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Travel Berlin: Historic, hip, hedonistic

The Big Buzz of Berlin

There is not one word which encompasses Berlin. Historic, hip, hedonistic--the city is all this and much more.

But for years its 170 museums, experimental architecture, and the views from the revolving restaurant on top of the Ferhstehturm--the 400-meter high totem pole that beams the TV world to Berliners--have all been dominated by a skyline of cranes as the city became the largest building site in Europe.

Now the construction crews have all but gone. The gigantic face lift for the city is over. Berlin has reinvented and revitalised itself.

It is not only what it once was in those giddy days Cabaret created--the born-again capital of the Bundesrepublik is even better.

If anything, wilder than its old heydays, it is the ideal place for a pre-Christmas break. The food is what it always was--the pick of Europe. The top hotels are as deluxe as anyone needs. The night-life is dusk to dawn. And when it's time to come up for air, there are the beautiful parks and the banks of the River Spree to stroll along.

Cold and windy the weather can be, with the November snow swirling in from the Polish Steppes. But you will still find Berliners out in the snow. These are hardy people. Join them and you will find they are also friendly.

I have known Berlin all my working life. I first went there when there were all those whispers about the prisoner in Spandau Jail not being Rudolf Hess. The story ran and ran until my editor ran out of expenses to pay for my Berlin "white beer", still the best drink to kick-start the day in a city which prides itself on its breweries.

Then came trips to write about the effects of the Berlin Blockade, the Cold War Allied Airlift to relieve a near-starving city, and the activities of the spies who never came in from the cold.

In between I would walk through the Pergamon Museum and marvel at its collection of antiquities which had somehow survived the war years: the fighting friezes from the Pergamon Altar, the imposing Roman Market Gate from Miletus and the sea-blue Babylonian Processional Street.

They are still all there. But there is more--so much more.

In the Film Museum on Potsdamer Strasse are a lovingly presented wardrobe of Marlene Dietrich dresses and model monsters of Jason and the Argonauts. For those who find the past is still the present, a visit to the new Jewish Museum on Lindenstrasse is a sobering experience. Here, in a way no newsreel of that dark period captures, is a compelling display of those days that led to the Holocaust.

But for those who want their culture in measured doses, the Kurfusttendam is an essential experience.

London has its Oxford Street and New York Fifth Avenue. But the Ku'dam outshines them both.

For shopaholics, the thoroughfare, which stretches from the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at one end for a long kilometre of stores and boutiques, is the ideal place to buy Christmas gifts with a difference. At the Kadewe they will gift wrap your selections and have them on their way to your Christmas tree.

If you have really serious Euros to spend, drop into Stilwerk, the high temple of domestic furnishings. Of, if you can't live without the latest designer label, visit Quartier 206 on Friedstrasse, one of the many beguiling side streets off the Ku'Dam.

A very up-market market, where savvy Berliners prowl the stalls, is at Winterfeldplatz on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

But you don't have to spend, spend, spend to enjoy Berlin. There is so much of it that is pocket-money cheap. For instance you can ride up for nothing to one of the finest vantage points in a city filled with them.

This is the Reichstag on Platz der Republik. It has a wonderful rooftop terrace from which the city spreads out below in a mosaic of multi-centered groupings. From the terrace you can get to grips with the geography that, on the ground, can be a trifle perplexing.

Another great view can be had from the top of Cross Hill, gently rising over the suburb from where the name of Kreuzberg gets its name.

From the city centre you can board the Z-bahn, the efficient underground rail system that has been used as a backdrop to so many spy films of the Cold War. Take line 7, or if you prefer, a train from the Zoo station. Either will drop you twenty minutes later in Potsdam.

There, in Park Sansouci, is evidence of the megalomaniac King Frederick the Great. All the palaces and flamboyant "follies" stand as a lasting memory to his capricious demands.

While Frederick's work may not be to everyone's taste, few cannot fail to be overawed by the imposing neoclassicism of the Brandenburg Gate and the baroque beauty of the Schloss Charlettonberg.

For those who like their architecture very much New Millennium style, there is the Sony Centre and the New National Gallery.

Berlin is sprinkled with beer gardens; even in winter they do a roaring trade. I enjoyed Café am Neuen See on Lichtensteinallee. Their pizzas would satisfy even the most demanding Italian.

At nights you could do worse than take a table at Monsieur Wuoing on Alte Schonhauserstrasse, Classic Vietnamese food is served in portions I never recall seeing in Saigon. You would need a big appetite to get through a large bowl of soup and noodles.

The city has a strong Turkish community and their restaurants and cafes offer some of the best kebabs outside Istanbul.

If it's a no-expenses-spared visit, then the Borchardt on Francoisischestrasse is value for money--and filled with the city's high fliers and artistes. On a good night you can rub shoulders with members of the city's seven orchestras and three opera houses, and stars from the latest movie on location in the city. Five-course menus will set you back Euro 50/75 a person. The service is old-world impeccable.

Which hotel to choose in Berlin is always a problem. There is the Kempinsky--a safe house for the rich and famous. Staying there has a feeling like being on board one of the great Transatlantic liners.

The Four Seasons chain has rooms starting at Euro 350. Its quiet, efficient style is all you have come to expect from the group.

For those looking for something smaller, there is the boutique hotel, Doring Am Gendarmenmark, on Charlottenstrasse. Doubles start at Euro 180. Modern in design, as if it was created by the designer of the New National Gallery, it is a calm oasis in a city that starts early and goes to bed late.