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July 23, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Berlin

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Guten tag from Düsseldorf! Last week, I told you almost all the details of my incredible trip to Berlin. I left out some of the highlights, which I'll get to this week. If you're ready to discover Berlin's art scene and to check out a gastronomic tour before flying to Düsseldorf where we check-in to one of the world's best airport hotels, then grab your bags and let's go! We also continue with part two of the airline fees survival guide that we started with last week, we check out five classic and affordable U.S. vacation spots and Margot Black introduces us to an assortment of great products for parents on the go.

As you can tell from last week's newsletter, I was really impressed with Berlin. I wasn't expecting Berlin to be so diverse (people of over 180 different nationalities reside here) and so reasonably priced. The hotel prices in all categories are almost a third the price of those in London, Paris and Rome. There are also plenty of things to see and do (you can pre-book tours here). Since Berlin was crushed during WWII from all the bombings, there aren't many original old buildings. Some were restored but there are a ton of new, modern, incredibly designed buildings; none greater than the Sony Center (website) built by the Japanese. It's located at Potsdamer Platz and is a spectacular glass structure with all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés and entertainment -- including a mini Legoland. For a building that's not modern and the complete opposite of the Sony Center, check out the Berliner Dom. It's a massive, 374-foot-long, 240-foot-wide, and 381-foot-tall Protestant cathedral dedicated in 1905 and located on the Spree Island. Cost to enter is €3; €1 donation to light a candle.

At press time, the exchange rate for the euro was not a bargain: 1€ equaled $1.59 USD. That hurts but look at it this way: Berlin is regarded as one of Europe's most inexpensive cities.

Last week I mentioned the Jewish Museum, which is a must-see but that's not the only museum worth visiting in Berlin. DID YOU KNOW? Berlin is home to 153 museums. Check out Museum Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has five museums dedicated to art and antiquities. They are located between the Spree River and the Kupfergraben. Other popular museums are the Gemaldegalerie (€8), which possesses one of the world's finest collections of European art from the 13th to 18th century; The Pergamonmuseum (€8), which accommodates three separate museums: the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities), the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East) and the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art). And who can forget about the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (cost: €9.50), which was opened in 1963 by Rainer Hildebrandt.

My A.D.D. doesn't allow me to mill around museums for long so instead I checked out some art on the fly. The two most moving pieces of art were this bronze sculpture (click to see the picture) by Karl Biedermann, called Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). It's located in the Koppenplatz courtyard and as you can see, it's not an intricate piece but it really captures the moment. The other is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (website), also known as the Holocaust Memorial. It's located a block south of the Brandenburg Gate, right near Embassy row, which is something to see on its own. The memorial opened to the public on May 12, 2005 and was designed by Peter Eisenman. It consists of 2,711 concrete blocks that vary in height from 8" to 15'9" (0.2m to 4.8m) and are arranged in a grid pattern. The sloping ground covers an area of 4.7 acres (19,000 square meters) and is designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere. It would have been such a deeply moving place to stop and reflect had it not been for the gypsy child who followed me and everyone else there around, asking for money. It reminded me of the lowlifes down at the World Trade Center who sell pictures of 9/11.

SPONSOR: Berlin accommodation: choose from 500 cheap apartments in Berlin.

Most major cities in the world have sister cities. Berlin has 17 partnerships and the first was with Los Angeles back in 1967. Some of its other notable sister cities are: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Seoul, Sofia, Sydney and Vienna.

Not all walking tours have to do with the Berlin Wall. I went on a couple of different ones. One was an art tour called GoArt!. Our guide, Miriam Bers, showed us some offbeat galleries and public art, such as the Deserted Room piece. I learned that in the 1990s, East Berlin was a poor area so lots of artists moved in and galleries opened. They helped bring the economy back and today, there are between 6,000 and 10,000 contemporary artists in Berlin. A few of the galleries the guide took me to were of the late Tomas Schmit's, now run by his ex-girlfriend. He was regarded as one of the pioneers of the Fluxus movement of the early 1960s. The other was Christian Jankowski who sells €4,000 guitars that cannot be played. Instead, they come with a permanently installed CD, which was recorded by one of the 34 Chinese workers who built the guitar. I'm obviously in the wrong business because the man supposedly sells a lot of them. The GoArt! private tours can accommodate up to 10 people and cost €79 per hour (two-hour minimum). It's cheaper if you book more time.

Speaking of art, one of the most pleasant surprises was going to dinner later that night in East Berlin. What appeared to be an unimpressive art gallery from the outside was really a haven on the inside, called the Zagreus Project. The three-member team's art was a multi-course dinner, where the artistic and culinary concepts complemented each other. They've been doing it for 8 years and so much goes into it that it's only offered on Wednesday and Saturday nights. To attract repeat business, they change the menu every six to eight weeks. The menu is written on the walls in code; when each course is served the code is deciphered.

