I have visited Berlin twice. I liked it so much that I asked my wife to meet me there the second time. Berlin is quickly reclaiming its cultural and economic prominence, and its politics seem more stable than our climate. It is restored like the best resto-rod. Living there is not nearly as expensive as other European capitals yet it is very cosmopolitan, spacious but very accessible, clean but “colorful” and full of youthful energy. This report starts with my first visit in 2005 and includes my second visit in 2007.
From the air Berlin looked expansive and inviting. Visible were three airports, three lakes, a river, canals, and lots of green among rows and blocks of buildings. I later learned it is about 3/4 the size of Los Angeles. A bus and subway got me to my hotel near that relic called Checkpoint Charlie. I suddenly felt a small pang of loss for the good old days when the most fearsome political consequences were kept in check quite professionally in a closely refereed game of confidence and intelligence. At home the consequences of Katrina were just slowly sinking in on an administration that was still preoccupied and clueless about what to do with an oil country it invaded. Here I was in this most infamous of capitals of the 20th Century, finally at peace and very busy rebuilding itself, no longer interested in overrunning or even running the affairs of other countries.
Lovely late summer weather and traffic on par with a banker’s holiday imparted a vacation-like atmosphere on my exploratory visit. Funny, since my interest in automobiles was my reason for visiting. I was amazed that in this city cars are not the dominant mode of transport. Its population is almost on par with Los Angeles but there are no expressways. I learned that over two-thirds of routine travel into and within Berlin is handled very efficiently by an excellent multi-modal public transportation system.
But I came to Berlin to visit a hundred-year-old garage originally built to store and service the city’s street cars. It was called Meilenwerk when I visited in 2005 and 2007 (although now renamed Classic Remise), covers almost three acres (130,000 sq. ft.), and is used to store, service and sell classic cars, serve their owners, and entertain want-to-be’s. Possibly by telling you it includes two restaurants, thirty businesses employing 120 people, and that owners can store 88 classic cars in rented glass boxes will help put this achievement in perspective as you read on.
I had just missed the send-off for about eighty classic cars — drivers and navigators on a rally and tour to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Upon my arrival, truck loads of tables and chairs and catering stuff was being delivered to a large open floor space. The Meilenwerk is frequently the venue for a corporate event. Their own events calendar is also full of fun and interesting stuff, like a regular Sunday brunch with a jazz concert, and live Formula 1 shown on a big screen every race Sunday. Every Monday is reserved for a car club open house. Art exhibits and lectures are on their calendar, plus the staging of major outings like Berlin’s Oldtimer Festival, the start of the Trans-Siberian Rally in 2006, and a tour to Düsseldorf and back for the opening of a second Meilenwerk in that city.
I typically cringe when I encounter the word synergy, but this place really has it in abundance, to see and admire. I quickly developed a mild case of envy, like why here? The Meilenwerk concept is simply brilliant. Imagine finding six shops, each specialized in a nationality of a classic car or interesting grouping such as French and Swedish, plus an upholsterer. Interested in two wheels? They have a vintage motorcycle dealer and a shop that specializes in servicing Italian motorcycles. Several major vintage car brokers have offices and showrooms, as do several boutique sports car manufacturers as well as Ferrari. There are offices for a dozen car clubs, businesses that rent and insure classic cars, a store for electrical and electronic stuff, car models, car books, motoring accessories, and studios for photographic and TV productions and media services. Well, you get the idea — its the mall of your dreams under the same roof as your favorite car’s garage. Looking for good food or refreshment? It is also here. In fact the choices, quality and service is so good, you can make it a destination for lunch or dinner, and by the way, check up on what’s going on as a bonus, like lectures, movie night, or a live broadcast of a race. Also, in the immediate neighborhood are shops for detailing and body repair, reportedly both happily specializing mostly on the classics.
