You're probably familiar with the Louvre - possibly the world's greatest collection of art, in Paris. (This is about Berlin, why am I writing about Paris? Bear with me.) It consists of several 17th century(?) buildings recently joined by an underground entrance hall, surmounted by I.M. Pei's wildly anachronistic glass pyramid. This addition caused an outcry across Paris - it was simply not appropriate. Had the Louvre been in Berlin there would have been no outcry. At all. Once you've seen Berlin, you'll understand why. Nineteenth Century buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with the craziest structures modern architects can dream up. Or maybe I should say "shoulder to elbow" as most of the new ones are taller and extremely angular. The city has been in a building frenzy ever since the Wall fell in 1989 because the Wall ran right through truly prime real estate in what is (once again) the heart of the city.
Berlin is haunted by its past: the Nazis and their purges, the weeks of 24-hour-a-day bombing at the end of the war that destroyed huge portions of the city, and the brutal division of East and West enforced by the Wall. Berlin was a very flat city: it now has three "mountains," each around 70 meters tall. They're made of rubble, although it's hard to tell: they're now covered in grass and trees. Very little remains from the Nazis: what wasn't destroyed by the Allies was removed by the Germans themselves. And there are monuments everywhere. To the soldiers, to the Jews, to the dead. A couple of chunks of the Wall remain as a reminder: one a kilometre long "art gallery" (although much of it is more "graffiti" than "art" these days), and a much shorter section preserved without decoration and including the no-man's land between two walls - a space where hundreds died trying to escape the East German state.
I was in Berlin from September 15th to 23rd, 2008. It's a great place to visit: it's cheap by European standards and, along with all the monuments and architecture, it has a great metro, some lovely churches (always a favourite of mine) and about seventy (70, yes, 70) museums. Eight days wasn't even close to being enough. You can even avoid German food (bratwurst, sauerkraut, potatoes and beer pretty much covers it) since you're in the very cosmopolitan capital. I like German food but probably would have been unhappy after a week of nothing but.
Weird things stood out to me: "Berliner Weiße mit Schuss" is way up there on the list. For an English speaker, let me work through that second word: "W" is always pronounced "V," "ß" for most purposes can be represented as "ss" in English, and the "e" at the end is pronounced, although barely. For all that, it means "white." And we're talking about beer. Berliner Weiße mit Schuss is very popular in Berlin (I know because it's very easy to spot someone drinking it - we'll get to that) but it gets absolutely no respect elsewhere - especially among beer drinkers. Take a young and sour wheat beer, serve it in a tumbler with a healthy shot of very sweet syrup which is either bright red or bright green (they're different flavours, and either way you can be spotted drinking it across a room), and drink it through a straw. Beer-flavoured cough syrup. Wikipedia on the subject.
This sweet/sour medicinal flavour came back to me a couple days later when I tried the German-made liquer, Kuemmerling. It's a close relative of Jägermeister, although not so sickly sweet. When I asked about Kuemmerling at the hotel bar the receptionist/bar tender gave a full body shudder and said "It is terrible stuff." It's on their menu - I love the sales pitch. I ordered it despite her efforts.
My favourite places were The Holocaust Memorial, the Berliner Dom, The Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum, the metro, and the Reichstag.
The Holocaust Memorial ... 2711 coffin-shaped concrete blocks covering an area the size of three football pitches (statistic courtesy of the British-made Rough Guide). As you move through the narrow aisles toward the centre the blocks grow to 3.5 meters in height - far over your head, blocking out the sights and sounds of the city. It's very eerie - and would probably be much more disturbing if it you weren't constantly assaulted by busloads of hurtling teenagers shrieking and chasing each other around. Even at night there are (nominally) adults running about, hiding, and leaping out at each other. Creepy as anything - and then there's a shriek and laughter.
The Berliner Dom is a massive Nineteenth Century church, all sculpture, gold leaf, and no class. The crypt underneath looks like a car park for coffins. You can climb the long, awkward stairs up to the ring around the dome for fine views of Museum Island and the immediate area. It reminded me a great deal of St. Marks in Venice - another church where money and opulence won the battle with taste. I loved it.
German archeologists brought back the tile facings of the Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading up to it back from the ruins of Babylon, and the whole thing has been reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum. It's breath-taking, and a very effective reminder that Babylon was once a staggeringly powerful city. Photography was forbidden in that section of the museum so I'll send you to Wikipedia's entry on the subject for more information and some photos.
The Berlin metro system consists of the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram lines, bus lines, and another system of commuter trains that I never used. Clean, fast, and with incredible coverage, it was a pleasure to use.
The Reichstag is the German Parliament: a large, ornate 19th century building now with the addition of a huge glass cupola with spiraling ramps that the tourists can climb. The views of the surrounding area are good but unrewarding for photographers as they're through glass and you're not really all that high up. But the structure itself is absolutely marvelous: a massive spreading column of mirrors rises up through the centre sending light down through glass flooring into the council chambers below.