Ever since I was posted in Berlin as a correspondent, the city has felt like my second home. When later assignments took me to Saigon and Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, Berlin always was my other favorite place to be. I missed its bracing air, its leafy boulevards, its outdoor cafés and jogging trails in the Tiergarten, one of the biggest city parks in the world.
But most of all, I missed Berlin’s electricity. Even in the trough of the Cold War, the city felt politically alive. Berlin is shot through with political history: It has been the capital, successively, of the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich, only to become a divided city during the Cold War. This history is visible today in the Prussian palaces, the refurbished Reichstag building, and the remnants of the Berlin Wall, which split the city during the Cold War into communist East Berlin and Western Allies-supported West Berlin. When I covered the city, history seemed always about to happen again. Soviet and American tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie. Students led the 1968 cultural revolution that fundamentally changed Germany. Then, finally, the biggest historical moment of all, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Today when I return to this, my second home, there is a new thrill: I can go east or west as whim dictates. I stay at a friend’s apartment near trendy Savignyplatz on the western side, then meet other friends for dinner at Café Einstein in the eastern section, now modern Berlin’s ground zero for the journalistic and political set. I still get a charge out of crossing where the wall once stood, remembering the indignities of having my car searched so many times at Checkpoint Charlie. A new American-built office complex occupies the spot today, a fitting riposte.
No place combines a sense of political engagement with European charm like Berlin. There is an explosion of art in the city, much of it whimsical, but often with a political message. The central district of Mitte, emerging from its dreary communist years, bursts with edgy galleries and restaurants. It also still bears the scars of World War II: bullet-pocked walls mark the final weeks of house-to-house fighting. Around a corner, in the funky Hackesche Höfe neighborhood, I can buy bagels and lox in a revived former Jewish quarter.
History and the present rub up against each other everywhere here. One minute I’m plunged into the throes of recent horrors with a visit to the sobering new Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate, whose underground museum takes me literally into the dark depths of German history. An hour later and one block away, I join a photographer friend for lunch at the sparkling new Academy of the Arts on Pariser Platz, a classical square that once captured Napoleon’s imagination. Today it rocks with musical events, political rallies, and impromptu entertainments. It is again the beating heart of the city.
Then there is the Reichstag, the old-new German Parliament building. From inside its futuristic glass dome, I gaze across a cityscape dramatically rebuilt in the last 15 years. With works by Italian architect Renzo Piano, German Helmut Jahn, and Americans Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, Berlin is suddenly a living exhibit of forward-thinking international architecture. Its startling collection of boldly designed new buildings makes it an architectural repudiation of Hitler’s plan to remake Berlin as a gargantuan neoclassical capital called Germania.
On a final evening, I dine outdoors on a cobbled sidewalk in Schöneberg, a leafy inner-city neighborhood that, with its bakeries and produce shops and newsstands, feels like a provincial German village. Yet here, too, dinner conversation crackles with political discussion and biting wit. Nobody around me forgets that we are in Berlin. I feel at home.
PETER ROSS RANGE, a former Time magazine correspondent in Germany, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He returns regularly to Berlin.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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