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Getting Our Bearings at the Grand Hyatt of Berlin

Although it’s been nearly twenty years since the Wall came down and Berlin was reunited, it took a while for us to get our bearings in this throbbing, trendy city that has become one of the most desirable of European destinations. Whenever we came upon a remnant of the Wall (and there are many -- chunky, broken segments, reminders of the decades of division), we couldn't shake the sensation we were on the border of the once divided city.

Graffiti on a stretch of the Wall near Potsdamer Platz - click to enlarge
Graffiti on a stretch of the Wall near Potsdamer Platz

But when we stopped to look at some politically-charged graffiti on a block-long stretch of the Wall on Ebertstrasse, our sense of being poised on the eastern edge was not misplaced. Across the way was Potsdamer Platz. The Wall had run right through the center of this large, open square virtually in the center of the city, bisecting a neighborhood that was still reeling from wartime devastation, ensuring it remain a place of total desolation for the next 28 years.

Happily, it has since become the heart of new Berlin and as exciting as it was during the time of the Weimar Republic when cabarets of the sort that inspired the musical "Cabaret" lined the neighborhood's streets, and traffic from five major arteries converging in a star-shaped pattern on Potsdamer Platz was so voluminous, it led to the installation of Europe's first traffic lights -- now re-constructed and re-installed in the very same place.

"In the 1920s, Potsdamer Platz was the place to go," said Kerstin Riedel when she joined us for breakfast at Vox, the gastronomic restaurant of the strikingly contemporary Grand Hyatt around the corner from the square. "Vox was Berlin's first radio station, and it began broadcasting right here in October 1923. To name the restaurant after it seemed natural as people are trying to re-imagine and re-experience the 20s in this neighborhood once again."

Kerstin is Marketing & Communications Manager of the Hyatt; she is fair haired and upbeat, given to bursts of buoyant laughter and clearly relishing having a position  in such a happening part of town. It was a beautiful June morning and we were sitting on white sheathed chairs before a table covered in crisp white linen on the cobblestone-paved dining terrace outside the restaurant. Overhead, the sun was casting dappled light through a canopy of leaves -- dark green on one side, pale lime on the other -- from the linden trees that line the street. "All these trees came up after the war," Kerstin told us.

Kerstin Riedel before a canopy of linden leaves - click to enlarge
Kerstin Riedel before a canopy of linden leaves

"Most of the trees in the area were destroyed by the bombing, and afterwards people used whatever wood was around for heat and in their ovens because everyone was so poor. This entire neighborhood was no man's land; there was nothing here.

"Then the trees began to grow again," she exclaimed. "No one planted them; they just came up. It was as if they were waiting for something to happen."

Something did happen to one of the last sections in Berlin to be re-built, and when it was, not a leaf of a linden tree was disturbed. At the end of 1989 after  the fall of the Wall, four commercial developers, chief among them Daimler Benz who had already purchased a large tract of land in the Potsdamer Platz district the year before, began planning an enormous urban renewal project, the largest in Europe. Designed by world-renowned architects, it has turned out to be a dynamic complex of office buildings, apartment houses, the Grand Hyatt (owned by Daimler Benz but managed by Hyatt), a cinema complex where Berlin's Film Festival is held, a theater where "Beauty and the Beast" was playing during our stay, a film museum, a popular shopping mall, the SONY Center -- a mini-complex in itself with a tower housing the company's European headquarters and an Imax theater, many cafes, bars and restaurants, and Huth House -- the single structure in the region to survive the war. For years, the 19th century building, looking like the inspiration for a Grimm's fairy tale illustration, stood forlorn amidst the rubble. Now it is an interesting architectural anomaly nestled among 21st century towers and serves as the repository for Daimler Benz's substantial art collection.

"It took a while for Berliners to get used to what was done here," Kerstin noted. "They were accustomed to a 19th century rule limiting the height of buildings, and here were these skyscrapers. When the hotel opened in 1998, -- the first of the Grand Hyatt category of hotels in Europe -- people didn’t understand it. It was too pure, too modern for their tastes."

