Hohenzollerns and Wettins: Michael and Dan in Berlin and Dresden
Daniel Emberley, September 2015
We just got back from Berlin, center of the Prussian Empire under the Hohenzollerns, and Dresden, capital of Saxony under the Wettins. Lots of Rococo palaces, great museum collections, and plates of wurst and pig knuckle.
Lufthansa got us uneventfully from the evil Dulles to Frankfurt, and on to Berlin’s Tegel. Lovely views of D.C., Annapolis, the Jersey coast, Long Island, and Boston as we flew out. The Frankfurt change is tedious, a long walk down one corridor for passport control, elevator, and a long walk back along the same corridor a few floors up, but with plenty of time to make our connection.
Friday, 9/18: Berlin
We caught a taxi to our first accommodation, Europeapartments. This is in a great neighborhood, between Kreuzberg and Mitte. Kreuzberg was the epicenter of Berlin’s Turkish population, and Mitte is downtown, so an easy walk to lots of places. The apartment, however, was a disappointment. The landlord pretends to offer corporate suite apartments, but runs it more like a fly-by-night AirBnB. Poorly installed IKEA furnishings and plumbing, smelly linens, a noisy location on an inner courtyard, no WiFi, and no way of reaching the owner once she’d taken our cash and shown us where to drop the keys when we left. Eh. The only real hiccup of our trip, and one we easily got over.
The worst thing was, when we showed up at the time we’d told her, she wasn’t there. The only way to reach her was via cellphone, which we did not have. Fortunately, the nice owner of the Turkish deli on the corner called her, and she showed up a half hour later. This was just one of many kindnesses shown to us by people in Germany. We expected efficiency, and occasional officiousness, and got them. What we did not expect was the friendliness and patience most people had to make sure we enjoyed our stay and got the most out of it. Frequently we would be in an historic house and the guard would gesture wildly when she realized we were about to skip something. Maybe we had decided not to see another 1750’s wine cellar, but no guard was convinced that theirs could be missed, and frequently they were right.
I had been surprised when I looked at maps of Berlin to see how large the blocks are. This is typical in an American city, where one drives most places, but unusual in Europe. Usually it means that there are so many alleys and by-ways that the map shows only major streets. It turns out that for Berlin, though, the maps were accurate. The blocks are huge, even larger in scale than those in D.C. In the 1700’s when the kings of Prussia were setting out subdivisions they laid out large blocks for developers, with the expectation that these would be cut up by infill streets and plazas. Instead, Berlin builders created massive buildings around nested courtyards. A city block may have only one or two entrances, each one into a large formal courtyard. In back is a smaller opening into the next courtyard, and so on. Historically the inner courtyards and lower levels were used for manufacturing or storage, with better housing on the second, third, and fourth floors, and housing for the poor above that. This pattern encouraged large apartments and few landlords, so Berliners frequently sublet apartments. If you read Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, the hero’s landlady rents an apartment, and sublets each room to someone else, sleeping herself on a sofa. Today Berlin has a surplus of housing, so crowding is not as severe, but the idea of large apartments with multiple sublets remains. Our apartment opened off of our landlady’s office, on the first floor facing a courtyard. We walked off our jet lag with a little exploration of the city.
Due west of us was Checkpoint Charlie. This has been recreated as a tourist attraction, with for-profit museums, a rebuilt checkpoint hut, and actors taking tips to have your photo taken with them. Only the first of the odd conjunctions that terror, commerce, and tourism were to present to us. From there we shopped our way up Friedrichstrasse. Before WWII this was the premier retail stretch of Berlin, then after the war a dead zone along the Wall. Capitalism rules the street again, with fine shopping and malls heading north into Mitte. There is an entire store dedicated to Ampelmann, the walking figure the East Germans used in their stop lights. The Quartiers are three shopping malls, each filling a city block and connected by underground passages. Quartier 207 is anchored by the Paris department store Galeries Lafayette; it was designed by Jean Nouvel with a striking cone ascending through the atrium. Quartier 206 was built to plans by Henry Ives Cobb, I.M. Pei’s partner. Quartier 205 is by Oswald Ungers, who also designed the German Embassy in D.C.
That brought us to Unter den Linden. This is not a Parisian boulevard with amazing buildings and Berlin flaneurs strolling through cafes. It’s more like Pennsylvania Avenue with a double line of linden trees running too wide and too straight from the Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island. Major institutions line it, but it’s not a place to stroll, or the center of anything. We passed the Staatsbibliothek, Humboldt University, and stopped in the Bebelplatz. Remember the Nazi bookburning scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? That’s Bebelplatz. The burning is memorialized with an empty library inserted under the plaza, you view it through windows in the paving. I’m not sure I would have gotten Nazi censorship out of the memorial without prior knowledge, but it works. It is overpowered, though, by billboards for the State Opera, which seems to be under renovation.
South is the Gendarmenmarkt. This is a case of having done too much research for my own good. I’d hoped to grab lunch at a café or restaurant on the Gendarmenmarkt, as this was a historic marketplace adjacent to the barracks for Friedrich Wilhelm I’s troup of giant soldiers. Really, Frederick the Great’s father collected extra tall men to serve in this special regiment. The soldiers are gone, the market is gone, and the Gendarmenmarkt is an urban set piece for Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1821 Concert Hall flanked by matching German and French cathedrals. Lovely, classical, imposing, but not useful for lunch. We ended up at a fast food pasta place, a German variation of the Vapiano chain.
Not memorable. Neither was the walk south through Mitte. In our daze we chose a dull north-south street to get us to the Berlinische Galerie. This is the “state museum” of Berlin: like D.C., Berlin is its own state within Germany, and this is the public front of the state archives. Major collections of 20th Century and contemporary art, photography, and architecture, in a renovated warehouse. Overwhelming. Some of the exhibits were obviously good, like the New Realism canvases of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix, or the collections of the Rene Block Gallery (Block nurtured conceptual art in the 1960’s and 70’s). The show of Berlin architecture built, unbuilt, and lost to war sprawled with models and plans of places we had not yet seen. The contemporary art left us cold: one architect’s “piece” consisted of copies of his latest book stacked up along one wall. Pretty only because it was bound in a shiny silver cover. We could have held off on the Galerie until later when we were more familiar with the city and less tired, but are not sure that would have helped the art.
Fortunately, Berlinische Galerie was not far from our apartment. We wandered back, took a nap, and at 5:30 went in search of dinner. Going east and south through Kreuzberg we found ourselves on the Moritzplatz. Berlin has lots of good sized neighborhood parks, and Moritzplatz is one of these. There’s a design school on the corner, and Planet Modulor. Modulor is one of the best arts stores we’ve seen, competitive with Tokyu Hands in Tokyo, about five times bigger than Utrecht or Pla-za. Boutique areas within the store house specialty art services and shops. We especially liked the 3D printing portraitist, and Werkhaus, which specializes in laser-cut wood, photographic veneers, and furniture that packs flat but assembles with tabs and slots into chic, sturdy and useful desks and shelves.
A few doors back from Modulor we went to Foodbag for dinner. This was our first experience of doner kebab, one of Berlin’s great street foods. Turkish immigrants modified gyros onto a flaky triangle of bread instead of pita, topping it with salad and fantastic sauces. A-mah-zing. Michael got the stuffed eggplant. Combined, with drinks, more than we could eat, 12.5 euros. The store offers free WiFi, so we cracked our Kindle to check e-mail. We hit an Aldi for breakfast groceries on our walk back up Oranienstrasse, then dropped into bed at a respectable 8:30PM.
Saturday, 9/19: Berlin
Museum Island is one of the world’s largest art complexes. The collections are equivalent to the Louvre or the Vatican, but housed in five separate buildings, so less of the feeling of an endurance test. Not for long, though; current construction will connect the five with an underground passage.
