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West Berlin. Island of glittering democracy amidst the drab uniformity of East Germany

PORSCHES, Mercedes, and BMWs vroom through neon-lit streets that quite literally lead to nowhere. Affluence and excess ooze from the posh shops and Kneipen (pubs) that line the Kurf"urstendamm. Counterculture still thrives at the Einstein Caf'e. Come to the city of ``Cabaret,'' old chum: city of Hitler, ``The Wall,'' Checkpoint Charlie -- island of glittering democracy adrift in a bleak and sunless sea of communism.

There is no doubt that the city that gave us the rise of the Third Reich -- and its fall with the end of World War II 40 years ago -- is teeming with history, culture, and the modern politics of East-West confrontation.

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There seems to be doubt, however, whether this is, as they say, a desirable tourist destination, user-friendly, easily accessible, and all that. It is, after all, divided, blockaded, encircled with a concrete wall (1986 will mark the wall's 25th year), and occupied by 12,000 allied troops (surrounded by 500,000 soldiers of the Warsaw Pact).

Is it no matter, tourist officials here ask, that West Berlin remains Germany's largest and most populous city; the greatest industrial metropolis between Moscow and Paris; and the cultural heart of Europe's richest, strongest, most efficient, productive, and technologically advanced state?

Although modern-day Berlin is all these things (and much more, brochures tell us), there is, besides the wall and barbed wire, that daunting detail of being 110 miles inside a communist state -- up to three hours by car or train, less by plane.

``Most people know about the city, East and West Berlin, but they don't know where to put it geographically,'' Alexander Bidder, tourist director of West Berlin, told me. ``They think you have to fly to Moscow and take the underground.''

It turns out that getting to Berlin is easier than it looks, starting with 100 daily flights to and from German cities alone (more on this later).

But beyond the how is the why. What needs to be brought home to tourists -- beyond such obvious attractions as museums, stores, theaters, symphonies -- is the not-so-obvious:

Berlin is one-third green, with 28,000 acres (50 square miles) of forests -- not just parks, but forests -- replete with deer and wild boar, numerous preserves, and a handful of farms.

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You could fit the cities of Munich, D"usseldorf, and Frankfurt into the city limits with space left over.

Berlin has more students than Boston (90,000), 280,000 street trees (``21/2 for every dog,'' Mr. Bidder said), more bridges than Venice, and 21 lakes. Enormous Grunewald Lake, for instance, has three beaches, one for families and children, one for nude bathers, another for the city's 100,000 dogs.

Not surprisingly then, Bidder is all over himself lamenting the scenario, he says, of most North American visitors:

``They land in Frankfurt; they turn their heads south and then it goes Heidelberg, and Rothenberg, the castle route along the Rhine, Munich, and Octoberfest and beer and that's it. And that's the picture most international visitors have of Germany.''

He is busy reminding tour operators around the world that great packages can be put together combining Berlin with the north of Germany (Hamburg, L"ubeck), as well as Amsterdam and the Netherlands, Copenhagen and Denmark.

``I tell my clients that if Berlin were so depressing and drab, why should 2 million people stay in such a dreadful place?'' Bidder says.

My own stay in Berlin was a case in point. I found the city to be stunningly alive, clean, orderly, wonderfully diverse -- and anything but claustrophobic. For history buffs, politicos, and culture vultures, Berlin really is -- because of its peculiar political and geographical situation -- a city like no other.

Berlin is not technically a constituent part of the Federal Republic of Germany. But the government in Bonn has been responsible for keeping it solvent: $50 billion has been poured in since the war, each year more than half the city's operating budget.

A four-power agreement (France, West Germany, United States, Soviet Union) signed in 1971 has safeguarded relatively free access to West Berlin by air, train, and a number of highway corridors that cut through communist East Germany.

The depressing images of Berlin are perpetuated, no doubt, by the scores of war films shown worldwide on every anniversary of the Berlin Wall -- document- aries on the great disparities between life on each side, the anguish of separation, and dreams of German reunification. Not to mention rampant student activism, which has skyrocketed since Berlin became a bastion of the young escaping the draft.

Arriving by early morning train from Munich, I was spared by cover of night the much-discussed squalor of the surrounding East German countryside. I did get one quick glimpse of trailer camps and run-down shanty villages pouring out acrid smoke produced by the cheap, brown coal used for heating throughout East Germany. Not until later did I sample more of the German Democratic Republic in East Berlin -- which poignantly underlined the contrasts between the two systems, which stand eyeball to eyeball.

