Sunday, 3 June 2012

48 hours in Berlin

I've just got back from a wonderful weekend in Berlin, possibly my favourite European capital. The city's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once said that Berlin is 'poor, but sexy,' and you'll find that it is possible to spend time in Berlin without doing quite as much damage to your bank balance as you might in, say, Paris, London or Rome. Hostels and hotels have risen in price over the last few years but cheap restaurants and bars can happily still be found, and the city is full of unusual, quirky places to visit. One of the most interesting things about this vibrant city is that its history is so recent - 23 years ago, the East and West were still divided by the Wall, and this makes everything seem much more tangible than in Paris, for example, where the Storming of the Bastille seems far removed from daily life.

An ideal first-day activity for newcomers to Berlin is a walking tour to orient yourself and learn all about the history of the city from its origins as a toll post on the river Spree through countless wars, the Roaring Twenties, division and reunification to its present form as the capital of Europe's most populous country, well known for its night-life and arty cinema scene. A company called Sandemans offers free guided walking tour of Berlin in English, and this is an excellent opportunity for anyone on a strict budget to familiarise themselves with the city with anecdotes and tips given by a local resident. We took the tour as we were there with friends who had never visited Berlin before, and were shown around by Taylor, an ex-pat from Australia who did an admirable job of keeping us all together, showing us around the main highlights of Berlin from the Brandenburg Gate to Museumsinsel, and getting through a summary of the entire history of Berlin in about 7 minutes - impressive! The tour has just the right tone - informative yet not too formal, with plenty of time for taking photos and asking questions, and is the ideal way to tick the tourist sights off your list. Even if you've already visited Berlin a few times, as I have, I never tire of seeing historic sites like the Reichstag, Gendarmenmarkt and the Berliner Dom, and the still-tangible history is so fascinating I could probably listen to the tour several times in a row without getting bored! Plenty of food for thought is provided as the tour passes through the immense and extremely moving Holocaust Memorial by the Brandenburg Gate and a great deal of time is dedicated to explaining what the city of Berlin has been through over the years. The tour is free, and tips at the end are optional, but after 3 and a half hours of hard work, we thought our guide more than deserved a little thank-you.

On this visit we booked our hotel at the last minute when most hotels and hostels in Berlin had already been booked up, and ended up at the Hotel Pension Margrit which cost 40 € for a double room per night. More of a B&B than a hotel really, the Margrit is located in Wilmersdorf. The location is not one I would have gone for had we not been booking so last-minute, but we were well connected by S- and U-Bahn, near the S-Bahn station Charlottenburg, and the room, although decorated in a rather old-school fashion, was sweet and well-equipped with everything you could need (apart from a hairdryer). Bizarrely though, the shower cubicle was not in a separate room but rather plonked in the corner of the room, so there was some damp on the ceiling due to lack of aeration for the shower. If you're sharing with someone you'd rather not see naked, you also might have to take turns waiting in the corridor while the other takes a shower, as there's nowhere to hide! The hotel did represent excellent value for money as it had free WiFi (which we didn't actually use as we hardly spent any time there!) and a breakfast buffet included in the price, which was so extensive that on Saturday, after a breakfast at 9am, I was sufficiently full up for the rest of the day that we didn't need to eat again until about 6pm! I do enjoy a lovely German breakfast buffet with a full selection of Wurst (sausage or cold luncheon meat), Brötchen (fresh bread rolls), Käse (cheese) and Eier (eggs).

During the weekend we also went to visit the East Side Gallery along the river (metro stop: Ostbahnhof), which is a long stretch of the Berlin Wall, one of the few remaining stretched still standing today. In 1990 it was decorated by various artists with bright, colourful murals, often on the themes of freedom, respect and tolerance, such as the example above. The open air 'gallery' is completely free, and wandering along its length is an interesting way to spend the afternoon. Beforehand we popped into the 'Eastern Comfort' Hostel which is situated on a boat moored to the banks of the Spree by Ostbahnhof. Neighboured by an almost identical 'Western Comfort' boat, the Eastern Comfort is a youth hostel and bar, so we stopped here for a coffee and to shelter from the rain before checking out the East Side Gallery, and were rewarded with great views of the river and that rocking sensation which must be rather soothing and sleep-inducing to anyone staying in the hostel.

At the other end of the East Side Gallery, we decided to stop at Yaam's, a little slice of the Caribbean in the heart of East Berlin. The area is a river-side beach and contains a football pitch, DJ booth, beach bar, deckchairs, hammocks, a volleyball net, basketball courts and several snack stands selling delicious African and Caribbean dishes such as fried plantains and domoda, an extremely tasty kind of stew made from peanut butter. During the day, when we were there, the place had a laid-back vibe perfect for chilling in the sun, and apparently festivals, club nights and gigs are held there on occasions, which I'm sure would be worth their while.

As we also wanted to experience some of Berlin's more classical cultural attractions, we paid a visit to the Pergamon Museum, which almost everyone you ask will tell you is the must-see museum out of the four main ones on Museumsinsel (Altes, Neues, Bode and Pergamon). The highlights of the exhibits included the awe-inspiring Pergamon Altar which was discovered in Turkey by German archaeologists in the 19th century. Pergamon was an Ancient Greek city in Asia Minor and later became part of the Roman empire. The entire altar, an enormous construction, is on display here (minus a few missing chunks, but astonishingly intact in most places nonetheless) and depicts a battle of the gods against the giants in breathtaking detail. Further along you will also come to the Gate of Ishtar which was the gateway to one of the main walkways in the ancient city of Babylon, exotically decorated with blue tiles and mythical and real creatures. The museum is well worth a visit but you should definitely devote at least 3 hours to really explore all of its floors, which also include the Museum of Islamic Art.

Berlin is famous for its nightlife, and we spent Saturday night in the up-and-coming district of Kreuzberg, which, as every good guidebook will tell you, is the heart of  'underground Berlin.' Of course, once all the guidebooks start sending tourists to the top secret places, they instantly become uncool for locals... it's a vicious circle! We enjoyed our night in Kreuzberg, however, and it's certainly not just tourists who hang out here - not yet anyway! The area around Hermannplatz has some interesting bars, and drink prices are definitely budget-friendly - we were drinking bottles of Hamburg beer Astra for 2,10 € a pop.

So check out Berlin - you're sure not to be disappointed. And if you've already been, go back and delve a little deeper - explore one of the neighbourhoods away from the tourist centre and try to get to know the real Berlin if you can. The city is at its most beautiful in the summer sun (aren't all cities?) but as there are so many great museums and galleries to check out, rain doesn't need to completely spoil your plans. The Hamburger Bahnhof is a contemporary art gallery that I also thoroughly recommend, and a visit to the top of the government building is the perfect way to get a stunning panorama of the capital and discover more about the history of Berlin. What's more, the tour is free, as long as you book it in advance online (you have to register and submit your passport details for security reasons - but the hassle is well worth it as the visit is fascinating and offers spectacular views). Also check out the flea markets in Prenzlauer Berg or Mauerpark to the north on a Sunday afternoon. This lively yet relaxing, funky yet kitsch, historic yet modern city has something for everyone, and in my humble opinion is one of the most worthwhile capitals to visit in Europe.