Monthly Archives: December 2014


Paris to Berlin


The Cathedral on the Spree

We didn’t get in to the apartment until a little after 8pm Saturday night.  Fortunately our host, Dorothea, met us at the station then it was just a short walk to the apartment.  The penthouse has windows on two long sides with truly spectacular views of the Spree River and everything in the neighborhood. The cathedral, the St Nikolai church, the Altes Museum, boat traffic, the new Synagogue, the TV tower, which was the easiest landmark to help us find our way back “home” on the subsequent nights.  Even though the apartments is very conveniently close to the station, the train sounds are not a bother at all. They don’t run much at night and during the day we are gone…even so, the windows provide excellent sound reduction.  We are just on top of a quiet world up here.

IMG_7913Sunday morning, I am sitting in our Berlin penthouse apartment looking out the window at a hazy sky,  across the Spree River at four of the bridges crossing it, watching a few early walkers bundled up against the cold on the closest bridge.  The multi domed cathedral on Museum Island presents the only color in the early morning gloom. These black streaked verdigris domes are topped with gold orbs perched on such thin spires they appear to be floating above the domes.

The international birds of change, renewal, destruction and growth fly across the city scape in great numbers, as we see in every big city trying to keep up with itself.  But in Berlin the flock is bigger – just within our visual field we count 16.  We thought it might just be our neighborhood going through building changes but our first ride on the #100 bus made it clear that Berlin is a city still being rebuilt.  Cranes are everywhere.

Early Morning

Early Morning

In the park below the apartment, the last of the russet leaves clinging to life before winter really sets in are gathered on the highest branches but are destined to join the brittle mob on the hard ground below them, maybe today as the wind picks up. Tall trees with lichen covered bare branches, others with spreading silver limbs and empty black ones, a willow, yellow and swaying in the breeze in the park beside the river.  It is a rather desolate scene now but the park on the banks of the Spree below must be beautiful in the warmer seasons.  Even now runners do their circuit around the park, children play and families stroll.

Morning traffic

Not much traffic on this Sunday morning, but the subway rumbles and squeals past, followed by a high pitched advance to the next station. The Spree is gray and cold but it’s current, or the wind on the surface, plays sparkly tricks with the water making it appear very agitated.  Tour boats are still busy with passengers and working barges and police boats are active on this waterway.  And there is always a musician on the bridge . . . hopeful, waiting for change:

Or just a Mrs. Santa singing and playing Jingle Bells on an accordion outside the Altes Museum.Santa at the Altes Museum

“Hark!” As my mother would have said…Bells are ringing madly, loudly, bouncing off the massive stone buildings of the Museum Island, tolling four notes in a constant but not consistent cadence, insisting, hurrying worshipers to the cathedral, then quieting, or are my ears deceiving me? Could the bell ringers be getting tired?  Now another church’s bells have joined the rallying cry, and a third is counting the hours. Wait! I look up from the iPad across to the many domed Cathedral.  Through the open arched wall of one of the middle sized domes I see the black silhouette of moving bells, at least 2, maybe 3, probably 4 swaying side to side, and yes slowing, until the clapper no longer meets the bell and the quiet returns.

IMG_7607The bridges are busier now, walkers are not strolling but taking great strides hurrying across to the island.  The bells must have been for the end of a service, letting the worshipers go . They rang for a full 15 minutes! But now they are just starting again after only a 3 minute pause! Maybe for the start of the next service?  Sunday morning in Berlin.  This is better than Vivaldi on the iPod.


                              Victims behind the walls of Freedom…

                Decades later, happy and free on the wall of the Spree.

On the Spree

                       This is all that remains of the Jewish Cemetery.

All that remains of the Cemetary

Sunday morning we took the tour on the #100 bus stopping here and there along the way just to get the lay of the land in this enormous city.  Berlin is 7 times larger than Paris.  So 7 times more difficult to manage.  At least! There is a very good system of trams, trains and buses.  Learning the signage and routes is a challenge but by the end of the week we were quite comfortable with it.

Near the Jewish Cemetary, one wall is full of bullet holes, the other is repaired.

Near the Jewish Cemetary, one wall is full of bullet holes, the other is repaired.

Hackesher Market detail

Hackesher Markt

Berlin is a newly rebuilt city, relatively speaking, with super skyscrapers, high rise apartment blocks, organized grids of streets, broad avenues and wide open plazas which from above must look like many a Munch mouth crying out against crowded modern structures filling the city scape.  Or is that just me?!  I love the details of the old Hackesher Markt.