Reduced to rubble in 1945 (four enormous mountains of rubble still testify to the work of 60,000 Tr"ummerfrauen -- rubble ladies -- who dug the city out of wreckage, brick by brick), West Berlin is now a bustling city by anyone's standards. Reminiscent of the golden '20s, when it was a haven for artists, scientists, writers, and actors, Berlin literally stays open all night. I didn't find a section that didn't appear busy.

I headed directly for the Kurf"urstendamm, the hub of town, a cross between Paris's Champs 'Elys'ees and New York's Fifth Avenue. The stretch, called the Ku-Damm by Berliners, includes about two miles of luxury hotels, caf'es, cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants, galleries, antiques shops, and boutiques. It culminates at one end with the familiar ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Church, left as a symbol of the destruction of war.

I spoke with Mr. Bidder at the main tourist office, just across from the church. The average tourist stay here, he said, is 2 to 3 days. He and other officials suggest taking the three-hour citywide bus tour to acquaint oneself with its three sections (British, French, American). Then one should go back and explore further the sites that strike his fancy.

My initial tour took in the Brandenburg Gate (through which Napoleon once took the city, and through which, in 1945, Allied tanks rolled to conquest); the Reichstag (previously the parliament of united Germany, now a museum of modern German history); numerous overlooks (stairways to platforms that peep over the wall into East Berlin).

Not surprisingly, the wall is the largest draw for visitors to West Berlin. But it is a feature most native Insulaners (islanders) say they no longer notice. ``People who come here from Munich get claustrophobic,'' one lifelong resident told me. ``Not us, it's a fact of life.'' I had to weigh that comment with a later one saying he doesn't feel part of the rest of Germany, rather a separate country altogether.

Later tours took me by Tempelhof Airport, where there is a memorial to the Allied airlift that foiled the Soviets' 1953 blockade of Berlin; the Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owens spoiled Hitler's notion of a master race; Grunewald Forest, at 745 acres the largest of Berlin's forests, with a series of lakes interspersed with residential areas.

I never made it to the many museums for which Berlin is famous: the Bauhaus Archive, designed by Walter Gropius, or the New National Gallery, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

I saved instead a full day for East Berlin, heading for its access point, Checkpoint Charlie, at 7 a.m. to beat the crowds. Tourists should know they must exchange at least 25 West German marks (about $12.50 worth) for 25 East German marks (worth about one-fifth of that). When you return, no East German marks may be brought back. They must be turned over, placed in an East German bank account, or donated to the East German Red Cross.

Berliners themselves say the trip to East Berlin is like a trip back to the Berlin before the war. Department stores, food shops, and other retail establishments look like the Germany of 30 years ago. Economy cars -- Ladas, Wartburgs -- and the more expensive Trabants sound like fleets of lawn mowers. They monopolize the streets the way BMWs and Mercedes do in the west.

Tattered streetcars screech on unrepaired cobbled streets, and turn-of-the-century buildings still bear the scars of World War II. Alone, and slightly uncomfortable after a thorough frisking by military guards at Checkpoint Charlie, I kept my visit to one quick meal, some shopping, and touring by car: up the Unter den Linden (lined with government buildings), Karl-Marx-Allee (the city's prestige avenue, with international hotels, restaurants, caf'es, and cinemas), and Alexanderplatz, center of the city beneath the ``Universal Clock.''

Although the short visit was time consuming, and not all that exhilarating (in West Berlin virtually everyone speaks English, not so in East Berlin), it was essential to appreciate the striking, profound differences between the two cities and the two ideologies, without which a true understanding of Berlin is impossible.

Going back to West Berlin was like drinking a tall glass of water after days in the desert. I had to give up all but about $3 that I spent on food, as I couldn't find a single souvenir that appealed to me in all the stores I looked in, even though I'm an incorrigible souvenir hound.

But I decided that putting up with checkpoints -- and the inconvenience of strictly enforced 50 m.p.h. speed limits on the corridors leading back to West Germany -- were well worth a look at what is surely one of the world's most fascinating anomalies.

For more information: Contact the German National Tourist Office, 747 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; or Verkehrsamt Berlin, Europa Center, D-1000 Berlin 30, Federal Republic of West Germany.

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