First, though, we had to get there. Walking north from Kreuzberg we realized why all the buildings looked 21st Century new: cobblestones track the path of the former Berlin Wall, and we were strolling along it. Every suite hotel, corporate headquarters, and office building was located in what had been no-man’s land 25 years ago. We followed the River Spree north, and crossed it near the new Schloss. Museum Island is the northern third of an island in the Spree, where the medieval settlements that became Berlin began. The southern third is residential and industrial, but the middle third is the ceremonial core of the city. The Schloss, the royal residence of the Hohenzollerns, was a massive but unattractive palace that grew over centuries. Bombed during World War II, it was ripped down by the Soviets. It is being rebuilt in the shape of the old palace, but as a museum to house collections now shown in suburban Dahlem. The current state of construction looks like a massive concrete bunker, but we suspect it will be pretty, or at least striking, when the façade is applied. The Schloss faces the Lustgarten, the former royal pleasure grounds. Framing the Lustgarten are the Berliner Dom, the city’s largest cathedral, and the Altes Museum, the earliest museum structure. Looming over the Berliner Dom is the Fernsehturm, the television tower the Communists built to anchor Alexanderplatz. Sadly, except for passing through on the subway this was as close as we were going to get to Alexanderplatz, which looks like a vision of 1960’s Berlin.
We had a few minutes before the museums opened, so rested on the steps of the Altes Museum. When the Soviets took Berlin, Hitler refused to allow his generals to surrender. Partly as a result, partly in retaliation for how Germany behaved when they invaded Russia, the conquest of Berlin was especially brutal. The city was fought for house by house, with subway trains, sewer tunnels, and rooftops used as fortifications. Even the museum buildings were shot up, blown up, and invaded gallery by gallery. Think of an army marching down the Mall, trying to get to the White House, shooting through Natural History, the Archives, and the National Gallery past a blown up Capitol. Curators had moved what they could into safety, but a lot of collections were lost to bombs and fire. You can look up at Schinkel’s 1830 classical columns and see the war damage. Disturbing and awe inspiring.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel is one of the most important architects of Neo-Classicism. Think of Charles Bulfinch or Robert Mills, but make them better architects in a richer country. He planned the city and designed monumental works after the Napoleonic Wars. To see him you have to go to Berlin; his entire oeuvre is in Prussia. He will pop up over and over in this report.
If you are going to see more than two of the national museums, buy the Museum Pass Berlin at the first one you enter. For 24 euros you get free admission for three days to the permanent collections of over twenty of the most important museums in the city. Not to be confused with the Berliner Card, which gives you discounts and subway access, but mainly to more tourist-trap sites like the House at Checkpoint Charlie and the Currywurst Museum.
At 10AM on the dot (we loved Germany already) a friendly guard let us in to the Altes Museum. The first floor is ancient Greek art, the second ancient Roman. We did a turn of the Greek collection, which is magnificent. Every few pieces we would stop and recognize an illustration from our college copy of the Illiad, or Latin grammar, or text on vase painting. Overwhelmed, we ducked over to see if we could get into the Altes Nationalgalerie, European art from the Neoclassical and Romantic periods through early Modernism. The museums are separated by cross streets, but connected with colonnades and gardens. Unfortunately, there was a blockbuster show of Impressionist painting at Altes Nationalgalerie, and lines to get in already stretched into the street. Eh, Impressionism, we could skip, and enjoyed Schinkel’s Parthenon-on-a-switchback-staircase-pedestal from the distance.
Instead we saw the Neues Museum, which houses prehistoric, Egyptian, and daily-life (versus high art) of ancient Rome. It reopened in 2009 after a renovation by David Chipperfield. He installed contemporary galleries into the burned and bombed Neo-Classical structure. So, you’re looking at ancient masterpieces, or studying the life of a Roman merchant, and look up to see fragments of singed ceiling painting and columns blackened by bomb blasts. A brilliant commentary on art, culture, and history. One of the highlights of the Neues Museum is the Goldhuete, the Golden Hat. We were ready to skip it, when a guard sort of forced us into the gallery to see this amazing yard-high phallus/hat of gold, made by Bronze Age German tribes to track and commemorate planetary movements. Who knew? Very well interpreted so you could understand what you were looking at. Michael had hoped to see Priam’s Treasure, the gold of ancient Troy excavated by Heinrich Schliemann, but the Soviets have yet to return (or admit having) this after “liberating” it from Nazi storage. The capstone of the collection, and what most visitors come to see, is the bust of Nefertiti. She has her own circular gallery at the end of the suggested route, which she commands magnificently.
We were exhausted, and it was only noon. We went east and north to Hackesche Markt. This is a neighborhood of funky shops and restaurants centered on a cool cast iron train station. Adjacent is a masterpiece of courtyards, Hackesche Hofe. Seven nested courts are decorated Jugendstil, the German variation of Art Nouveau. Lots of fun themed spaces, with innovative places to eat and unusual things to buy. We ate in one of the outdoor courtyards, Wienerschnitzel, wild boar burger, roast potatoes, cucumber salad. We ordered our first “Berliner Weisser mit Schuss” here: a local Berlin beer, a pale Pilsner, served in a heavy glass mug with a straw and a shot of liqueur. The usual shot choice is red (raspberry) or green (forest herb). I went with red – light and refreshing, the shot redeems the blandness of the beer. You have to ask for your check in Germany; if you don’t, you will be allowed to sit all afternoon. Our waiter was shocked when we called for “die Rechnung”, as we had not ordered dessert or coffee, but when I explained the museums were waiting he understood my German, and affirmed our choice with a laugh.
On the west side of Museum Insel is the Pergamon Museum. If you see a photo from this complex it’s usually from the Pergamon, which holds massive architectural pieces from Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and the Roman Empire, as well as the national collection of Islamic art. There is typically a two hour line, but we strolled right in. A little more than half the museum is closed for renovation, but it is so massive we barely noticed. We did not get to see the Pergamon Altar, but walked the avenue of Babylonian lions, through the Ishtar Gate, and on to the market gateway of Roman Miletus. The latter fills a wall as big as a soundstage, these installations are enormous. You can picture German archaeologists numbering each brick as it was removed from Iraq or Turkey and packed for delivery to Berlin. There are sections of the Alhambra here, an entire room of enameled paneling from Aleppo, and the Islamic collection may be the best in the world. More evidence of World War II damage here, as these exhibits were too big to store, but it was not as extensive or invasive as we saw at Neues Museum.
On the northern tip of Museum Island, like a Beaux Arts palace sailing north into the Spree, is the Bode Museum. Due to the Pergamon construction we had to cross off island, walk north on the western shore, and back across. This was great, as it gave us a chance to walk through an art market and an antique market that open here on Saturdays. Picked up a cool print of Berlin construction for our living room. The Bode shows Byzantine, medieval through Baroque art, bronzes, and sculpture. Lots of altarpieces ripped from the naves of churches, a room with a Tiepolo ceiling, and a great temporary show about losses of art during World War II.
We stopped for tea and cheesecake to refresh. The German History Museum did not take the Museum Pass, so we went back to the Altes Museum, where we had begun, this time doing the circuit of Roman art on the second floor. Then we found ourselves stuck. All afternoon there had been a tent installed in the Lustgarten with bad Christian rock musicians. As we crossed the park we noticed police everywhere. Odd. We crossed a barricade just as a march of abortion protestors turned off Unter den Linden and blocked us on the island. Fortunately, a kind policeman took pity and let us cross back into the Lustgarten so we could escape on a more northern bridge to get around the protest.
