BY RICHARD S. KLEIN
A visit to one of the world's most fascinating and dramatic cities should be high on the list for the GLBT traveler. Berlin, one of Europe's great capitals, has intrigued GLBT travelers for decades. Germany had been in the vanguard of early gay rights, and Berlin was its laboratory. Berlin was the birthplace of organized gay liberation in the late 19th century.
Then there were the glorious highs of the 1920's 'Cabaret' era, which were halcyon days for gays, when 100 or so gay bars proliferated in the city.
After January 1933, Berlin and the rest of Germany plunged to the barbaric abyss of the Third Reich. Gays became targeted for discrimination and worse. Since the end of World War II, Berlin has emerged Phoenix-like from the ashes and is now one of the great meccas for GLBT folk. So, let your imagination inhale the smoky glamour of the Kit Kat Club Cabaret, and as Sally Bowles would say: 'Wilkommen to Berlin.'
Ich bin ein gay Berliner
Meet some famed openly gay Berliners, such as the city's openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit: 'I'm gay and that is just fine that way,' he says proudly. Nice way to set the tone of the town.
Marlene Dietrich was a Berliner and she may have been a lesbian or at least bisexual. Lots of our folk like to think so, anyway. Her movie career skyrocketed with her role as the super-decadent Lola Lola in the film The Blue Angel. As the Nazis rose to power, she departed for America. Marlene fans will want to check out the Marlene Dietrich collection in the Berlin Film Museum near the Potsdammer Platz. ( www.filmmuseum-berlin.de ) Notable items at the museum include her Swan's down coat and 'naked pearl dress.' There is an inscribed cigarette case from her director Josef von Sternberg that reads: 'To Marlene Dietrich, woman, mother, and actress as there was never one before.' And you can pay your respects to Marlene, who is buried in Berlin at the Friedenau Cemetery Stubenrauchstrasse 43-45, grave # 34/16.
Getting around Berlin
Berlin is definitely not a compact place; it's four times as big as Paris and more like a city-state since East and West Berlin have been reunited. The major areas to visit include the fashionable Charlottenburg with the fabled shopping street, Kurfurstendamm, and some of Berlin's best restaurants; Tiergarten, both a park and an area of the city that boasts the Brandenburg Gate at one end and the ultramodern Potsdammer Platz at the other; Mitte, with the famous boulevard Unter den Linden as well as some very Germanic monuments; Kreuzberg, the alternative lifestyle section with hippies coexisting with a large Turkish community; and Schöneberg, which has been the center of gay Berlin since the days of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories.
The rejoined sections of West and East Berlin are increasingly seamless, but you will find pieces of the old Berlin Wall scattered throughout the city like sculpture. You will also find striking modern architecture because so much of Berlin had to be rebuilt after the World War II bombing. An example of the city's modern architecture can be found in the Potsdammer Platz, with its Sony Center complex designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn. The interior of the center contains a piazza, fountains, shops, and restaurants. If you are looking for taste of 'Old Berlin,' check out the Nikolaiviertel quarter, with its narrow streets and alleys.
Getting around Berlin on public transit is a marvel of German efficiency. An integrated public transportation system, the BVG, consists of buses, trams, the U-Bahn ( subway ) and S-Bahn ( above-ground transit ) , and ferries across Berlin's numerous lakes. ( The land-locked Berliners add sandy beaches. In fact, so much sand is imported that Berlin is one of Europe's great venues of beach volleyball! ) One ticket gets you access to all these transit forms.
For sightseeing, take a boat cruise. Berlin seems to have almost as many bridges and canals as Amsterdam and Venice. You will find wonderful perspectives of the city along the Spree and Havel rivers.
Museums and other points of interest
Berlin has some of the largest concentrations of museums anywhere in the world. Truly culture run amok! Some museums preserve the old. The Pergamon Museum contains artifacts from Babylon and other ancient civilizations. Schloss Charlottenburg is a palace that dates from 1695, where you can tour Rococo and Baroque apartments once inhabited by German royals. Gemäldegalerie is Berlin's largest art museum filled with works spanning the 13th to 18th centuries.
Some of the museums are dedicated to events of World War II and the Cold War that followed. One of the must-see places to visit is the Jewish Museum, designed by Polish-Jewish architect, Daniel Liebeskind, with its fortress-like, disturbing architecture. This museum illustrates the culture and history of Germany's Jewish community and how it was affected by the Holocaust. From the Cold War era, there is the Checkpoint Charley Museum, named for the famous gateway between East and West, which contains such artifacts as escape tools used by East Germans trying to flee to the West.
There are also museums dedicated to modern art movements such as art deco and the Bauhaus Archiv. Museum Berggruen features a plethora of Picassos and those of some of his buddies.
The GLBT Scene
Since Berlin has been re-united, you can expect to find GLBT communities in various areas of the city. Many bars, however, are in the historically gay Schoenberg district between the Nollendorfplatz and the Victoria-Luise Platz. Berlin's main gay community center, Mann-O-Meter, is located there, as is the huge Connection/ Prinzknecht bar. Begine Café Bistro Bar is a place where women meet and greet.
The Enjoy B&B agency can help GLBT folk find gay-friendly accommodations in Berlin. However, Berlin lacks the great quantity of small charming hotels one finds in London or Paris. Not to worry, there are chain hotels that make up the gap. Marriott Berlin and Madison Hotels are worth considering. The Arcotel Velvet Hotel is a quality independent establishment. For a splurge, consider the Kempenski Adlon Hotel, the inspired setting of the movie and musical Grand Hotel.
Berlin is extraordinary, sometimes baffling and dark, but always intriguing. We recommend a minimum of three to six days for exploring this fascinating and energetic capital.
Your Travel Writer: Richard S. Klein is a Travel Consultant with Aqua Terra Travel, Inc., 65 E. Wacker Place, Chicago IL 60601. Aqua Terra Travel is owned by Cynthia A, Marquard. Cynthia and Richard can be reached at 312-787-2400. www.aquaterratravel.com .