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I couldn’t picture Berlin before I arrived there. I had vague notions about a wall, and had heard tangentially from others that it was supposed to be a cool place, in the way Portland and Brooklyn are supposed to be cool places. When Lufthansa launched an airfare sale last fall where flights to the German capital were $300 lower than flights elsewhere in the country, I reserved a seat.
Then I bought a guidebook, and it had one of the densest and most tumultuous “History” chapters I’ve ever seen in a guidebook. I was expecting a city totally torn apart, shredded by warring superpowers -- and this only since World War II.
But the city that greeted me was one of the most interesting, optimistic, creative places I’ve ever been.
Many parts of the city are not traditionally beautiful -- the baroque architecture we expect from our European cities have been replaced with uniform slabs of socialist housing. Although Mitte, the “Middle” of the city, and neighboring Prenzlauer Berg have large sections spared from destruction. This is the area we stayed in, and where I’d recommend other travelers book.
Mitte has many of the major landmarks, from the Brandenburg Gate on the west side to the Fernsehturm TV tower further east -- Germany’s tallest structure, which looks like a disco ball impaled on a knitting needle. Prenzlauer Berg has tony tree-lined streets, where young families push strollers past independent restaurants, antique shops and the Kulturbrauerei, a cultural center propped up in a former brewery.
The Spree River twists its way through the middle of town, and hopping onto the opposite shore or Prenzlauer Berg lands travelers in Kreuzberg, one of the city’s main hipster nexuses. Here the cutting-edge and the rumpled (which are interchangeable) gather in bars, Turkish restaurants and hip fashion boutiques.
There are many ways the city recounts its extraordinarily difficult participation in the Holocaust, and one of the most powerful is at the Jewish Museum. The subterranean entrance to the jagged Daniel Libeskind structure includes a path into a dank, lightless, heatless, hopeless concrete cell, symbolizing the futility and death of the war. In another room, thousands of steel plates are stamped with contorted screaming faces, causing an eerie, melancholy cacophony as you walk over them.
With a history this rich, no building is always what it seems. While on a stop in a very plain-looking drugstore, I noticed framed pictures of Marlene Dietrich slotted in among the cereal boxes and egg crates. Turns out this building used to house a cabaret frequented by the actress before she gained fame. Another regular Christopher Isherwood probably used it in his Berlin memoirs that were eventually made into the movie "Cabaret."