The drizzle we’d been experiencing turned into a regular Berlin autumn storm. The manager of a tea shop let us wait out the worst of it, and we made it through the mist south to Kreuzberg. We had no energy to go exploring for dinner, but ducked into the pizza place on the corner of our apartment block. Fortunately, Café Journale was pretty good. I got a Pizza Sophia Loren (white with mushrooms, olives, cheese, hot peppers) and Michael a beef salad. We washed it down with a Berliner Helle (light beer) and a rotweinschorle (red wine and seltzer).
First impressions of Berlin: Lots of smoking, and of obnoxious American tourists. The Germans were friendly and helpful, much more so than we are in D.C. It was hard to figure out the traffic; it seemed that intersections were “every man for himself”, but by end of the trip we could cross a street without being bothered by the blur of cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Almost no public trash cans, which seemed odd, as the streets are pretty clean. When you found pre-War architecture there were frequently grand entrances with lots of mostly male caryatids holding up lintels, marquees, and windows. It is not a pretty city, but it was starting to grow on us.
Sunday, 9/20: Berlin
The Topography of Terror is the grounds of the former Gestapo headquarters, in the old government district along Wilhelmstrasse. The name sounded shlocky, like it was a Halloween haunted house, but the memorial is well presented. The buildings were damaged by Allied bombing and the remains ripped down by the Soviets. The interrogation cell foundations have been excavated into a park-memorial, with wall displays documenting the rise of the Nazi party, implementation of coercion over the population, and the logistics of turning citizens against each other. One should follow it from west to east to do it chronologically, but we knew enough 20th Century history to not suffer by going the opposite way. Enlightening, especially as it related acts to specific places that we were experiencing. Bordering the site is the Martin Gropius Bau, a Beaux Arts building that had been the national architecture school. Martin was Walter Gropius’ uncle; Walter lobbied heavily to have the building preserved as a memorial. It now houses temporary exhibits, including a Mondrian retrospective we regretfully missed.
We continued northwest to Potsdamer Platz. This was Wall no-man’s-land; in the 1990’s it became the biggest construction site in the world. Daimler-Benz and PriceWaterhouseCoopers headquarters are here, in skyscrapers with shopping on the lower levels. Major works by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The centerpiece is Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center, an open-air but covered court with shopping, restaurants, and the German Film Museum. This is where premiers are held when major films debut in Germany.
After WWII, divided Berlin had a cultural collections problem. The East had Museum Island, one of the best assemblies of buildings to show art. The West, though, had a majority of the art worth showing. All during the East-West division competing bureaucracies tried to figure out how to make this work. Eventually it became clear that the West was not going to just hand over the Durers to East Germany. Instead, within spitting distance of the Wall at the corner of the Tiergarten, the West built the Kulturforum. This was intended to be a showplace of how liberal democracies use art and music as a tool to encourage freedom. Sadly, it looks like the worst of U.S. auto-oriented architecture, like if Rosslyn, Tysons, and the Kennedy Center had a baby next to the Berlin Wall. Tons of unnecessary stairs and plazas. It’s impossible to find the entrances to buildings; museums are reduced to hanging massive banners saying “Eintritt” (entrance). We walked around the Hans Sharoun Philharmonic Hall, and never found the Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, which is okay, because it looks like his contemporaneous D.C. Martin Luther King Library, and is closed for renovation. Since the Wall fell, there has been a shuffling of collections within the city. As buildings are renovated, a collection that had been split between East and West is merged and reinstalled. With the renovations of the Pergamon Museum and Neue Nationalgalerie and the construction of the Schloss the process is almost complete. We were glad we had waited to see Berlin; the reconstituted museums are amazing, and it’s nice not to have the schizophrenia of split collections to worry about.
The Gemaldegalerie is one of the best painting collections in the world. Once you get away from the concrete horror of the entrance, galleries lead you through Western art from Renaissance Italian and German through Spanish and English Old Masters. Much of the Spanish collection was supposedly destroyed when the bunker it was stored in was bombed by the Soviets, but every few years the Germans cough up a million euros and a Russian treasure they’d socked away and, amazingly, the Russians find a Velasquez they had “forgotten”. Durer, Van der Weyden, Cranach, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens. Two Vermeers, and a Carlo Crivelli that was bigger than any Crivelli I’ve ever seen. A lot of painters who I thought of as doing intimate chamber pieces on wood are here in massive canvases that do not travel. Breathtaking.
And exhausting. We asked the nice woman at the desk where she would recommend for lunch, and she pointed us to a balcony café that was both in plain sight and impossible to see in the concrete maze. It was decent; we got boulette (meatballs) and wurst with salad and potatoes, pretzel, and strudel. We correctly figured we’d need the carbs to carry us through the next museum.
The Kunstgewerbemuseum was renovated and rehung in 2014. It shows one of the world’s best decorative arts collections, from medieval to contemporary. The renovation allowed a new gallery dedicated to fashion. Ceramics, glass, wood, posters; lots of German designers we had not heard of, and interestingly no Americans until the Eames and Noguchi. The display, though, fights the architecture; lots of disorienting triangular spaces, stairs to nowhere, and empty/boring corridors moving you from one gallery to another. Also odd for a contemporary renovation, almost no retail. In American museums a good chunk of the entry level is dedicated to shopping. We’d figured the lack of retail we’d seen so far had been due to space constraints in old buildings, but here in Kulturforum they had acres of open space and just a small counter for post cards and a few books. A whole different perspective on how people should interact with art.
We could not look at another concrete plaza with cultural pretensions. We maneuvered the labyrinth of Potsdamer Platz station (lots of S-Bahn platforms, but hard to locate the U-Bahn) and caught the subway west to Charlottenburg. The subway here is confusing to describe, but easy to use. We’d specifically used Sunday, with no rush hour, to get oriented to the system. The complexity comes in part from the difference between S-Bahn trains (all elevated, except where they’re in tunnels), and U-Bahn trains (mainly in tunnels, but a lot elevated, even in dense parts of the city). The easy part is paying: buy a ticket, usually on the platform, and date stamp it in the adjacent machine. That ticket is all you need: there are no turnstiles, no separate space where you’ve paid and space where you haven’t. Frequently a change of lines involves going out on the sidewalk and crossing a street. Major trust involved, but also plainclothes inspectors who walk through the trains, whip out a badge, and demand to see your cancelled ticket. We were surprised by how well it works, and how much efficiency comes from not needing to create a space “within the turnstiles”. Electronic platform signs list the next three trains that are going to arrive, and where they are going to go. The stations are not interesting, but service is so frequent that you don’t have much chance to notice. We adjusted quickly, and used the subway painlessly after.
We got out at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz, in the heart of Charlottenburg. This is one of the wealthier parts of Berlin. We stopped for an ice cream (ice cream shops are ubiquitous) on a stroll north on Schloss Strasse, which leads directly to Charlottenburg Palace. Opposite the palace are a cluster of small museums, which allowed us to keep working our Museum Pass.
The Abguss-Sammlung Antiker Plastik Berlin is a large house/small museum that holds the study collection of plaster casts for the Free University of Berlin. Free, fun, cool to be able to compare classical and Gothic sculpture from around the world that one cannot normally study in proximity to each other.
The Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg shows surrealism, in a domed building that is one of two that frame the Schloss on the avenue. A good collection, but with a very European bent: the surrealism in American collections is brighter and more colorful; Europeans collected more academic examples. It’s like seeing surrealism in black and white. Competitive in quality with Houston’s Menil Collection.
Across Schloss Strasse is the Brohan Museum. Excellent collection of Jugendstil. Deutscher Werkbund, Peter Behrens, lots of pre-Bauhaus artists, and the usual suspects from France, Belgium, and England. It reminded us of Denver’s Vance Kirkland Museum, but better curated.
Next door is the Museum Berggruen, in the partner domed building to the Scharf-Gerstenberg. Herr Berggruen was an art dealer who fled to San Francisco in the 1930’s, and returned to Germany after the War. A very “Fifth Avenue in 1955” collection: Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti. High quality, beautifully shown, and a little soulless.
Or maybe we were just tired from the workout we were giving our eyes and brains. We refreshed ourselves with a walk through the gardens and gift shop of Schloss Charlottenburg. All the guidebooks say to skip this if one is going to Potsdam, but it made a lovely walk through English-style landscapes and a French parterre along the Spree. We got dinner around the corner at Lemke’s, a Rick Steves suggestion. This is a brew pub with a Bavarian theme, friendly service by a waiter who had learned his English in Australia. A Berliner Weisser and a Pilsner, pork knuckle with sauerkraut, Thuringer sausage with red cabbage, pretzel, salad. Too much food, and all for 40 euros. We walked down Kaiser Friedrich Strasse to Bismarkstrasse U-Bahn, caught the U12 to Hallesches Tor and the U6 north one stop to Kochstrasse. The walk from Kochstrasse station was starting to look like the walk home.
Monday, 9/21: Berlin
The routes directly north from our apartment to downtown were too new, too boring. We went a little east, crossing the Gertraudenbrucke and walking along the shore of Fischer Insel. Which is actually just the lower section of Museum Insel. The bridge has a funky statue of St. Gertrude giving beer as alms to a poor man, because this is Germany, why not? Interesting former locks and markers about the medieval villages of Koln and Berlin that were here.
Our goal was the Deutsches Historisches Museum, the German History Museum, in the former Zeughaus. The Zeughaus was an arsenal built by 1730, very baroque, lots of great statuary of armor and munitions. It’s been a museum since 1875. The display is fantastic, and massive, opening with a good exhibit on “What is a country? What is a border? What defines ‘Germany’?” History proper starts with the Holy Roman Empire, and goes up to the present day. We were glad we had studied our German history in advance: the exhibits are dense, and it helped to have context on dynasties in the different sections of the country (ask us about the Wittens and Wittelsbachs!), the Thirty Years War and Reformation, and Bismark’s unification under Prussia. We loved this museum, spent all morning on the second floor, which covers up to 1919. Excellent antique toys and interactive “light” pictures of palaces, where you would move a candle from the front of the picture (day) to the rear, which lit up the windows (night). Lunch outside in their café overlooking the Lustgarten and the Berliner Dom: an Alsatian tart that was almost a pizza, German breakfast of coldcuts, breads, salad, apfelsorle (apple juice and seltzer). We finally realized that in a restaurant we should immediately order “ein grosser flasche Wasser”, a big bottle of water, and we’d both save money and be happy to have water with our meals. The excellent assortment of jams and honey brought yellow jackets, but they did not bother us (although it was fun to watch the neighboring Frenchmen vainly swatting at them). After lunch we went back for the first floor, Weimar Germany to today, which ended with a welcome WiFi hotspot so we could check in with home. I.M. Pei added a striking and surprisingly attractive addition for temporary exhibits; the show on gay and lesbian history was a great look at history we have been part of.
That was way more time than we’d expected to spend at the History Museum. It was late afternoon, we walked south by way of Schinkel’s Neue Wache on Unter den Linden. Built as a guardhouse, it serves as Germany’s national war memorial and, after World War II, a memorial also to the people punished and killed in the concentration camps. Simply and elegantly done. Also went into St. Hedwig’s, an odd building that seems to be all dome. It is the most important Catholic church in Berlin, recently rebuilt by the archdiocese with a simple interior after lying in ruins for sixty years. Checked out a Portuguese food and import store in Kreuzberg, then took a break at the apartment.
Dinner was at the Checkpoint Charlie McDonalds. Often McDonalds outlets offer a unique take on the country they’re in, but with the exception of crispier French fries and the continued presence of McRibs on the menu, this was just like an American Mickey D’s.
From there we walked south to the Jewish Museum. We had been ambivalent about taking the time to see this museum, as we have such a competent Holocaust museum in D.C. But, it was open late, and we had the energy. We were a little freaked out when we saw the line to get in, but relieved to discover this was for a temporary Peter Greenaway installation that we did not need to see.
We were glad we took this museum in. Daniel Liebeskind’s design uses a confusing structure of angles to evoke the Star of David and three conflicting corridors to commemorate the German Jews who fled to exile, hid in place, or were terminated in the camps. Each axis ends in a garden to contemplate the people lost, spooky and evocative at night. All of that is as we expected, and is good, but not sensational. Where this museum shines is that you leave the Holocaust behind with an elevator to the top floor, and the majority of the exhibits are not about the loss, but about the richness that Jews contributed to Germany culture. They run from the life of a medieval woman who ran her late husband’s gem trade, through people you expect like Felix Mendelsohn and Albert Einstein, and end with Jews in the life of Berlin today. The exhibits are engaging, informative, and frequently immersive.
Tuesday, 9/22: Berlin
We had been in Berlin for five days now and still hadn’t seen the Brandenburg Gate. We walked up to Unter den Linden, peered through the lobby windows of a Frank Gehry bank on Pariser Platz, and had our photo moment with the Gate.
We had booked a lecture and entry to the dome of the Reichstag for 11AM. We got there early, fortunately, as figuring out how to enter the building was one of the few times Germany acted like Spain. Eventually we found the door, went through the minimal security, and joined our tour group. The Reichstag had been heavily damaged by the Nazi’s before WWII and during the Soviet fight to take the city. Much of that damage has been preserved in Norman Foster’s renovation, which functions as a cold but workable capitol. The lecture was adequate, but worth it for access to the congress hall and dome. The dome is one of the sites of Berlin, Foster’s glass ramp allows you to both look into the hall and out to the city. The tape they give you will automatically activate when you cross a yellow line in the floor; don’t worry, you will forget this too just as we did, and insist your device is not working until suddenly it does. Great views of the Tiergarten, the district of new government buildings, Potsdamer Platz, and down Unter den Linden to the Fernsehturm. The restaurant on the roof requires reservations, but these will get you dome access if you don’t want to sit through a lecture. Expensive, but good: huge portions of pumpkin soup, crusted veal in hazelnut mashed potatoes, Wiener schnitzel. An obnoxious couple from San Diego had the table next to ours and read aloud Rick Steve’s Berlin so all could share. At least we knew now that we were better prepared than some of our peers.
Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe occupies massive real estate steps from the Reichstag. A field of coffin-sized pillars stands on an undulating cobblestone plaza, so that you enter a seemingly endless and pointless maze of death. It reminded us of Liebeskind’s Garden of Exile from the night before. It’s at least as brilliant and moving as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. There is a Memorial to the Murdered Homosexuals somewhere around here, a stone monolith with a video of a gay couple kissing, but we could not find it.
We crossed the Spree and walked north on Luisenstrasse, where construction detoured us through the Charite hospital complex. Very cool, a medical school giftwrapped as an English Arts and Crafts village.
Our goal was Hamburger Bahnhof, a former train station converted into a museum of contemporary art. This was a major disappointment. Hamburger Bahnhof is a must-see in art circles, both for the renovation and the innovative shows they present. Paris’s D’Orsay does the train-station-to-museum thing much better. An okay Dan Flavin installation in the front window. Lots of Joseph Beuys sculptures and Andy Warhol drawings. Many galleries were in the process of installation, so dead space to us. One of the major shows up was about Black Mountain College. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns: might have been okay if we hadn’t been to Black Mountain in North Carolina years ago and seen this material there. Another show was of the BMW-sponsored National Gallery 2015 Art Prize finalists. It reminded Michael of a high school art class. Lots of installations where you put on headphones and someone told you to dance. Or you walked into a gallery and a guard told you to dance. Or you picked up an iPad and the artist, at a remote location, told you to caress him via the iPad and dance. Really. Three different artists/pieces. I don’t dance in art museums, thank you, I told iPad man. What is the art market coming to?
