Visitors stand in front of an installation about the history...

Visitors stand in front of an installation about the history of the Cold War near what used to be Checkpoint Charlie, the former Berlin Wall crossing point, Sept. 5, 2014. Nov. 9, 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Credit: The Washington Post / Gordon Welters

It's been 25 minutes at least since we got on the U-Bahn in Berlin's Mitte district, and still the subway stops keep coming -- Potsdamer Platz, Gleisdreieck, Bülowstrasse. Why is this taking so long? It never took this long to get around before.

Well, of course it didn't.

That's because "before" was more than a quarter century ago, when the Berlin I knew was half the size it is today. You know, in the days of the infamous Wall, which cleft the occupied city in two. Berlin was West Berlin back then. And that other half-city, over the wall? That was East Berlin -- gray and lifeless, brooding and dull.

SHIFTING CITYSCAPE

Berlin, by contrast, was bright and shiny, chic and fashionable. I'd flit up and down the Kurfürstendamm, the elegant shopping avenue, and have lunch at the Hotel Kempinski and shop at the famous department store KaDeWe, and sometimes I'd head to Checkpoint Charlie for a quick incursion into the East. (And hold my breath until I got back out.) And it never took long to get anywhere, because eventually you always ran into the Wall. Which we foreign correspondents knew would never come down in our lifetime.

Until -- shock -- it did, exactly 25 years ago today. Now it's all just one big, sprawling city, open and free and exhilarating, construction booming and change all over the place.

What used to be Checkpoint Charlie is a circus. Tourists are stream in and out of souvenir shops surrounding the little booth that stands on the spot where American MPs used to check papers of those crossing into East Berlin. It's not real -- just a replica of the original guard booth that stood here in 1961, when the Wall first went up. It comes complete with a stack of sandbags, a copy of the original sign ominously warning "You are leaving the American sector" (the real one's in the nearby House at Checkpoint Charlie museum) and actors in military uniform who'll gladly pose for a photo with you. The laminated sheets dangling from their waists let you know it'll cost you "2 euro; 3 $U.S." Sheesh.

There's an air of revelry all along Zimmerstrasse approaching the checkpoint intersection. "Curry at the Wall" shouts a big sign topped by a bear holding up a giant sausage, advertising the city's signature street food, currywurst (sausage covered in curry-infused ketchup). As we pass the Trabant museum, a couple of the little rattletrap East German cars, painted in kooky neon patterns, come tootling down the road. They're back from a tour, the drivers going honk, honk on the tinny horns and waving like celebrities. It's capitalism with a capital C.

THE WALL THAT WAS

"If we didn't have the Wall and the TV tower and the Brandenburg Gate, there'd be no tourism in Berlin," says Frank Barleben, pedaling us in his velotaxi down to the East Side Gallery (a preserved section of Wall, this one covered in artists' murals). He gives me a wink. "Do you think Walter Ulbricht" -- the East German president who ordered up the Wall in 1961 -- "thought of that?"

No, I bet he did not. Nor do I imagine that he imagined a museum of East German motorcycles. And a store that sells East German products (scratchy dish towels, anyone?). And the interactive DDR Museum -- Deutsche Demokratische Republik was the official German name for East Germany -- is jampacked when we visit.

The mood is different at Hohenschönhausen, a former remand prison far in the depths of the east. The walled-in redbrick prison complex in a tree-lined residential neighborhood was where dissidents and other political prisoners were brought to confess to their "crimes" before being formally tried or expelled from the country. Back in the day, says our guide, Björn, it didn't appear on any maps, and the shoe box houses all around it were occupied by Stasi agents and their families. So no Nosy Parkers would sniff around, inquiring about what went on behind that wall.

The complex had a role in the 2006 movie "The Lives of Others." But this was no movie. The whole place is creepy, especially on this gloomy, rainy day, with the windowless cells in the basement, and the antiseptic halls up above, and the metal doors with their peepholes and the cramped, caged outdoor cells where the prisoners took their "exercise." There's nothing interactive or theme-park here. It's just the real thing, chilling in its drabness.

"It's like sitting on top of history." This is my husband on our dining choice for the evening -- the restaurant on the roof of the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

It's historic, all right -- the Reichstag, not the restaurant. The Nazis are famously believed to have burned it in 1933, then blamed the communists and other "troublemakers" so that they could consolidate power. In 1945, it was seized by the occupying Soviet troops, who planted their flag on the ruined roof. After the Wall went up, just yards away, it sort of sat there, just an occasionally used West Berlin event and exhibit space. But when the Wall fell, it was the scene of joyous, triumphal celebration.

ON TOP OF THE PAST

And now it's back, a glitzy contemporary restaurant, serving fine food with panoramic views of Berlin. Even better is an observation area at the top of the glass dome that now crowns the building. That dome's a big attraction; people are snaking their way up and down the ramps to the top.

We've spent most of this day in my old Berlin stamping grounds, now known as City West, doing all the things I used to do -- shopping at KaDeWe, lunching at the Kempinski (now Kempinski Bristol), strolling the Kurfürstendamm. What a thrill to walk right through the Brandenburg Gate, from former West to former East, just like that. That whole East-West thing? So 25 years ago.

Though perhaps not quite erased yet. The next day, we're walking down the Friedrichstrasse and pass a young twenty-something couple on bikes consulting a street map on a corner.

"Oh," says the young man. "We were in the West." He sounds confused. "But it looked like the East." You're getting there, Berlin. Maybe just another 25 years.

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