While "West Berlin" remained mostly unchanged from the Cold War days, East Berlin was experiencing one whale of an overall. Construction and renovation projects dominated large sections of the Old City, which was the heart of Berlin prior to the Cold War, and suffered the greatest amount of neglect. It may have taken years to complete the job, but the improvements already completed made it worth the visit.
We figured it would be worth separating our stories on the former East Berlin into two parts. The chapter on Unter den Linden covered the main boulevard from the Brandenburg Gate eastward just before the Museum Island. This chapter focuses on the rest of former East, from the highlights of the Museum Island to the Ostbahnhof (east side train station) and Alexanderplatz. While this chapter presents some of the highlights of the former east, the Berlin Photo Gallery will provide some of the lowlights, where there remained some significant work among the residential areas.
We start this chapter where the Unter den Linden chapter left off -- at the east end where the Spree River split to form the Museum Island, known as Museuminsel ("Museum Island"). Two of the major sights on this island are depicted in the first and second photographs -- the Berliner Dom and Pergamon Museum -- but there were plenty others. The Museum Insel was thoroughly packed with impressive attractions.
The Berliner Dom was a very beautiful Protestant cathedral in an unusual shape -- round. The interior was both a house of God and a museum, while the exterior had a wonderful observation deck. The interior was heavily gilded with a massive altar. Above the altar were four pillars hosting figurines of pioneers of the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin and one other whose name we forgot). Tombs to former Prussian kings and queens lay off to the side, while the basement was a crypt containing the remains of many German nobles. Climbing to the observation level was pretty easy and gave us an excellent view of the Unter den Linden and the surrounding museums. It was a wonderful visit, although the entrance fee was steeper than we are accustomed to seeing in Cathedrals.
The Pergamon Museum was an extraordinary attraction that contains full scale reconstructions of temples and facades of an ancient Roman city called Pergamon. The majesty of this museum struck us immediately as we entered the main foyer and found a massive room with a complete reconstruction of a columned temple from the original Roman city of Pergamon from which the museum was named. Despite the building's size, it only had two interior floors and several exhibits ran the full height of the building. Upstairs was an Islamic exhibit containing several massive ruins from various Middle Eastern civilizations. The museum was fully open when I visited alone in 2001, but unforunately in 2004 the museum was undergoing a significant renovation that caused some of the best exhibits to be blocked off or obscured by scaffolding.
The Museum Insel also had an old art museum, other churches, and a somewhat hidden restaurant district. This insel could easily keep one occupied for a full day.
Apart from the Unter den Linden, the sections of East Berlin realizing the greatest amount of development were toward the south. Friedrichstrasse particularly came to mind, as its train station was undergoing a makeover, and the attractions along the street south of U.d.L. but north of Checkpoint Charlie were given a fresh coat of paint. The Berliner Opera House, shown in the third photograph, was such an example. Also, areas where the Berlin Wall once crossed have provided open terrain for new modern developments such as the massive Postdamer Platz underground station that bordered several high-rise buildings such as the fabulous Sony Center.
The Bundestag district just north of the Brandenburg Gate also got a facelift. The Bundestag building looked brand new in 2004 and the city museum located nearby was a popular tourist draw.
One other symbol of reunification was well under construction -- the new Berlin Main Train Station. During the Cold War, Berlin had a divided train network, with the Ostbahnhof serving the east and the Zoologischer Garten serving the west. In an attempt to make the very busy rail network more efficient, a station in the center of the city was being rebuilt as the Main. This would be a boon for visitors as it would be positioned near the Unter den Linden and would help simplify Berlin's inefficient and outmoded train network.
As for the Ostbahnhof, it was just beyond the Rathausplatz, or town hall plaza, shown in the fourth photograph. Unlike most cities, Berlin's Rathaus was physically separate from the main activity in the city. It was shaped much like the town hall in Vienna, Austria; but was made of red brick instead, which gives it an onimous rather than welcoming appearance. Still, the recent sandblasting made it look very brand new.
But that could not be said of sections further to the east, places that were badly need of tender loving care. I took a tour around some of the eastern suburbs, more out of curiosity than anything else, and some of those suburbs were as destitute as any I had seen elsewhere in the country. Some structures (one featured in Berlin Gallery) were left untouched since the end of World War II, while many apartment buildings built during the Soviet era looked very old and inhospitable. Some of those, however, were renovated and given a brighter appearance. New complexes were popping up sporadically.
The fifth photograph showing Alexanderplatz, located not far from the Ostbahnhof, gives somewhat of an example. Now an active market square, the drab colors of the buildings suggested neglect more than anything else. This sort of drab coloring was common among the houses and residences in large parts of the former east, although there were plenty of signs of upcoming renovation projects.
We found the former East Berlin fascinating, but large parts of it clearly lagged behind the former West. As of 2004, many of the main attractions had been rebuilt or were undergoing rapid renovation. Certainly the 2006 World Cup drove the effort, while a complete revitalization of the whole former East would probably take many, many years.
Trips taken 13-14 April 2001 and 29-30 June 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin