Our flight to Berlin was much nicer than the flight to Barcelona as far as the actual plane interior and comfort level, but the EasyJet attendants liked to talk a lot more, promoting other EasyJet flights and such. Once again, I guess that’s the price you pay for low-cost. We arrived earlier than expected, around 13,00 on Monday the 25 February. From the airport we took the S-Bahn, the Berlin metro/train system, to arrive at our hostel. As soon as we stepped off the platform we found THIS…
For under €2, Sara and I each bought a bratwurst sandwich. It’s like the meatiest, sausage-y hot dog you’ve ever had, and mine also had either cheese inside or a cheese flavor. Unfortunately I don’t remember the German word for cheese anymore, but boy did we enjoy these! We came back and had them for dinner another night, we liked them so much. Apparently train-station food is very popular and not only cheap but good in Berlin. Just not the Crepes.
After finishing our bratwurst, we checked into our hostel, dropped our stuff off, and set out to explore the city. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems in Berlin are very efficient but highly confusing. There is a “ring” which goes around the center, which you take either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Intuitive, right? Then there are tons of other lines which are numbered and travel in the direction of the last station, covering a ton of ground and departing every few minutes. Also intuitive. But in conjunction, and with all-German signage, directions, platform names, and a particular line which goes for one stop and then reverses itself to the station you had just come from… it’s a bit of a trick. However, it only costs about a Euro each way and once we had gotten used to the little nuances (we only got reversed once, and after that we always paid close attention to what other passengers were doing) we could get where we wanted to go fairly easily. I accumulated at least 10 metro tickets during our 3-day visit.
For our first dinner in Berlin, we did as the tourists do. We paid the €9.50 to go up inside the TV Tower and then ate dinner there.
The tower rotates so we got some nice 360° views of the city at night, while eating some delicious meat and potatoes. Mmmm.
After dinner we went to a bar recommended by a girl on the plane who lives in Berlin, called Zapata. It was also in our guidebook and it said the place was saved by squatters in 1990. It was pretty grungy/funky inside. I actually couldn’t find the bathroom at first because the doors were so covered by posters and graffiti. More later.
On our way home that night, I noticed a girl wearing killer boots and a corset outside her jacket. “What an interesting fashion statement,” I thought out loud to Sara. And then we saw another young woman dressed similarly. And another. On every corner. Apparently prostitution is legal in Germany. I really did like the boots, though.
Speaking of boots, Sara and I also noticed this pair of fabulous green leather boots in one of the store windows. Ricardo something was the designer. I am glad the store wasn’t open because I would have whipped out my credit card in a second for them, and then I probably wouldn’t have had room in my small carry-on suitcase to bring them back to Rome with me. Sara and I saw them another night in a different Ricardo store, but again it was nighttime and it was closed – as so many stores are after dark. I think we both stared at them for a good five minutes each time. They came in red, too.
When we went home, we met our interesting roommates for the first time. The girl was American, named Chelsea if my memory serves me correctly, and her boyfriend (with whom we also shared our mixed, 4-person bedroom) was French, with really long dreadlocks and an interesting accent. The two of them had been living out of a hostel for 3 weeks because they had decided that they wanted to live in Berlin together and Chelsea was looking for a job while finishing her degree online. She was only 22. She had also been an au pair for a family in the United States and in France before meeting this guy and falling in love or something. And then running off to Berlin together with their 2 bass guitars which neither of them knew how to play. Needless to say we made good use of the lockers in our room for the next few days.
Around 11,00 the next morning, we met at a Starbucks near the Brandenburg Gate to go on a free tour, figuring it would be a good orientation.
We learned that the Quadriga, or chariot, on top of the gate has been changed slightly with the passage of history, as the gate itself has changed in meaning and purpose over time. Originally the goddess Eirene carried an olive branch as a symbol of peace when the gate was constructed following the Prussian victories in the late 1700's. Napoleon stole the statue and brought it to Paris in 1806. Now that it’s back, the goddess sits on top with her head turned towards the French Embassy in mockery. An iron cross with an eagle on top is now carried in her right hand, and her name has been changed to Victoria. This gate was also controlled by the Nazis and later marked the division between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
To the left of the Gate sits the Adlon Hotel. More recently recognized because of the Michael Jackson stunt which occurred there in 2002, in which he precariously held his baby over the fifth-floor balcony.
After some more history lessons and sightseeing, we made it to the longest-surviving portion of the Berlin Wall. The markings all over it are from a time just after the wall was “knocked down” where the Berlin government rented chisels to tourists so they could take home a piece of the wall. Ironically, there is now a wall around the wall to protect this memorial of the Cold War.