The Hauptbahnhof is Berlin’s new central train station. A miracle of engineering, it wraps a central atrium with three levels of trains crossing each other, so a train is passing over your head as you escalator down to the train you need to take. It’s not as pretty as Kyoto’s station with a similar program, but it works. We expected this to be confusing, and it is, but it’s also bright, well signed, full of retail and restaurants, and efficient. We found the platform we needed for tomorrow’s train to Dresden, and then the S-Bahn platform to Warschauerstrasse.
We changed to U-Bahn to get to Kotbusser Tor, the closest station to the Turkish Market. This market has been operating for decades, on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. Trucks and tents form two lines south of the Landwehr Canal. Unlike markets where the customers move through the middle, here the trucks and vendor access are in the street in the middle, and customers move around the periphery. Lots of food and fabric vendors, but nothing worth taking home. Some jewelry and clothing. Stands selling Turkish Delight and Ottoman-patterned tiles and hardware, but overall this seemed more of a neighborhood market than a tourist destination. We returned to Foodbag for doner kabob, where to our surprise the owner recognized us from our first night. Turns out he had attended UMass Lowell, his parents called him back from Massachusetts to Berlin to help run their chain of kabob stores. We laughed at our Boston accents, and I told him to open a branch in D.C.
Wednesday, 9/23: Dresden
We packed, moved out of the stinky linens apartment, and caught the U- and S-Bahns to the Hauptbahnhof. We had an 8:45 Deutsche Bahn reservation for Dresden. This was a surprisingly non-German experience. The train ends in Prague, and we suspect is actually a Czech train running over German track. While the platform was clearly marked, and the train pulled into the station on time, it was unclear which car one needed to enter. We got into the car after the one we should have, which might not have been a problem except for American tourists with rolling luggage in European railcars. The passages are too tight to allow easy passage, and Americans of course refuse to lift their bags, so each person who needed to pass meant a Mexican standoff. The train departed while we were sorting ourselves out. After about half an hour we got to our compartment, where we had to evict two people who were in our seats. I’m afraid this is not Amtrak standards, much less the Japan Railways experience we had hoped for. The landscape south to Dresden is rural and picturesque, and our compartment held six conversational Americans, so once we got seated the three hour trip was pleasant.
When we were researching this trip we knew we’d want at least one trip out from Berlin. Leipzig (Bach, Schumann, Mendelsohn, Wagner) and Wittenburg (Martin Luther) were both options. We were surprised to see Dresden on the list. We thought the British had leveled the city, and the Soviets had lacked the money to rebuild. Both were true, but since reunification Dresden has made heroic efforts to restore its title of “Florence on the Elbe”. The historic district along the river has been rebuilt to the historic building envelopes that existed pre-War, and the interiors installed with contemporary museum, church, and housing technology. In certain places it really does look like an Italian city. The stone that was used in Dresden ages black (could that be the result of the auto plants in the suburbs? Of course not), so it’s easy to see what has been rebuilt, and where new stone has been used in reconstruction. Plus, it was a revelation to see Baroque and Rococo buildings in places where those styles are appropriate, and not used as decoration only.
Dresden’s train station has what seems to be the mandatory Norman Foster glass roof, and leads directly to the Prager, the main shopping street. Which has been completely rebuilt as a long 1990’s shopping mall. It conveniently offered cover from the rain almost all the way to our Holiday Inn Express, just at the margins of the historic district. Our room had a great view of the Kreuzkirche, the Neoclassical Lutheran Church of the Holy Cross (amazing how banal some of these names become when you translate them into English).
We walked north into downtown through the Altmarkt. This market is framed by a Soviet culture hall and shopping malls, but was filled with stands selling crafts, produce, baked goods, and food. We chose a German wurst stand, run by a Polish woman, largely because she had umbrellas to keep out the drizzle. We bonded over our mutual poor command of German, and she served up delicious wurst with roast mushrooms, boulette, and potatoes.
Dresden is an easy city to visit. Most of what you see is on a promenade along a few blocks of the Elbe, with restaurants and hotels only a few blocks from that. The only plan you must make in advance is a ticket to the “Historic Green Vault”, which is a specific gallery in the Royal Palace. These sell out months in advance; we had a timed ticket for 3PM. In addition to that reservation you want to buy a Dresden Card, which gives you two days’ access to all of the Royal Saxon Museums and also free use of the trolleys. We started at the Albertinum, assuming we could buy our Cards there. The nice people at admissions explained that no, we had to go back to the Welcome Center near the Frauenkirche (“Our Lady’s”), which we’d passed en route. Then a kind museum guard chased us across the courtyard to make sure we understood that there are different levels of Dresden Card, and to be sure we got the one that covered the museums. We backtracked, found the Welcome Center in another mall complex, were glad of the guard’s advice when we had to choose our cards, shopped a bit (well, we were there!), and returned to the museum.
The Albertinum shows the Saxon collections of painting from the Romantic period through contemporary art. You enter through a lovely recreation of a plaster cast gallery, into an interior courtyard surrounded by the galleries. This court gives great opportunities for contemporary installations, and an orienting point for your tour. Lots of German painters we did not recognize in schools of painting (Classicism, Romanticism, Realism) that we did, Klimt, Impressionism, the Blaue Reiter. An altarpiece by Otto Dix, who knew he worked on such a scale? The ticket situation is amusing, almost Tammany Hall: every few galleries there is a guard asking to see your ticket. With the Dresden Card we sailed through, but it seemed like a plan to keep local party supporters in work. The contemporary art did not impress us; a lot of European art in the last forty years is even more conceptual than what we do in the States, and less about a finished, much less beautiful, product.
We left the Albertinum and walked north up a flight of stairs to the “Balcony of Europe”. This is a terrace along the Elbe with fabulous views across the river and back into the downtown. It’s lined by palaces, cultural institutions, and cafes. This has been a focus of restoration and rebuilding, it would appear at first glance that you’re looking at Dresden in 1940 (only cleaner, since no one has “restored” the industry and piers that would once have lined the riverbank.)
We had about an hour before our Green Vault reservation, but knew there was lots to see in the Royal Palace before then. We took the elevator up from the central courtyard to the top floor Prints and Drawings collection. This held a temporary show of the photographs of Robert Capa. A great show, but we had seen this work before in New York and Barcelona, so did a quick run through and down to the next level. This main floor started with the Turkish galleries: Ottoman weaponry and art that the Saxon kings had collected, some through conquest, but most through dealers. A giant Turkish campaign tent dominates, it could easily have hosted a banquet. Fantastic collections of armor, on horse and soldier mannequins in dynamic displays that put the weaponry into battle. A major coin collection which we blew off - silver mines in Saxony are why this kingdom and Dresden matter in the first place, which was good to learn. The New Green Vault is one floor above the Historic, and shows similar collections of jewelry, silver, Meissen porcelain, automata, and rarities from the Saxon treasury. We got about halfway through, up to a silver plateau showing a fictional Indian court. As big as a desktop, about two feet high, terraces of silver, enameled, and jeweled figures presenting gifts to the Grand Moghul on his birthday. Astounding work, it shows the high level of craftsmanship in Saxony and replicated in objects throughout these galleries. A convenient and memorable stopping point, as it was time for the Historic Green Vault. There is a glass revolving door/environmental seal entry, with additional guards making sure that no one goes in before their time and nothing comes out. Once through, you enter a series of theme rooms showing essentially the Saxon Crown Jewels, but also the best examples of scientific rarities, clocks, display pieces, and porcelain. Each room is designed as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, where the walls, floors, even the views from the windows are designed to complement and bring out what is special about the collections. A White Silver Room, a Gold Silver Room, Room of Copper Crests, Mother of Pearl Room, each filled with mirrors, gold, silver, rare gems, tromp l’oeil painting, reworked Roman cameos, Renaissance bronzes, sometimes in display cases, sometimes serving as the wall décor itself. It was too much for me, I exited before Michael and waited for him on the other side of the glass barrier. Michael was in his heaven, each room offering more treasure than the last. We finished off the rooms we’d missed in the New Green Vault, but by then our brains had melted.
