Today’s Berlin

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 50 of the December 2017 issue.

The Reichstag, opened in 1894, now houses the Bundestag (Federal Assembly) — Berlin.

Berlin had been on my travel bucket list for more than two decades when, in May 2017, the opportunity for a 3-day visit surfaced as the final leg of a 14-day “Baltic States & Berlin” group tour offered by the New York-based tour operator smarTours (800/337-7773, www.smartours.com).

The tour cost from $2,899 per person, double occupancy, including air from New York’s JFK, four dinners and taxes. Traveling on a partially hosted basis, I was part of a group of 15 adventurers.

In the case of Berlin, I purposely avoided the destination studying I typically undertake before a visit. My intent was to keep the goblins and demons related to the historic realities of WWII and the following occupation of East Germany by the Soviets from clouding my consciousness regarding the Berlin I would find in 2017. To a large extent, I feel that effort was successful. 

Students visiting Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin touring, part 1

Upon arriving at the Berlin airport from Tallinn, Estonia (Oct. ’17, pg. 57), we met our Berlin guide, Gerrit Book, and commenced an introductory tour of the capital of reunified Germany, with a focus on the former West Berlin.

Our route included historic Charlottenburg Palace, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and five separate memorials to various groups who had been rounded up, persecuted and murdered by the genocidal Nazi authorities. 

I had not realized that the Nazis’ extermination policies extended far beyond just the Jewish population to include Gypsies, the physically and mentally disabled and known or suspected homosexuals. Walking silently through the expansive, maze-style Holocaust Memorial was a truly overpowering experience. 

We also traversed the beautiful Tiergarten, an expansive parkland offering locals and visitors respite from the city’s hustle and bustle. 

When we traveled the popular shopping avenue Kurfürstendamm, I discovered magical KaDeWe, the gigantic department store that features a food-and-dining floor. Dispersed throughout the vast sweep of gourmet foods were many inviting, cuisine-specific dining nooks, all in a setting superior to famous Harrods in London. 

Since the store was within walking distance of our centrally located hotel, I visited twice to partake of its gastronomic pleasures, including a bouillabaisse extraordinaire.

The reconstructed French Cathedral is one of Berlin's finest domed landmarks.

Touring the unified city, part 2

The following day, our morning tour focused on the former East Berlin. Except for the clearly marked winding route of the former Berlin Wall, which was torn down in 1989, today it is difficult to imagine the city physically divided. I had not realized that so many of Berlin’s most prominent landmarks, including a number of architectural gems, were in the eastern sector. 

Our photo-friendly touring included the impressive Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin State Opera, historic Humboldt University, the French Cathedral and a plethora of architecturally impressive buildings and monuments, with Potsdamer Platz occupying center stage. 

We paid a sobering visit to a monument exhibiting a section of the Berlin Wall, including guard towers from where VoPo (German Democratic Republic [DDR] police) snipers silenced the voices of many desperate souls trying to escape to the West.

Later, some balance was achieved at the East Side Gallery, the longest stretch of the Wall that remains, which today models as a rather provocative and entertaining gallery of colorful murals. 

Our touring included traveling along attractive Unter den Linden, the main city center thoroughfare, and being guided through the DDR Museum, whose interactive exhibits depict the depressing reality of life in the former East Berlin.

A one-hour boat cruise on the Spree River — a “must do” ­— revealed many attractions of the central city and provided incredible photo ops of the awe-inspiring Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral Church). I simply could not take my eyes off of this Baroque masterpiece.

Solo wandering

During the group’s free time in late afternoon, I hiked to a Saturday flea market on Museum Island, where I scored a charming, antique, wall-mount-style Victorian clothes hanger and was entertained by a street performer playing soothing classical music by running his fingers across the lips of water glasses, each of which contained a different amount of water, thereby producing different tones. This mini-concert was both ingenious and fascinating. 

In late afternoon, I enjoyed a light lunch and a dark draft at an idyllic outdoor café overlooking the Spree. This afternoon was all about the pure pleasure of soaking in Berlin’s festive weekend atmosphere.

The Berliner Dome on Museum island — Berlin

Berlin at leisure

The following day was free for all of us to enjoy Berlin on our own. Since a guided bicycle tour that I wanted to do was not offered on Sunday, I decided to take the hop-on/hop-off BEX Sightseeing coach that covers the city on two separate routes, yellow and purple. 

I had determined that this would be a good, open-air, upper-deck complement to the touring we had already done. It was a very good choice, indeed, and I cannot recommend this experience more. 

I suggest buying the “combination ticket,” which allows traveling on both the yellow and purple routes, offering a total of 30 stops and providing easy access to most of Berlin’s top attractions. 

Including the option of adding a boat tour, ticket combinations range from 1-day (@28 [near $32.50]) to 3-day (@36) and are available at some hotels, from the drivers when boarding and online at www.bex.de/sightseeing.

It would be difficult to imagine a more photo-inspiring city than Berlin. It was also clear that it would take a week or three to visit all of the great museums and other attractions in the area. I found 2017 Berlin to be a pulsating, impressive, resident-friendly city offering an enviable lifestyle. 

The ornate Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, completed in 1868, looms over Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki stopover

After our Berlin stay, the tour included a one-night stop in Helsinki, Finland, which made sense, as we were flying Finnair. 

Arriving in the afternoon, we toured the colorful waterfront and the central city, focusing on stately Senate Square, bedecked with 19th-century classical buildings that today house many government departments. 

Final thoughts

My journey through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia plus Berlin, Germany, left me with a profound sense of admiration for the resiliency of the people of each of those four nations in overcoming the very tragic political and human rights abuse realities of the mid- and late-20th century.

You may reach Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350, randykeck@yahoo.com.


Spree River sightseeing boats pass by the Berliner Dom (in background) on Museum Island in Berlin. Photos by Randy Keck

The Berliner Dome on Museum island — BerlinCheckpoint Charlie was the dividing line between the former East and West Berlins.