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.
"The owners didn't know what to do after reunification," Henrik Jahnke, another Berlin guide, pointed out when we tried in vain to find one of the Nikolai's fashionable coffee shops open for business. "They wanted to make a lot of money quickly, but they had no idea of the meaning of quality, dependability and service. You never know whether the shops will be open or not, so West Berliners stopped coming over here."
Have a little cake at 5
It's smarter to stroll up the Unten den Linden to the Operncafe (next door to the German State Opera House), choose between stylish garden or stately indoor seating and abandon calorie counts while choosing from a wide selection of killer desserts. Coffee and cake at 5 p.m. is a Berlin tradition on both sides of town. It's extra special at the Opern cafe. No problem with quality or service there.
Mr. Raffler says investors are standing in line to build more sorely needed restaurants and hostelries. But "quite often the East Germans think the West Germans are exploiting them. They are very sensitive to a lot of things," he says. "People have to forget politics and try for the East and West to grow together."
Meanwhile, the reunited city seems to have two of everything competing for the tourists' attention. Choose between the Berlin Philharmonic (West) or the Berlin Symphony (East); the German Opera (West) or the German State Opera (East); the Egyptian Museum's Queen Nefertiti (West) or the Bode Museum's King Ikhnaton (East); the Dollyland Revue, a you're-not-to-believe-this drag show (West) or the Comic Opera, overblown operetta in a baroque setting (East); gambling at the Spielbank at the Europa Center (West) or at the Forum Hotel Berlin (East); Quasimodo, a jazz-rock club (West) or Kartoon, currently the most popular cabaret (East).
Warning: The cabarets on either side of the city don't live up to the cabaret of American stage and screen expectations. For one thing, comedy routines are in German. And they're inside jokes, of little meaning to those unacquainted with local issues.
Both sides of the city have their centers for alternative lifestyles: Kreuzberg in the West; Prenzlauerberg in the East. Kreuzberg's in transition since the Wall came down. The same area that used to hold tenements now boasts the most fashionable town houses in the capital, close to the action in Berlin-Mitte but with the building standards of West Berlin.
Mr. Jahnke says Kreuzberg's urban renewal still has a long way to go, but, "It's amazing how you'll find a snobby restaurant three doors away from an alternative lifestyle coffee house, with people in black-tie dress from the opera house sharing the sidewalk with punks and skinheads. This could only happen in Berlin -- in so small a part of town, so many contrasts. It's the whole city in microcosm."
Two miles of style
Still, the tried 'n' true tourist territory is the Ku'Damm, the 2-mile-long strip of shops, hotels, coffee shops and restaurants anchored by the landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Breitscheidplatz. The Ku'Damm offers the essence of West Berlin style, to be savored while sipping potent coffee at the Cafe Mohring, considered "less touristy" than the better known Kranzler across the street.
Devout shoppers and foodies owe it to themselves to walk the few blocks to the Kadewe (officially Kaufhaus des Westerns department store, but nobody calls it that.) The sixth floor food hall, as least as grand as the one at Harrod's in London, includes a variety of small restaurants serving some of the best fish in the region. If you're looking for more dignified dining, try the )R Silberterrase, the art deco restaurant on the fifth floor.
Be back at the Ku'Damm in time for the summer twilight circus -- everything from tap dancers on the sidewalk to mimes shadowing unsuspecting pedestrians; street musician jam sessions to fiery soapbox orations in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial. The show goes on until the wee hours.
Different from sedate Bonn
It's an atmosphere very different from conservative Bonn. No wonder the federal government, shocked when Berlin was named capital of Germany last year, delayed the move until 1998. The Parliament will meet in the Reichstag, which backed up to the Wall's west side.
"A lot of the men in Parliament are middle-aged. They don't want to leave Bonn for personal reasons," Mr. Raffler says. "They're not so much against Berlin as not wanting to start life over again in a new setting. I personally think the reason they should be here is that they'll have to see East Berlin and its problems daily.
"In Bonn, East Berlin seems a long way away. When they're here, they'll be more interested in making changes."
Especially when they look out the Reichtag windows and see a row of crosses marking the graves of those who reached for freedom but didn't make it. That's the most moving souvenir of the Wall in Berlin.
If you go . . .
While East Berlin is the new center of tourist interest, it's still short on accommodations. Best bet is to stay in West Berlin, where there's a wide range of hotels for every budget, then catch Bus 100, which makes the circuit from the Ku'Damm to the Alexanderplatz. Public transportation is good and reasonably priced. Avoid driving in the heavily congested traffic.
With the reunification of Germany and the naming of Berlin as its new capital, several airlines now offer service to Berlin. American and Delta offer direct flights from the United States, from Chicago and New York respectively. Lufthansa offers service via Dusseldorf, Frankfurt or Hamburg; TWA via Copenhagen; United via London.
For more information about Berlin, contact the German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Call (212) 661-7200. For a free Berlin travel kit, call (800) CITY KEY.