IT’S 16 years since The Wall came down in Berlin; bits of it remain as a reminder of grim days and the route of the wall is faithfully marked on the roads and the pavements as a line of different coloured stones.
But where it was surrounded on either side by open space – no-man’s land – that line is now in the midst of exciting new commercial and retail developments, hotels and apartments.
Germany’s reunited capital attracted almost six million hotel guests in 2004, with over 13 million registered overnight stays; there are currently over 83,600 hotel beds in the city and eight new hotels are scheduled to open before the end of 2006. Another 123 million day trippers visited the city in 2004 and a staggering additional 28.5 million visitors to Berlin stayed with friends and relatives during the same period. In the first eight months of 2005, there were almost 4.2 million visitors representing over 9.5 million overnight stays – around 9 per cent up on the previous year.
Now, in 2006 – the year in which Germany hosts the World Cup – that figure is likely to soar further. There are 3.3 million World Cup tickets available in total and the extensively renovated Berlin Olympiastadion will be the venue for six of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany games from June 8 to July 9. The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof-Lehrter Bahnhof central station being developed in the heart of the city to cope with the expected influx of soccer fans will be the largest transit station on the continent when it opens on May 28. And for soccer aficionados without tickets, there will be huge public viewing screens throughout the city, a fan camp, a ‘fan mile’ and endless shops selling World Cup and football memorabilia. Following massive pressure on FIFA, an Internet site will be set up in February for fans to exchange, buy or sell tickets.
But, apart from football, what is there to attract people to this once-divided German capital? There is, of course, its grim World War II history, the story of people trying to flee from East to West during the Cold War and the remains of The Wall itself. That grim barrier that separated East and West Berliners went up in 1961 and came down in 1989. In the intervening years, thousands risked – and often lost – their lives trying to cross to freedom. Their struggle together with the WW II atrocities that were planned in the city are illustrated in a number of indoor and outdoor exhibitions. (The Topography of Terror has been erected on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters and Reich Security Main Office).
But this is the new Germany – with the biggest economy in Europe – and, despite its history, Berlin is not melancholy but Fun - with a capital ‘F’! It is also significantly cheaper than Germany’s other main cities, which is always good news for travellers – and especially those on a budget. I went back to Berlin in December 2005 on Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight – the first time I’d returned to the city since the wall came down and the checkpoints disappeared – and I can see why it’s now so popular with visitors from home and overseas.
On the banks of the River Spree, Berlin is the home to numerous trade fairs and exhibitions; offers major cultural attractions; superb shopping; and superlative cuisine (the city’s restaurants have a total of nine Michelin stars). It’s not a staid or boring city and, perhaps surprisingly to some, it’s the eastern section – formerly under communist control – that is the trendiest, liveliest and with the greatest concentration of designer boutiques. Nine times bigger than Paris, it covers 890 square kilometres and was once more named Germany’s capital in 1991. It is also Germany’s greenest metropolis with loads of woods, parks and cultivated areas in the inner city. The zoological gardens are the largest in Europe. The city mascot is the brown bear ‘that knows no hibernation’ and features hugely in city souvenirs.
How To Get There
Qatar Airways flies to Berlin’s Tegel airport four times a week from its Doha hub. The airline also serves Frankfurt (daily) and Munich (five times a week). It will expand to five German destinations this year. According to Dieter Johannsen-Roth, CEO of Berlin Airports, and Burkland Kiecker, VP Marketing Berlin Airports, at present 92 airlines fly into Berlin, serving 158 destinations. Which also makes Berlin a great European hub for onward trips.
What to See and Do
The Berlin Tourist Information centres, quite justifiably, market themselves as one stop-shops for visitors: you can book hotels and guesthouses there, reserve tickets for theatre or city walks and tours, flight tickets, train tickets, conference and meetings services, and they have a wide range of guidebooks, videos, posters and souvenirs. A brief guided city tour will show you the river; Brandenburg Gate; Museum Island; East Berlin’s famous ‘Unter Den Linden’ avenue; significant WW II sites; Checkpoint Charlie; the various cold-war-related museums, and the Reichstag – the parliament building, as well as a host of other features. The Reichstag has an amazing glass cupola or observation dome with a spiral walkway inside from which you can look out over the whole city. Queues to get into the Reichstag for a tour are always massive. Cheat if you just want to go up inside the dome! Book a table for lunch at the Reichstag’s rooftop restaurant (where the food is excellent and the view amazing) and you get to go in a separate door, bypassing the crowds. You can then also on the access level for the cupola at no extra cost.
If you want to plan your own trip, check out berlin-tourist-information.de
For a whistlestop tour, the special Berlin City Tour buses (open-top doubledeckers in summer, closed buses in winter) takes you past no less than 89 landmarks on a one and a half hour circular tour that will cost you just 13 euros per person, complete with live commentary. But there are literally hundreds of other tours to choose from such as the Hop-On-Hop-Off City Circle bus. There’s an amazing free three-and-a-half hour guided walk of the city run by newberlintours with groups going three times a day. (If you’re on the 4pm tour, it ends with a free beer). The same company also does a ‘pub crawl’ of underground bars, funky cocktail lounges and thumping clubs. Ten euros gets you into four bars and two clubs with Happy Hour free beer … and more.
Shopping & Nightlife
Serious shoppers in Berlin head first for the Kurfurstendamm (known to the locals as Ku’Damm), Tauentzienstrasse, Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, Friedrichestrasse and the Alexanderplatz. KaDeWe [Kaufhaus des Westens] is the largest department store in mainland Europe – and, like Harrods in London, has everything you could want and a huge dedicated gourmet foodhall: in the case of KaDeWe, the whole of the sixth floor. It’s just one of over 18,000 stores, boutiques and shops in the city. Galeries Lafayette has an amazing glass observation area in its midst, like the funnel of a tornado. Departmentstore Quartier 206 gives you the chance to wander at leisure (without ever being hassled by sales staff) through collections by the creators of the world’s fashion cults.
