I’ve decided to split this entry into two parts. Part I shares some general thoughts about the city, recalls our experiences of its nightlife and covers our alternative tour and the carnival of culture.
Although a sizable chunk of my fellow Brits might disagree, I’ve always been happy to think of myself as a European and I consider myself fortunate to live in Europe. One of the best things about it from my perspective is that, on a continent the size of some larger countries elsewhere in the world, you have myriad cultures, peoples, languages and cuisines all on your doorstep. In the age of budget air travel, I can immerse myself in a different world for the price of an affordable ticket on a short flight (even if that does mean flying with Ryanair every now and then). Even a weekend away in a new country is a viable option.
And so it is that I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Berlin for a friend’s 30th, my first ever visit to Germany – another new country ticked off with relative ease thanks to an admittedly cramped flight with Ryanair from Dublin. Whether I’d have chosen Berlin as my next foreign travel experience is a moot point – that was the birthday boy’s call. But I’m glad I went, because it’s a truly brilliant city.
Living in Belfast, and having been raised in northern England, it’s a fair bet that, wherever I go, and for whatever reason I go there, in the back of my mind I’ll hope to be blessed with good weather – at least outside of the year’s colder months. Regardless of where you go, a bit of sunshine can bring a place to life and you often see places at their best under azure skies. Of course, nobody goes to Berlin for the weather, but we certainly got lucky. With temperatures reaching the mid-twenties centigrade, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions in which to explore the city. Although I did receive a pink and ever-so-slightly painful reminder that I am in fact losing my hair.
At first glance, Berlin is not a particularly beautiful city. Much of it is boxy and functional and dominated by incongruous apartment buildings. But it does have its hidden and not-so-hidden gems. But what we came to love about Berlin was not, as in, say, Rome, the breathtaking majesty of the place, but rather, its open, inclusive, tolerant and fun-loving air. Its restaurant and bar scene could take weeks to truly explore. We managed to find everything from high-end dining experiences to convenient street food – and I have to say that, not for the first time, I found kebabs that put my home country’s to shame, a legacy of the city’s large Turkish population.
Bar-wise, Berlin has everything, as you’d expected from a large and cosmopolitan capital city. It has cosy places to have a drink and a chat; sports bars for the so-inclined; more upmarket and stylish hangouts and lively establishments open into the night and the next morning. We found that the outside of a bar was no indication as to the atmosphere inside – and several times we were surprised by what we found on entering. Some of the best memories I have from my travels so far include stumbling on somewhere less used to tourists, full of locals having a really good time – and it seems Berliners of all ages know how to let their hair down. We came away especially fond of Gainsbourg bar, which we happened upon on our final night, tucked away under a railway bridge and emitting vaguely party-like bright colours into the dimly-lit street outside that made us somewhat curious. What started out as a quiet drink ended up becoming one of our fondest memories of Berlin as we watched a local band perform long into the early hours in what appeared to be some kind of private function. We never managed to ascertain exactly what was going on – was it a birthday party or a leaving bash or just what they do there? – but not one person suggested we might consider moving and, when it was time for us to go (about 3am and with the festivities still in full swing), the bar staff were sure to call us a taxi without us having to ask. It’s the kind of gesture that leaves a positive impression and reminds you why you travel. Gainsbourg is in the trendy Savignyplatz area on a narrow-ish street between Grolmanstraße and Uhlandstraße, and you’re sure of a warm welcome.
But there’s more to Berlin than bars, of course. It’s also a city to see and to do things in. We began our adventure with a rather unique walking tour of the city focusing not on the obvious points of historical interest, but on what the organisers call the ‘real’ Berlin. This was a brilliant way to see aspects of life in the city that you otherwise would not get. Without doubt, such a tour would not be to everyone’s taste, and at four hours long, you need comfortable shoes! But we found it compelling. We were introduced to Berlin’s underground and alternative street art scene (graffiti, if you insist) in Prenzlauerberg, to the creative spaces near Hackescher Markt (where I also tasted my first currywurst), and to the more down-at-heel Kreusberg district. A long the way we learned about the history of the districts and were given an insight into the alternative living communities that are a feature of modern-day Berlin. I was fascinated in particular by the former Russian army vehicles that have been turned into permanent homes.
We also touched on the city’s darker history, including a site connected to the Night of the Long Knives which has been turned into an attractive public space with children’s play area. It’s a stark thought to contrast the playful din of boisterous children with the elimination of Hitler’s political enemies and adjudged threats to his regime in the most brutal fashion. Urban renewal also plays a major part of the tour and is far more visible in Prenzlauerberg than it is in Kreusberg. Indeed, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable Scottish guide informed us that the latter would have been off-limits to us only fifteen years ago, and that it is still the scene of sometimes violent protests. On a lighter note, our tour concluded with an entirely unscheduled but also unavoidable meander through the city’s annual counter-cultural carnival, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to admit to being a little unnerved at having to force my way through a throng of anti-capitalistic black-clad German punks in my middle-class British attire on my rather mainstream European holiday. But there was nothing to worry about. The tour ended, perhaps rather predictably, at a bar – but not just any bar. Berlin might not be by the sea, but they like a beach bar. We stopped by the river at YAAM – a Rastafarian and Caribbean style setting with stalls selling Jamaican dishes and, most importantly after a long tour in the warm sun, plenty of beer to go round.
If Berlin is a city that knows how to have a good time, then we had our best time at the Carnival of Culture. Under a blazing late-May sun, up to a million people piled into Blucherplatz for a celebration of culture from all around the world, expressed through music, art and, most importantly, food. I’ve never seen so many stalls in one place. I suspect we caught only a fraction of what the day had to offer as we soaked up the life-affirming atmosphere, kept ourselves hydrated with beers served in actual glasses (you pay a deposit which you get back if you return the glass) and sampled a variety of food from around the world. The undoubted favourite was the salmon cooked over an open flame and served in a bread roll with a choice of sauces. Simple, but heavenly. The carnival is an annual event that makes this time of year the absolute right time to be in Berlin. It’s almost impossible to convey how fortunate we feel that our time in the city coincided with the carnival, and that the weather chose to be so kind to us. That magnificent day is now a week away, and no thought gives me stronger holiday blues than that one.
Part II focuses on sightseeing, including the city’s most famous landmarks.