Visiting Berlin is Balm for the Soul
I start my wanderings unpacking at a fabulous lifestyle hotel called nhow. The lobby, bar and restaurant are all pink, an outrageous runway model kind-of-pink. The hotel concierge offers me a pink electric guitar, pink bathrobe and pink toothbrush - playful aesthetics that put me right at ease.
Once divided by the Berlin Wall, I’m in the creative nexus called the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. My spread overlooks the River Spree with glimpses of the Oberbaumbrucke Bridge and a Stadtstrand beach bar on the opposite bank. It's the perfect location to sip a signature cocktail from a funky beanbag chair.
Berlin was divided on August 13, 1961 by the construction of 87-miles of reinforced concrete slabs, watchtowers and bunkers. Each gray slab weighed in at approximately three tons and stood 12-feet tall. Today you can’t describe the Berlin Wall or Berlin in general without mentioning graffiti.
Most of it is political and it’s as important to the heritage of Berlin as the museums, memorials and historical sites. To mark the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the building of the Wall, nhow hotel transformed their back yard into Freedom Park.
East Side Gallery Memorial
Just a block up the street from the nhow hotel is the longest section of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery Memorial. 106 urban paintings canvas the entire one-mile stretch.
Dining with Consequences
In any other city, a bombed-out soap factory on a weedy lot that discourages advertising would be a recipe for disaster. But, try as they might to keep Kater Holzig a secret only among the alternative scene, word gets out to the masses. It turns out that this restaurant is a cultural playground flush with a theater, a mock beach and dance lounge. I follow the crowd up three flights of gritty stairs to a quirky open-kitchen concept hotspot. There are warnings against photography but the 'cool factor' of this dilapidated warehouse is too much for me to resist. After a lengthy 4-
course dinner that includes a fennel salad, confit olive tapenade, braised wild boar, dumplings and chestnut strudel it's a lot easier going down stairs than coming up. Half looped up on liquor and heading for the exit I completely forget the critical photo policy.
Finding Answers at Museums
The next day I head straight to the museums for answers. You can literally spend every day of the year inside a different museum in Berlin so choose wisely. On display at the Allied Museum are the CIA and SIS (British Secret Service) ´Spy Tunnel´, the guardhouse of Checkpoint Charlie from Friedrichstrasse and a British "Hastings" airplane used for reconnaissance. I’m surrounded by a sordid history that puts Berlin’s complex chronology in better perspective.
I make a necessary stop at the Berlin Wall Documentation Center, then the mothballed Templehof Park; the former airport for the famous Berlin Airlift and finally, the interactive Story of Berlin Museum. This is how you pay proper deference to Berlin. Before you take photos you learn acronyms like GDR (German Democratic Republic), FRG (Federal Republic of Germany), NPA or NVA (National People’s Army) and SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). My head is swimming with history but I’m finally coming to terms with what haunts Mutti and understanding Berlin's complexities.
The Mitte (Midtown) District
Of the 12 districts in Berlin I’ve barely scratched the surface of two of them. I only have one day left to pull together an analysis of Berlin and assure Mutti she has nothing to fear. I decide to go visit a small farmers market for further investigation. The tasty-smelling Kollwitzplatz Market is in the gentrified Mitte District home to a working class family population. There are leafy playgrounds and Bauhaus schools and it's an intellectually stimulating district for thought and meditation. On the corner I spot a grocery cart full of free flowers and a makeshift stall giving away used but still wearable clothing.
"The baby population is exploding in this section of Berlin" says my Visit Berlin travel guide Nicole Robel. Nicole confesses she lives here and loves the vibe and atmosphere of her trendy neighborhood.
We stroll the market sampling a slew of Berlin favorites like Marzipan, fresh Brötchen and a venerable sausage creation called currywurst. I think the currywurst is an acquired taste.
There are narrow streets to explore with high-end dress shops and boutique galleries to pine over. And, like the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district and perhaps all districts, the ever-present political tagging permeates vacant buildings, street signs and sidewalks.
Traditional Alsatian Gastronomy
In the evening, I’m back to my carnivore ways sharing dinner with friends at the Gugelhof. If it’s glamorous enough for German Chancellor Schröder to take US President Clinton out to dinner here, well, then, it’s good enough for me. My cholesterol count jumps several notches as I plow through their most popular fondue dish.
The Clarchens Ballhaus is a 1913 school dancehall with an upstairs Mirror salon and a downstairs swing floor. By the time I arrive from Gugelhof it’s 10p on a Sunday evening and there’s just one romantic couple on the dance floor. It’s too late to see a show at the Hackensche Hofe Filmtheater so we take photos of the Brandenburg Gate, wet from a soft rain and lit up nicely.
It's my last evening in Berlin and after the Kater Holzig anomaly nobody tried to confiscate my camera. Like the beloved Trebant vehicles and little Ampelmännchen traffic lights, perhaps the altercation was just a leftover gesture from East Berlin times. Either way, nothing should deter anyone from visiting Berlin and given the size of the city, it will take more than one visit.
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