It occurs to me that I really like a lot of cities that start with the letter “B.” Boston, Berkeley, and Baltimore in the US for starters, but then the list gets a little more interesting….Budapest, Brussels, Brugge, Belfast, Bergen, Barcelona, and Bern, to name a few. But now I have to add a real winner, and that is Berlin.
Why the heck hasn’t this town been on my radar before? Well, for starters, for a long time it was a challenging place to navigate – a divided city, the remnants of the Nazi empire. During my professional career I became fascinated with Eastern and Southeastern Europe, cities and countries that had also landed on the wrong side of history for a while, and I somehow failed to add this town to my “Must See” list. But now, thanks to a Batumi colleague who hails from Berlin, I have made the trip over and I am smitten.
I’ve been here three days, I only have two more before I head back, but I feel as though I have lived half a lifetime already. So in my typical way, I have to tell the tale in the approximate order that it has occurred. First, the wonderful moment in the Boston airport that reminded me in the best possible way I was about to head out into the unknown:
My airline of choice this trip is Turkish Airlines, which has just won “Best Airline in Europe” award for the fourth consecutive year – no mean feat in a field that includes Swiss Air, Air France, British Air, and a few other heavy hitters. Why you should travel with the flying Turks – pillows! blankets! socks! and Real Food, lots of it. One of my other options, Lufthansa, has just today announced *yet another* pilot strike, which means if I had chosen them, I might have inhabited my colleague’s guest bedroom for an indeterminate period. (Probably best for our friendship that I go home as scheduled on Saturday, and inshallah I will.)
So, my first day in Berlin, doused with massive amounts of caffeine and armed with the Berlin edition of the DK Travel Guide, off I went for a reconnaissance sortee. My colleague lives in the Kurfurstdamm neighborhood – the heart of old West Berlin and forever a Beverly Hills-style shopping mecca – so I headed first to visit KaDeWe, the Harrods of Berlin. Occupying a full city block like Macy’s in New York, it’s a fabulous eight-story monstrosity of an upscale department store. The Christmas colors this year are a beautiful and slightly unusual combination of gold, silver, and bronze, reflected in the ornaments on the tree and all the decorations in the story. I was particularly charmed by the figure of Father Christmas greeting the incoming shoppers:
Upon reflection, this was an equally inspired choice of a first stop since it has been *really really* cold here (mid 20’s with a stiff breeze from the East, “courtesy of Putin,” as the locals say) and my first purchase with Euros was a set of Ugg sheering earmuffs which have allowed me to enjoy the frigid clime with impunity. Ears sufficiently thawed and debit card in hyperventilation from merely gazing at the price tags in KaDeWe, I went out to explore the environs.
KaDeWe is located on the Ku’damm, a few short blocks from the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirke, according to Kindersley “one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks, surrounded by a lively crowd of street traders, busters, and beggars,” augmented just at the moment by one of Berlin’s 40 Christmas markets. That being said, what’s impressive about this church-monument is not so much what is there, but what is not, which is most of the church, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. There is a Memorial Hall (at left below) extent with historical information (I found this incredibly moving, particularly the Coventry Crucifix from England and the Orthodox Cross from Russia, both given in a spirit of love and reconciliation by former enemies) and the new church sanctuary, very new, beautiful, different, to the left of the old church, not the tower under construction nearby. I do recommend it if you come.
From there I continued around the immediate neighborhood, hoping that I could hold out against the twin demons of jet lag and dehydration. After I had had my fill of all the Louis Vuitton, Armani, Hard Rock Cafe, Gucci, and Mephisto boutiques, I was able to see some lovely street scenes on a nearby street named Fasanenstrasse:
This photo shows in a simple way everything that I *love* about Western Europe, all in one picture. The buildings, all approximately the same height, allow for a unified urban canvas. The retail establishments are found on the ground floor with the residential spaces located above, creating community and convenience of daily life. The occasional small garden or park breaks up the street and provides views from windows. The wide sidewalks encourage outdoor cafes and strolling and watering one’s dog, all contributing to a sense of human scale that supports and sustains civic spirit and sense of integration into the whole. (Sorry, America, you’ve really got this wrong in a lot of places, although thankfully not in Portland, Maine.) I chose this street in particular to stroll because Kindersley told me that some of the few fin-de-siecle buildings that survived the war live here, and below is a detail of one of them:
And later on this same walk, a look behind the buildings, newer ones this time, with a slightly different sense of how people live here, particularly with children:
So there you have Day One, which ended with perhaps the nicest shots of all, that of my host after a multi-bottle dinner in which all manner of important life issues were discussed. Cheers to you, K-HR! And to you readers at home, more to come.