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A Day in Berlin

We had about seven hours to play in Berlin between flights—the first time here for both of us, and more than enough time to justify a bus ride into town.

Berlin amazed us. It was so laid back we wondered if it was some kind of holiday, but there were plenty of people in suits and all the banks and government offices were open. And yet it’s incredibly vibrant. Walkers and bicyclists and boaters (along the River Spree) are everywhere.

Exiting the airport bus near the central train station, we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, the beautiful old Reischstag (parliament), vast Tiergarten park, and the first of three jointly administered memorials to victims of the Nazis: a small reflecting pool in memory of the 500,000 Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). Nearby was the very moving (and oppressive) memorial to the six million Jews who were killed: a series of corridors through a massive plaza of 2711 concrete pillars that started at small heights and grew ever taller, until they dwarfed the people walking through.

The space seemed to elicit a wide range of reactions. Some people clearly were deeply moved; some saw it as an opportunity to play. Tour groups of young people listened intently. Some Berliners used the space as a short cut, while others seemed to walk deliberately through the space because they wanted to remember, and to honor the dead. If I were running the site, I would reserve at least a portion of it for silent activities. It’s hard to feel the full effect if some teenager is loudly doing gymnastics on the pillars or chattering about a favorite sports team.

Still, I found that the space pressed in on me as I got into the taller pillars, and it felt hard to breathe. I could feel the weight of all those dead.

There’s a museum below the exhibit, but the wait to get in was over half an hour, and our day was short. And the memorial to slain homosexuals, which we wanted to see, is across the street, but somehow we missed it.

Back out on the streets, we found building after magnificent building. A surprising number of 19th century (and some, I think, quite a bit older) architectural treasures line the downtown streets, even though Berlin has obviously lost a lot of terrific buidings as Germany lost two world wars and East Berlin was subsumed under the slap-‘em-up--quick ethos of the Soviet era. Yet, where the grand old buildings are gone, so many of the new buildings that have taken their place are astounding in their own right. They don’t try to fit in, they don’t try to disappear in anonymity—but use color, light, and shape to create a whole new kind of landscape.

Our route took us from the Brandenburg Gate past the beautiful little round St. Hedwig Cathedral (home parish for the Archbishop), through an amazing expanse of art museums on and around Museum Island, off the main east Berlin boulevard, Unter Den Linden— Kunsthalle Deutsche BankNeues Museum, Jewish Museum, The Bode, Permagon, Altes National Museum and several others, each an architectural gem—up to the Berlin Dome (another, much larger Catholic cathedral), and then to the Hackescher Market: a wonderful mix of inexpensive ethnic food stalls (lots of Turkish, but also Arabic, Italian, pan-Mediterranean, potato bar, and all sorts of others), built on a plaza outside an elegant train station.

Speaking of trains, Berlin seems to have at least five different types of rail transit lines, as well as an extensive bus network. Our final stop was the exquisite 1866 synagogue that had been burned and looted on Kristallnacht in November, 1938.

With stops for coffee and lunch, and an hour round-trip from the airport, that was all we had time to do. Berlin is being coy with us, showing us hints of pleasures to come on some future visit—but for now, we were happy with the quick peek.

Shel Horowitz, editor of Global Travel Review, is working on ways business can solve problems of hunger and poverty, war and violence, and catastrophic climate change:

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