Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Hot Day in Berlin (July 20)

All the weather forecasts were for today to be one of the hottest days of the summer (and it has been a very hot summer in Europe), but when I got up this morning, it didn't seem that bad. I decided that I had to put off going to the Pergamon and head to the Jewish community center instead, if I wanted information on Shabbat services.

When I got to West Berlin, much of the area looked familiar from when I stayed here 8 years ago. There's been so much construction in Berlin over the last few years that I don't recognize much of it. The community center was also being renovated, but they told me that services had been moved out of the Rykestraße Schule while that is under reconstruction, and that they are now being held in the Oranienburgerstraße Schul.

After a brief stop at the Jewish bookstore on Joachimsthalerstraße, I decided to check out the City of Berlin museum. This is a rather kitschy, but fun, set of exhibits on the history of Berlin. It was the sort of museum where many of the exhibits present recreations of street or home life of the time. I was particularly pleased to see the history of Jewish Berlin given prominent inclusion from the beginning, not just emerging just before the Holocaust in order to be killed.

My favorite part was the 15-minute set of excerpts from German cinema of the Weimar period, when German films were some of the most creative and innovative in the world. Beneath the museum lies one of Berlin's atomic bomb shelters (still active, by the way). I missed the first english-language tour, so I decided to get lunch and come back for the next one.

I was just three stops away from KaDeWe, one of my favorite department stores. My favorite part is the food court, which has a lot in common with the one in Harrod's in London. Food courts, food halls, and food markets are some of my favorite places to visit. I'm always curious to see how food is marketed and displayed, and I just love wandering around them. Unfortunately, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked, so I decided to sit down at the pasta counter and order their spinach ravioli with cream and mushroom sauce. With mineral water it came to 11 Euros. That's a bit steep for ravioli, but I don't care. Some times you just need to forget the price and just enjoy it.

On my way out, I stopped at my favorite chocolate seller -- Neuhaus -- to buy a few bonbons for the road. Not that they made it to the road, they didn't even make it from the 6th floor to the 2nd. Good thing too, because they would have melted the moment I stepped outside, where the thermometer had really begun to creep up. I made it back to the museum and took the bomb shelter tour. It certainly had a strange form of nostalgia for people like me who can still remember duck and cover drills in elementary school.

I decided to visit the Neue Schul on Oranienburgerstraße to find out what time services would be on Friday night and Saturday. This is the big synagogue with the gold onion domes you see in books about Berlin. They gave me the info sheet on the services, and I took a quick tour. It was only 3:30, so I decided to head over to the Pergamon.

Walking down the street was tiring. The air was so hot, it felt like you had to push it out of the way. I took a shortcut to the Spree and found that they've set up a sort of beach, bringing in sand and chairs, so people can lie out and feel they're at the ocean. 30 minutes and 1 liter of liquid later, I reached the Pergamon.

I figured that I could cool off in the museum, but no such luck. Only one small wing of the museum is air conditioned (I didn't find that section til the very end). The docents all looked flushed and miserable, and every one was fanning themselves to cool off. Still, the Pergamon Altar is amazing; I used the audio commentary to follow the narrative on all the friezes. Then I headed off to the market of Miletus, only to find the 3-story gate is scaffolded for emergency restoration.

A little disappointed I continued on to what is to me the most amazing part of the museum: the recreation of the Ishtar Gate and ceremonial road from Babylon. It's not even the main gate, but one of the smaller ones (the full gate wouldn't fit in the museum). The German colonial empire was too small to allow them to rape and pillage the world the way the French and English did to create their major national museums, so the Germans made up for it by funding archaeological digs and then bringing some extraordinary, and extraordinarily large, pieces back to Berlin. I couldn't help but wonder, as I looked up at this amazing blue gate with its lions and griffins, did my ancestors come through it when Nebuchadnezzar took them into exile from Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

Upstairs is their incredible collection of Islamic art, including the palace facade of an unfinished Umiyad palace from the 8th century, and an incredible paneled room from 18th-century Aleppo. While not as extensive as the holdings at the Louvre, the Pergamon makes up for it with the size and quality of the art they have.

I made my way back to the Pergamon Altar and then went to the north wing. Now I found the (slightly) air conditioned section. By the time I reached the greek and roman sculpture, however, I'm ashamed to admit my energy was seriously flagging. They had a special exhibit on round things, timed to the World Cup, but it didn't do anything for me, and I just sort of skimmed it. After 2 and a half hours I left the museum exhausted.

Another water break on Unter den Linden, and then I made my way to dinner. My guide book mentioned a good French restaurant in Mitte and I decided to try it. Called "Entrecote" and located at Schützenstraße 5, near Checkpoint Charlie, the food and service were quite good. I was very pleased with my steak and frites (and salad). Two small beers later, I tried not to stumble as I made my way back to the U-Bahn.

I just checked the weather, and the temperature is now down to merely 30 C (86 F) from a high of 36 (96), but it doesn't really feel all that cooler, though, it should be noted, I'm in an internet cafe with poor air circulation and lots of hot computers.

Tomorrow I'm praying for a cool front and will try to stand indoors in museums again (hopefully air conditioned).

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