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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 21, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 38
Berlin, ja!
Arts & Entertainment
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Berlin, ja!

Germany's ever-changing capital remains an LGBT hotspot

by Jerry L. Peerson - SGN Contributing Writer

There are a handful of cities throughout history that have been the epicenter of influence, envy, and eminence. Most rise and fall, never to realize the same prominence again, but Berlin is without doubt an exception to this. Since its inception in the Middle Ages, Berlin's stamp on European and world history has run deep. While the city's infamous role in both World Wars is well known, it has had an equally pervasive effect in cultural, artistic, and societal movements across Europe and beyond. The once Prussian capital was a center of the Enlightenment, helping bring Europe out of the Dark Ages with revolutionary innovations in knowledge, music, and art. In the 1920s it became a hotbed of gender-bending counter-culture, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall it has continually reinvented itself as artists and intellectuals (many of them Gay) spread their creativity throughout the city. To begin planning your trip to the German capital, visit http://www.visitberlin.de/en.

ARRIVAL
If one desires to tour multiple cities in Germany, the most affordable option for direct flights from Seattle is Condor Air (www.condor.com), an economical subsidiary of Lufthansa. The airline offers seasonal nonstop service between Seattle and Frankfurt - Germany's financial hub and one of the world's busiest airports. When flying Condor internationally, definitely consider upgrading to Premium Economy Class. For as little as ¬150 extra, you'll get a generous amount of leg room, premium meals with free alcoholic beverages, a complimentary toiletry bag filled with everything from socks to toothbrushes, and the ability to scoot past long lines by checking in at an exclusive ticket counter.

Condor also has flights between several other German cities, and other locations throughout Europe. When heading to Berlin (or any other major city in Germany), Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) is your best bet for hassle-free, efficient, and scenic service. You will gaze in awe at Germany's picturesque countryside as the train passes dozens of historic villages, pastures, rivers and hills on your way to Berlin. Whether arriving in Berlin by air (generally at Tegel Airport) or by rail, the most central place to start your experience is the Hauptbahnhof, the central transportation hub. It is supplied with visitor information and public transport options to other parts of the city. For savings throughout the city, be sure to pick up a Berlin Welcome Card (www.visitberlin.de), which offers discounts on transportation, museums, activities, food, and lodging.

GETTING ACQUAINTED - SCHÖNEBERG
Today, Gay life permeates all corners of the city, from alternative, multi-cultural Kreuzberg and hip Friedrichshain to Schöneberg, the historical heart of Gay Berlin and the district that still hosts the highest density of Gay establishments. During the Roaring Twenties, artists and writers from around the globe flocked to Schöneberg to immerse themselves in the flourishing Gay and Lesbian scene. Christopher Isherwood, the author of Cabaret, was among the countless innovators who came to Berlin, lured by its relaxed, accepting, and exuberant atmosphere.

Berlin relished its spotlight as a European mecca for Gay culture until the early 1930s, when Hitler began exerting his power across Germany and the flamboyant lifestyle enjoyed by Berlin's Gay inhabitants came to a screeching halt. The Eldorado was one of the first Gay nightclubs to be shut down by the Nazi regime on March 1, 1933, and four days later most of the other successful Gay bars in town were also closed. A supermarket now occupies the former site of the Eldorado, but a commemorative display pays homage to the historic nightspot. A new club under the same name has since opened down the street.

Anyone wanting to stay in Schöneberg can't get more centrally located than Tom's Hotel (www.toms-hotel.de). For ¬79 (about $100), Tom's offers comfortable rooms with high ceilings, free WiFi, and shelves of complimentary bottled water for your post-night-out rehydration needs. Tom's Bar (www.tomsbar.de), widely understood to be the area's hottest dark room, is just a couple doors down, but if a less raunchy atmosphere is desired, a few blocks away are the pink fur-covered walls of Heile Welt (www.heile-welt-berlin.de). MORE Restaurant (www.more-berlin.de) is owned by the same folks as Heile Welt and is a great place to get brunch, served until 5 p.m.

