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Here's How to Shrink Boom-Town Berlin Costs

April 21, 1991|MARC FISHER | WASHINGTON POST

BERLIN — The guy is dressed entirely in black, his closely cropped hair half yellow, half pink. Definitely West.

The woman is in artificially faded jeans and an old West German military jacket. An Ossie for sure. Wrong both times.

The new Berlin's latest bar game is deceptively easy. Old stereotypes about the differences between East and West German looks are fading as fast as you can say "consumer society."

The old Berlin was a constant reminder of the pain and division of Germany--one people, two cities, separated by a concrete eyesore winding its way through the center of Germany's greatest metropolis.

In much of the center city, the Wall has been removed--although, contrary to the simplified view of the world presented by television, miles of Wall still stand. And Berlin remains two very different places--which, for travelers, is the only fact that saves the city from pricing itself out of consideration.

Western Berlin is a boom town. Prices know no limit. Think of New York in the late '70s. Hotels, restaurants and bars know they can charge virtually anything and get away with it.

West Berlin's taxi prices, among the highest in the world, are now in force in the east as well (although, for the first time, you can now find a cab in the east). But the city has an excellent, if expensive, public transit system, and connections between east and west are being added every month. (A single ride on the underground or streetcars costs about $2, but tourists can buy a 24-hour unlimited travel ticket for $6.)

And German reunification has revolutionized air travel to Berlin, allowing Lufthansa, which was banned from the city while it was still under Allied control, to take over, forcing out some carriers and requiring others to boost their prices by 50% to 100%.

Luckily, there are ways around much of this. Lufthansa, which is controlled by the German government, dramatically reduced the service and convenience of flights to Berlin from other German cities. British Airways subsequently increased its Berlin fares and eliminated the more affordable coach class on many flights. But you can still get low fares on BA by booking a week in advance and staying through a Saturday night.

And once you're on the ground, you can combine the lower standard of living in the east with the surprising affordability of parts of western Berlin to keep the vacation tab within somewhat reasonable limits.

Most of Berlin's sights are free or nearly so. In addition to the Wall (a long stretch of which has been turned into a delightful gallery of political art) and other relics of the Cold War, the city has a wealth of museums, historical monuments, grand parks and imperial palaces.

The Soviet War Memorial at Treptow in the east is a must-see, along with the constant parades of Red Army vehicles, one of many reminders that change comes more slowly in reality than on CNN.

Most of the stately old structures on the east's Museum Island are hidden behind scaffolding these days, as western renovators begin to make up for 40 years of neglect. From the Pergamon Museum's remarkable altar to the Bode's collection of Near Eastern and Byzantine works, the riches once hidden behind the Iron Curtain are worth a day or more.

Berlin also boasts two cities' worth of theaters, concert halls and movie houses, although those in the east are suffering from the economic crisis there, as eastern Berliners, struggling to afford western food prices, find the old state-subsidized arts prices are also a matter of history.

Opera, theater and music directors say the oversupply of productions probably will last only one more year, but before the wave of mergers and closings is finished, tourists will find plenty of empty seats--often at half the price of similar U.S. shows.

Try the Comic Opera, the State Opera and the splendid halls at the Plaza of the Academy, all in the eastern part of the city. There were never enough hotel rooms in Berlin, and there are no more now that the city has become a window onto suddenly sexy Eastern Europe. So the big business hotels have jacked up prices to levels affordable only to those with overstuffed bank or expense accounts.

At the big chain hotels, double rooms are now routinely in the $250 to $600 range. This is as true in the east as in the west, and the east still has major disadvantages (the phones don't work, the air reeks of brown coal during cold months, the food is generally odious.)

But western Berlin has a wealth of small hotels and pensions, many of them in prewar buildings with high ceilings, drafty windows and an overwhelming sense of brown--the somewhat dowdy look that teases the imagination with a bit of '20s decadence. The tourist center at the Europa Center in the west will find you a room at a pension or bed and breakfast. The old East German Reiseburo on Alexanderplatz is still in operation, and will book you in a bedroom in someone's private apartment for a modest sum.

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