Reunited Berlin offers two of most every attraction

August 09, 1992|By Pat Hanna Kuehl | Pat Hanna Kuehl,Contributing Writer

I t's been nearly three years since the Wall came tumbling down. Still, it's the first thing most American tourists want to see as soon as they hit Berlin.

All they're likely to find are bits and pieces. One small part of the infamous barricade remains standing at the Potsdamer Platz. It's mostly a tourist attraction at what was Checkpoint Charlie, the famed border crossing from West to East Berlin.

Vividly painted on what was its west side, drab concrete on the other, the historic barrier is almost lost in the colorful souvenir stands offering everything from framed wall fragments to secondhand East German and Russian officer hats, passport stamps to German Democratic Republic license plate tags. Replicas of the guard towers have little of the ominous aura that went with the real thing. For that, you have to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum farther up the street.

The Cold War is almost gone. But another wall still stands in the minds of the citizenry. The distance between West Berliner and East Berliner goes beyond mere geography of the largest city in Germany. Sophisticated and arrogant, the West Berlin movers and shakers live the good life in the stylish Charlottenburg area. Beaten-down East Berliners live in dreary, substandard, deteriorating housing with poor infrastructure, paying dearly for what they get. It's been that way since the beginning of the century.

But Wolfgang Raffler, a Berlin tour guide who has found his services in demand since the city was named capital of reunited Germany in June 1991, says the future lies in East Berlin, especially in Berlin-Mitte, the historical and cultural center that was on the east side of the Wall.

Look to the East

There's more room for expansion, costs are less and the labor supply is plentiful. A tourism bonus: so many attractions in so small a neighborhood.

Two of the finest hotels in the reunited city, the Maritim Grand Hotel and the Berlin Hilton, are in easy walking distance of the German State Opera House and the Comic Opera House, renowned theaters that survived the Cold War.

Museum Island -- home of some of the classic art treasures of the world -- is only a stone's toss from the stately Boulevard Unten den Linden. (The Pergamon Museum has to be the biggest bargain in either Berlin. The 65-cent admission fee includes not only the Altar of Zeus and Athene, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, as well as other Greek and Roman antiquities, it also covers a 30-minute taped archaeology lecture in English and benches to rest on while being enlightened.)

Boutiques and pricey shops -- names like Tiffany's, Cartier, Christie's of London and soon Galleries Lafayette -- line the Friedrichstrasse. Within four years, Friedrichstrasse will have a glitzy shopping mall.

Some speculate another Friedrichstrasse tourist attraction is about to disappear. The mound that marked Hitler's bunker is near the site where construction is scheduled to begin on Sony's European headquarters complex. Could Hitler's citadel end up part of the foundation for a Japanese luxury hotel? Certainly there's a built-in clientele. Japanese factories are mushrooming all over eastern Germany. Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Hondas and Nissans far outnumber Mercedes, BMWs and Volkswagens in the traffic jams along Unten den Linden.

Renovations under way

The crumbling grandeur that was the Platz der Akademie is much grander now that its name has been changed back to its original Gendarmenmarkt. Restoration is under way on the German Cathedral on one end of the square, the French `D Cathedral on the other, with the classic Schauspielhaus concert hall in the middle. (The Schauspielhaus is home of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, which is not the caliber of the Berlin

Philharmonic, West Berliners are quick to point out. Claudio Abbado and his world-class musicians perform in the recently renovated Philharmonie overlooking the Tiergarten, West Berlin's answer to New York City's Central Park.)

Completing the Gendarmenmarkt's glamorous new aura: the 2-year-old Berlin Hilton across the street, a small wine restaurant in the dome of the French cathedral and the posh Borchardt restaurant nearby.

"The future of Berlin is in East Berlin," Mr. Raffler repeats. "But East Berliners don't want to wait five or 10 years. They want to have everything right now. Imagine people who were born in 1935, grew up in wartime, then lived behind the Wall. They want things now."

Unfortunately, in many cases they aren't prepared to hold on to what they get. Narrow cobblestone streets wind through pastel-painted architectural delights in the Nikolai Quarter, the oldest of the city, restored for Berlin's 750th anniversary in 1987. Atmosphere in spades. But most of the Nikolai's little boutiques and coffee shops have had a hard time surviving since the city was reunited.

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