Skip to content
Each morning, Andrea Huebner leaves a little double-tiered rolling table outside our door, heaped with a coffee pot, cups, saucers, utensils and a hearty breakfast.
There are breads (dark and grainy wheat, rye and white), three kinds of jam and small surprise platters of assorted cheeses and meats (pate and sausage), along with other fare that varies from day to day - boiled eggs, smoked salmon with creamed horseradish, elaborate salad plates of thinly sliced apples, cucumbers and tomatoes. The coffee is strong and rich.
Huebner and her 8-year-old daughter, Julia, are a comforting presence over the next 10 days in the German capital. My wife and I have regular conversations with our hostess before heading out each day. Her English is limited, but she happily talks with us in German.
Among the reasons we returned to Berlin, whose western section we had visited two years earlier, was to learn more about the neighborhoods in the former East Berlin while brushing up our German. The choice of a bed-and-breakfast, rather than a hotel where all the employees speak English, fit our plan. And the price is very reasonable at about $55 a night. We share the tidy bathroom with the family and another guest, whom we seldom encounter. Julia always leaves her bath toys carefully aligned on the windowsill.
Huebner, slim with her brown hair tied in a pony tail, tells us not only about life in East Berlin before the wall came down in 1989, but much about the neighborhood.
She explains that Prenzlauer Berg, about a half-mile north of bustling Alexanderplatz, suffered from neglect under the communist government. In the last few years it has undergone what the Germans call "Sanierung," or renovation to the core. Cleaned up, repaired and freshly painted, the area now attracts hordes of young people, especially on weekends, to its trendy bars, restaurants and cafes, which light up the streets late into the night.
Each day we start on foot to explore the immediate area, visiting the nearby Kulturbrauerei (Culture Brewery), a former brewery that has gentrified into a complex of shops, restaurants and movie theaters. At one end is the Mini-Mall, a well-stocked supermarket where the food is fresh and the variety of sausages overwhelming.
Foraging in the neighborhood affords instant language lessons, as we ask for toothpaste (Zahnpasta) and nail-polish remover (Nagellackentferner).
Not far from the Kulturbrauerei, tucked under the elevated subway tracks of the U2 train, is a popular fast food stand. The Konnopkes Imbiss claims to furnish Berlin's best Currywurst. At midday, crowds of local workers and tourists wait in line to purchase this specialty, then stand at the counter or at small tables under a tent to consume the pale tasty sausages doused in ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder, washed down with a cold beer.
Berliners, like Parisians, love to sit in cafes and sidewalk restaurants. And there are plenty in Prenzlauer Berg, the best-known clustered around Helmholz-Platz and Kaethe Kollwitz-Platz.
On a sunny day, we stroll down Kastanienallee, named for chestnut trees. The narrow street is lined with restaurants, crammed old-book stores called antiquariats, junk dealers and used-clothing stores. We spot a wild Hawaiian shirt in a shop window that is even more flamboyant than one I passed up in New York. A bargain, it's priced at $7.50, and when I point out that it's missing a button, the owner drops the price to $5.
We expand our excursions via Berlin's excellent transportation system. Buying a weeklong pass allows us to ride freely, though not free, on any of the subways, trolleys, buses or the S-Bahn trains that go to the suburbs. There are no turnstiles or ticket takers, but checkers randomly stop travelers, inspect their tickets and impose fines on those who are not "in Ordnung."
There are many glorious options for spending some of the money we've saved by staying in our small room in Huebner's fourth-floor walk-up apartment. The most tempting is to experience the atmosphere at perhaps the most expensive hotel in Berlin - the legendary Hotel Adlon, the fictional setting for the film and musical "Grand Hotel," rebuilt in the 1990s at the head of the grand boulevard Unter den Linden.
The hotel's elegant lobby is bathed in golden light. Guests relax in easy chairs as they sip dark coffee or tea and eat pastries rolled in on tea carts. Brass frogs perched on the edge of a basin spray water in the middle of the marble court; a column of brass elephants rises toward a faux skylight. A pianist plays muted Broadway show tunes from the mezzanine.
The prices at the Adlon reflect the status and history of a hotel that once was the playground of royalty, and later, the haunt of Nazi leaders, who strategically provided the lobby with listening devices. Rooms range from around $350 to over $10,000 for the Presidential Suite overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.
Berlin's cultural entertainment is abundant. There are three operas, a major symphony orchestra, two zoos and some of the best museums in Europe. On a Sunday, we take the S-Bahn to the eastern suburb of Mahlsdorf to visit the small Founders' Museum (Gruenderzeitmuseum), named for the late 19th-century era of Germany's industrial expansion.
In New York, we had seen a one-man play about the museum. Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," which moved to Broadway, tells the story of transvestite Lothar Beerfelde, aka Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who for years assembled fine furniture and memorabilia in his 1780 Mahlsdorf manor house. Beerfelde plucked an entire Weimar period pub from under the wrecker's ball in central Berlin, including its "whore's room," a discreet rendezvous for male and female clients. He installed the pub in the cellar of his house, where tourists now savor tea and cake.
Docents give guided tours, offering detailed information about every item in some 10 rooms open to the public. One need only ask to learn a clock's history and provenance. The music room is a marvel with its mechanical instruments, which the guides play.
In contrast, the massive Pergamon Museum on Museum Island and its antiquities - from Greece and around the Middle East - can be overwhelming. This museum houses the famed Pergamon Altar, the huge Ishtar Gate and other treasures plundered by German archaeologists early in the 20th century.
Our stay ends at the Berliner Ensemble, the theater founded by Bertolt Brecht. We reach the theater after visiting Brecht's nearby house, provided him by the East German government. It overlooks the French Cemetery where he was buried in 1956.
In the theater's courtyard, playgoers mill around Brecht's statue before the curtain. We sip wine and munch giant pretzels sold by vendors with baskets. The expressionistic production of the play, Brecht's "Die Mutter" ("The Mother"), is crisp, vibrant and well-acted.
To catch the trolley home, we stroll along the Schiffbauerdamm - or Shipbuilder's Embankment - overlooking the Spree, where
a row of restaurants serving late diners cast their candlelit glow on the water.