Berlin is filled with inexpensive, delicious hole-in-the-wall establishments featuring cuisine of all kinds. Generously sized Mission-style burritos can be savored at Dolores (www.dolores-online.de). While still in Schöneberg, explore the labyrinthine shopping extravaganza that is the KaDeWe department store (www.kadewe.de).

MUSEUMS/SITES/ACTIVITIES
Berlin boasts a seemingly limitless amount of historic and captivating sites. Museum Island (www.smb.museum), a concentration of five museums on the largest island in the River Spree, is a good place to start a visit through Berlin's cultural history. Each museum showcases a unique period of artwork significant to the city, to Germany, and beyond. The Reichstag (www.bundestag.de), the home of Germany's Parliament, or Bundestag, is not only significant for its role in the political and military history of the country, but also as an exquisite exhibit of the combination of modern and classical architecture.

In 1999, the 19th century building was topped with a spiraling glass dome offering 360-degree views across Berlin. Though it was initially received with some consternation, just like the Eiffel Tower it has since become an icon of this rapidly evolving capital. Nearby is the famous Brandenburg Gate, from which visitors can follow the former path of the wall dividing East and West Berlin, now marked by a distinct line of stones, and still emerging as remnants of the previous wall in some parts of the city. Just down the road from the gate is Peter Eisenmans's evocative Holocaust Memorial (www.holocaust-mahnmal.de).

The experiential design of the work allows guests to wander along its undulating floor, among black columns of varying heights, and get lost in thought - perhaps remembering the lives lost during the Holocaust, or just contemplating the diverse topography of the site. The artist has been criticized both for creating yet another memorial to a bleak period in Germany's history that is already widely represented, and also for not making its intended meaning obvious enough. Wander inside, explore, and come up with your own interpretation.

In the same vicinity you'll find Berlin's largest urban park. The Tiergarten is a maze of forested paths, canal-side walkways, and even the city zoo. The park has also been the focal point of Berlin's infamous Love Parade, occurring nearly every summer and converging its boisterous, fluorescent, techno-music-blasting self into the center of the city's most relaxing quarter. At any other time of year it is a lovely place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city living and stroll past houseboats along the canals, enjoy the foliage, and be surprised by both classic and modern sculptures, memorials, and fountains placed about its miles of bike paths and trails. The golden-angel-topped Victory Monument at the center of the park beckons visitors from all around.

A still-existing segment of the Berlin Wall provides a chilling backdrop to the sobering Topography of Terror Museum (www.topographie.de). At the exact site where the Gestapo and SS headquarters once stood is an outdoor, free, and comprehensive permanent exhibition, displaying text and images depicting some of the most evocative stories from the Third Reich. All these sites are within walking distance from each other, but one museum a bit farther away also deserves a visit. At times still somber, but certainly geared more toward celebration and education, the Schwules Museum (www.schwulesmuseum.de) documents the history of Berlin's Gay and Lesbian inhabitants. Though small in size, and open at odd hours (check the website before visiting), the museum's scope is immense. It leaves any visitor feeling a mixture of pride, sadness, and optimism at the great struggles and successes of this often sidelined minority group.

GO BY BIKE
The best way to get around Berlin and see many of the above-mentioned sites is to take a bike tour. While attempting to tour the mountainous terrain of cities like San Francisco or Seattle on a bicycle could be an adventure meant only for the adrenaline junkie or the highly skilled, Berlin's endless horizontal streets provide the perfect conditions for an exhilarating yet safe bike ride. Fat Tire Bike Tours (www.fattirebiketours.com) is conveniently located in Alexanderplatz, at the foot of the tallest structure in Germany, the Fernsehturm Tower. Starting at just ¬24 (about $30), the tour's merry, knowledgeable, English-speaking guides wheel you around to nearly every interesting and historic site in town. If you choose a tour that makes a stop at the Tiergarten, you'll likely enjoy a traditional German meal set amid the park's towering trees at Schleusenkrug (www.schleusenkrug.de).

It could easily take a lifetime to fully encompass and comprehend the ever-changing, yet always-influential Berlin - even for the 3.5 million people who consider it home. That said, if you do plan to visit the city, don't hesitate - you'll need all the rest of your life to continue exploring this multi-faceted and astonishingly important city.

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