Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beautiful Berlin

I don't know about you, but the minute we decided to buy a house my life became all about scrimping and saving. All of a sudden, I was watching every penny and really felt like I couldn't bear to part with a single cent/pence – or I was hunting down every deal or bargain. So when The Irishman had to buy a printer and some ink cartridges for his old job and they came with a promotion of free flights with proof of purchase, we became those people who were like "hey, what a great deal!" We ended up with 2 flights to Berlin for a long weekend, and only had to pay for the taxes – £50 per person – and got excited about a quick little holiday for not a lot of cash.

Of course, by the time you add up the cost of the hotel, the taxi to and from the airport, and all of the other travel related expenses, it's not as if we saved any cash. But we did get the most amazing trip to an awesome city that neither of us had ever visited.

Unlike other cities in Europe, Berlin hides its touristy bits well. Obviously there are the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, both of which are mobbed with actors dressed in WWII era army uniforms who will let you get your photo taken with them for a price. But other notable spots of interest are nestled in and amongst regular neighborhoods where citizens carry on life as normal.

For instance, the Berlin Wall Memorial is a really tasteful explanation of just how crazily the city was divided in half. It explained how the wall was constructed, how it was policed, and along the footprint of the wall showed where crossings were averted. There was a memorial to people who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West Berlin, and remnants of the wall covered with graffiti. There is also an education centre with films and interpretation around the divided era of Berlin.

Around Berlin, more sections of remaining wall are displayed with overt anti-dictator and pro-peace messages. It really feels like the city has taken the lessons of the Cold War to heart and is itself one big advocate for tolerance. That message also comes across loud and clear in one of Berlin's most iconic museums, The Jewish Museum designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. It's an aggressive, severe, intense building that gives visitors a journey that echoes that of the Jewish diaspora. It's worth a visit even if you don't stay long, and I found the interpretation to be riveting.

In addition to The Jewish Museum, helpfully there is an island in the middle of the Rhine that is home to most of the state collections. One of the museums on the island is called the Neues Museum and its recent renovation won a lot of awards for how it retained a lot of the original building while still creating a new, modern space. We didn't do any of the art museums in Berlin, as we were only there for three days, but a tip for fellow travellers is to book online to avoid the rather long queues for tickets.

The big elephant in the room in Berlin is the experience of Jews and other ethnic minorities who were persecuted during World War II. There are several sensitive memorials and places of rememberance around the city, which respectfully acknowledge past sins.

One of the best things we did was visit the dome in the Reichstag. Designed by Norman Foster, it's open to the elements and provides an amazing 360° view of the capital. It's free to visit, but you have to book in advance and provide photo ID to access the roof.

Berlin is not just known for its epic history, though. This is a living, breathing city of artists and creative innovators – a testing ground for new and exciting self-expression. This spirit is evident in the street art, posters, and general tone of the city – if it's done in Berlin, it's done with a unique and sophisticated take on what's expected. The fashion in particular is amazing and it was hard for me to keep my wallet in my handbag.

And then there was the food. Glorious German cooking! To be honest, there was more ethnic food in Berlin than I thought; more Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Italian and French restaurants than traditional German places. But we did manage to have an amazing meal at Alpenstueck, a really highly recommended restaurant serving traditional German food from the Alpine region. And we also made a point to travel to what is considered the best currywurst join in town, Curry36.

Because we ate so much meat, and not many vegetables, I was shockingly too full for the lovely patisserie on offer in Berlin's bakeries. I was actually pretty upset to not be able to eat more of these.

Finally, the wine. German wine. I wasn't really looking forward to it, because I think of German wine as sweet whites like Rieslings. But there are whole other winemaking regions in Germany producing wines that I'd never heard of like my favorite the Spätburgunder. It's a pinot noir which means it's a lighter red but more spicy than sweet. Love. We bought a bottle at the airport that, if it's even half as good as the one below, I look forward to drinking soon.
So all in all, Berlin was amazing and the perfect place to run off to for a whirlwind visit. It may even be up there on the same level with Paris and New York as my favorite cities in the world (besides London of course). I'm already planning all of the things I want to do in my next visit, which means I'll probably be back sooner rather than later. See you soon, Berliners!

If you go:
All major airlines and many budget carriers fly to Berlin, which has two airports: the older, more austere Schönfeld or the newer, more modern, Tegel. A third airport, Brandenburg, will be opening in late 2013 and replace both existing airports as Berlin's travel hub. The super efficient U-Bahn subway runs from Schönfeld Airport, and you can buy a day pass that allows unlimited travel including to/from the airport for €7 per day. Note of caution: most of the ticket machines don't take Visa or Mastercard, and only accept bills under €50. Hotels are numerous and rather inexpensive; we stayed in the Hotel Weinmeister in the heart of Mitte for £80 per night. The city itself is small and compact in the center, so you don't really need much in the way of transport, although there is a public bike hire network and taxis seemed plentiful.

1 comment:

  1. I love Berlin!! Such a great city and need to visit again soon.