Some streets in Berlin have these double-layered brick pavers, which mark the former path of the Wall dividing East and West Berlin. It was windy, not straight. News to me.
We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was just completed in 2005. It was a very interesting experience to walk through this prominent memorial which carries no words and is open to personal interpretation. There is an information center underneath as well, but you have to visit to understand the memorial itself because words just can’t describe.
Here is the supposed site of one of Hitler’s bunkers, where he ultimately committed suicide with his mistress and comrades. Unmarked to avoid attention from neo-Nazis. A scary thought but they do still exist.
Checkpoint Charlie: truly a former site of one of the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall, now an enduring but phony tourist attraction. Have they really kept those sandbags there for the last 20 years?
Here is a beautiful church called the Französischer Dom that the French protestants built in 1701. Then the Germans built a nearly-identical Deutscher Dom directly opposite the same courtyard in 1708. This courtyard is called the Gendarmenmarkt and is supposedly one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
Nearby, we find Humboldt University, and a memorial to a Nazi book burning which took place in 1933. Props to Sara – I really like this picture she took because of the way the shadows came out, and the memorial couldn’t have been more clever. It’s located in the middle of an open courtyard, not too big, covered by a sheet of glass which you peer down into. Don’t you just feel the emptiness from the lacking education here??
The empty “bookshelves” appear on all four sides of the small room below, completely whitewashed and oh-so-desolate. I want to go down there and bring them some books, maybe throw down a carpet and armchair and keep them company for a while.
Berlin is poor. Fact. Here is the Berliner Dom which was fire damaged, hence the darkness. No, it’s not that old. Like many cathedrals, it also has a cross…but where? On the ground to the left. Apparently Berlin can’t afford to hoist the cross onto the top of the central dome where it belongs. Or maybe it just have the time. Or the interest. Maybe Berlin has bigger fish to fry. We shall see…
After hearing a story about how the Berlin Wall finally “fell,” we went to the nearby Pergamon Museum, where we saw some Babylonian art and other fun things at a deeply discounted student price. I love discounts! You can visit the museum’s website at www.smb.museum or www.museumsinsel-berlin.de.
That night, we went back to Zapata for a second time. This time it was the meeting spot for a Pub Crawl run by the same company as our free tour. The night started off with a keg in the backyard, then continued inside where we witnessed the fire-breathing (iron) dragon and met an Australian couple as well as several guys from Amsterdam and a few from the States including one who goes to BU named Nick. The Australians were named Kate and Scott and they were on their extended honeymoon throughout Europe but you never would have guessed it. Kate is a German teacher and Scott works in manufacturing; they are used to spending weeks apart when he goes on business and have developed an interesting sense of cohesiveness and friendliness with others.
The night included Nick retiring early to take his sick friend home, and ended in salsa dancing at a club called Matrix with one of the Amsterdam boys who was originally from Aruba but now teaches biology. Bizarre. When we left the club, it was so late that Sara and I had to take a taxi home but we only knew how to describe how to get there by Metro and in really terrible German accents. “Um, it’s near Ost-kre-uz?” (indicating metro map) “This is Ostkreuz.” “Okay maybe the other side of Ostkreuz.” Thank goodness the taxi driver was nice. Anyway we found our hostel “by eye” once we had arrived at our normal S-Bahn exit side, and the next night we remembered to write down our hostel’s address ahead of time.
Sara decided that she wanted to tour of one of the concentration camps, but I didn’t want to cry on my spring break. So we split up for the day.
I met some other travelers for an “Alternative” tour of Berlin outside a Starbucks under the TV Tower. More Starbucks – yay! I kinda needed it after the pub crawl.
I didn’t get pictures of the first few places we went because my camera was out of batteries. But our first stop was Zapata yet again. Rather, we visited the complex containing Café Zapata called Tacheles, which is actually a whole art community, and this time I learned the real story behind the squat. We even went upstairs to see some very interesting displays of modern art, and I signed a petition to help keep them around. Their website is www.tacheles.de.
After that, we saw some graffiti titled “50 Faces,” by a group of 5 artists who sprayed all around the bottom level of a building in a crime-ridden neighborhood. The artists hoped that if they created some uplifting graffiti in the area, it would make people happier and the overall conditions would improve. Well, it worked. Now the area is a nice residential place to walk around, and you definitely feel uplifted with all the colors and expressions of encouragement. Some of the faces are well-known, others local. For example, the Dali Lama. How could you not feel inspired with a neon-colored Dali Lama looking back at you?