Reichstag DomWe spent over an hour at the Reichstag building, slowly walking up the curving ramp to the top of its dome, which has an amazing 360 degree view of the city. It wasn’t a perfectly clear day but the boundaries of the city were beyond the horizon which my eyes could see. The audio guide provided information about the incredible building and engineering of the structure as well as giving a city building tour during the circuit to the top.  Flat roofs, crazy tilted roofs, round, elliptical, topped with odd elements – the city is modern, buildings seem to compete with each other to stand out in this field of ultra modern architecture.

Tucked into the modern metropolis across the old East Berlin and West Berlin are reminders of an architectural past and history seen from the height of the Reichstag dom that is not immediately apparent from ground level . . . the verdigris domes of the cathedral on Museum Island which look so enormous from our penthouse apartment in Monbijou park, the red block clock tower of the old Rathaus, the Brandenburg Gate which looks so majestic from the ground level and now appears as minuscule, patches of black and rusty shadows marking the leafless trees of Tiergarten park spreading into the distance, the glint of gold from the beautiful synagogue, and the tiny needle point spires of St. Nikolai church barely poking through the concrete masses are a few of history’s remaining hold on Berlin’s architectural past.

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No hills, Berlin is quite flat. No labyrinth through the old neighborhoods – they were all destroyed and rebuilt, often in a hurry without the luxury of a creative spirit, and out of necessity.  This link to an article in Spiegel International describes the many facets of reconstruction very well.

Worth a read to anyone interested in Berlin’s architecture and cultural history. The cranes fly all over the skyline in Berlin…reconstruction continues and will for some time to come.

On the walk to and from the Jewish Museum there are  housing developments painted with some extraordinary  graffiti.

Jewish Museum

The architecture of Jewish museum is an interesting mix of old and very new.   The small baroque entry building houses special exhibits such as the current one called “Snip!” (ouch)

This is a history of circumcision through the ages, through many cultures and religions.  Sculptures showing (according to the literature!) the perfect penis from prehistoric wood sculptures, a rare Egyptian nude male, to the most modern man created from plastics; the right tools for the job; celebration rituals and short films.  It was interesting and very funny (intentionally) in some places.

From this old building one walks into the new part of the museum, leaving any levity far behind, where the architect created a unique experience for the visitor.  We were lucky to be there when there were very few people around so his intentions were not lost on us.  The day outside was gray, cold and bleak matching very well the lugubrious interior.

Jewish Museum

The architecture creates a somber mood.  Anxiety grows in the off kilter, narrow spaces. Since there were not many visitors when we were there, we were alone in the “voids”, walking the empty gray spaces leading nowhere, finding the Garden of Exile … Alone within the garden of gray monoliths where all life seemed to melt into the dull gray sky above.   Arranged in a square, standing erect on a slanted floor of gray brick,  49 columns are  filled with earth in which olive willows grow.

Jewish Museum published photoIt is hard to describe the exterior but these words do it pretty well:  “An architectural masterpiece, Daniel Libeskind’s spectacular structure has firmly established itself as one of Berlin’s most recognizable landmarks. The zinc-paneled building is truly innovative in the connection it creates between the museum’s themes and its architecture. Libeskind has dubbed his design »Between the Lines,« a title which reflects the tensions of German-Jewish history. Inscribed within the design of the building, this past takes shape along two lines charting various cultural connections and modes of thought: one is straight, but broken into many fragments; the other is winding and open-ended. The intersection of theses lines is marked by voids, empty spaces that cut through the entire museum. Rich in symbolism, the museum’s architecture makes German-Jewish history palpable, raises numerous questions, and provokes reflection.”


10,000 faces fashioned out of steel, simple faces but so expressive, lay scattered on the ground of the Memory Void.  The sound created by walking on this field of faces, which I could not do, the clanging and scraping is really disturbing.

The Jewish museum and the Memorial to the murdered victims of the holocaust are in different sectors of city.  The museum is in a quiet neighborhood.

The memorial is near the Brandenburg gate and visible from the Reichstag.  It was deliberately installed there  so the powers in government would be reminded of the horrific history daily, just by looking down the street.  From across the street looking at the Memorial from the Tiergarten, the gray concrete slabs don’t make much of an impact … It reminded me of stands of white marble blocks quarried from Carrara waiting for the sculpture to see the life within a block and chose to reveal that life.  These instead are dense gray blocks representing the invisible remains of the horror of WW2.  Nothing announces this memorial, no sign high above, no obvious visitors center, no charge for entering. It is only in the knowing of the history memorialized here that the artist’s message is carried.

These 2 links to NYTimes articles reviewed this memorial in very different ways.

IMG_7633Both make good points but both would probably agree that this memorial represents a radical confrontation with the traditional concept of a memorial. In the architects words »The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate … Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia … We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present.« (Peter Eisenman, 1998)

IMG_7996After the Brandenburg gate, the Jewish memorial, the Reichstag dome, a stop at a perfect vegetarian asian restaurant for bowl of hot soup ended a long and weary day of beating feet on the streets of Berlin.

