Notwithstanding the popularity of conspiracy theories on the internet and social media, which are essentially based on implicating anyone who denies it to be part of the conspiracy itself, I left Bielefeld Germany at 5.30 pm by the ICE train hurtling towards Berlin at speeds averaging 120 miles per hour reaching maximums of over 250 kms per hour (you do the math).
For just 3.5 hours prior to that I was indeed in Bielefeld where I met my friend from school. We had not been in touch for over two decades, but the interesting thing about such meetings is that you experience a feeling of time standing still and see the other person exactly as in the past and you are able to pick back up on the conversations naturally and effortlessly.
In fact, in this short time, I even met her extended family at her brother’s decorated farmhouse. These decorated farmhouses are exquisite and protected by UNESCO from alterations and would be a good reason for you to check out that Bielefeld indeed does exist.
A River Flows Through It
My overall impression of Berlin is what Chicago could have been. Both cities have a river flowing through them, boast great architecture, fantastic collection of museums, a wide array of restaurants and cuisines, and a good network of public transportation options.
But Berlin is and feels safer and is the epitome of cleanliness without any mass exodus to faceless suburbia; this could possibly be attributed to Chicago being burdened by drugs and guns. And, oh, it is unlikely that restaurants in Chicago focus on healthy fare, given our insistence on processing and genetically modifying our food supply.
Pizza at a Turkish Restaurant?
Berlin does not have Frankfurt’s handkase mit musik, a traditional cheese made with hands and marinated with onions The music is created by you afterwards, it being a farty cheese.
Berlin makes up by the sheer choice of international cuisine from all over the world with restaurants that stay open till 2 am, quite literally a city that never sleeps.
Go get your sushi fix at a Vietnamese joint or head for pizza to a Turkish one; yes, you are reading that right. Plus for foodies like myself, there are “real” restaurants that not only strive but have achieved cooking from scratch like your great-great-great grandmother did with fresh and raw ingredients without the use of anything from the freezer or heaven forbid from a tinned can or plastic packet.
The yogis amongst you will have no trouble finding vegan restaurants while the meat eaters should checkout the restaurants that serve the Paleo diet.
The restaurants and cafes of Berlin afford ample opportunity for people watching regardless of whether your choice of beverage while partaking in this popular activity (or is it passivity?) be caffeinated, alcoholic or freshly squeezed. It is amazing that even some Berlin stands serving hot dogs, conceivably the worst thing that you can have your body ingest, possess kitchen paraphernalia and a supply of fresh fruits to make juices with no chemical boosters added.
Make note that if you elect to engage in this in the beautiful mural decorated courtyards of Hackesche Hof at places with inconceivable names like Oxymoron then each of these drinks could set you back nine Euros a pop.
The Nervous System of Cities
While on the topic of restaurants and cafes, you will find many of these right under elevated rail tracks. Yes, railways, something that we in the United States should encompass and better still make public transportation the nervous system of our communities.
Do not limit your choice of public transportation in Berlin to the U-Bahn that runs underground lest you will come out thinking that all Berlin has to offer is your hotel and tourist attractions. After a couple of days, get bolder and take Metro buses to your destination which may take a few minutes longer but will afford you a glimpse into the real city. Hey, while you are at it, just sit on the second level of these double-deckers affording you a much better view at the same price.
The upside of public transportation is that you also get to walk which can only be good for your heart and I hear that such exercise cures many ailments.
However, when you walk and you are not one of those who wants to take the aid of GPS on your smart phone having vowed to use the least amount of technology during your travels, you need to know how buildings are numbered on each Strasse or street for those uninitiated in Deutsche. After walking a couple of times the wrong way, I figured out that the rule is actually quite simple—they are numbered clockwise and so as you walk the numbers increase to your right and decrease to your left which means the number you are looking for could be on the opposite side of the Strasse!
Doms and Domes
One such time that I had run the wrong way was on Reichstagufer trying to make it by my allotted time to visit the Reichstag building which I eventually reached huffing (no, I do not puff) just a few seconds shy to face airport like security to visit the dome.
This building houses the Bundestag, Germany’s main legislative body and the historic building is quite an architectural marvel from the 19th century. The dome itself though is a 1,200 ton glass and steel modern monstrosity and decidedly incongruous.
The experience of climbing up and down those double helical ramp cannot be quite compared to climbing the 267 steps at the Imperial stairwell of the ancient Berliner Dom, Berlin’s cathedral, whose magnificent dome is covered with pretty mosaics of Anton von Werner.
Note: Dom stands for cathedral and not dome, although many domen possess one.
