I planned to spend my time in Germany this summer checking out family history, unlike thousands of visitors who had World Cup 2006 foremost in mind. Not myself a huge fan of "football" (soccer in North America), I didn't realize my good luck until I landed in the midst of a country-wide party. And I got in on all the fun, beginning with two days on my own in Berlin while waiting for friends.
Armed with my guidebook of choice – Frommer's Germany 2006 – and a German-English traveler's dictionary, I left my hotel near Tegel Airport and took the U Bahn subway (Alt-Tegel/Alt-Mariendorf line) to the Friederichstrasse stop in the center of town near Unter den Linden, Berlin's signature boulevard.
World Cup fever was evident everywhere. Flags and souvenir shops paved my approach to Brandenburg Gate. A giant soccer ball looming to its front prevented me from getting a "pure" photographic shot of this famous symbol of freedom and Germany's reunification.
World Cup guests waved their flags among German youth who wore their own as skirts and sported national colors in their yellow, red, and black Mohawks. Even the Berliner Bear dressed for the occasion. The city's age old mascot was decked out in sundry forms of dress to herald this big international summer event.
Walking towards the Island of Museums (Museuminsel) in the middle of the Spree River, incredible sculptures and museums punctuated Unter den Linden, all of which had been off limits before the infamous Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
One especially thought-provoking memorial was dedicated to the notorious 1933 book-burning staged by the Nazis at Bebelplatz. The monument depicts an underground library with empty shelves, which can be seen through a transparent window set into the ground.
Among the major exhibits in summer 2006 was "Germany, the Land of Ideas" promoted by the German History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum).
Berlin is an astounding cultural motherlode, with dozens of excellent and varied museums and palaces, including the largest contemporary art exhibit in Europe housed at the former main train station (Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart Berlin), and the largest ethnological collection in the world at the Ethnologisches Museum.
German attention to detail and accurate record keeping makes museum crawling a breeze for any non-German speaking history or culture buff. Descriptions and explanations are provided in various languages and always in English. As a solo visitor, I had the carefree pleasure of browsing along at my own pace without having to consider a companion's wants or needs.
Days being restricted to 24 hours, I started with the Old Museum (Altes Museum) where I was eager to see the famed bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. The striking beauty of this more than 3,000 year-old sculpture impressed me deeply, and the story of her excavation was equally compelling. The preserved fragment of her hand holding that of her young husband, Amenhotep III, moved me nearly to tears.
I noticed that lights were kept low to protect the antiquities, and photography buffs, like myself, were carefully monitored. I learned, much to my chagrin, that sneaking shots is seriously frowned upon.
I had expected to cruise through this exhibit – been there, done that. No way! It was all I could do to depart, and the next museums I visited were almost as marvelous.
Just behind the Altes Museum are the Pergamon and its south wing, the Ancient Near East Museum (Vorderasiatisches Museum). The former is named for the gargantuan Pergamon Altar, Greek ruins excavated from Turkey in the late 19th century and astonishingly reconstructed here.
In the Ancient Near East Museum, Babylon's Gate of Ishtar had been reconstructed – yet another amazing site!
Aside from vibrant blue walls illustrated with hosts of lions and mythological creatures in gold, the latter exhibit housed a wonderful model of the entire ancient city of Babylon along with its biblically renowned Tower of Babel. My quick visit left me feeling humble and yearning for more.
By the end of day one I had caught a mild case of World Cup fever, so I ducked into a river-front sports bar for a recuperative Pilsner and to watch the highly anticipated Germany/Argentina World Cup semi-final. Fans sat side by side and on laps in front of a huge flat-screen TV. When Germany scored the roof nearly blew off the place. Later, after Germany had won the game, I was grateful to be walking the two blocks to my hotel because traffic was frozen with screaming revelers crowding the streets. The party could be heard everywhere, all night, as I dined late with my American friends.
Day two started with a 60-minute drive around the city guided by a distant cousin. The same tour would also be easy to do alone either on public transport or with one of several operators who provide narration in English as well as other languages.
The first site of interest along the way was the 1930s Olympic Stadium. Still used for major events today, it is memorable as the venue where American Jesse Owens dashed Hitler's hopes of a German victory in track.
Trendy shops along Kurfürstendamm slid in and out of view en route as did the Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss), then we drove through the Tiergarten, Berlin's large central park, with a quick photo stop at its centerpiece monument, the imposing Victory Column (Siegessäule).
We lunched at the nearby glass-domed Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz, which houses two IMAX movie screens and on this occasion was set up to accommodate diners who were eager to watch the next episode of the World Cup.
After lunch, I took a comfortable, narrated boat cruise on the River Spree, one of many available. Along the way, I caught a glimpse of some must-sees that I would have to leave for a future visit: the glorious all-glass Reichstag Building, more of the old eastern portion of the city, and additional river tour options throughout the many canals surrounding the city.
Before the end of the day I did manage to visit Nikolai Quarter (Nikolaiviertel U-Bahn: Klosterstrasse) and discovered that Berlin is a virtual mini Venice. Here, medieval and baroque buildings were restored in 1987 in time for 750th anniversary celebrations. The Nikolai church, dating back to the 13th century, is the oldest in the city. Many chic shops and cafes in this district now provide a lovely respite to foot-weary sightseers.
I had to leave, but I have in mind a short list of intriguing museums that I want to go back to see some day. One is devoted entirely to the film industry, another to erotica, another to author Bertold Brecht, and others to various German artistic movements. The Jewish Museum of Berlin is surely a must as is the lately restored 19th century New Synagogue (Neue Synagog).
In two delightful days I felt I had barely touched upon Berlin's wealth of history and culture, pubs and clubs, not to forget any other sort of imaginable pastime. Great weather hinted at this city's suitability for outdoor spectacles and pursuits such as biking, blading, boating, jogging, tennis, and swimming as well as lots more walking and exploring options. Compared with London, which I visited a week later and also loved, I thought Berlin was cheaper, cleaner, had better food, and its residents were at least as pleasant.
Lucky for me, my trip coincided with the excitement and camaraderie of World Cup events. That happy occasion gave me food for thought for my next solo adventure: When possible, schedule trips to new countries during international festivals.
Note: German transportation systems are wonderfully well thought out, running frequently and punctually. On a later occasion when I missed a switch in the middle of Bavaria at 10:30 at night, German Rail taxied me to the doorstep of my destination 35 km away – at their expense!