Troy Hightower

 4 Days in Berlin

Berlin is a city of many faces and facets - the current one showing to us in summer, 2013, seems to be the face of architecture and construction. Monumental romantic architecture that has withstood the ravages of wars, and eclectic massive modern architecture that looks forward in time. The epitome of this contrast and combination is the neo-baroque Reichstag -- the German Parliament seat -- whose classic exterior is filled with and topped by Lord Norman Foster's spectacular glass dome and funnel added in 1999.

An entire network of blue oil-refinery like pipes winds over the Big Dig of Unter den Linden (shady linden trees all gone for the moment) where a subway line is being installed. Construction cranes hang in the air like enormous mantises and scaffolding covers the facades of many venerable buildings under renovation along that historic street, and astride that project the neo-Palladian Staatsoper house originally built in 1724 is under restoration.

Modern European architecture is keenly different in style than modern American architecture. It might be supposed that American is heading toward, or catching up to the European, which loves odd angles and shapes, exoskeletons and structures of metal tubing, and small windows in corrugated metal facades juxtaposed against curving free-hanging glass-shingled curtain walls.

The construction and design seem in tune with the German character - bold, forthright, even aggressive; and perhaps part of what's seen is a manifestation of the German economic juggernaut where in the last half-decade shovel ready projects either abounded or were created.

Our hotel, the Mandala, sits just off Potsdamer Platz, in the Potsdam area, which was 80% destroyed by bombing in World War II--which is partly why all the architecture we see surrounding us is modern. The Mandala is a 10 story U-shaped building with rooms on three sides, glass inner sides overlooking a courtyard that contains the Michelin one-star restaurant Facil. Our Virtuoso-upgrade suite is on floor ten, at the end of one of the wings, and is a wedge-shaped wrap-around with glass and balcony on three sides, overlooking a sweep of modern German architecture. We eschew one star dining the first night, and sit at the bar at the lounge Quoi and snack on herb salad with cauliflower puree, risotto with tiny shrimp the menu calls 'brown' and a selection of cheese.   

We have a short stay, and as full a list of things to see on an initial trip into a city as can be managed. A city-circle bus tour - always good for orientation - introduces us to the famous Kurfurstendamm shopping area, Check Point Charlie, the remnant of the Berlin Wall covered in art by famous artists and referred to as the East Gallery, the central historic and relatively un-bombed area called Gendarmenmarkt, rhe Brandenburg Gate,  Unter den Linden and the Tiergarten, many of which we will re-visit. An accompanying boat tour shows us the city from the River Spree, highlighting Museum Island, the Berliner Dom cathedral, the Reichstag, Angela Merkel's modern museum-like Chancellery, and the black glass Haupt Banhoff.

After debarking, we wander the back alleys off Museum Island, then stroll Unter den Linden, turning onto the Freiderichstrasse shopping area and finally come upon a good looking lunch spot in the form of Bocca di Bacco, an elegant Italian restaurant. Our group of three does justice to proscuitto melone, the tiniest form of tender octopus with asparagus in spicy tomato sauce, and Vitello alla Milanese with a lovely bottle of Greco di Tuffo. We later discover our guidebook names Bocca one of the ten best restaurants in Berlin.

Museum Island contains five museums of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, including the Egyptian and the Pergamon, where we elect to begin the next morning. The Pergamon Museum is another multi-year renovation project with not only cranes but a cofferdam in the River Spree--not scheduled for completion until 2025. The 1909 museum designed by Alfred Messel contains the holy Pergamon Altar from that ancient city, the massive Market Gate of Miletus, the splendid polychrome Ishtar Gate of Babylon, and on the upper floor, a collection of Islamic antiquities, ceramics and art. It's a stunning two-hour wander, just for an overview, not to mention a gander at the huge ambitious construction project.

After a simple local lunch of salad, the infamous Berlin currywurst, and Nurnberger sausage with sauerkraut, we dip in and out of stores in Freiderichstrasse. We take in the impressive Brandenburg Gate, find that we can's visit the Reichstag because Parliament is in session, and have to make reservations for Saturday, two days hence. We ease into and have a lovely stroll through the Tiergarten to make our way back to the hotel. Originally the private hunting grounds of the Electors of Brandenburg, the Tiergarten was converted by Friedrich I, the first Prussian king, to a public park about the size of central park in New York and contains walking trails, bridle paths, bike lanes, ponds, formal plantings, monuments and deep glades of trees and sunny meadows, and is obviously enjoyed continually in these many ways by Berliners of all stripes.

Just behind our hotel, in Alte Potsdam Strasse, there is a branch of the famous Berlin restaurant Lutter and Wegner, situated in the historic Weinhaus Huth--one of the only remaining pre-war buildings in this area. Early summer is Spargelfest in Germany, celebrating the beloved white asparagus. It's very popular, seen everywhere and quite expensive so we share a plate of the ivory spears, served with country ham and hollandaise sauce. It's quite delicious, and no comparison to the canned stuff that used to be served at home in the 70's. A classic German restaurant, the menu selections are traditional, and we sample Weiner Schnitzle mit Kartofflesalat, Sauerbratten mit Rhotkolh, and Lammrücken - rack of lamb -  with potato puree.  Most delicious - an overwhelming amount of food, in the German manner.

Saturday morning and our appointed reservation to view the Reichstag rolls around. We call a taxi to ride over, and are told that roads that way are closed because Obama is giving a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in a couple of hours. So we have to hoof it double time through the Tiergarten, and barely make the appointed time to go through very tight security to enter--all controlled by guards in bulletproof glass cages.

The elevator lets out on roof terrace 3-4 stories up, from the center of which arises Norman Foster's magnificent blue-grey glass half-egg. A double-helix one-way ramp-way winds up the inside of the dome, the return downward ramp interleaved with the upward. The viewing platform under the dome encircles the top of the glass mirror tornado-shaped funnel in the dome's center, which acts as ventilation for the parliament chamber on the ground floor far below. An oculus in the top of the dome allows air to vent. A massive gray louvered sunshade hangs from the circle of the viewing platform, and moves around with the movement of the sun--all very high-tech passive solar engineering.

The views of the Berlin city-scape are fantastic--the vast Tiergarten to the west - Unter den Linden, Museum Island and the Dom to the east, Potsdamer Platz and the metal Mt Fuji atop the Sony Center to the south. And the amount of construction around the city is re-emphasized from this view  - massive cranes in the skyline everywhere one turns.

Our last stop is the Ka De We on Ku-Dam - claimed to be the largest department store in the world. Anything you want - mostly luxury goods - you'll find here. The food halls take up the entire sixth floor (as contrasted to Harrods or the Grands Epicerie de Paris on the ground) – and are vast. Huge displays of meats from all regions of Germany, an ice-ocean topped with fish of all sorts, enormous colorful fruit and vegetable displays, and dozens of wine bars, champagne bars, tapas bars, raw bars, and restaurant bars of all stripe and manner--truly Mecca for the foodie. Had we planned our timing better, it would be fitting to have our last meal in Berlin as a progressive lunch from bar to bar, but it is not to be. Time has run out, checkout and airport draw us from the magnetic pull of so much bounty.