A good look at Berlin

Three friends and I booked a trip to Berlin for March 6-11, ’05, with Expedia (www. expedia.com). For $905 each, double occupancy, it included airfare, hotel and ground transportation.

We flew from the Washington Dulles airport to Frankfurt on United and connected with a Lufthansa flight to Berlin. We walked off the plane in Berlin to find our luggage on a carousel directly outside the gate, then walked through security to find our liveried driver outside the door and our new VW luxury van parked at the curb. We felt like VIPs.

The Queens Hotel (Guentzelstr. 14, Berlin) is new and located in a residential neighborhood about half a block from the U-Bahn metro.

Every street in Berlin is lined with trees, and parks are scattered all over the city, with the largest being the Tiergarten. The office buildings are modern office towers built in the ’80s and ’90s, mostly after the reunification of Germany in 1990. Most of the residential buildings are multicolored stucco and either five or six stories tall with a small courtyard with trees and parking spaces. Parking on the street requires a ticket from a parking meter on each block rather than a mechanical meter for each space.

That afternoon we went to the tourist information center in the Europa Center on the Ku’damm to get 3-day metro passes (€22) and museum passes (€12). This information center is located on Budapester Strasse; the other two are located near the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz. The museum pass is good for 52 museums but not special exhibits.

We toured the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Cathedral. Only the facade and the bell tower survived the bombing in World War II, and the church was not rebuilt. In the 1950s a round, concrete, fortress-style church and tower were built on either side of the ruins, with modern stained glass latticed behind the exterior walls. The new church and tower is a very ugly building.

The S-bahn (above ground) and the U-bahn (below ground) are clean, modern, efficient and easy to navigate. You only need to get your ticket stamped once upon entry and then carry it with you; you don’t have to present it upon each entry and exit. We all agreed that such an honor system would never work in D.C.

We occasionally took Mercedes taxis when we were tired or didn’t know exactly the directions to where we were going. Rates were reasonable and the drivers honest, but the taxis were cramped for five people (including the driver).

The next morning we went to Museum Island in what was once East Berlin to see the Old National Gallery (19th-century art and sculpture), the Pergamon Museum (ancient artifacts), the Old Museum (Greek and Roman sculpture) and the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). The New Museum was closed for renovation.

We were greeted with snow showers the next day following an elegant breakfast at our hotel that included not only the traditional breakfast foods but also smoked salmon, cheese, tomatoes and champagne.

We took a 2-hour bus tour of the city center with Guide Friday (Bessemerstrasse 84, 12103 Berlin; phone +49 [0] 30/68 30 26 41, fax +49 [0] 30/68 30 26 42 or visit www.berlin-city-tour.de) for €12.

The tour stretched from the Tiergarten to Potsdam Platz and the reconstructed Reichstag. The East German Parliament Building (a 1978 copper-colored glass block) is to be torn down, and the Prussian palace they tore down in 1950 is due to be rebuilt. Our tour bus was a double-decker, and our tour guide spoke English and German alternately on the P.A. system.

That afternoon we went to the Cultural Forum, which includes the State Library, the Philharmonic Concert Hall and four museums. We spent most of our time in the Gemäldegalerie.

We attended a production of “La Traviata” at the Staatsoper (National Opera) that featured a screen projection of a multilane highway with only the soprano dressed in stark white and all the rest of the cast in black. The singers were superb, but we had individual reactions to the modern staging.

We bought the tickets online via Berlin Tourismus Marketing GmbH (www.berlin-tourism.de); the tickets cost $86.50 each and they were delivered to our hotel. This firm is also a good source of information about the city, including attractions and events. Another good website is www.berlin-tourist-information.de/english.

The following day dawned clear and sunny for our trip to Charlottenburg Castle. We saw only a few of the rooms, which were alternately decorated in a rococo style and a more subdued style.

We took a coffee break at the former Orangerie before seeing the Picassos in Museum Berggruen, in a former gatehouse, and touring the Broham Museum, which contains Art Nouveau and Art Deco paintings and furnishings. The Egyptian Museum was closed for renovation, and the bust of Nefertiti had been temporarily moved to the Cultural Forum museums.

We didn’t have time to make the trip to Potsdam to see Sans Souci, nor did we have energy enough to stay up late to go to the Kit-Kat Club of “Cabaret” fame (now known as the Metropol Club).

We probably saw less than half of the museums and attractions in the city, but we saw all of the major sites and got a good feel for the city. Berlin seemed somewhat drab in the gray skies and snow and probably would appear more lively in the green of spring and summer. But we adapted to the cold and enjoyed taking advantage of the off-season rates.

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