The Berliner Dom is located on Museumsinsel, a tiny island on Berlin’s Spree river, and although not free, it rivals the Smithsonian.
One absolutely cannot miss a visit to the Pergamon Museum where you will find architectural marvels of the Old World recreated from the original excavations.
The most enthralling of these is the Ishtar Gate to the inner city of Babylon (which would be located in present day Iraq) constructed originally 2,600 years ago.
The story about how they were able to reconstruct it to its definitive detail is equally fascinating. Its image was found on a necklace during the excavations, kind of like finding an instagram of Taj Mahal behind your selfie thousands of years later in case it was destroyed, except that there were no photographic devices in 575 BC. By the way, this Ishtar was both the Goddess of Love as well as War; enough said.
The Beautiful and the Ugly
Amalgamating the beautiful and ancient with the modern and ugly seems to be a favorite pastime of the artistic powers that be in Berlin. Besides the incongruity alluded to regarding the Reichstag earlier, the Pergamon had an exhibition of Afghan artist Aatifi going on and they had on display an unequivocally hideous mass of black and blue paint on a large canvas apparently created with broad brush strokes by this gentleman.
Generally I let something like this pass, but in this case it was right in the middle of the room that housed the majestic installation of the Mshatta Façade, excavated near the Jordanian capital that had been transported to Berlin by train in over 400 pieces after being gifted to the German Emperor by the Ottoman Sultan.
The striking contrast between the exquisite details on the façade and the aforementioned broad brushstrokes could not be any more remarkable.
Speaking of remarkable liberties that “modern” artists take in defining what is artistic—the Kurfürstendamm art’otel that I stayed at was exhibiting works of the German painter and sculptor Wolf Vostell in the rooms. My room happened to display his Three Graces, which you can see in this article. I challenge you to google the image of the original Three Graces by Botticelli if you are not already familiar with it, compare and decide for yourself.
To see real works of art, it is worth taking the 45 minute train ride out to the Schloss Sanssouci, the Prussian palace in Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin. Sanssouci literally means “no worries” and was the summer vacation palace of King Frederick II and his wife Elisabeth Christine.
In contrast to his parents Frederick 1 and Sophie who were completely in love with each other sharing a bedroom in their royal apartments, Frederick II followed the traditional route of the kings and queens of the Habsburg Monarchy where they slept in separate bedrooms, ostensibly to denote that their status as the über rich to be able to afford to heat up two separate rooms in those cold wintry nights unlike the mere peasants who they ruled; Yeah right!
While at Sanssouci Park, do not miss the gilded representation of the stories of Ovid’s acclaimed poem Metamorphoses at the Neuen Kammern (New Chambers) that elevates human love in all its forms. Follow the crowds to Caravaggio’s famous painting Doubting Thomas and on next door to the BilderGalerie (quite literally translated to Picture Gallery).
This park of Palaces also boasts a pair of exquisite sculptures of Venus and Mars, this pairing of the Roman deities being an exception, as invariably you find Venus paired up with Apollo, including over the top of Schloss Sanssouci itself.
For a contrast don’t miss the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that depicts the current conflicts around the world from Palestine to Sudan to Ukraine. Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” will ring hollow in your head and the cries of the innocent will not only make your head spin but also make your heart bleed.
Notwithstanding these current conflicts, one cannot but feel hopeful for the future as you see the current transformation of a unified Berlin in a unified Germany.
Let’s take a moment to recall JFK’s well-known Ich Bin Ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) speech in 1963 where he said “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us” and that of Reagan’s in 1987: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
If you were expecting to read a tour guide either you have not read this far or have been possibly disappointed to not find copious references to hotels for various budgets or where to enjoy the nightlife, but instead stumbled onto diatribes of social and political opinions, critiquing of works of arts and commentary on history, myth and language. It is this that distinguishes the tourist from the traveler, and I believe I surely fall into the latter category most of the time. It was none other than Pablo Picasso who said “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet—or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles?” A travel writer is a holistic artist too!
Finally, on the subject of language, it is quite fascinating how one can pick up common words as one travels and while in Berlin, one would have no trouble guessing Strasse is Street, Brucke is Bridge or Zentrum is Center, and if you guessed Rathaus was a house of rats you would not be far from the truth either as it means City Hall.
As you exit the U-Bahn countless times you would have read Ausgang to mean exit, but these travels being always so short, by the time you figure out which Ausgang to take to end up on the right side of the street where the tourist attraction or your hotel is, it’s sadly time to leave .
Riz Mithani graduated from IIT Bombay in the previous century. Currently he leads a team of sales consultants at a Fortune 500 Software vendor. When he is not dancing, singing or traveling, he blogs occasionally atrizmit.wordpress.com