We took a walk over the Elbe on the Augustusbrucke and into the New Town. This area of Dresden had escaped the worst of the bombing, and is supposed to show more of how the city looked. The walk up the Hauptstrasse didn’t, the Communists rebuilt it in emulation of 1970’s Western shopping malls, but with a lovely forested median. Just behind that, though, are areas of rehabilitated townhouses. We stopped for dinner at St. Petersburg, a Russian restaurant. Michael was skeptical, but this was one of the best meals we ate: Olivier salad, fantastic pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, pork chop with mushrooms, and chicken croquettes.
We decided to test the Dresden Card and hopped on the 4 Tram back across the bridge to the Altmarkt. The tram system is extensive, and marked well on tourist maps and at the stops. Definitely take it, it offers possibilities for exploring the city that walking cannot accomplish. The Altmarkt was livelier now, we checked out more stalls, bought some gingerbread and chocolate, and worked our way back to the hotel through one of the adjacent malls. About half the stores were brands we recognized from the States, and the other half more local and interesting.
Thursday, 9/24: Dresden
We’d been doing breakfast in our apartment, so had yet to experience waking up to the full German deal. The Holiday Inn gave us this experience: lots of coldcuts, meat and cheese spreads, muesli, the works. An upgrade from my usual toast and cheese.
The Zwinger is an interesting palace. No one ever lived there, it was built just to host parties. An enormous Baroque courtyard, a rectangle with apses at either end, is framed by colonnades and buildings that house three separate museums. The Semper Gallery shows Saxony’s Old Master Paintings. One of the world’s great art museums. Two Vermeers, “Girl Reading a Letter” and “The Procuress”; the pastel drawing of a maid that became the Droste Chocolate logo, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (the one with the pouting angels at the bottom). Tons of Durer, including portraits and a triptych that showed how he brought Mediterranean emotions to Northern painting. Giorgione and Titian’s “Venus”, which Sister Wendy had told us to watch out for.
After so many canvases we welcomed the walk back to Korsch, a deli we’d scouted earlier for lunch. Fleischkasse is baloney served like meatloaf, and Michael got what was becoming his favorite German dish, roast pork knuckle. Inexpensive, delicious, and more than we could eat.
Back to the Zwinger for the porcelain collections: two floors, across two buildings, with a roof café connecting them. The Wettins collected porcelain from around the world, so floors of Japanese and Chinese work as well as masterpieces of local Meissen. An entire gallery of large white Meissen animal sculptures. From the roof we got to hear the carillon of Meissen bells in the courtyard, the sweetest bell ringing we’ve experienced. Finally we toured the Scientific Collection: clocks, surveying equipment, automata. Some good explanation of the science behind the instruments, and also video of several of the pieces so you could see how they worked.
We walked behind the Saxon State Opera House, Gustav Semper’s 1841 masterpiece where Wagner’s Tannhauser and Flying Dutchman premiered, and up to the Elbe terrace. Decompressed with coffee and an Aperolspritz. We had a choice to make: the Volkswagen Transparent Factory, where you can watch them make Opels, or another museum. We decided we’d seen Detroit make Fords, and instead caught the tram to the Saxon Folk Art Museum. This was a bit tricky to find, but was the only old building in a world of Soviet malls and housing. The museum was started in the 1920’s by a collector who helped create the concept of folk art as real art; he headed the institution until 1963, so must have been able to convince the Communists that the People’s Art included work done by capitalist peasants. Lots of Erzgebirge wood carving, an entire bed frame, costumes, Christmas mountains, puppets, and toy sets that we could activate by pushing a button. Fun.
Caught the tram back to the Altmarkt, walked up through the Neumarkt (no longer a market, more like a boring but perhaps because under construction town square) to the Frauenkirche. This was only recently reopened. It took a long time for the Church to resurrect it from the bombing, with the stones numbered and put into storage for half a century while they raised funds. The interior, surprisingly, partly rebuilt in white-and-gold Baroque splendor, stunning.
Shopped our way back up the Prager, stopping for dinner at a Chinese noodle place because, as Michael announced, “you can never go wrong with chop suey!” Actually, you can: this was the worst meal we had in Germany, it made Panda Café look authentic. We got our bags, caught the tram to the train, and an uneventful ride north to Berlin. We caught a cab to our new apartment, Palais Winterfeldt, in Schoneberg. Worn, but clean, and the owner had left the keys exactly where he said he would when we told him we’d be arriving after his posted check-in hours.
Friday, 9/25: Berlin
I’d booked our second place in Berlin near Nollendorfplatz. This was where Christopher Isherwood lived in the 1920’s. It became a gay neighborhood, and still has lots of fetish shops and leather bars, although like Dupont it seems now to be mainly middle class straight couples. I was psyched to discover that we were across the street from a small supermarket, Penny, where I picked up groceries for breakfast. On our walk out we discovered the Magnus Hirshfeld Apothecary (Hirshfeld was one of the first people to study gay men not as a psychosis, but as a viable and socially contributing group). Also that Nollendorf U-Bahn station is above ground, a lovely Victorian cast-iron structure. It faces the Neues Schauspielhaus, a masterpiece of Jugendstil from 1905. Between 1927 and 1931 Erwin Piscator and Tilla Durieux created a new kind of theater here with Berthold Brecht, John Heartfield, and George Grosz. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s it was Berlin’s home for New Wave, where Morrissey, Depeche Mode, and the Human League all played.
We walked up Kleiststrasse to Wittenbergplatz, a lovely Neo-Classical subway station with a sign listing the concentration camps where Jews were sent to from here. Such are the historical layers of Berlin. We walked by the EuropaCenter shopping mall en route to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. In divided Berlin, this was downtown, but now seems to be searching for a role in a city whose center has returned east. The church is the one you have seen in a million photos: a bombed Victorian steeple with Egon Eiermann’s 1961 Modern bell tower and sanctuary to either side. This church was a surprise to us. The ruins are stabilized and preserve excellent Victorian mosaics. The sanctuary is a glorious well of blue light that reminded me of Saarinen’s MIT Chapel and the Chapel at the Coast Guard Academy.
Between Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the Zoo is Bikini Mall. This shopping mall is dedicated to design stores. Some cool places, but overall not a success. It offers great views into the Ape House at the Zoo, however, and we enjoyed watching baboons from the Vitra outlet.
For lunch we backtracked to KaDeWe, the last of Berlin’s great Jewish department stores. Their roof level buffet and 6th floor food halls are famous for their size and comprehensiveness. The buffet even had all the ice you wanted for your drinks. Totally worth the 4.5 euros they charge for a Diet Coke. We shopped down the store after lunch, food, then toys/home/books on 5, with girls clothes after that.
We took the subway east to Naturkundemuseum, then wandered over to Chausseestrasse to see the last house lived in by Berthold Brecht. It was actually his wife, Helene Weigel’s, house; it is now a center for writers. The couple are buried next door in the garden Dorotheen-Stadtischer Friedhof. This is an historic cemetery, with lots of Victorian sculptures, tombs, and plantings. A little reminiscent of Recoletta in Buenos Aires, but more green. Also saw Friedrich Schinkel’s grave there.
We had a 3:30 reservation at the Sammlung Boros a few blocks over. The Boros family has been collecting art from contemporary art fairs for decades. They bought a bunker that Albert Speer had designed to protect Berliners during the Allied attacks. It had been used by the Communists as a cold storage warehouse, and then as a rock/rave/drug club after the Wall fell. It’s a massive piece of concrete, whose history gives deeper resonance to the art collection. It’s open by advanced reservation and guided tour only, but worth the trouble. The guide gave us enough information about each artist and piece for us to understand what we were looking at, but with a minimum of judgement so we could make our own decisions. I think the art is crap, but it was great to have an informed person taking us through. The family lives in a glass house they built on top of the bunker. To meet fire code and historic ordnances, they were forced to run a stairwell and elevator bay through the nine feet of reinforced concrete making the roof. Impressive. Our ninety minute tour flew by.
We were finally learning never to get on the subway at one of the major stations: there is too much going on, it’s easier to board at a station without multiple systems going through. We wandered through Friedrichstrasse station looking for the S-Bahn east, found it, rode to the Ostbahnhof, and had dinner at a currywurst stand in the station. Currywurst was invented by a bored German hot dog vendor outside an American army base. She mixed the condiments she had in front of her, ketchup, Worcestershire, curry powder, poured it on a cut up hot dog and sold it to the next Yank with a little wooden pick. A sensation was born. It’s nasty, sweet and greasy, but a Berlin experience.
We walked down to the Spree to the East Side Gallery. This is a section of the Wall that was stabilized and turned into a tourist attraction in 1990. Artists were brought in to create murals on the sides. Those murals have since been covered by the graffiti that Berliners think make their city look cool, but actually just looks disrespectful and trashy. Fun to walk the Wall, especially watching people pour into the Mercedes-Benz Arena across the parking lot for a U2 concert. There’s a great view of the Oberbaumbruecke, a Victorian rail bridge designed to look like a pair of brick fortifications. The Wall crossed the bridge, but now the only thing crossing it is riders on the U12 train. We caught the subway here at Warschauer Strasse to return to Nollendorfplatz.
Saturday, 9/26: Potsdam
It would be silly to get all the way to Berlin and not see Potsdam. It’s far enough out to be a separate city, but close enough to act like a suburb. We bought an all-day pass at Nollendorfplatz that covered every mode of transit, useful for Potsdam as there are so many ways to get there and back. U-Bahn to S-Bahn at Zoo, then a bus from Potsdam’s central station to Sans Souci. The grounds at Sans Souci are a little like Disneyland. The complex of palaces, follies, and entire themed villages in a series of gardens was built over two centuries by the Hohenzollerns. We got off the bus at the Windmill and bought tickets for Sans Souci and the Neues Palais, which then got us into everything else we cared about. An additional three euros buys you a wristband that lets you take photos inside the buildings. We started with Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s personal palace. It’s not a large building: nestled into a slope of vineyards, it was Frederick’s retreat. Frederick the Great is the reason there is a Prussia, a Germany that was not assembled by Vienna’s Hapsburgs but by the Hohenzollerns and Bismark. He inherited a military machine built by his predecessors and used it as a brilliant general to elevate Prussia from backwards fiefdom to European power. He’s complex: a German ruler who spoke only French, a despot who longed to be cultured, a gay man forced to ensure dynastic succession. He built Sans Souci partly in an effort to compete with Louis the XIV, but as much to reassure himself that he was the cultured liberal he wanted to be. It’s a tour de force of Frederician Rococo, with a heavy emphasis on forms from nature. Lots of curlicues that come out of spider’s webs, and consoles that seem to grow out of the walls they lean against. The path through the palace is well marked. Pick up the English audio guide at the entrance, it’s not obtrusive, allows plenty of freedom, and makes sure you understand what you are looking at.
On leaving Sans Souci, don’t miss the Picture Gallery, a separate building below the terrace. One big Baroque French room, it houses the main painting collection. Lots of “school of so-and-so” paintings, but a large number of pieces by Rubens, and Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas”.
There is not a lot of food on the palace grounds. Following Rick Steve’s suggestion, we walked “off campus” to Krongut Bornstedt. This is a fake Italian village that is now a residential suburb of Potsdam. It was once the home of Prince Regent Friedrich Wilhelm and his wife Victoria, daughter of England’s Queen Victoria. The buildings house folk craft demonstrations and a brewery restaurant. Roast pork with dumplings, klopse (similar to Swedish meatballs) over mashed potatoes, Berliner Weisser. The village is very sweet, and was almost empty except for us and some business groups in for lunch.
We walked back through the woods to the Orangerie. This is not just a greenhouse, but a massive secondary palace. Most of it was under renovation, but the best part, the Raphael Gallery, was open. This is like a cast gallery for paintings: good copies of all of Raphael’s most important canvases, so even if you cannot travel the world you can compare what Raphael accomplished in one view. It’s a view of his work that Raphael himself never saw. It’s also the first place we were given the funky felt shoes they use at Potsdam: instead of having to take off your shoes to protect the floors, they give you giant felt clogs to put over them. Fun, made you want to skate over the parquet, and felt like a Joseph Beuys intervention.
It’s a good 45 minute walk between Sans Souci and the Neues Palais at the other end of the Park. That’s if you do it directly, which I cannot recommend. Part of the magic of Potsdam is exploring the world created by Peter Lenne, one of Germany’s great landscape architects. We walked up an allee of trees to the Drachenhaus, a dragon-studded Chinese pagoda that now serves as a restaurant, and downhill in a path through wooded flats to the Antiken Tempel, a Classical-inspired folly, and across a lawn to the New Palace.
Frederick the Great never lived in the Neues Palais, he built it to house visitors and impress them with Prussia’s grandeur. Lots of theme rooms that later emperors enhanced. My favorite is the Grotto Room, with a Neptune/Under the Sea theme. Pilasters and niches covered in sea shells and a marble floor with ocean themes. That was not over-the-top enough, so a later emperor added stripes of precious stones between the stripes of shells. Really. Across from the Neues Palais, whose exterior is a fairly restrained Baroque, the service buildings are an extravagant sinuous bank of Rococo buildings that house the University of Potsdam.
We walked through the grounds to the Romische Bader. This is Schinkel’s fantasy of a Roman bath complex, several buildings built around atrium gardens with plunge baths that are almost swimming pools, surrounded by Pompeii-evoking walls, columns, and sculptures. A building there is large enough to house temporary exhibits; the current one was of photos of the Potsdam gardens over the seasons.
South along the lake to Schinkel’s Greek palace, the Schloss Charlottenhof. We toured the gardens, but did not have time or energy for the interiors. Schinkel was also hired to design palaces and government buildings for the then-recent Greek royal family in Athens (former German princes), this was presumably a dry-run, and probably the best look at what the Greeks were never able to build. This is followed by the Hippodrome, a horse track outlined by hedges and trained trees, then a complex for maintenance of pheasants. We were not seeking these out; we were just walking toward the exit nearest the train station. We came to the Park gates and exited a few yards from the Park Sanssouci Bahnhof, a different and Art Deco train station than the one we’d arrived at. Got the train to Charlottenburg, transferred one stop to the Zoo, then caught the U12 back to the apartment.
Our neighborhood did not have a lot of obvious restaurant choices. We found bars, but no places that looked like they served food. We wandered west through Schoneberg to a little park, Viktoria-Luise-Platz. This is dominated by a giant fountain plume, surrounded by lovely small mansions. One of those has been turned into the Café Potemkin. We sat outside and enjoyed Russian food: Georgian chicken, pelmeni, fried mushrooms, with a dry German red and a weissweinschorle. An experience that made us realize we really could live in Berlin if we were ever forced to flee the States. Especially when we got the bill and saw how cheap it was.
Sunday, 9/27: Berlin
This was Berlin Marathon day. Berlin’s marathon is a big deal in the European running community. The route is all through the city, shutting it down for a lot of tourist stuff. This was a problem. We turned on the TV for coverage, to discover it was all-Marathon, all day. Our Kindle showed the course going right through Nollendorfplatz. Fortunately, the runners went on the north side of the plaza. We were able to slip into the U-Bahn station from the south side just as the leading crew, the handbikers (don’t ask) went by.