Apparently, they have come around to appreciating the neo-modern architecture of the neighborhood as well as the neo-modern, Zen-like ambience of the hotel: its minimalist décor and high ceilings, the shaft of glass piercing downwards through the lobby atrium like a preserved strike of lightning, the tall cement urns that line the walls with sprigs of white orchids, the sleek, stainless steel banks of elevators, the stunning contemporary art -- including works by John Armleder, Gerold Miller, Günther Förg  and Sylvie Fleury --  some commissioned by the hotel, others from the Daimler Benz collection.

Guests, as well as Berliners who  have availed themselves of the Hyatt's membership program, can appreciate the offerings of Club Olympus Spa on the hotel's top floor. Beyond the gymnasium, beauty salon, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam and massage rooms, there is a huge glass-enclosed swimming pool area opening to an outdoor terrace where chaise lounges are arranged on an actual grassy lawn and look out to a panorama of Berlin. In the foreground is  the Potsdamer quarter: circular towers, skyscrapers of distinctive angular lines, facades of glass and steel or smooth unadorned red-ochre and yellow stone, rows of turquoise and gold canvas awnings shielding apartment windows from the summer sun and steel awnings covering the plaza in front of the theaters, festive tent-like roofs, and irregular street patterns, even a triangular-shaped channel into the Landwehrkanal.

In the background is a vista of Berlin -- the new capital city of the new Germany in the new millennium, a peaceful and pleasing combination of old and new. From this perspective, the traumas of the previous century seem limited to the demolished spire of Kaiser-Welhelm-Gedachtniskirche Memorial Church, which was bombed in 1943, never repaired (instead a new tower was built beside it), and as such, bears harsh testimony to a tortured past.

 

 

Looking away from Potzdamer Platz, the Kulturforum comes into view. The renowned arts center is virtually across the street from the Hyatt; from ground level, the corner of the hotel appears to be pointing in its direction. Situated at the edge of Tiergarten, the sylvan stretch of parkland that stretches across the middle of the city, this collection of museums, libraries, and the famed Berlin Philharmonic Hall -- known for its Expressionist design with many angles emerging from a core and its near-perfect acoustics --was built during the time of the city's division when art treasures were split between east and west. Museum Island, historic site of Berlin's great museums, was in East Berlin territory. But the Kulturforum swiftly proved to be an impressive rival with the Philharmonic Hall, Mies van der Rohe's National Gallery for contemporary art, Staatsbibliothek, a major library, and the Italianate 19th-century St. Matthäus Church, the single historic building of the complex and now a site for chamber music concerts.

The Hyatt seems to be pointing to the Kulturforum across the way - click to enlarge
The Hyatt seems to be pointing to the Kulturforum across the way

St. Matthäus Church in the Kulturforum - click to enlarge
St. Matthäus Church in the Kulturforum 

With the  exciting venues of Potsdamer Platz and the Kulturforum virtually at its doorstep, the Grand Hyatt's situation cannot be improved upon. There is not a tour bus or public transportation vehicle that fails to stop at the square. And the Brandenburg Gate is a short walk down the east side of Eberstrasse, across from Tiergarten Park and just one block past the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which -- if one should, for a moment, forget -- serves as a heart-stopping reminder of what happened here.

A solid city block, once divided by the Wall and the size of two football fields, is the site of 2711 rectangular concrete stellae arranged in a grid-like pattern on ground covered with stone plates. There is no direct or correct way to navigate through the narrow and sometimes inclining corridors between the stellae which are all the same width and depth but of irregular height. It is left to the visitor to respond to the undifferentiated structures, so massive in number, so dark and unembellished, so coffin-like. Below ground, the Information Center, divided into four darkened chambers, educates viewers on the extent and specific instances of the Holocaust using photographs, fragments of letters, maps, and audio, and concluding with the continuous reading of mini biographies of victims, part of an on-going search to document every one.

