Berlin: German easels

29 Apr 2005 by BusinessTraveller
When Berlin once again became the capital of Germany in 1999, expectations ran high. The city was the crucible of the country's reunification dream, the symbol of Germany's place at the centre of Europe, and a showcase of national prestige and progress. In reality, Berlin hasn't yet proved to be the economic success story everyone hoped for. The plate glass windows of its office buildings are covered with "to let" signs, and office space costs far less than it did in the days of post-Wall euphoria. The finance industries have remained in Frankfurt, the media industries in Hamburg and Cologne. Meanwhile, the city has depopulated: its 1920s high of five million has dwindled to 3.4 million and despite 15 years of freedom for East Germans, the people haven't returned. "In 1990, they reckoned Berlin would have five million people by 2000," said Stefan Albrecht, a tourist guide and Berliner. "In fact, we have 100,000 less people than in 1990." But Berlin still attracts many soft industries such as fashion, film and tourism. Indeed, it is surprising to learn ­– from Berlin Tourismus Marketing – that it is now the third European capital for tourism after Paris and London, with 13 million overnight stays in 2004. British visitors have the biggest foreign share of this market and enjoy keen prices in Berlin's restaurants and hotels, as well as three low-fare carriers in Easyjet, Ryanair and Air Berlin. Catering for this leisure economy is an extraordinary range of museums and attractions. Berlin is a curate's egg of a city: beautiful in parts, with great swathes of urban sprawl in between its sights. But its cultural offering is magnificent, not least because the post-war division of the city gave it two of everything. In fact, Berlin has three opera houses and 175 museums, augmented by no fewer than 18 launches in the last five years, including the Helmut Newton Foundation for Photography and the Flick Collection of contemporary art, which opened in the nine-year-old contemporary art museum, Hamburger Bahndorf. The cultural riches start at street level. Berlin isn't a set-piece like, say, Florence, but it specialises in open-air memorials that commemorate the schisms of the 20th century, and most notable among them is its newest: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which takes the form of 2,750 grey "stelae" – great solemn slabs of concrete designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman. Due to be opened in May on the 60th anniversary of Berlin's liberation, it was earlier delayed because one contractor turned out to be a subsidiary of Degesch, which supplied Zyklon-B, the gas used in concentration camps. Now it occupies a whole block south of the Brandenburg Gate, a huge minimalist sculpture laid in an undulating pattern, with an underground information centre beneath it for those who require a more literal type of remembrance. And it's not the first of this kind in Berlin. A few hundred yards away by the Reichstag (itself refurbished by Sir Norman Foster, whose dome is currently starring as Berlin's top tourist attraction) is another, smaller memorial in grey stone, this time by Dieter Appelt and commemorating the Reichstag delegates murdered by the Third Reich. Further down Unter den Linden in Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned books in 1933, is an underground installation by Israeli artist Mischa Ullman of empty white bookcases, which is viewed through a window in the ground. In Berlin, the memorial has become a highly significant kind of public sculpture that departs from the tradition of the heroic monument and turns the whole city into an elegy for the tragedies of the last century. Indeed, Berlin's outdoor attractions have become a big part of its cultural life. Topography of Terror is an open-air exhibition atop the Gestapo's headquarters in Berlin, itself now bulldozed, next to one of the few remaining parts of the Berlin Wall. Due to be given a proper home at some point, it's a rewarding picture-and-text exhibition, and should the weather fail you, it's bang next door to the Martin Gropius Bau, an exquisite and ornate 19th century building that functions as a space for high-key temporary exhibitions. A few blocks further on (you'll need stamina and good boots in Berlin) is Checkpoint Charlie, the site of the famous, US-manned Cold War border. Here is a stretch of replica Berlin wall, a field of crosses to represent the fallen, a reconstruction of the border post and the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum, which commemorates the GDR's valiant escapees. On the roadside are vendors of faked Soviet tat, and the whole spectacle offers a populist history that enthuses younger tourists and dismays serious Berliners. The higher-minded among them will point visitors further down Friedrichstrasse toward the Jewish Museum, in the working-class Kreuzberg district. This is as famous for its Daniel Libeskind design as for its content, although both are an integral part of the experience, with displays, archives and artefacts shown alongside spaces such as the Holocaust tower, an empty space surrounded by dramatic shards of concrete. The ticket for the Jewish Museum will also get you into the nearby Berlinische Galerie. Opened last year in a refurbished glass depot, this laudable new museum shows Berlin-related photography, art and architecture exhibitions. Perhaps it isn't a must, but I particularly enjoyed it for its collection of artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and its evocation of Berlin's heady 1920s and 1930s. Other small museums worth taking a look at in Berlin include the Brucke-Museum in the suburb of Dahlem, devoted to the early 20th century artist's group of the same name, and the Bauhaus-Archiv in Tiergarten, about the influential 20th century art and design school. Given such variety, its hard to choose where to go first. But if you've got limited time in Berlin, then there are only two major museum areas worth considering. The first is the Museums Island (Museuminsel), a clutch of neo-classical buildings in a Unesco-listed zone including the Altes Museum, the Pergamonmuseum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode, and the Neues Museum. In the 19th century, the Museums Island was the world's prototypical museum project, with the Altes Museum by Prussian state architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel at its heart. "Schinkel wanted no less than to build a holy island," said Albrecht. "The idea then grew that in the Museum Island's five museums, you could walk through the history of Western civilisation." Now, there's talk of the Ethnological Museum coming here, as well as collections of Asian art, which would expand the Museums Island's phenomenal scope yet further and offer visitors a run-through of 6,000 years of world civilisation. The museums plan to connect underground, for those who wish to hurry through, and the whole complex is set to be finished in 2015, although locals suspect this will be breached. Much of the area is still a building site, with Meccano-like pink pipes which siphon away water weaving through the site; although the Altes Museum, Pergamon Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie are currently open. The Neues Museum is said to be opening in 2009; then there's the Bode Museum, being rebuilt to show its collection of decorative and visual arts, somewhat like London's Victoria and Albert Museum. It's a vital initiative for Germany, not only in terms of generating tourism but also because the nation has taken this long to be able to regain the idea of historical pride. "History was out of fashion for many years," said Albrecht. "Until recently, we didn't discuss the cultural past because of German shame, and there was no healthy patriotism. Now it's coming back." Back on Unter den Linden, the 1970s-vintage Palace of the Republic blots the landscape with its Communist aesthetic, on the site of a demolished older castle. But, of course, in hardline East Germany, Imperialist relics had little chance. In 1990 it was found to have asbestos and is barely used now. It is currently inspiring a tussle between conservatives who want the castle to be remade, purist historians who want to keep it, and those who want to use the site for another new-build museum of some as-yet unspecified variety. If the latter comes to pass, then the Museum Island and environs will probably become the most concentrated museum zone in the world. Which brings us to the second most important museum zone: the Kulturforum. This is the corresponding complex of cultural buildings built in West Berlin from the 1950s onwards, and it includes the Philharmonie concert hall, Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery which houses all the hitters of the post-war arts scene (Warhol, Keifer, Beuys) in a vast Modernist glass box of exquisite proportions. And here, too, is Berlin's most important gallery of all: the Gemaldegalerie, with a peerless range of paintings including works by Raphael, Rubens and Vermeer, as well as the biggest Rembrandt collection outside the Netherlands. It is an astonishing collection and, when I visited, almost deserted. Maybe that's a symptom of Berlin's cultural and artistic life: there's simply too much to see.

