Phoenix rising from the rubble

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Berlin has hostorical and contemporary importance, making it an ordeal destination for school trips, writes Chris Johnson.

Vast numbers of cranes on the skyline are a constant reminder of the transformation Berlin is undergoing now that it is once again Germany's capital, reclaiming the crown it lost after the Second World War. Everywhere you look, there's a crane working on one of hundreds of construction projects as the city prepares for the influx of civil servants and politicians relocated from Bonn.

The wall that divided the city since 1961 fell just over 11 years ago and most of the rubble has gone. The transport system is no longer impeded by a barrier that ran for some 42km, and the checkpoints - gateways between West and East Berlin - have been dismantled. The collective trauma suffered by the inhabitants may still take time to overcome, but while Berlin deals with the past it is also looking forward to the future.

Berlin is not compact and although it is possible to explore on foot, it is less tiring to plan a daily agenda and make use of the excellent public transport system.

A trip to the observation deck of the 365-metre television tower, or Fernsehturm, at Alexanderplatz is a useful way of getting your bearings. It costs 9 marks (pound;3) for under-16s and is worth the short wait. The views are spectacular, despite the smog, and diagrams point out the major buildings.

Close to the tower is Museum Island, an area where eastern Berlin's most significant museums are found. The Altes Museum, with its 18-column colonnade, has special exhibitions as well as highlights from the Alte Nationalgalerie while it is being renovated. The Pergamonmuseum is worth a look for its treasures from the ancient world.

Heading west down Unter den Linden, Berlin's most impressive boulevard, there are many architecturally significant buildings as well as some more dubious examples, such as the Stalin-era Russian embassy. The street ends at the Brandenburg Gate.

The Gate is also on the way to the Reichstag. Completed in 1894 to house the German parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, it has only recently reopened following the addition of English architect Sir Norman Foster's glass dome with its amazing mirrored column. The Reichstag has not had a happy history: damaged by fire in 1933, it was then nearly obliteratd during the Second World War but was restored to its former glory and hosted the first session of the united German parliament on October 4, 1990. Expect to wait up to an hour to get in at weekends, but the well-presented, picture-led political history of Germany (with English text) and the walk up the curved path to the top of the dome make the delay worth enduring.

Back towards the east is the site of Checkpoint Charlie. Nothing remains of the American-manned crossing point, but the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse 44 (daily, 9am-10pm, DM7.50) shows a fascinating, and at times disturbing, history of the Wall. It is not well laid out and can get rather crowded, but the accounts of the methods used by those who tried to make it over the Wall are absorbing.

The Gestapo and SS headquarters have long since been demolished, but near where they stood the Topography of Terror exhibition at Niederkirchnerstrasse 8 (Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm, free) recalls horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich agencies. The display runs parallel to one of the last remaining sections of the Wall. Its text is in German, but a comprehensive 16-page English booklet is just DM2.

Another section of the Wall, along Muehlenstrasse in the Friedrichshain area, has been turned into an open-air art gallery. The East Side Gallery can be reached via a walkway just north of Schlesisches Tor U-bahn station.

Fans of the playwright Brecht can visit the Berliner Ensemble theatre (on Bertolt Brecht Platz) where his works were performed, and you can tour the Brecht Haus, his workplace and home at Chausseestrasse 125 (Oranienburger Tor U-bahn, DM4).

If unpleasant weather makes sightseeing unattractive, a good alternative is the German Museum of Technology Berlin at Mockernbruecke (Tuesday-Friday, 9am-5.30pm, Saturday-Sunday 10am-6pm, DM5). It will occupy pupils for at least two hours.

Food prices in Germany are roughly similar to Britain and transport is cheap. Berlin may not be as glamorous as some other European cities but its historical and contemporary significance make it ideal for a school visit.

* German National Tourist Office, PO Box 2695, London W1A 3TN. Tel: 020 7317 0908. German Travel Centre, 403 Rayners Lane, Pinner HA5 5ER. Tel: 020 8429 2900.

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