The weather has a lot to do with traveling, and it was fairly chilly with occasional rain in Berlin. But that didn’t dampen our interest in exploring this exciting, active capital of Germany. We stayed in a small hotel off the Kurfurstendamm, which was the main business street in West Berlin before the wall came down in 1989.
The “Kudamm,” as it is called, is still a busy thoroughfare with shops, department stores and restaurants. We visited the nearby Kaufhaus des Westens, the legendary “KaDeWe” Berlin department store, and immediately went to the sixth floor, which is home of the most extensive food emporium of any department store in the world. The rest of the store is stocked with higher-end clothing and other items.
But just a few blocks away is a new shopping complex that many people believe is the wave of the future. It has the unlikely name of “Bikini Berlin.” It’s a three-story steel-frame complex with all kinds of small shops, many of them best described as “trendy,” along with a number of restaurants and art galleries. The building overlooks one corner of the Berlin Zoo, and you can have bratwurst and beer in one of the restaurants while watching the monkeys cavort below.
It took us awhile to learn how the complex gained such an unusual name. Apparently during construction, two horizontal sections of the building were built on vertical steel beams, and their form looked like a bikini, hence the name.
The weather finally improved last Saturday, and it was very timely, as our group had a Berlin tour starting with a boat cruise on the Spree River. And we weren’t alone; there were countless boats packed with people on the river that sunny day.
We disembarked near the Reichstag, the historic building that has been restored to be the home of the German parliament with a Sir Norman Foster-designed glass dome perched on top. Nearby are a number of modern buildings housing the German government, which was moved from Bonn in the 1990s. The building with the offices and home of Chancellor Angela Merkel is called “the washing machine,” because it features a huge round window.
At the Brandenburg Gate, the iconic symbol of Berlin, there was a huge crowd, as usual. This time, many of the people wore yellow shirts and soccer jerseys. They were soccer fans from Dortmund, in Berlin to watch their team to play a championship game against the hated blue-and-red-clad Bayern Munchen team from Munich. The soccer fans were vocal while sloshing down mugs of beer, but not rowdy. (Alas, Bayern won, 2-0, that evening in overtime.)
There is plenty of building going on in Berlin, with new commercial and public structures going up, including a number of new shopping complexes. But several Berliners told us they were still dismayed that two major public buildings — the new airport and the new main train station — lie half-completed without much construction going on.
Yes, Berlin is an active, energetic town. But compared with past visits, it isn’t quite as exciting as it was before the Berlin Wall came down. Going through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin was always an adventure, and you never knew what to expect. Now there is only a mockup of the Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse in the middle of Friedrichstrasse. Not so exciting for tourists, but the Germans are quite satisfied, and doing quite well as a unified country.
Next, we head for Budapest, where we will board a boat on the Danube River.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, is traveling in Europe and will provide reports along the way.