If you visit Berlin you will also be in the world’s most newly refurbished old capital, guaranteed to inspire and entertain your for many more days than you have time. The only museum I had time for on my first visit was the German technical museum to see steam locomotives, in a building that wears a DC-3 like a hood ornament. I had to do this because I rode in the cab of a 2-8-2 with my uncle from Bremerhaven to Bremen when I was six, an experience like none other. I didn’t have time for the museum’s cars, airplanes, and machines which I’ll visit next time. If you’ve enjoyed museums in London or Paris, you’d better book more days for Berlin. There are so many they even have a “Museum Island.” That’s because the Germans were in the thick of the hunt with the Brits, French, and Italians for souvenirs in the eastern Mediterranean during the nineteenth century. It was Heinrich Schliemann who searched for and discovered Troy, and of course the oldest super model resides there — the Egyptian Queen Nephritides.
For something architectural, the world’s largest and most spectacular new railway station is an easy visit using the public transit system, a system which all by itself can entertain and impress you on visits to palaces, monuments, museums, memorials, their famous zoo, and of course lots of shopping and dining. Bet you didn’t know that Berlin has the world’s largest department store. Food is one of its departments, two floors of it, from counter and table service plus groceries and delicacies on the upper floor, topped by an atrium with the best cafeteria I’ve ever seen anywhere.
And don’t miss a visit to the new crystal and glass dome on the Reichstag (capital building) for spectacular views and a memorable architectural experience from a spiral ramp. From there you can take the city bus to enjoy a local brew while rotating in a restaurant for even more spectacular views of Berlin from the top of the TV tower, that famous former electronic eavesdropping structure of the “Evil Empire” (quaint). And of course you should visit Checkpoint Charlie and its small museum.
The choices for dining and nightlife are terrific. Parts of the city never sleep. Long before Los Angeles and San Francisco acquired their social “reputations,” the Berlin of the 1920s and 1930s wrote the scripts. It had already invented the costumes and built the stages. And don’t worry about a language barrier — Americans and the Brits practically owned half of Berlin for 50 years. It is very cosmopolitan, a magnate for the young and ambitious. At a Starbucks I was served by a Canadian and a New Zealander.
For my second visit I arrived by train from Düsseldorf, zipping right past Germany’s Rouge Plant in Wolfsburg at 180 mph where VWs are made, finishing a fine lunch in the dining car. You do not’ need to spend money on a first class ticket, instead go to a table in the dining car. This time the lead story in the news was feel good instead of disaster, Knut instead of Katrina, Berlin’s zoo in the Tiergarten instead of New Orleans. Knut is a very young polar bear who was rejected by his mama, a Canadian. A thirty-something German zookeeper with a beard volunteered to be his surrogate mother. He and Knut soon had visitors lining up a kilometer long. This zoo never had it so good. It’s unique in the community of zoos. The zoo is a self-funded enterprise with shareholders, literally existing hand-to-mouth. Just now it stumbled upon the mother of human interest stories, a celebrity promotion from the animal kingdom. Walt Disney would have been proud. Knut was a sensation. But TV coverage in the U.S. and Germany had to substitute for a personal visit. My wife was arriving by air the next morning and we had not budgeted for standing in line half a day.
Going to the airport was another pleasant experience — it’s just a ten minute cab ride from the Swiss Hotel on the Kurfurstendam near the Tiergarten. I could not believe it when we drove under that new railroad station! New York City is the only other city I can think of which is served by several airports in such close proximity. But reaching Berlin’s airports is nothing like New York’s mayhem. The experience of flying to San Jose or Ft. Meyers are good comparables.
The best advise I have is pick up a good map and a three day public transit pass at a Tourist Information office. Then take a double-decker bus tour. Just buy a day ticket and ride it around Berlin — it is big. They make a dozen stops so you can get off where you like then return to catch the next bus. After this overview you can start planning the rest of your stay. You should also learn to use the public transit system by taking a city bus to a train station and ride the train somewhere and back. Now you’re set to really enjoy this big city and all it has to offer.
The renamed Classic Remise (coach house) has a website with lots of photos (don’t miss clicking through their tabs) although most of the text is in German. There is also a similar facility in Dusseldorf in a remodeled locomotive roundhouse under a glass dome.
All photos by Peter Pleitner.