Where to stay

Grand Hyatt Berlin Marlene-Dietrich-Platz 2, tel +49 30 2553 1234,www.berlin.hyatt.com This Hyatt, faced with pink stone, is a mega-hotel with 342 rooms, based in Potsdamer Platz, the heart of the new city centre. The impressive lobby has two upside-down pyramids in it. Berlin Marriott Hotel Inge-Beisheim-Platz 1, tel +49 30 220 000,www.marriott.com Another big hotel in the Potsdamer Platz area, with 370 rooms, offsetting its size (it has a 10-storey atrium) with a warm red and yellow colour scheme. Also has a grand ballroom and five conference rooms. Madison Potsdamer Platz Potsdamer Strasse 3, tel +49 30 5900 5000,www.designhotels.com A modish business-oriented hotel opposite the Film Museum, with gold mosaic in the bar, a Michelin-starred restaurant and 166 design-led suites. Dorint Sofitel Am Gendarmenmarkt Charlottenstrasse 50-52, tel +49 30 203 750;www.dorint.com A boutique hotel by the grandest square in Berlin, with 92 rooms done out in a male-friendly, minimal genre. Some rooms have Playstation. Also has a sauna, steam bath, sun bed and massage available. Radisson SAS Karl Liebknecht Strasse 1, tel +49 30 238 280,www.radissonsas.com This opened recently on the banks of the River Spree, making it very convenient for Museum Island, as well as other Berlin attractions such as the sci-fi TV tower of Alexanderplatz. It has what is claimed to be the world's largest cylindrical aquarium in the atrium lobby, and 427 rooms.

Getting there

London-Berlin Served by British Airways from Heathrow, Air Berlin and Ryanair from Stansted along with Easyjet from Luton. Return fares with BA to Berlin Tegel: business class from £476, economy class from £89. Air Berlin charges from £105 to Tegel. Easyjet is priced from £56 while Ryanair costs from £43 and both arrive at Schonefeld. New york-Berlin: First class varies $9,622 to $7,968; business class varies $8,714 to $5,933 (major carriers), $4,046 (Lot Polish); full economy $4,344 to $3,343; 21-day apex $500-low season; $826-shoulder season; $1,115-high season; recent sale $289.00. Delta starts a daily non-stop service from JFK on May 2. Best connection by far is Frankfurt followed by Paris, London, Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich and Copenhagen (travelling from Newark on SAS). Los Angeles to Berlin : First class varies $13,459 to $10,048; business class varies $10,500 to $7,406; full coach $5,876 to $5,088; 21 day apex $605-low season; $1,076-shoulder season; $1,290-high season; recent sale $495.00. No non-stop or direct service offered. The best morning connection is via JFK using the Delta non-stop flight starting May 2. Best afternoon connections are Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris and London. Zurich works well every day except Tuesday and Sunday.
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