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The new Berlin

Once it was a city split by a wall. Now, a return visitor discovers, it's a splendid capital busy restoring its past and building its future.

November 01, 2009|Nancy Hoyt Belcher

BERLIN — One thing does lead to another. Last spring, I was obsessed with cleaning my garage; a week later, I had scheduled a trip to Berlin.

As I admired my handiwork, I eyed an old cedar chest along one wall, and I realized I hadn't looked inside since 1988. I hadn't wanted to. After all, it was filled with mementos of my husband, Jerry, who died in 1987 when he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But now I was curious; I couldn't remember what was in it. Surely, it was long enough to brave the memories.

I spent the next two days sifting through old letters and dozens of journals, but the ones I read with fervor were from 1954 and '55, the years we lived in Germany, and from 1977, when we returned for a vacation. Bittersweet, yes, but also funny and always with great memories.

When Jerry graduated from college in 1953, he received his diploma and draft papers almost simultaneously. He was sent to Kaiserslautern, in then-West Germany, at that time the largest U.S. military community outside the United States, to serve in the public information office. I joined him in 1954 as a young bride. We were on our own, living on $111.60 a month.

Germany was still occupied by the Allies, and cities were still filled with rubble from wartime bombing. We were eager to travel, particularly to Berlin, but we never got there. I don't remember why, but I suspect it was probably because we were too poor. Our out-of-town entertainment was attending beer and pretzel festivals and visiting castles.

We returned in 1977 to tour Hungary and Yugoslavia and to reunite with our Kaiserslautern hosts. But we also saw Berlin, then a city divided by a monstrous concrete wall. Jerry and I traveled by rental car from Frankfurt, going through Checkpoint Alpha into East Germany, then driving 150 miles to Checkpoint Bravo to enter West Berlin.

After reading Jerry's journals and letters, and knowing that this year Berlin was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, I had another obsession -- to return and see how much had changed. So, I added Berlin to a scheduled trip to Provence, France.

I arrived by air in July and told my taxi driver, Albert, the name of my hotel, the John F. (after Kennedy). He had never heard of it but said he'd try to find it. I must have looked suspicious, because he grinned and said, "Berlin is a big city." But he was friendly and spoke English, and because the hotel had been open only four months, I took a chance.

I'm glad I did. Albert could be a tour guide; he pointed out every major and minor site along the 20-minute drive to the hotel (yes, he found it), including Berlin's symbol, the Brandenburg Gate, which looked like nothing I remembered. In 1977, it had appeared forlorn and neglected behind the wall in the bleak Eastern Sector. Now, it's a tourist mecca, and I couldn't tell where east and west once had been. We rode around the perimeter, and I spotted souvenir stands, street performers and "soldiers" dressed in military garb posing with tourists.

We drove along Unter den Linden (Under the Linden Trees), once one of the grandest streets in Berlin, dating to the mid-1600s. Most of the trees were destroyed or chopped down for firewood during World War II. New ones were planted in the late 1940s, and it looked like a splendid boulevard again.

I chose the John F. partly for its location -- three blocks from Unter den Linden, two blocks from the underground and two blocks from a bus line. It was contemporary, comfortable and a definite improvement over where we stayed in 1977 -- a fourth-floor room and a shared bath in a hotel with no elevator.

Armed with maps, brochures and transportation information, I walked two blocks to Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful square that is home to the French Cathedral, the German Cathedral and the Konzerthaus (theater and concert hall). The buildings, which were destroyed during the war, have all been restored.

I repeatedly saw this determination to rebuild Berlin as it was (with few exceptions) by restoring buildings to their prewar condition. Another nice touch is the city's use of faux facades on buildings awaiting restoration.

Two bus lines leave Gendarmenmarkt for most of the major attractions, although sometimes the underground proved faster. The smartest thing I did was buy a Welcome Card, good for trams, subways, buses and trolleys (for two, three or five days from $23 to $42).

But first I wanted to better acclimate myself, so I bought a ticket for a hop-on/hop-off double-decker bus tour with an English-speaking guide. It was a good idea. I got a history lesson, tidbits of trivia and a sightseeing extravaganza. And in five minutes, I realized that I was foolish to think I could see much of Berlin in only three days.

How could I? Berlin, population 3.4 million, has about 175 museums, 150 theaters, eight symphony orchestras and three opera houses.

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