- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

BERLIN — Each morning, Andrea Huebner leaves a little double-tiered rolling table heaped with a coffeepot, cups, saucers, utensils and a hearty breakfast outside our door.

Dark and grainy wheat, rye and white breads; three kinds of jam; and small surprise platters of assorted cheeses and meats (pate and sausage) along with other fare that varies from day to day — boiled eggs; smoked salmon with creamed horseradish; elaborate salad plates of thinly sliced apples, cucumbers and tomatoes. The coffee is strong and rich.

Miss Huebner and her 8-year-old daughter, Julia, are a comforting presence during our next 10 days in the German capital. My wife and I have regular conversations with our hostess before heading out each day. Her English is limited, but she happily talks with us in German.

Among the reasons we returned to Berlin, whose western section we had visited two years earlier, was to learn more about the neighborhoods in the former East Berlin while brushing up our German.

The choice of a bed-and-breakfast rather than a hotel where all the employees speak English fit our plan. The price is very reasonable, too, at about $55 a night. We share the tidy bathroom with the family and another guest, whom we seldom encounter. Julia always leaves her bath toys aligned carefully on the windowsill.

Miss Huebner, slim with her brown hair tied in a ponytail, tells us not only about life in East Berlin before the wall came down in 1989, but much about the neighborhood.

She explains that Prenzlauer Berg, about a half-mile north of bustling Alexanderplatz, suffered from neglect under the communist government. In the past few years, it has undergone what the Germans call sanierung, or renovation, to the core. Cleaned up, repaired and freshly painted, the area attracts hordes of young people, especially on weekends, to its trendy bars, restaurants and cafes, which light up the streets late into the night.

Each day, we start on foot to explore the immediate area, visiting the nearby Kulturbrauerei (Culture Brewery), a former brewery that has gentrified into a complex of shops, restaurants and movie theaters. At one end is the Mini-Mall, a well-stocked supermarket where the food is fresh and the variety of sausages overwhelming.

Foraging in the neighborhood affords instant language lessons as we ask for toothpaste and nail-polish remover.

Not far from the Kulturbrauerei, tucked under the elevated subway tracks of the U2 train, is a popular fast-food stand. The Konnopkes Imbiss claims to furnish Berlin’s best currywurst. At midday, crowds of local workers and tourists wait in line to purchase this specialty, then stand at the counter or at small tables under a tent to consume the pale, tasty sausages doused in ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder and washed down with cold beer.

Berliners, like Parisians, love to sit in cafes and sidewalk restaurants. There are plenty in Prenzlauer Berg, the best-known clustered around Helmholz-Platz and Kaethe Kollwitz-Platz.

On a sunny day, we stroll down Kastanienallee, named for chestnut trees. The narrow street is lined with restaurants, crammed old-book stores called antiquariats, junk dealers and used-clothing stores. We spot a wild Hawaiian shirt in a shop window that is even more flamboyant than one I passed up in New York. A bargain, it’s priced at $7.50, and when I point out that it’s missing a button, the owner drops the price to $5.

We expand our excursions via Berlin’s excellent transportation system. Buying a weeklong pass allows us to ride freely, though not free, on any of the subways, trolleys, buses or the S-Bahn trains that go to the suburbs. There are no turnstiles or ticket takers, but checkers randomly stop travelers, inspect their tickets and impose fines on those who are in violation.

There are many glorious options for spending some of the money we have saved by staying in our small room in Miss Huebner’s fourth-floor walk-up apartment. The most tempting is to experience the atmosphere at one of the most expensive hotels in Berlin — the legendary Hotel Adlon, the fictional setting for the film and musical “Grand Hotel,” rebuilt in the 1990s at the head of the grand boulevard Unter den Linden.

The hotel’s elegant lobby is bathed in golden light. Guests relax in easy chairs as they sip dark coffee or tea and eat pastries rolled in on tea carts. Brass frogs perched on the edge of a basin spray water in the middle of the marble court; a column of brass elephants rises toward a faux skylight. A pianist plays muted Broadway show tunes from the mezzanine.

The prices at the Adlon reflect the status and history of a hotel that once was the playground of royalty and, later, the haunt of Nazi leaders, who strategically provided the lobby with listening devices. Rooms range from around $350 to more than $10,000 for the presidential suite overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.

Berlin’s cultural entertainment is abundant: three operas, a major symphony orchestra, two zoos and some of the best museums in Europe. On a Sunday, we take the S-Bahn to the eastern suburb of Mahlsdorf to visit the small Founders’ Museum (Gruenderzeitmuseum), named for the late-19th-century era of Germany’s industrial expansion.

In New York, we had seen a one-man play about the museum. Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” which moved to Broadway, tells the story of transvestite Lothar Beerfelde, aka Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who for years assembled fine furniture and memorabilia in his 1780 Mahlsdorf manor house. Beerfelde plucked an entire Weimar-period pub from under the wrecker’s ball in central Berlin, including its room that served as a discreet rendezvous for male and female clients. He installed the pub in the cellar of his house, where tourists now savor tea and cake.

Docents give guided tours, offering detailed information about every item in the 10 rooms open to the public. One only needs to ask to learn a clock’s history and provenance. The music room is a marvel with its mechanical instruments, which the guides play.

In contrast, the massive Pergamon Museum on Museum Island and its antiquities — from Greece and around the Middle East — can be overwhelming. This museum houses the famed Pergamon Altar, the huge Ishtar Gate and other treasures gathered by German archaeologists early in the 20th century.

Our stay ends at the Berliner Ensemble, the theater founded by Bertolt Brecht. We reach the theater after visiting Brecht’s nearby house, provided to him by the East German government. It overlooks the French Cemetery where he was buried in 1956.

In the theater’s courtyard, playgoers mill around a statue of Brecht before the curtain. We sip wine and munch giant pretzels sold by vendors with baskets. The expressionistic production of Brecht’s play “Die Mutter” (“The Mother”), is crisp, vibrant and well-acted.

To catch the trolley home, we stroll along the Schiffbauerdamm — Shipbuilders Embankment — overlooking the Spree, where restaurants serving late diners cast their candle glow on the water.

Berlin travel sampler

Most major airlines serve Berlin’s Tegel airport, although there are no direct flights from the United States.

Public transportation by subway and elevated (U-Bahn), commuter train (S-Bahn), bus and trolley in Berlin is fast, efficient and clean. Tickets good on all forms of transportation can be purchased for periods from one day to a month.

FOOD

Food in Berlin has an international flavor, ranging from hearty and abundant meals at traditional restaurants and cafes to more exotic fare at Turkish, Indian and Cambodian restaurants. Every neighborhood seems to have one or more Italian pizza parlor. Cheapest is the light fare at imbiss (snack) stands, where you can get an inexpensive sandwich.

LODGING

There are a wide range of hotels, from the elegant rebuilt Hotel Adlon Kempinski on Pariser Platz, where rooms start at $350, to youth hostels and bed-and-breakfasts for much less. We found our B&B, at No. 8 Hagenauer Strasse, through the Bed & Breakfast Ring at www.bandb-ring.de/p/rberlin.htm. For information on economy hotels, visit www.berlin-economy-hotels.de.

SHOPPING

The most famous shopping street in the city is Kurfuerstendamm, popularly known as Ku’damm. The nearby Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, on Tauentzienstrasse, claims to be the biggest department store in Europe.

INFORMATION

For current entertainment listings, visit www.timeout.com/berlin/. For the German National Tourist Board Office, call 212/661-7200 or visit www.visits-to-germany.com/.

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