monday, open Tuesday-Sunday from noon until 7, and until 9 on Thursday evenings. Auguststrasse 69. Website www.kw-berlin.de

4) Dine in the Orangery of Charlottenburg Castle. Dinner is served by candlelight and followed by a performance of the Berlin Residence Orchestra dressed in 18th century costume. Touristy – but an enjoyable evocation of baroque Berlin.  Tickets can be combined with a tour of   Schloss Charlottenburg. Built by the Elector Friedrich III as a summer residence for his wife, Sophie Charlotte, the palace was restored after considerable bomb damage in WW2. The castle is closed Monday. Another option, from April to November, is dinner and concert following a three-hour river cruise under the bridges of Berlin.

Tickets from your hotel’s front desk or online: www.concerts-berlin.com.

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