Saturday, February 20, 2010

Berlin, Re-born

Most of the travel world limped through 2009, but last year was a good year for Berlin. The German capital celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the hated Berlin Wall - and visitors to the city rose 4.5 percent, even in the depths of the Great Recession.

Celebrations and remembrances of the momentous changes of 1989 were big all over Europe, as I can attest. On Nov. 9, exactly 20 years after the Berlin Wall was breeched, I happened to be visiting Rome. When I walked to the Spanish Steps, I saw hundreds of people milling about, heard a band warming up and spied a temporary replica of none other than the Berlin Wall sprawling across the centuries-old steps. Europe was partying. Europe was happy. It has been two decades since the end of the Cold War. Europe, Germany and Berlin are reunited.

Absent another big bash - the 21st anniversary just doesn't have that same cachet - what can Berlin do for an encore?

Plenty, according to the chief executive officer of Berlin Tourismus Marketing, Burkhard Kieker, who says that the Fall of the Wall has put Berlin back on the travel map - and gives the city a platform for crafting future changes.

"This was for Berlin a starting point,'' Kieker said at a stopover in California. "Berlin was really off the map. When the wall came down, it took us quite a while to rebuild Berlin.

"In the last century,'' Kieker continued, "there were three major European capitals: London, Paris and Berlin. But this was gone.''

Now, though, Berlin is feeling good, upgrading its infrastructure, enjoying its new status as a capital of cool among artists and rolling out new attractions to draw travelers.

"Berlin is attracting so many young people from all over the world,'' Kieker observed. "It is affordable. It is receptive to new art. Can you imagine being a young artist? This reputation spreads through word of mouth to others. A certain atmosphere attracts others who want to see what's going on.''

How affordable is affordable? According to Berlin Tourismus, a room that would cost 139 euros in New York, 111 euros in Paris and 107 euros in Rome costs 76 euros in Berlin.

Eleven new hotels are slated to open over the next year in Berlin, says Kirsten Schmidt, Berlin Tourismus's director of public relations in North America. Most will be small "urban design hotels.''

On the cultural front, Berlin's promoters are touting the re-opening, last Oct. 17, of the once-war-ruined New Museum, with its superb ancient Egypt collection. For several years now, Berlin - so rich in museums, opera houses, symphony venues, clubs and galleries - has staged an annual Long Night of the Museums, during which time major institutions stay open until 2 a.m. The price is right: There isn't one. The annual Berlin International Film Festival, too, is one of the best in the world; I covered it back in the day for the San Francisco Examiner and Motorland (now Via) magazine, on my first visit. How committed are Berliners to cinema? I saw people lining up for a film-showing at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. In a snowstorm.

I am happy to see Berlin's revival. The city has had much to overcome: war, occupation, division and a delicate reunification. It is a work in progress, but the progress is real, and the reborn metropolis is one of the most compelling destinations in Europe.

Since my most recent visit, in 2006, the city has opened a state-of-the-art central train station for long-distance rail travel, and I am keen to see it. Berlin is now busy expanding and modernizing Schoenefeld airport, which will give the city renewed status as an international air hub; Tegel airport is too small and long ago fell below the standard expected of a major capital city. This is changing, too, at last.

The Wall? Seven-hundred meters of the symbol of Cold War division survive the tear-down of two decades ago, and it is of course a major tourist attraction.

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