June 06, 2010

"Ich Bin Eine Berlinerin" Part II

The next day was still chilly but at least the rain had stopped. First on the agenda was the Neue Nationalgalerie to seen their renowned collection of German Expressionist paintings. The exhibition of works by Beckmann, Kirchner, Pechstein, Grotz and other icons of the movement were typically full of angst and "dark" to say the least. However, the museum building is fantastic. Designed by Mies Van der Rohe and opened in 1968, it is a spacious temple-like pavilion of glass and steel. The ground floor is currently home to an interesting installation project by Rodolf Stingel who has transformed the simple Bauhaus interior with an enormous Indian Agra rug and a crystal chandelier in the center. The temple to Modernism becomes a mosque!

A short walk through the Tiergarten, a massive wooded park in the center of the city, brought me to the road leading to one of Berlin's most famous sights, the Brandenburger Tor. Built in 1791 as a triumphal arch it was probably most celebrated as the location broadcast around the world when the Wall came down in 1989. Today, just a discreet double row of cobblestone bricks in the roadway marks where this division stood for 28 years and the gate is now a symbol of free passage rather than captivity.

In 1991 the Bundestag voted to return Germany's capital from Bonn, where it had been established since the country was split, to its historic capital of Berlin. The Reichstag was to once again be home to the German Parliament and had to be renovated to accommodate its new role. Enter esteemed British architect Sir Norman Foster who modernized the structure and gave it a new look with its signature glass cupola. Berlin was once again ready to take center stage. I had visited the new Reichstag just days after it re-opened and was hoping to do so again, but the hundreds of visitors queued up outdoors waiting to pass through the new high tech security change my mind. So, I walked around the exterior and continued back to Pariser Platz to see how the former East had changed.

In what was once a virtual "No Mans Land" is now a very chic square with newly constructed Embassies and posh hotels. The Brandenburg Gate has been restored to its former glory with the Quadriga statue, a four-horse chariot driven by Victory, and a reproduction Iron Cross returned to their original positions of importance and lots of visitors are taking pictures of the "Eiffel Tower of Berlin".

It was time to head back to the hotel and as I walked along the elegant avenue Unter den Linden I wondered to myself what Lenin would think to see how quickly his "Workers' Paradise" had reverted back to the center of luxury it had always been. Passing Ferrari and Bentley dealerships, clothing and cosmetic boutiques and a ton of tourist centers, I arrived at Friedrichstrasse. I followed this up to the former Friedrichstrassebahnhof, one of the few points of entry between East and West during the Cold War and known as the "Palace of Tears" for the many sad goodbyes between family members separated by the Wall. This area along the Spree River is now a thriving neighborhood with nice shops and lots of restaurants and I enjoyed a delicious Berliner Weisse at an outdoor café before heading indoors for dinner.

My last day in Berlin and the sun came out! Hooray! It was a pleasant walk over to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a former railway station that had been refurbished and reopened in 1996 as the Contemporary Art branch of the National Gallery. The permanent collection includes major works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kieffer, and the large nave, where the tracks had been, houses temporary shows such as the new installation by American artist Bruce Nauman entitled "Dream Passage". The upper levels on either side also feature rotating exhibitions on a smaller scale. Currently on view is Walton Ford's "Bestiarium" - modern day animal paintings on a very large scale and each with an allegorical message, and a very interesting piece by German artist Gerd Rohling called "Kollektion".

On such a beautiful day it was hard to stay indoors so after an al fresco lunch I walked over to Museumsinsel (literally, "museum island"). To be perfectly truthful, I couldn't face another line, nor did I want to go back inside, so I viewed these great cultural institutions from the exterior only. I walked past the fabulous Berliner Dom, a magnificent Italian Renaissance cathedral now repaired and open to the public, and carried on to Alexanderplatz the focal point of the old East Berlin and an area where one can still see vestiges of architecture and landmarks of the old GDR. Walking back to Friedrichstrasse past ice cream vendors and guys selling faux Soviet souvenirs I saw a gaping construction zone where the infamous Palast der Republik once stood. In an ironic twist, the Communist government had torn down the old Royal Palace to erect their new headquarters in the 1970s. After the re-unification of Germany, this symbol of modernism was found to be so full of asbestos as to render it totally unsalvageable and it was very carefully decontaminated and destroyed in 2008. A fitting end to an ignoble structure.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my four days here in Berlin and am looking forward to coming back. There is so much to see that I feel I just scratched the surface of all the city has to offer. I was sorry not to visit the Pergamom Museum's fantastic Egyptian collection and I regret not having had tickets to Berthold Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" being performed at the Reinhardt Theatre near my hotel. But one can't do everything and it's nice to have a reason to return. As I passed through the magnificent new Hauptbahnhof, a soaring glass structure and the largest railway station in Europe, I marvelled at the resilience of the German people and the sheer determination that has overcome the abominations of the 20th Century. Auf Wiedersehn Berlin!

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