By Marilyn Baron
My husband has always wanted to see Berlin and he never gets his way, so I relented and agreed to go there on our last vacation. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t expecting much, so I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed the visit, except for the weather. It was very cold in mid-October and I wasn’t dressed appropriately. My husband told me to leave my gloves, muffler and heavy coat at home. I didn’t even bring a trench coat, a wardrobe requisite for any self-respecting spy. Bottom line: I found Germany to be a warm (in terms of hospitality) and welcoming place. The people were very nice and the food was delicious.
One thing you have to know about my husband. He’ll rarely read a book unless it’s about World War II, involves spies, etc. In fact, I had to write a book set in World War II just to get his attention (Under The Moon Gate, which will be released in 2013 from The Wild Rose Press). It’s the only manuscript of mine he’s ever read (and he only read the first three chapters).
Actually, I share his obsession with books set in World War II. Some of our favorite writers in this genre are Alan Furst (I just read Mission to Paris); the entire series of Daniel Silva books (his latest is The Fallen Angel, which took place partially in Berlin); Ken Follett (Books One and Two of his Century Trilogy); and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (which I will have to reread, now that I’ve been to Berlin).
One of the places in Berlin that’s mentioned in many of these books is the Hotel Adlon Kempinski. That’s where all the spies stay. We didn’t stay there but that was our first stop on the day of our arrival. We decided to go into the hotel and have some coffee, hot chocolate and pastries in the hotel’s elegant lobby.
We didn’t run into any spies, but we did sit with a nice California couple. The first thing that happened was a woman came up and asked to see their papers. I kid you not. I thought it was a throwback to World War II. Considering, that in Germany, they haven’t changed the sound of their ambulance and police sirens, every time I heard the wail of a siren, I was afraid I was going to be rounded up.
Papers to sit down and have coffee? We weren’t carrying any papers, just our passports. When the lady seemed satisfied with their papers, she left us alone, assuming we were with them. Actually, it turns out she was just checking their reservation at the hotel. They were staying there.
We also had to show our “papers,” to get into the Reichstag, one of the top ten attractions in Berlin. You may have heard about the famous Reichstag fire on the night of February 28, 1933. The Communists were blamed, which propelled the Nazis to power. The German Bundestag (Parliament) meets there. The latest phase of rebuilding is an elliptical glass dome. Visits to the cupola’s viewing gallery are free and they say the views are breathtaking, but it’s by appointment only. So make your reservations before you leave. We made ours two days before we wanted to visit, but our “papers” didn’t arrive on time and when we went at the appointed hour, our name was not on the list. The Germans are ever efficient and still follow the rules, so “No Reichstag For You.”
But it’s a magnificent building, even from the outside. And instead, we enjoyed a panoramic view from the Berlin TV Tower, although that was a two-hour wait. You can also have a meal in the tower’s revolving restaurant, if you can get in.
We stayed at a wonderful hotel, the Westin Grand Berlin on Friedrichstrasse, which I was surprised to find out was in the former East Berlin. There was a piece of the Berlin Wall displayed at the hotel’s entrance.
But back to the Hotel Adlon. This luxurious hotel is located near the Neo-Classical Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor, one of the few remaining historic city gates, the city’s most famous landmark) at the end of the fashionable street Unter den Linden (Under the Linden or lime tree).
The hotel reopened in 1997, in the same spot as its illustrious predecessor, the Adlon, which was bombed during World War II. The hotel lobby features a replica of the Adlon’s original symbolic elephant fountain. The Hotel Adlon Kempinski is located close to all the foreign embassies. Perfect location for a spy.
I just finished reading Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, and almost every page mentioned a street or place we had been. That alone was worth the trip.
My husband loves wurst (to me, nothing could be worse) so he was in heaven. For dinner the first night we went to a wonderful German-Austrian restaurant, Lutter & Wegner. I had roast duck and he had wienerschnitzel. Then we ate at a German/French restaurant, Dressler, and I had duck again. We went to two Italian restaurants—Il Punto and Bocca Di Bacco—and they were better than any Italian restaurants I’ve ever been to (including restaurants in Italy). For breakfast, we ate at Café Einstein Unter den Linden, a meeting place for politicians and media, and we did see a German author there signing his new book.
We took a hop-on, hop-off bus around the city and when it came time to visit Kaufhaus Des Westens, better known as KaDeWe, on Kurfürstendamm Boulevard, we spent hours there, gawking and eating in the food hall on the sixth floor. It is the biggest and best department store in Germany, on the order of Harrods. It offers cheeses, chocolate, about 400 kinds of bread and every kind of food you could ever imagine.
Another elegant French department store near our hotel is Galeries Lafayette, which we didn’t have time to visit.
There were many surprises in Berlin, the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, with a population of approximately 3.4 million.
- As I said, our hotel was in the former East Berlin. Evidence of the Berlin Wall (Berlin Maurer) was everywhere, either pieces of the wall or double rows of bricks on the street or pavement, which indicated where the wall had been. In 1961, authorities surrounded West Berlin with a 95-mile long wall and shot any refugees attempting to cross it. The fall of the Berlin Wall occurred some three decades later, when Berlin was reunified.
- In 1945, Berlin was divided into four sectors. More than 70 percent of Berlin was destroyed during the war.
- Checkpoint Charlie, the former allied border crossing which was near our hotel and the museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie were also interesting.
- We toured the beautiful Neue (New) Synagogue, the Jewish museum and an outdoor Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate and the new American Embassy called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which consists of 2,711 slabs of gray concrete, some rising as high as 13 feet. The New Synagogue—which was constructed in 1866, and left in ruins after Kristallnacht and the Allied bombing of Berlin—has been completely renovated.
- We also visited the Topographie des Terrors at the site of the former Gestapo and SS Headquarters, which was both fascinating and horrifying. It details crimes at the excavated torture cells. An original section of the Berlin Wall that used to run just behind the building is still on view.
- All that’s left to mark the spot of Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide on April 30, 1945, was a wall plaque, a Peking Duck restaurant and a former communist hi-rise.
- We didn’t make it to Museum Island, a world-class museum complex, but people recommend exploring the Altes Museum; the Pergamonmuseum with its famous Pergamon Altar; and the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum. People also rave about the Lustgarten on the island, but it wasn’t in bloom when we were visiting.
- The vast Tiergarten (referred to as the Green Lung of Berlin) is another must-see. Once a royal hunting estate, it is now a park in one of Europe’s greenest capital cities. It was too cold to walk there in October, but it looked lovely. The Tiergarten was totally reforested after people cut down every tree to burn for firewood at the end of the war.
- There’s a lot of construction going on all around Berlin.
- We didn’t see many Americans, maybe because it was late in the season or maybe Berlin isn’t traditionally a top tourist destination.
- A beautiful river the Spree, runs through the city.
From Berlin, we took the train on a five-hour trip to Prague. But that’s another story for another blog. Stay tuned.