We started our Wednesday wander with a tram ride to the Nikolai quarter, recognizable from many points in the city by the church’s unique spires.

Like so much of Berlin that was leveled by the end of the war, the Nikolai quarter was reduced to rubble by the relentless bombing of Berlin during the war. But unlike other quarters, which were probably also unique and picturesque before the war, this quarter was historically significant to Berlin for 800 years before being destroyed by the allies. Left as a broken heap in the city scape for decades, the church was finally deconsecrated, given to the city by the Protestant diocese and rebuilt as a museum with great attention paid to its history and the many architectural changes the church endured since the 1200’s.” For example, the interior was painted according to the original style of the middle ages when the church was first built.  Bright and peaceful, it is superb as a museum with excellent audio guides.

Small museums are the best.  They don’t wear us out!  The Musical Instrument Museum, like the Nikolai Church, was another lovely one.

MIM BerlinMusical Instrument Museum

From the modern, mostly gray exterior we entered into a world of color, history and sound.

The museum was filled with beautiful, mostly stringed instruments and so quiet, except for the marvelous music played on the ancient instruments which we listened to thru the audio guides.  We even had a short recital by a scholar visiting just to experience first had the sound created by the beautiful small organ.

Organist at the Musical Instrument Museum


The variety was amazing, and the history on the guides was so interesting we stayed til closing and they had to shoo us out!

Days are shorter in Berlin than in Paris.  Darker in the morning until eight and darker again by five in the afternoon.  And gray all day!  I called it a black and white city except in places like the Potsdamer Platz where a riot of Christmas inspired color broke up the gray.

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 Lights, music and angels gathered at the Atrium of the Sony Center where everything glittered.

Living with The Wall

Living with The Wall

All over the city there are reminders of the Berlin Wall. It is still part of the street scape.  Pieces of the Wall, painted in a myriad of ways, stand along a bricked line marking where the wall had been.  Others are placed around the city as installations of street art .  There is an ongoing  effort to save these last pieces of the Wall.

Graffiti does not really blanket the streets in Berlin as it does in much of Paris, but there are some incredible commissions like the ones on the housing blocks near the Jewish Museum, and other very common statements, tags and pasteups made by street artists.

Berlin must have a hundred Christmas Markets and we managed to see a few of them.  IMG_7608

Hot mulled wine, flammenkuchen, holiday musicians entertaining the crowds, nutcrackers and so much more to tempt holiday shoppers!  The spirit was bright and fun.


Other Christmas markets we have seen are poor copies of these in Berlin, where authenticity and fine hand crafted quality is so clear.  We certainly now have a better flavor of this tradition. And of the glühwein!

                          Sometimes one Christmas Market is enough!IMG_7599We went to the Dali museum with a rather rough start . . . I couldn’t take my camera in my baggalini because it is bigger than a piece of A-4 paper, literally!  So I had to leave my bag and camera at the desk which I did not like a bit.. Then we couldn’t take our coats off and hang them over our arm – we had to wear it or check it.  No audio guide is available but one could buy a pretty good book to read as a guide.  We did, but the font was so small it was impossible to read while viewing .  So, no good for explanations while visiting, but not bad otherwise.  This is an expensive museum, not worth the price IMHO.  At the very least, pieces should have some descriptions to make a visit worthwhile.  Dali was a very disturbed person and a poser, IMHO.  His talent is weird.  Surrealism is weird.  It looked like he was trying too hard to be weirdly interesting.

A ride back to the apartment calmed us down after being in Dali’s weird world. After a little rest we took a long walk around the very cool neighborhood we “live” in as the full moon was rising and the night was taking over the day.

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 In Berlin people drink beer.  Lots of beer.  There are sidewalk cafes just for beer. Rather than having a beer, we stopped at a tiny wine store and got an interesting lesson about Riesling wine, bought a bottle, some gourmet to go for dinner and settled in with a TNT movie!

Friday was our last full day in Berlin and the first day we have had rain, a fine misty rain.  A good day to relax, pack, catch our breath and take easy walks after a busy week.  We saved the Cathedral visit for Saturday thinking it might be a good way to end the trip on a very high note, literally and figuratively we were right!

On our last morning Berlin was in crisp cold sunshine, FINALLY! We headed to the cathedral and spent hours there, very happy we saved it for last. The audio guides were superb and the walk up to the top ring of the Dome and outside at that level overlooking the city was amazing!  A clear day, blue sky, hours in church then a walk to St Nikolai square for a last lunch in Berlin . . . a fascinating city.  It was a full week, we are tired!  And we barely scratched the surface.

We know it will also be cold and drizzly back in Paris . . .  But Paris sparkles in the drizzle!