When I first arrived with my host we were quickly greeted to a flute of champagne on the outside patio. Dinner was supposed to take place there but it was a rather chilly summer night so they moved it inside. More guests arrived. BTW: There's a five-person minimum but you could come by your lonesome as long as there are enough pre-booked. Then the host came around with a tray of mousetraps, each containing a bite-sized piece of delicious cheese. OK, I admit, I was thinking, What the (insert expletive here)? Of course, I was the first to be served and the room suddenly became silent. I didn't want to look like a sissy even though I was pretty sure my reflexes weren't going to be quick enough to escape the almost guaranteed world of hurt my thumb and index finger were about to encounter. But I had to save face and besides, I was starving! I would have done almost anything for that cheese. With cat-like precision, I swooped in and snatched that cheese like a magician. I imagined those around me ‘ooh'-ing and ‘aah'-ing at my feline-like prowess when I escaped the clutches of the trap but I guess they were just as hungry as me, and wondering why I took so long to grab it. I was obviously the only guy in the room who didn't know the trap was ... disarmed. Now I know what the server said in German when he entered the room.

The bizarre but fun meal consisted of five courses including incredible bread. (FYI: I'm pretty confident that Germany has the widest and best tasting assortment of bread anywhere in the world). The first course was served on a cutting board that looked like a painter's palette, with deer liver pate, bratwurst, bread from the south of Germany, radishes, spicy mustard and sweet jelly. The second was white asparagus topped with caviar and a cream sauce. It was so good until the host explained what it was supposed to be; he showed a perverted cartoon with a phallic symbol. I had no idea what these Germans were up to so I quickly jumped up and checked on the chef to make sure he wasn't peaking through the kitchen door with an evil smile and a German Playboy magazine in hand. Phew. I know I have a sick mind but come on ... these guys served cheese on mousetraps. The third course was salmon and trout ceviche, which I'm not a fan of ever since I got sick in Tulum. Even the word ceviche makes me nauseous. The final course was a mouthwatering filet of beef, topped with foie gras and served with some funky but delicious tasting mashed potatoes. The meal ended with an outrageous dessert. A small chocolate truffle topped with fresh mint and next to it, lay a chilled spoon filled with vanilla batter to lick – created to bring you back to the old days when your mom made cookies and cake. Cost of the dinner is €28 for the food and €14 for drinks (they add up what everyone drank and divide it, regardless whether you drink or not). Zagreus Project, Brunnenstraße 9a (Hinterhof), 10119, Berlin.

I took a gastro tour with lifestyle guide Henrik Tidefjärd ( Henrik is originally from Sweden but fell in love with Berlin and adopted it as his hometown. He's a knowledgeable, fun guy who knows and is well respected by all the workers and owners of the restaurants and clubs he takes you to. It turns out that Berlin has one of the most diverse and vibrant nightlife scenes in Europe. We started off at a beer garden, went to an Italian restaurant for appetizers, then a Russian place (Pasternak Café) for main courses. The food at both places was really good and I liked dining outside even though the air was a bit chilly. Many restaurants offer blankets to make it that much more cozy. For the most important course, we went to Café Anna Blume for their divine homemade desserts -- yowsa! In between, we popped into a few secret clubs where the people who worked there insisted I didn't write about it. They don't want a bunch of tourists discovering the place but I think it's probably because they didn't pay their taxes.

The tour ended late at night at Weekend Club. It's appropriately named since it's only open Thursday through Saturday. It's in Mitte, the former city center of East Berlin, on the top floors of an old renovated building. The 15th floor had a dark dance floor blaring techno music. The dance clubs here don't get pumping until 1am (doors open at 11pm). We settled for some kind of watermelon drink and mojitos on the rooftop (open in the summer only) and admired the city's amazing skyline. What a view! Entrance fee: €10. Weekend, Alexanderplatz 5, Mitte, open Thu-Sat. For info on the latest hot spots, pick up a copy of the Ex-Berliner.

Berlin has a ton of shows, theatre, opera, concerts – you name it. I went to a variety show called My Life at Chamaeleon in Hackesche Höfe. I believe half of the cast of eight hailed from the U.S. and the other half from Germany. Both the girls and guys were in unbelievable shape and it turned out to be like a mini Cirque Du Soleil with acrobatics, juggling, singing, comedy and outrageous trapeze artists. Tickets begin at €29. The show ended around 10pm and as usual, I was famished. We walked a few blocks away down a quiet, dark, neighborhood street and sat outside at Sophieneck Berlin (Grosse Hamburger Strasse 37, Tel:030 28 22 10 9) for some traditional German cuisine. I had cream of asparagus soup and chicken with sesame (€12).

One of the things I will remember most about Berlin is the pedestrian crossing lights. This used to be the way visitors could tell the difference between the former east and west but the west liked the design of little red and green men (Ampelmännchen in German) so much that the eastern Ampelmännchen design is now used in the western part of the city as well.

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Pictures From

The Trip


Johnny Jet In Berlin

Museum Island


Jewish Museum


Berlin Dom


Inside Berlin Dom


Embassy Row


U.S. Embassy In Berlin


The Deserted Room


Holocaust Memorial


Inside Memorial


GoArtTour Guide


Off Beat Art Studio


Zagreus Project Team


Cheese Anyone?


Communal Table


The Hosts Explaining Their Art


First Course


Second Course




Gastro Tour Guide


One Of the Few Original East Berlin Buildings Not Renovated


Beer Garden


Delicious Bread




Anna Blume Dessert


Weekend Club





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