Berlin: Germany’s Urbane Option

Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Travel Writer

Nobody goes to Berlin for the weather.

On my first visit to Germany’s sprawling capital, I spent three weeks without a single glimpse of the sun. True, it was January. But even in August, Berlin often drizzles while other northern latitudes bathe in evening sunshine. “Would it be too much to ask,” one acquaintance sighed, “to see the sun once in a whole week — just once?”

Yes, it’s depressing to wander about in a sea of gray, and this is on top of a city that for many Jewish Americans still conjures up complicated emotions. Yet Berlin is now well into its latest incarnation as a hipster destination — one of those places that people hear about so much, everyone decides they simply have to see, gray skies or not. And few are disappointed. Cheap rents in this chronically bankrupt city have turned it into a haven for artists and bohemians from all over the globe. Let Frankfurt and Munich have their factories and corporate stiffs: Berlin has glittering nightlife and a vibrant urbanity not found elsewhere in early-to-rise, hard-working Germany.

The secret of Berlin, therefore, is to sleep in. Rise about noon, enjoy some of Europe’s best bread with surprisingly decent coffee, and spend your days at the boutiques of the chic midtown district Mitte, and your nights in darkly glamorous bars, or listening to the Berlin Philharmonic in its home auditorium. The colorful parade of local fashion and the mellow glow of candles from every café table is enough to light up foggy Berlin afternoons.
And while there’s no beach in sight, Berliners and tourists alike have lately discovered the city’s waterways. As the tourism board loves to remind you, Berlin has more bridges than Venice, as the Spree River winds through the city in picturesque fashion. While the weather’s still fine, an hour-long cruise on one of the many new tour boats is a pleasant way to take in city views.

It only takes a glance to see that Berlin is truly international, in the way that Paris and New York are; its contemporary multiculturalism stands in pointed contrast to its devastatingly xenophobic history.

“In Berlin these days, the attitude is totally pro-Semitic,” the same German friend told me, as he packed for a trip to the Spanish coast. “Everything Jewish is cool. Young people are fascinated by shofars, by sukkahs.”

That’s not the case elsewhere in Europe, where a frightening low hum of conspiracy theories persists, and “Zionist” is considered a slur among the fashionable set. But in Berlin, a once-vanquished Jewish community has been reborn and flourishes with synagogues, cultural events and schools — a phenomenon whose very improbability has made it a media highlight.

Neue Synagogue, Berlin’s historic Reform temple, is a spiritual home to the city’s Jews in more ways than one. The painstaking restoration of its Moorish dome, marble corridors and tiled archways is a tangible monument to the restoration of Jewish life here, as well as a stunning and historic structure well worth visiting.

The synagogue hosts a permanent exhibit on Berlin Jewish history and an adjoining kosher eatery. As you walk around Oranienburgstrasse and surrounding Kreuzberg, note the bronze sidewalk plaques engraved with names of local Jewish Holocaust victims. This is a city that, for now at least, is determined never to forget.

In a city with such a complicated relationship to history, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is no Prado, Louvre or similar blockbuster art collection. When Berlin is not living in the present, it prefers to look way, way back: the Pergamon, its most famous museum, focuses on the art of antiquity.

But it’s the Jewish Museum that generates the most buzz. Daniel Libeskind’s shimmering metal façade slices through downtown Berlin with unsettling angles and dark, eerie voids, all meant to evoke in visitors the disquieting sensation of loss.

If you visit one Jewish museum in Europe, this should be it: the exhibits are beautifully mounted, the historical presentation provocative and engaging, and the physical spaces — the lonely Garden of Exile, the stark Holocaust Tower — as beautiful as they are tragic. Liebermanns, the museum restaurant, offers nostalgic kosher-style Jewish meals and Monday night klezmer concerts.

Nearby is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the most prominent of the city’s Holocaust memorials. Just off a bustling boulevard in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, visitors walk into a labyrinth of tall concrete slabs. As the path slopes downward, the slabs appear to rise, the sounds of the outside world fade away, and the visitor is alone in claustrophobic darkness, with only the sky above. Many have criticized the memorial for its abstraction. But I find it powerful, evocative and disturbing.

And then you emerge into the rush of modern-day Berlin, with the glass towers of Potsdamer Platz soaring above. Berlin is a heady, sometimes disorienting mix of old and new: more of its historic neighborhoods have been preserved than you might expect, and barely-built skyscrapers compete with the hulking vestiges of Socialist East Germany.

Apart from a few museums and memorials, Berlin is mostly a city of neighborhoods to explore. Yuppie moms push strollers through the elegant streets of Prenzlauerberg, where cafes invite you to stop for cappuccino; Kreuzberg has a funky urban beat, with Turkish kebab shops and artisan galleries along Bergmanstrasse. The Kufurstendamm, or Ku’damm as locals call it, is the Fifth Avenue of Berlin, with elegant shops and the tony boutiques of Charlottenburg.

I once thought I’d be able to tell which parts of Berlin used to be behind the Iron Curtain — I assumed they’d be poorer, shabbier, neglected. I was wrong: Communism is ancient history, and today’s Berlin knows no borders.
 

A picturesque street in the Friedrichshain District.

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