Mission Impossible: Seeing Berlin in Two Days

From Berlin Wall trails to an exhibition on David Bowie, the German capital remains a delight – but may leave you feeling saddle-sore.

Moshe Gilad

Two days in Berlin is a tiny amount of time to spend in the German capital. What can one see in such a large city in so short a time? It could have taken me even longer to sort through all the suggestions I got from friends and family members before my trip. Still, I felt I knew the city much better at the end of those two days. The reason is simple: it’s called a bicycle. A brilliant invention.

Christian Tenzler, one of the heads of the local tourism board and a cycling enthusiast, suggested that we spend Sunday cycling throughout the city. Such a generous offer cannot be refused. So, shortly after 9 A.M., we set out on our big trek – and I had quite a few fears when we started. Berlin is a large, lively city. I don’t have much experience and I’m not in such great shape, to put it mildly. But these limitations were less of a problem in Berlin. Tenzler said that we rode 35 kilometers throughout the day, but most of the time we pedaled at a comfortable pace through the big parks, on the bike paths that kept us separate from motor traffic and alongside the river. Of course, the fact that Berlin is completely flat and we had almost no exhausting hills to climb was a big help.

The Gaslight Museum

The combination of gas and Berlin is a problematic one, particularly on the first stop of the trip. Still, since we had begun cycling from the gate of the well-known zoo, we reached a broad, shady boulevard at the western end of the Tiergarten – Berlin’s version of Central Park. Tenzler stopped and said that we were in the “least famous museum in the city.” Ninety ornate streetlights, every one of them a gaslight used in the last century, stood beside the trees. The site is open to the public, and one can pass through it without realizing that one is at the center of the Gaslaternen-Freilichtmuseum. Afterward, even before we got back on our bicycles, Tenzler said that 40 percent of Berlin’s land was zoned as parkland. It sounded like a wild exaggeration at that moment, but after we passed several more large parks as the day progressed, my resistance to that seemingly illogical statistic vanished.

Along the River Spree

We continued riding on the Tiergarten cycling paths in Berlin’s western part until we reached the Englischer Garten, from which we proceeded to the River Spree. On Sunday morning, with the springtime sun shining, it seemed that no one had stayed at home. The park’s paths were filled with people walking and cycling. Tourist boats sailed on the river. We rode eastward along the river to the central railway station, which is relatively new. Then we turned left, heading north, along a canal in the Moabit quarter.

The Berlin Wall Trail

On November 9, Berlin will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a large and important event, and many preparations are underway. Much of the hiking path that Tenzler planned for us goes along the well-marked Berlin Wall Trail, which is 155 kilometers long and runs alongside the route where the Berlin Wall existed – from August 1961 until its fall in 1989. Metal signposts along the way mark the precise location where the wall stood. Only a few remnants of it are left. Roughly a kilometer north of the central railway station, we enter a small park commemorating Günter Litfin, a local hero. On August 24, 1961, 11 days after the construction began on the Berlin Wall, the 24-year-old Litfin tried to escape to the western side of Berlin. He was shot by guards as he swam the canal along which we rode. The shady garden contains signs that tell Litfin’s tragic story and describe the events that took place during the early days of the Berlin Wall after its construction.

As we rode, I asked several times whether we were in the western or eastern part of the city. In the end, after answering my questions with infinite patience, Tenzler said, “The ones who ask that question are mainly tourists. We Berliners don’t think in those terms anymore. The city is divided into neighborhoods, and we know which of them were in the western part of the city and which were in the east, but we don’t care as much about the historical division.”

Bernauer Strasse

The most beautiful and fascinating memorial site along the path of the Berlin Wall is located on Bernauer Strasse. A park 1.4 kilometers long commemorates the division of the city and the wall’s construction. In the 1960s, a row of houses stood on the separation line between West and East. They were sealed at first and later demolished to prevent escapes, and the wall was built. A section of it has been preserved and is on display. Several tunnels were dug beneath this street, and they are well marked in the memorial park on Bernauer Strasse. Signs in German and English tell the story of Berlin’s division and of those who tried to escape. Here there is no graffiti or works of art. This park provides a clear and appropriate explanation for the manner in which the city was divided, the significance of the wall’s construction and the effect of events on the inhabitants.