For lunch, we ate “the best” kebob in Berlin from a random little street vendor that our tour guide Russell always visits, and also visited a thrift store whose entrance was tucked behind another vendor and upstairs.
At some point I bought new batteries and was able to take some pictures of the East Side Gallery, both the front and the back sides. This picture represents one of the more common escape stories from East Berlin, which we had heard on our tour the day before. From my recollection (and the story may vary depending on who tells it), this guy from West Berlin bought the lowest-to-the-ground car he could find, cut off the windshield and top half, then went into East Berlin, packed up his girlfriend and her mother, went up to the gate, told them to duck, hit the gas, and sped UNDER the gate at the checkpoint back into West Berlin and to safety.
Here are some pictures of the lesser-viewed back side of the East Side Gallery, which is always changing as new graffiti is done on top of old graffiti. According to Russell, one of these was no more than three days old at the time of our visit (he does the tours every day).
Walking in the distance are two adorable German girls from our tour group who invited me to speak German with them when I mentioned that I had German ancestry. I wish I could have taken them up on it.
Another interesting story. As we approached this church, Russell told us about how a Muslim guy built his home in the middle of No Man’s Land just after the Wall came down. This was the area where all the towers and white sand had been dividing one side from the other. The government came in and tried to take his house down in order to build a new highway, so the guy cemented all his belongings to the ground. Finally, this church in the distance pulled out some old deeds that said they owned the property, and told the government to bug off. Church Stands Up for Muslim Guy. Somehow that one missed the headlines in the States, but I found it really powerful.
Just behind the church, there is another squat.
And another. This one is in impending danger of being taken by the government. A government which can’t even afford to put a cross on top of its cathedral but wants to build a new shopping center and renovate a war-damaged palace.
Sweet ride parked outside the squat.
Location of raves in nice weather / summertime.
It's a long way down... to get there you need some skill or inside information. This is Berlin’s version of exclusivity.
Nearby, a recreational spot for nice weather. Complete with a movie projector, climbing wall, and skate park. Located right next to a crumbling, bomb-damaged warehouse thing which was intentionally left in ruins as a memorial to the suffering and pain of Berlin’s past. Everything else around it has been renovated or repurposed by the people.
It started to rain just as we were finishing up here, so we went inside the skate park. I think they claim to be Europe’s biggest. It stopped raining almost completely by the time we were done watching the skaters, which was really fortunate. Sara was not so lucky with the weather…
Shameless plug for the tour group (I am not affiliated, I just loved it that much): www.alternativeberlin.com.
Sara had gone to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with the same tour guide as we’d had the day before. She saw Kate, Scott, Nick, and some others, and said she didn’t end up crying but they all got rained on A LOT. Afterwards, she was tired, and while I was getting freshened up for the night I snapped this picture of her resting in our hostel. The duvet cover is the same as the one Arianna has in my Italian bedroom in Rome, hehe.
I also snapped this shot of my LITERALLY fresh squeezed juice, which I had bought at the airport in Barcelona. They actually take oranges and put them in the machine to be squeezed right in front of your eyes. Fast AND delicious! I love the Mediterranean. But I digress.
That night, our dinner at the New Zealand Café was the best! Amaaaazing burgers, and right next to our hostel. BEEFY! Oh yeah, and the fries were good too. Four stars.
Later, we attempted to find the King Kong Klub, but were unsuccessful. So we tried our second choice, Tresor nightclub. It was much easier to find (multi-level, old warehouse with a huge projection outside saying TRESOR). It was a nice gesture that the doorman let us in free and the coat check didn’t cost much and there were ample bathroom stalls and the atmosphere was, well… TRANCE. Not so much to Sara’s taste, or mine for that matter, but again we ended up meeting some guys from England and we felt too self-conscious to really dance so we just enjoyed the lounge area and watched the scene while conversing with the Englishmen.
Oh yeah, and the banks / ATMs were really tricky to find. Not only do we not speak a word of German, but the signage makes them look like an Ikea from the outside because of a picture with a red book inside a kitchen, which actually says something along the lines of “Finance” (Finanzen, and the other one says Kochen – everything ends in “en” in German, haha) but how would we know that? I guess Germans know what their own bank looks like, and recognize the Ṡ logo, but not us. We must have passed by them a million times, because once we had figured it out, I kept seeing them everywhere.
Anyway, the next morning we were off to Prague by train.
FYI: The New York Times published an article 10 days ago about Berlin’s street culture, from the perspective of, well, New York. Check it out if interested here.