A German Christmas Story – Day 5, Berlin – Museum Island
Despite a very swollen and rather stiff ankle, I wrapped it up with sport tape and an ankle support sock and set out for Museum Island, a UNESCO heritage site on the River Spree known for its architecture and concentration of art and artifacts. I was intrigued by the key attractions of Nefertiti’s head and the Aleppo Room. Besides, it had the makings of a more low-key day than going out to Potsdam and Schloss Sanssouci.
I disembarked at Friedrichstrasse, which, let me say, was somewhat of a Rubik’s Cube of a transit station. Almost all of Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines linked together here, so it was a hot mess with tourists going hither and thither, locals heading out to work, and people switching lines. It took me a good bit of time to figure out the best way to exit the station to Museum Island as it seemed like there were trains and exits everywhere – everywhere except where I wanted to go!
I stepped out just before the river and walked through a local neighborhood toward Museum Island, taking a slow, hobbling stroll through the streets before arriving at the island.
Heading into Museum Island was a bit like arriving in a fairy land of beautiful classical buildings. While some of them were covered with scaffolding for repairs, the stone buildings impressed me with their elegance. On the Island were several places to visit – Neues Museum (ancient artifacts and art); Pergamon Museum (some of the biggest pieces of ancient art and architecture available); Bode Museum (Byzantine art, coins); Alte Nationalgalerie (portrait and painting gallery); and Altes Museum (ancient art, coins). The Neues and Pergamon came the most highly recommended from friends and a few others I had asked in Berlin, so I went for those two, with a view to see if I could possibly make it to the Alte Nationalgalerie if I had time.
Tip: If you plan to spend all day at Museum Island (or at least want to visit two of the museums), buy the 18€ Museum Island Pass ticket. It was good for the entire day, and with each museum admission costing around 10€ – 12€ apiece, it was a good deal.
The Neues Museum contained room after room of Egyptian and Bronze Age art and living instruments. I was impressed by how much had been found – and how much had been left behind by earlier inhabitants of these areas. Though once a wonder of the Industrial Age, this museum was torn apart during WWII and left to ruin until the late 90’s. Surprisingly, it was only reopened in 2009, having undergone what I was sure was an extensive renovation.
That was a curious thought – what happens to priceless art and artifacts during wartime? Having read The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diana Ackerman about a woman who keeps the Warsaw Zoo going through WWII, it made me wonder about museums and the things our civilization treasures. Most books cover the human cost of war – as they should, perhaps – but what about the traces of our past that are irreplaceable? What is our responsibility toward these items?
Many of these items were “evacuated” to safe locations during the war, saved underground, or distributed to other places. Most famously, the bust of Nefertiti sat in a quiet room by herself, still as proud and beautiful as the day it was painted. Strangely, I couldn’t help but think how similar her eyebrows were to the ones drawn on today by fashionistas. They do say that trends always come back around.
Another “no-miss” sight at the Neues Museum is the tall, wizard-like Berliner Goldhut – a very old hat made during the Bronze Age. Another curious thing, this hat represents the heavens, the layers of culture of a people who thought the mysterious of life rested above them. The priests supposedly used such conical hats to predict when planting and harvesting should happen – long before we had the Farmer’s Almanac to tell us if winter was going to horrible or not.
From the Neues Museum, I walked across a pedestrian bridge, past the beautiful Berlin Cathedral, and had lunch at a nearby cafe. I couldn’t resist warming up with a cappuccino and a massive bagel sandwich topped with a yolky fried egg. It hit the spot immediately and gave me a chance to rest my ankle, which I was sure would hate me later.
After lunch, it was time to visit the Pergamon Museum. The Ishtar Gate visually slapped me across the face as I entered into the huge hall meant to house it. The brilliant royal blue bricks with the stunningly bright gold lions leaped out boldly from the plain museum walls. They are massive, the city gates, and encircle the whole room before leading through to the beautiful mosaic floor, The Orpheus Floor, one of the few whole mosaics left from this time period, along with the magnificent market gate from Miletus.
The walls of Ishtar extended into another room, the growling lions extolling the strong-willed virtues of Nebuchadnezzar II. I followed them into rooms filled with Assyrian artifacts, some of them reproductions from the originals in the British Museum. I thought they looked terribly familiar, and when I read the sign, I knew I wasn’t going crazy. I had just seen the originals last summer in London.
Another show-stopper, besides the beautiful prayer niches from Islamic settlements and gorgeous Turkish carpets, was the glassed-in Aleppo Room. Most of us today are sadly familiar with the sites of a blackened, bombed out city, without riches, beauty, and life. Syria has become synonymous with the images of refugees fleeing the bombings of their cities, especially Aleppo. However, the Aleppo Room recalled a more lavish time, the beauty of a culture that is dealing with tragedy on a massive scale today. Although it was one of the last exhibits in the museum, the Aleppo Room was an absolute must-see.
A day on Museum Island – where art is so beautiful it can make you forget a terribly sprained ankle and where, when the sun finally comes out after days of cloud and fog, everything seems to glitter with golden glory.
A nighttime stroll from Museum Island, where all of the buildings are bathed in golden light, over the River Spree, and to Alexanderplatz, was one of the most lovely walks I had taken in Berlin. Cobblestones were hell on a sprained ankle, but mind over matter, people.
I dove into one last Christmas market, sitting on the fringe of Alexanderplatz, near Marionkirche. A few gluhweins and some bratwurst later, I convinced myself that I really should head back to my hotel and pack to leave for home early the next morning.
Eventually, good sense won out, and I grabbed the train back to Stadtmitte. I spent a little bit of time at Gendarmenmarkt before finally popping into a chocolaterie near my hotel and spending an inordinate amount of euros on Christmas gifts for family and friends.
It was my last evening in Berlin, and I had to say – I felt like I still had so much more to see and do there.
Perhaps Berlin and I will meet again.