Travel: Berlin Beckons

A City Rises out of a Bleak PastBerlin Establishes Itself as a European Destination City  

By Jack Macaleavy

Berlin is an emerging European city. During World War II, large parts of the German capital were destroyed by air raids and the Battle of Berlin, one of the final battles of the war during which Hitler committed suicide. Soon after, a decades-long Cold War filled with fear and control split the city – and the nation – in two.

Now Germany’s largest city in area and population, Berlin is an emerging European destination – the second most populous city in the European Union. As a destination of rich history, museums and cultural events, it is yearning to rebuild and regain its position as one of the world’s premier cities.

Berlin is a hidden international gem of value for the adventurous traveler, featuring more than 20 five-star hotels, 78,000 hotel rooms (that’s 20,000 more than New York) and 11,000 restaurants and open-air cafés. The rate base for the five-star accommodation level is in the $175 range, including breakfast.

My stay was at the five-star Hotel Concorde, which opened in 2005. Its design was the result of a collaboration by internationally renowned architects in which each was assigned to design a premier room on each floor. Each completed room is an interpretation of its designer’s vision of cutting-edge interior design.

The Hotel Concorde’s 311 rooms are touted as the largest in Berlin; each offers approximately 500 square feet of contemporary space, including an oversized bath with Jacuzzi and a walk-in shower. There are 44 suites, each individually designed by a member of the internationally renowned architectural firm of Jan Kleihues. Strategically located in the heart of Berlin, the hotel is within walking distance of a plethora of shops and restaurants, as well as a boulevard much like Worth Avenue and Rodeo Drive.

Delta Airlines departed from New York’s JFK for an easy seven-hour flight to the modern Tegel International Airport. The processing of travelers was efficiently completed in less than 30 minutes so one could grab a Mercedes-Benz cab (more than 70 percent of Berlin taxis are Mercedes) for the 20-minute ride to downtown. With advance planning, Delta has encouraged travelers to make the journey with a round-trip coach seat in the range of $400 to $700 from JFK during the off-season.

Getting around Berlin is quite easy with an organized, clean subway and bus system. Purchase a three-, five- or seven-day pass and transport yourself from the west to the east sector of the city or the many communities, each with a unique personality. During my three-day visit, in which I walked most areas and was out until 3 or 4 in the morning, I never sensed any trepidation or fear from any place or person I encountered.

The city is impeccably clean, the people go out of their way to provide assistance, and it is the greenest metropolis in Germany. Thirty percent of land space is dedicated to public parks, and there are 112 miles of navigable waterways with a constant flow of ferries that allow visitors to pass under its 1,700 bridges and observe the historic architecture, landscapes, and nine castles from centuries past.

Berlin is the only European city with “more museums than rainy days.” The 175-museum collection allows you to pinpoint your interest, and most have diagrams and audio assistance in English. There also are the unique ones, such as the Sugar Museum and the Erotic Museum, that provide a fun alternative to standard historic fare.

It is said that on any given day in Berlin there are 1,500 events available for public consumption. Are you a film enthusiast? Then Berlinale, a 50-year-old festival held in late November and known worldwide as one of the industry’s top events, attracts 3,500 journalists from more than 80 countries.

With so much to do and see, planning is essential to make your visit worthwhile. My suggestion would be pick up a reference guide of the city at your favorite bookstore and develop a plan. I also would recommend making an investment in a personal guide.

The theme of my visit was “Hidden Berlin,” which took us to places off the beaten path. The Berlin government built more than 200 bunkers constructed in two phases, from 1933 to 1945 and from 1965 to 1993, to house a portion of the population during the constant bombing raids of World War II and the nuclear fears of the Cold War. This two-hour tour takes you to places very few people have seen. One may conjure visions of rat-infested filth, but these connecting chambers were as clean and organized as the streets above.

We entered through a nondescript doorway on the street side and exited through a similar door into a busy public area near a subway platform.

The tour guide brought history alive with a narrative of the facts of the construction and the horrors of time when, in six hours, many bombs fell from above on a city of 4.3 million people. You can experience true pitch-black and see a room filled with four levels of bunk beds for 48 people, as well as baby bassinets for two.

Another good side trip is to engage Bike Berlin and explore the Old Berlin Wall System on a bike. For about $20, you can be led by a knowledgeable guide who will track along a few-mile-long portion of the 29-mile, three-wall dead man’s zone barrier system that broke the country apart for 40 years. Stop at a section that was not removed and see how the German Democratic Republic created an impregnable system. Place your hand on the wall and feel the pain of this horrific chapter of Berlin history. You will come upon the only watchtower standing and open to explore. Günter Litwin was the first East German to be killed attempting to escape to freedom, and his brother is there every day to bring you inside and share Litwin’s passion and his people’s quest for freedom.

Engage Henrik Tidefjaerd, one of Berlin’s foremost personal guides, and have an experience created for your specific interests. From the dark underbelly of Berlin to the glitz and glamour of the high life, Tidefjaerd knows and has seen all that the mysterious city has to offer. He currently is appearing on the Travel Channel’s show on Berlin.

Tidefjaerd took us to a bombed-out, dark factory that was illuminated only by a dimly lit sign. We passed through the huge iron gate, open enough for one person to pass at a time. From there we walked along a cobblestone sidewalk wondering if doom lay ahead, only to turn the corner to discover one of Berlin’s hippest upscale dining establishments along the river – a beautifully renovated grand room seating 200-plus patrons in upscale style. We were entertained by an angelic harpist dressed in a sheer teddy on a platform high above ground level.

The room is surrounded by a collection of 15-by-15 beds in which groups lounge, dining and drinking in a decadent manner. The food was fine, and the service and atmosphere created a dining experience we will never forget.

A trip to Berlin would be lacking without a visit to the countryside less than 30 minutes from your hotel. We went to the Wannsee region, where we visited the Liebermann Villa and the House of the Wannsee Conference. It was a true contrast of experiences. The former villa of impressionist painter Max Liebermann will lift your soul and touch your heart. Walk two doors down to where Hitler’s top SS generals one afternoon laid the plan to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population over the following few years.

This haunted mansion is filled with an exhibit depicting how this 90-minute meeting – “followed by breakfast,” the written agenda said – would set into motion the darkest events of the last century. You will leave this place in search of a shower so you can feel clean of its monstrous spirits.

Berlin is changing daily; it is hip, historic, fun and a European experience that is ready to welcome Americans and the world. You could do seven to 10 days there for one-third of the cost of London and Paris and come away with more than you could imagine.