Mauerpark

We pedaled eastward on the ascent of Bernauer Strasse to Mauerpark – “Wall Park” in English. The park was established in the area where the Berlin Wall stood. A small portion of the wall remains in the park, covered in graffiti. This was the northernmost point we reached. On weekends, especially in summer, Mauerpark becomes quite a young musical environment. Along about a kilometer, we heard eight different bands playing various styles of music – from American country music to sweaty hard rock – which sounded odd at noon on a hot day, in this quiet park under the trees. The most famous activity in Mauerpark is karaoke. Thousands of people gather every Sunday in the amphitheater in the heart of the park to listen to the brave ones who get up onto the stage to sing, and express their opinions loudly. The karaoke event was scheduled for an hour and a half later and we were full of energy, so we proceeded onward without staying.

Kulturbrauerei

An enormous area of red-brick buildings was used during the 19th century as a brewery. Today, the area is a large cultural center with cinemas, theaters, clubs and activities for children. The new museum there, a fascinating place, is entirely devoted to life in East Germany. On display are cars, furniture, posters, propaganda and art from the end of World War II to the late 1980s. The color red is dominant, but the general picture is quite bleak. Elegant design was definitely not East Germany’s strong point. You’ll find it on Schoenhauser Allee and entrance is free. The local station is Eberswalder Strasse, on the U-bahn.

Tempelhof

On a fairly long ride southward we crossed the Mitte district and Kreuzberg, until we reached Tempelhof Airport, which is now an enormous urban park. Two long, parallel runways surrounded by green fields create one of the oddest parks I have ever seen. The airport was built more than 90 years ago, and passenger aircraft landed here until 2008. The long building, which was once listed as one of the 10 largest buildings on Earth, is considered a symbol of Nazi architecture. Today, it hosts Fashion Week, a music festival and performances. Most of the interest centers on the open spaces there. On the day I visited, it looked like a barbecuing Olympics was being held there, with thousands of people grilling meat. At the far end of the park, many people sat in the sections of the urban garden that they care for, and looked happy. Two children were flying a kite. The enormous space easily contained thousands of vacationers.

Three exhibitions

The day after my big ride, I visited three exhibitions. Although my feet hurt and I wanted to sit down, the feeling of the bicycle seat beneath me would not go away. Still, I walked around on the city streets, swearing to myself that I would start riding regularly.

A public struggle is taking place these days over the future of the East Side Gallery. It is another remnant of the Berlin Wall that became a long wall, on which hundreds of large paintings have been painted, most of them with political significance. The artists whose works appear on the wall are opposed to municipal officials’ intent to reduce or eliminate the open gallery. The whole area looks pretty revolting. Hundreds of tourists walk along its length, stopping periodically to take selfies with the wall in the background. The sun beats down, and the entire street is neither clean nor pleasant to visit. In its present condition, it is not certain whether its existence can be justified. (Warschauer Street station)

After a brief ride westward we reach the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a museum that contains two excellent exhibitions. The first is a large exhibition dedicated to the works of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. At the center of the exhibition is an enormous tiled hall, filled with antique Chinese wooden stools. Oh, how badly I wanted to collapse on one of those stools and rest a little!

The jewel in the crown awaited me one floor below. This was the large David Bowie exhibition that was first shown in London and adapted to Berlin – where Bowie lived in the late 1970s. These were his most prolific years, during which he made three albums (“Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger”). The halls were filled with a large crowd of people looking at the giant screens with their multimedia presentations of Bowie’s performances and interviews, sighing with pleasure as they listened intently to the explanations and music through the earphones every visitor receives at the entrance. The exhibition is open until mid-August and can be found at Niederkirchnerstrasse 7. Entrance fee: 14 euros.

Useful information

How to get there: I flew on Lufthansa, from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Tegel Airport. The trip from Tegel Airport to downtown Berlin takes roughly half an hour.

Lodging: After decades of accelerated development in the city’s eastern part, the obvious trend is to go back and build hotels in the western part. The biggest construction boom is taking place near the Berlin Zoological Garden. As a guest of the German National Tourist Board, I stayed in a Sofitel hotel close to the new Bikini Berlin mall. It is a luxury hotel with 300 rooms in a high-rise building, planned by the architect Jan Kleihues. The price of a room is 140 euros per night. Address: Augsburger Strasse 41. Website: www.sofitel.com.

Food: Lunch under the large nut trees in the Prater Beer Garden, south of Mauerpark. Address: Kastanienallee 7–9.

Dinner: The Schleusenkrug Beer Garden near the zoo – a particularly lovely place with affordable food and excellent beer, especially appropriate for summer. Address: Müller-Breslau-Strasse.

Information: The German National Tourist Board: www.visitberlin.de/en

The Berlin museum dedicated to life in the former East Germany. Photo by Moshe Gilad