The U3 took us west to Dahlem. Dahlem is like Chevy Chase, if MIT was located there. It has been a center of German intellectual life for two centuries; the anchor is the Free University of Berlin. This is where Niels Bohr led Hitler’s scientists in competition with Einstein and the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Dahlem didn’t get bombed by the Russians; instead, special troops were dispatched to kidnap the scientists, steal their equipment, and relocate them to create the Soviet atomic weapons program.
On the plus side, that means that the professors’ Victorian villas remain, with their gardens and the leafy boulevards connecting them. This was as close as we got to the Grunewald, the forested affluent suburbs on the west. It’s pretty stunning. We’d noticed the train stations on the U3 had been themed (Neoclassical, Jugendstil, etc.); the station at Dahlem Dorf looks like a whimsical thatched hut.
We started at the Berlin Botanic Gardens. There is an extensive set of large glass houses with good tropical gardens. The grounds, however, are more arboretum than garden, less visually impressive. Probably this was because of when we were there; what is in bloom in the early autumn?
For lunch we stopped at Villa Roma on the walk back to Dahlem center. A great restaurant, run by Italians who were pleased to hear us order in Italian instead of butchering their entrees with our German. Caprese, spaghetti con frutta di mare, and ham-salami-mushroom pizza.
The main draw of Dahlem is the State Museums at the University. The ethnology collections have been here since the 1960’s, but will be at the rebuilt Schloss on Museum Island in the near future. The buildings are the usual 1970’s concrete travesties, but the collections are astounding. The pretense is that there are three museums here, but all act as one, with a single eight euro admission. We started with the Museum of European Cultures, a large hall that does an excellent job looking at Europe anthropologically, the same way the other museums here look at cultures on other continents. A nice spin on Western culture, lots of toys, a Venetian gondola and Sicilian donkey cart, a look at migration within Europe. It included the largest Erzgebirge Christmas mountain we saw on the trip, complete with buttons to push, lights to activate, and telling the entire life of Jesus, not just Advent and the Nativity. Following on were Aztec and Mayan galleries, American Plains Indians, American Pacific Northwest Indians, Australian and Pacific Islander. The Asian galleries were partly under installation, but we saw massive collections of Japanese porcelain, Chinese art and weaponry, an Indian temple, and Korean books. The African collections were installed with contemporaneous European examples, looking at power and how it was demonstrated in both cultures. The Islamic collections are extensive, with a special look at the culture of Turkey and racism experienced by contemporary Turks who have grown up in Berlin. The installation provoked lots of thought about how communities evolve, what keeps them together, and how they express themselves.
It took us three subways to get to our final site. The U3 took us to Wittenbergerplatz, the U12 to Gleisdreicke, and the U2 to Eberswalderstrasse. Doesn’t that sound romantic? Sadly, everything does in a different language. As our German got better, we recognized these as the equivalent of Akron Place, Triangle Platform, and Watertown Street. As we exited the station at Eberswalderstrasse we joined the crowd heading to Mauerpark. This preserves one of the last sections of the Wall in its original state: the site is on such a steep slope that no one can build anything on it, so the green space was created out of the former dead zone. Every Sunday this park fills with a karaoke show and flea market. It is a scene. We started at the karaoke show, which is a Berlin institution. It was fun to see Germans garble Katy Perry. We turned around into the flea market. Being Germans, they have this organized: crafts here, junk housewares there, clothes, and food in their own sections. Fun stuff, but nothing worth pushing our weight limit on Lufthansa for. Great energy. We walked back to the station, picking up doner kebab en route, and caught the U2 and U12 back to the apartment. We rested, we packed, we set our alarm to get out the next morning.
We’d seen a taxi stand at Nollendorfplatz; a friendly cabbie took us to Tegel, which is an old and funky airport. Enjoy it now, in a few years all flights are going to a massive new airport south and far out of the city at Berlin-Brandenburg. Lufthansa did its efficient job getting us to Frankfurt, with the same annoying but do-able connection taking us back to Dulles. We had great views of London and Cape Cod on the return flight.
We’ve been told that in Berlin we met the friendliest, most welcoming Germans. That’s good enough for us, they were great; we will totally come back to this country. The women dress better than the men, which is not unlike D.C.: is it a national capital thing? There is little or no ice, and you pay for water, just something to accept. There were a few crazy people, but mainly they seemed harmless, a lot less aggressive than in the U.S. We saw no threatening groups of guys, drunk or otherwise, which was unexpected and a relief. Everywhere you go, beggars will be performing Vivaldi and Pachelbel: we guess nothing says “I’m cultured, give me money” like “The Four Seasons”.
I had a revelation on this trip. At the start of our trips abroad, we usually experience several days of culture shock. As we adjust, we learn what to ignore, how things work, and what we need to get by. I think only part of that is language. It’s a challenge, but honestly, most cities, Berlin included, are good about making sure important text is in English, and it’s rarely hard to find someone who speaks better English than you do their language. Another big piece of the shock is national culture: Germans behave differently than the French or the Italians, but honestly, as Europeans they have a lot more in common than they do with Americans. Finally, each city has its own culture one needs to learn. Just as getting on the subway in Manhattan is a different art than riding Metro, learning the life skills of Berlin was different from those of Dresden, as I suspect is true of other German cities, as it is certainly true of American ones.
Places to See on a Future Trip:
Usually at the end of a trip we’ve seen 80% of what I’d hoped to. Berlin has so much to offer, even after ten days we’d covered maybe half. We got to most of the museums, but missed out on walking around most of the neighborhoods and checking out architecture. Potential places for a return engagement follow.
Bunte Schokowelt, Franzoesicher Strasse 24, 2 blocks south of UdL
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Unter den Linden 13-15, daily 10-8PM, free Monday
Andreas Murkudis, Potsdammer Strasse 77-87, design store
Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstrasse 7, W-M, 10-7
Spree Tours, Reederei Riedel, from the Hauptbahnhof, https://reederei-riedel.de/en/
Alte Nationalgalerie and Neue Nationalgalerie
DDR Museum, daily 10-6, Sa to 8, E7
Alexanderplatz (Alexanderhaus & Berolinerhaus, Peter Behrens)
Marienkirche, daily 10-6
Alexa (Loxx Miniatur Welten on top floor), M-Sa 10-8 or 9
Maerkisches Museum, history of Berlin, Tu-Su 1-6, 3PM Su staff run the automata, 5E
Berlin Wall Memorial, Bernauer Strasse
Berliner Unterwelten, Berlin from Below tours
Tiergarten: Gaslaternen Museum, in the Tiergarten east of Tiergarten S-Bahn
Diplomatenviertel, esp. Japan, Italy, Scandinavia, Mexico
Bauhaus Archiv, south of Tiergarten, Klingelhöferstraße 14, W-M 10-5, E7
Schwules Museum (gay), Luetzowstrasse 73, SuMWF 2-6, Th 2-8, Sa 2-7, 7.5E
Walk the KuDamm (Steiff Concept Store, KuDamm 38-39)
Kathe Kollwitz Museum, Fasanenstrasse 24, daily 11-6, 6E
Museum fur Fotografie (same day ticket w S-GC, Berggruen, 12E), Tu-F 10-6, Sa-Su 11-6, Th to 8
Schloss Friedrichsfelde, Am Tierpark 125, TThSaSu 11-5, museum of interiors (in the Tierpark), U-Bahn Friedrichsfelde
Wilmersdorf: Thai Park, Sa & Sunday, Preussen Park
Stilwerk, Kantstrasse 17, mall of design stores
Gipsformerei, Sophie-Charlotten-Strasse 17-18, store of sculpture replicas, M-F 9-4, W to 6
Bruecke Museum, Bussardsteig 9, W-M 11-5, 5E, bus line 115