A corridor between the stellae at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews - click to enlarge
A corridor between the stellae at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In deciding to build this memorial, the German Parliament in 1999 acknowledged Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust, viewing the memorial as an essential aspect in the process of the nation's self understanding.

Wrenching history still clings to Berlin, and it is not glossed over. Collective memories of the horrors of the Nazi period, the devastation of the Second World War, the decades of Soviet domination of half the country, and life in a divided city are still close to the surface even among those born long after or barely able to remember their occurrence. At the same time, an optimistic, forward-looking energy characterizes Berlin. There is a spirited, creative and refreshing quality to the city, born, perhaps, out of the joys of liberation, unification, and being, at last, a citizen in a humane and viably democratic society.

Such a spirit was on parade at Vox on a leisurely Sunday evening in June. "Generally 80% of Vox diners are Berliners," Kerstin had told us -- an extraordinary statistic for a 342-room five-star international hotel which consistently draws conference and convention attendees. "Many are regulars," she'd said. "They come here again and again."

This evening, the crowd appeared local. Many were in small groups, most were casually dressed, seemingly familiar with the place, in a convivial state of mind. Not an empty table could be found on the dining terrace. It was 8 o'clock and still light out; the weather was mild. Too beautiful an evening to spend indoors even though the Vox dining room is spacious and inviting with a famed bar that draws the cognoscenti with 245 kinds of whiskies, some of them vintage and quite costly, and live jazz performances on weekends. 

Dining al fresco at Vox on a Sunday evening in June - click to enlarge
Dining al fresco at Vox on a Sunday evening in June

Our friendly server, who came to Berlin from Leipzig in Sachsen, remembers well the travel restrictions of the former East Germany and loves living in Berlin, presented a loaf of freshly baked Italian bread with a little dish of olive oil, and the suggestion we try a Riesling. It was Germany. Why not? With a little fizz and just a hint of sweetness, the clean and clear Riesling was perfect for alfresco dining.

Vox's continental menu focuses on seasonal products, produce grown locally to accompany such entrees as beef fillet, loin of lamb, frogs' legs, skate, swordfish, and poached turbot. The refreshing gazpacho, in which a dollop of sour cream and a single shallot floated, had turned a beautiful shade of fuschia from the addition of a couple of locally grown cherries.

The friendly server from Leipzig - click to enlarge
The friendly server from Leipzig

Beautiful fuschia gazpacho - click to enlarge
 Beautiful fuschia gazpacho

Vox's bountiful breakfast buffet - click to enlarge
Vox's bountiful breakfast buffet

Transformed into a Sushi counter for dinner  - click to enlarge
Transformed into a Sushi counter for dinner

Vox also offers a separate and extensive Japanese menu. This came as no surprise as we scarcely walked down a block in Berlin without seeing at least one sushi place. But here is sushi, sashimi, the rolls, the maki and nigiri -- all of excellent quality and great variety --- anything the serious sushi eater would require.

Within the restaurant proper, the high-tech buffet setup, which hours before had displayed an enticing array of dark breads, smoked fish, all manner of sausages, cereals, fruits, cheeses and yogurts for breakfast, had been transformed into a sleek sushi/sashimi counter where an array of chefs were busily preparing the raw delights for the affecionados drawn to  Vox specifically for them.

Being among the affecionados, we too indulged in the Far East delicacies we crave but turned back west for desserts -- a sampler consisting of cappuccino cream, banana cake, chocolate cake, strawberry sorbet, pineapple-banana sorbet, chocolate ice cream with marmalade, crème Brule, and chocolate chip macaroons.

By then it was nearly 10 o'clock. The sky was still not dark. Lingering over coffee, enjoying the scene of Berliners freely enjoying the pleasures of a summer evening, we realized that over the past few days, we had gotten our bearings back, maybe even more than we expected. We felt grounded again; we knew where we were. And in this first decade of the 21st century, that seemed a pretty good place to be.

Grand Hyatt Berlin|
Marlene-Dietrich-Platz 2
10785 Berlin, Germany

Phone: +49 30-2553 12 34
Web: http://berlin.grand.hyatt.com

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 
 

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