Twice a year, this city of shopaholics has a ‘Long Night of shopping’ festival where the shops on and near the Ku’Damm stay open until midnight and there are special show programmes on the city stages. There are also around 135 weekly markets and over 30 flea markets to scour for bargains.
Nightlife is plentiful and ranges from bars and pubs to clubs, nightclubs, Cabaret, theatre and opera. Berlin seldom sleeps. There’s plenty for all ages and the new Goya club, for the 30-50 age group offers dining, shows and the longest cocktail bar in Europe (an amazing 100 metres). It also has another unique feature – all the club’s bouncers are female. In April 2006, Friedrichstrasse will get back another entertainment icon – its legendary Admiralspalast which lit up the Roaring Twenties of the last century with its ice revues, variety shows and theatre. Almost a return to the days of the Kit Kat Bar, featured in the film Cabaret.
Berlin has some of the most amazing restaurants – many of them so hidden away that Berliners themselves don’t know them. You can discover them by doing as I did – go on a ‘Gastro Rallye’ the amazing idea of a Swedish guide who has now made his home and career in Berlin. A tour ‘spiced with surprises’, you can choose a four or five course menu for the evening. And you move to a different venue for each course! Everything is organised and your guide goes with you. It takes between three-and-a-half and five hours and the maximum number of people on a tour is nine. It costs between 49 and 89 euros per person, but that includes all the food and beverages and the opportunity to meet the owners/ managers of each restaurant. The food is an absolute delight, and the ambience of the restaurants amazing (one of those we visited is also lined with books; people sometimes just go for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and a ‘read’; others use it like a book exchange.)
For a simpler excursion on your own, try the restaurant at the Marriott, just off Potsdamer Platz. Sit near the window, and you’re right on the line where the monstrous Wall used to be.
There’s certainly no shortage of museums in Berlin – catering to just about every interest. For easy access to the museums, Berlin Tourist Information offers a SchauLUST Museen pass that allows you to visit over 70 museums on three successive days in which they are open. The Egyptian Museum focuses particularly on the age of Queen Nefertiti; the allied Museum documents the role of Western Allies in the post-World War II era and the life of Allied troops in Berlin. In terms of design, there’s the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, with works from all Bauhaus stages and workshops and from the trendsetting Gestaltungschule from 1919 to 1933 and the estates of Gropius, Muche and Bayer. There’s are museums of photography and architecture; sculpture and Byzantine art; Art Nouveau and Art Deco; Expressionism; Technology; Ethnology; the German Film Industry; Decorative Arts; the history and culture of Berlin from the Middle Ages to the present day; Picasso; Indian art; Music and Musical Instruments; ndustrial Design – and of course, the infamous ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ border crossing of The Wall. You can also stop by the new Radisson SAS to gawp at the 25-metre tall cylindrical aquarium in the foyer!
Berlin offers an incredibly wide choice of opera, ballet, theatre or art exhibitions year-round and – particularly in what was East Berlin, there’s plenty of fringe theatre, tucked away in beautiful courtyard developments.
Getting around is easy – on foot, in taxis, by bus or using the metro and Berlin also has its own fun ‘Velotaxis’ – bicycle taxis first introduced in 1997. The Berlin Welcome Card is one of the most popular products of Berlin Tourismus Marketing (BTM), offering unlimited travel on public transport in Berlin and Potsdam as well as discounts of up to 50 per cent on a literally enormous range of city tours, museums and cultural facilities. You can buy a card for 48 or 72 hours at Euros 16 and 22 respectively.
Where to Stay
You’ve got tremendous choice in Berlin; something for every pocket and lifestyle.
The Ritz-Carlton, Berlin, is right on Potsdamer Platz and ideally located for sightseeing. (Actress Sharon Stone was a guest when we were there) It has an excellent Spa, gym and pool and its Desbrosses brasserie offers great food in a casual dining setting full of pictures of old French Brasseries and even a canteen of cutlery belonging to the original Mr Ritz. The designers actually bought a French brasserie dating from 1875 and shipped all the panelling, accessories and wooden furniture to Berlin! Other restaurants include the Vitrum (Gourmet restaurant); Terasse; Tea Lounge and the Curtain Club (Bar). The hotel has 302 guestrooms (Deluxe rooms are a minimum of 40 square metres each), including 39 suites, 37 Club Rooms and one Ritz-Carlton Suite. If you’re staying on the Club floors, you have free access to the exclusive Club Lounge where there’s also free use of a laptop computer and free wireless internet access. There’s 1,800 square metres of meeting and banqueting space with hi-tech audiovisual equipment and a business centre with PCs internet access and secretarial service.. – and a ten-storey atrium!
The Besheim Center is an exclusive freehold real estate development with Tower Apartments above The Ritz Carlton and Parkside Apartments in an adjacent block. Both have full access to Ritz-Carlton services.
Marriott Berlin must be unique in terms of hotels because it has its own radio station which broadcasts across the city every evening - Jazz Radio 101.9 (you can watch the DJs in the studio, just off the lobby bar). It also has a ten-storey-high atrium! The Marriott, with a frontage right along the line taken by the old Wall, has 370 rooms, plus nine suites. There’s an Executive Floor, Business Centre with secretarial support, 900 square metres of conference space with audiovisual equipment and wireless LAN.
Page 29: Football on Germany’s menu
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