Berlin - It was exactly 30 years when this young American Soldier first traveled by a blacked-out sleeper train through Soviet-occupied East Germany to the surrounded former capital of Germany.

In those days U.S. personnel were under strict orders not to lift the shades to peak out at the landscape, as if much could be seen at night anyway.

Upon arrival in Berlin we were greeted by representatives of the Berlin Brigade, the Bundeswehr and the occasional nosey East German soldier. As visiting Soldiers, we were free to travel throughout West Berlin, but the trip into the surreal eastern side of the city via Checkpoint Charlie (now a museum), through a minefield and past the guard towers bristling with guns, and complete with a KGB or STASI (East German Intelligence) tail despite our obligatory Class A uniforms that stood out like a sore thumb, was an awakening to the difference between the free west and the occupied east.

It made those of us Cold Warriors who walked the line against the mighty Warsaw Pact better understand why we served.

Fast forward to Oct. 3, 2009 as Germany celebrated Reunification Day, with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall taking place Nov. 9.

Germany is a country once again whole with Berlin as her shining capital, the city akin to the mythical phoenix that rose from ashes to become bigger, better and more beautiful than ever.

The public transit system is fast and efficient with Berlin Welcome Card, a discounted pass good for 48 or 72 hours of unlimited travel, plus half-off reductions on many attractions.

The elevated Ringbahn of the S-Bahn circles the entire city, offering an inexpensive way to get a first impression.

Numerous double-decker tourist buses are available to take visitors directly to the main points.

Under blue skies we chose to walk through city to the Kaiser William Memorial Church on KurfAfA1/4rstenstrasse, deliberately left with the terrible bombing scars of Nov. 23, 1943 as a memorial and somber reminder.

The church is one of the familiar landmarks along with ubiquitous currywurst vendors; Berlin is the birthplace of the currywurst, so beloved there is now a kitschy museum dedicated to the spicy-ketchup snack.

We continued on from the west end of KurfAfA1/4rstenstrasse to the center of town, passing the "elephant gate" of the Berlin Zoo and through the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park to where the golden Victory Column stands guard since inaugurated in 1873.

From there we walked along the Street of 17 June (it becomes the famous Unter den Linden east of the Brandenburg Gate) onward into the former Soviet sector, finding so many improvements over 30 years it was hard to recognize the grand old city.

As we traveled from west to east the pedestrian walk/don't walk signs changed from familiar figures to the older, uniquely Berlin icons of red and green with their little hats aglow.

We saw the T-34s of the Soviet War Memorial from behind a temporary construction fence, denying us the opportunity to relive the moment 30 years before when we handed the memorial's ancient "toilettenfrau" a small treasure of aluminum East German marks.

The Brandenburg Gate, dingy and behind the lines in 1979 (and before the Wall it was the demarcation line) was open, free and glistened as much as the new US embassy mere yards away.

The bulbous 1207 ft high Fernsehturm (TV tower) with its revolving restaurant, built by the communists with money provided by the Catholic Church for rebuilding war-torn Berlin (as told to visiting Soldiers in 1979) still towers over the city reflecting the sun in the pattern of a cross, the so-called "Pope's Revenge", because no matter what they did they couldn't get rid of the unintended reflection.

The piles of bomb damage and Wall rubble still evident in 1979 were all gone, replaced by a building boom of modern glass and steel architecture. There is much more to see and do that it would take many trips before one could say "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Like many places in the former West Germany, Berlin no longer retains a large US military presence. The flip-side of the coin is that the enormous military machine of the now defunct Warsaw Pact that once encircled the city is also gone.

Berlin is once again a beacon of German art and culture, and a must-see capital for all who visit Europe.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16