Tag Archives: berlin

I Love Berlin: Part II

Fernsehturm Berlin (or Berlin TV Tower) seen from Museum Island.

Fernsehturm Berlin (or Berlin TV Tower) seen from Museum Island.

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A broad statement it may be, but isn’t history fascinating? I was quite good at it at school, and nowadays it plays a huge part in why I travel. As I’ve eluded to elsewhere, I enjoy any opportunity to get under the skin of Northern Ireland’s past when I can, though I acknowledge it remains a very painful part of the present here, too. The things is, I’m not actually that brilliant at history – well, not at pre-1945 history, anyway. I’m no good at dates and even placing events or artifacts in their relevant time periods is not my strong point. But I like museums and Berlin’s Museum Island I really like. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Berlin’s Spree river, there are five museums on the island and I’m pretty sure an enthusiast could spend a whole day exploring them all. Maybe even more than that.

Alas, we had nowhere near that long. City breaks are all well and good, but in actual fact, how often do you come away thinking you wish you’d have had more time? With a shedload of sightseeing still to do, we plumped for the Pergamon Museum, dedicated to reconstructions of significant buildings from various time periods and civilisations, as well as Islamic art. It was the latter that especially caught my eye. But I’d be lying if I said I fully understood everything I was seeing. And this is the flaw in the city break – the museum does everything it can to inform its visitors through information next to each exhibit and headsets to guide you through, but if you don’t have time to absorb it all properly and take it all in, you’ll never get everything you can out of it. Museum Island is a world of culture and of history so if this your thing, make sure you have plenty of time to indulge in it because you’ll need it.

From the viewing area in the TV Tower.

From the viewing area in the TV Tower.

Leaving the culture to one side briefly, no trip to Berlin is complete without ascending the 203m to the viewing floor of the Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. Built in the 1960s by the German Democratic Republic, this is the tallest building in Germany and apparently the tallest in the European Union as well. The lift climbs from Alexanderplatz to the top in about 40 seconds and has a viewing window in the roof so you can take in the mechanics of your ascent (and subsequent descent) should you wish to. The views from the top are as magnificent as you’d expect, though in one sense they do bring home the fact that Berlin is not always the most aesthetically pleasing city. We were also a little let down by the haze that rolled in while we were there which obscured the distance to some extent, but even on a cloudy day, it’s a view not to be missed. It has a revolving restaurant too, if you like to combine your dining with steady rotation.

Confused, we found the back of the Brandenburg Gate well before we found the front...

Confused, we found the back of the Brandenburg Gate well before we found the front…

Visible from the Fernsehturm, but considerably more impressive close up, is another iconic symbol of the city – probably the best-known of Berlin’s sights and equivalent to, say, London’s Big Ben or Paris’s Eiffel Tower – is the Brandenburg Gate. This stunning triumphal arch buzzes with tourist activity as everyone tries to make sure they can tick it off their list. We got so excited when we arrived that we got more pictures of the rear than the front. Not that any of our pictures of the front turned out that well – my iPhone was no match for the glare of the sun. I couldn’t help reflect, as the German afternoon sun toasted parts of my scalp I didn’t know were exposed, was how hassle-free Berlin’s heavily-touristed areas are. I have no idea if this is the norm, but you rarely feel corralled or overly-crammed in anywhere, and you’re mostly left alone to go about your business. It’s not that I don’t crave hustle and bustle or enjoy mixing with the locals, but it’s great not to feel like you could be alleviated of the contents of your pockets at any moment. Or is that when they get you? Anyway, the Brandenburg Gate, done.

Checkpoint Charlie, not exactly as it was during the Cold War.

Checkpoint Charlie, not exactly as it was during the Cold War.

One of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall.

One of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall.

Returning to the theme of history, I want to talk about a particular kiosk in the middle of the street. I imagine Checkpoint Charlie would underwhelm those without an interest in 20th century history. In a literal sense, it really is just an off-white shack flanked by a museum and a McDonald’s. But of course it’s so much more than that. The original building is now in a museum, but I don’t think it takes away from the feel of the place that the current structure is a copy, anymore than the presence of the Golden Arches might extract from it. Places of great historical significance have a strange effect on me. Mostly, I feel a sense of privilege at being lucky enough to see them. At Checkpoint Charlie, I tried my hardest to imagine what it once would have been like. Surrounded by tourists and with the blaring sound of car stereos and modified engines from a Turkish wedding procession in nearby Kreuzberg ringing in our ears, it wasn’t easy. But it was a worthwhile visit. I loved being at Checkpoint Charlie, just to be able to say I was there. Of similar significance are the remaining pieces of the former Berlin Wall that still stand today. There’s nothing overtly remarkable about them, but they scream history. In places, bricks built into the street below your feet mark where the wall once would have run. Nothing I experienced in Berlin struck me more than the ease of which one can criss-cross these non-descript lines as if they weren’t there, because of course there isn’t really anything there. But there used to be – and you crossed it at your peril.

Pratergarten - I wish there were more places like this in the world.

Pratergarten – I wish there were more places like this in the world.

Also of a degree of local historical significance is Pratergarten, the city’s oldest beer garden and a wonderful place to spend a few hours in the evening, especially when the weather is on your side. But perhaps ‘beer garden’ is too modest a moniker. It’s far bigger than your average British beer garden, with a restaurant at one end and, at the other, stalls selling, well, beer.. but also simple German snack food such as pretzels and various forms of sausage. The atmosphere here is truly special and a visit to Pratergarten should be considered an essential part of any Berlin itinerary. If I could, I’d move it to Belfast.

I returned to Northern Ireland with the usual heavy heart of the enthusiastic traveller. I missed the buzz of the place, and I missed the weather! I missed the people we met, however briefly, who treated us with kindness and went the extra mile to be of assistance. You really do leave little pieces of yourself in the places you visit, and there’s a bit of me left behind in Berlin, probably waiting for the Carnival of Culture to come back around. I also miss my friends, who made it a special few days. I love Berlin, I really do.

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I love Berlin: Part I

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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.

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  YAAM Beach Bar – Berlin as a number of ‘beach bars’ that have sprung up in recent years.

Berlin's creative and artistic scene is thriving.

Berlin’s creative and artistic scene is thriving.

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.

A monument to Berlin's firefighters in Kreusberg.

A monument to Berlin’s firefighters in Kreusberg.

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.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Doesn't do justice to how delicious this was.

Doesn’t do justice to how delicious this was.

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.