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Explore the New, Modernized Berlin, Germany
by Susan McKee

Spy novels and movies set in the Cold War era don't prepare you for the Berlin of today. The film noir atmosphere with its dark streets, seedy apartments and furtive characters has vanished in a flurry of redevelopment.

I've visited Berlin several times in the 15 years since the fall of Communism, and each time I'm disoriented as old landmarks are transformed. The Berlin Wall? Obliterated. Checkpoint Charlie? A tourist site.

Where once there was the no-man's-land of mines and barbed wire near the deserted Potsdam train station in East Berlin, there's now a 21st century complex of restaurants, shops and offices anchored by Sony's German headquarters.

The formerly trendy West Berlin shopping area along Kurfürstendamm is showing its age. Apartment rents are falling in that part of town. There's even the occasional vacant storefront, because the city's energy has moved east.

Unter den Linden, the stylish tree-lined boulevard once isolated on the east side of the wall, has been restored to its prominence as not only the best address for foreign ambassadors, but as an upscale boutique shopping district.

Tall construction cranes dot the landscape, helping to erect not only civic buildings - such as the new five-level railroad station - but the new American embassy, hotels, office blocks and shopping complexes. Name-brand architects from I.M. Pei to Frank Gehry are transforming the skyline.

Part of what makes the new Berlin so vibrant is the calculated strategy of multiple downtowns. Instead of one focus for commerce, there are at least five business nodes planned with mixed retail, office and residential development (Potsdamer Platz being merely the latest). Street life continues into the wee hours in most of the city.

And the museums - wow! I've always loved the Pergamon with its collection of ancient treasures brought to Germany from Greece, but it's just one of five being renovated on Museum Island behind the recently restored Berlin cathedral with its magnificent organ.

They tell me there are 170 museums in Berlin, and I figure it'll take me a lifetime to see them all. One of the newest is the Film Museum in Potsdamer Platz, covering more than a century of cinema from silent movies to contemporary offerings. Four more museums open this year: the restored Max-Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee, the permanent exhibition by the Germany Historical Museum in the baroque Zeughaus, the Fernsehmuseum Berlin (museum for television) and the Bode Museum on Museum Island.

Sightseeing boats once again ply the River Spree, with guides pointing out places along the shore where escapees from the east either made it to freedom or perished in the attempt.
Museum in Potsdamer Platz

Most American visitors arrive in Berlin by airplane (there are lots of connections both from abroad and within Europe). Be sure to get a Berlin Welcome Card - public transportation is easy and the best way to get around. A card (good for either 48 or 72 hours of travel) lets you ride both the buses and the subway as well as garner discounts of up to 50% on admission to museums and city tours.

Be sure to see the Brandenburg Gate - once cordoned off as part of the Berlin Wall, it's been restored as a magnificent portal. The last time I was there, only pedestrians were allowed to go through its arches (it seems the rumble of buses and cars was shaking loose the massive stones!).

The Reichstag, the seat of the German Bundestag, has been turned into a symbol of the reunited Germany. Built in the late 19th century and severely damaged in the 1930s, it was turned into a museum in the Cold War era. Now it sports a clear glass dome, giving a new meaning to "transparent government".

There's fine dining galore in Berlin, but don't miss the street food. The city's large Turkish population gravitates to small shops called Döner Kebab serving the absolutely best gyros you've ever tasted. Curry wurst is an acquired taste, although you'll see people at every corner Imbiss (or snack hut) munching away on the Indo-German specialty.

Perhaps the best way to see Berlin is behind the wheel of a Trabant. These rattletrap cars, manufactured between 1958 and 1991, are an unlikely souvenir of Communist rule.

They were the only auto ordinary East Germans could buy during the days of the German Democratic Republic, so they represented freedom in an otherwise autocratic state.

Trabis weren't cheap - 30,000 Deutsch Marks (an average annual salary) - and people waited for delivery an average of 12 years after ordering. Materials shortages behind the Iron Curtain resulted in a car made of Duroplast - a combination of cotton and phenolharz, a kind of plastic.

With a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine and 26 horsepower, Trabis are fueled like lawnmowers: one liter of oil for every 50 liters of gasoline. There's no gas gauge, only a dipstick to check the level of petrol.

Hardly anyone drives one these days - except for nostalgia buffs and tourists. Yes - you can drive around East Berlin behind the wheel of a Trabant, courtesy of Trabi-Safari-Tours! There are more than a dozen Trabis in the company garage, so you have your choice of style and color. There's even the Stretchtrabi, a combination convertible and limousine.

How could I resist? I signed up to drive a jaunty powder blue model - and what a trip it was. Starting off at the Gendarmenmarkt, I clutched the wheel for about 45 minutes of start-and-stop driving through the streets of East Berlin.

A second brave driver took over at the halfway point when we stopped at the East Side Gallery - the longest surviving stretch of the old Berlin Wall. Its original graffiti art (including the infamous Brezhnev kiss) is peeling now, as the memory of the bad old days of Communist rule fades.

Once I was the passenger instead of the driver I could enjoy the ride. People waved at us as we drove along, finishing up alongside Checkpoint Charlie.

After my ride, I stopped into a souvenir shop. An American tourist was debating with his wife whether to buy a yellow or a blue model of a Trabant. I pointed out the window at "my" Trabi and asked him, "Why settle for a toy when you can drive the real thing?"

Berlin tourism information

Hotel booking site for Berlin

Berlin WelcomeCard