Reaching the grand old age of 21, I decided it was time to take a trip which demonstrated my maturity and interest in all things cultural (and I also wanted to get really rat-arsed on a bar crawl). Continuing the holiday theme of 2016 which seems to be top cities in Europe (see my previous blog post looking at Lisbon), I set off with six of my best friends to Berlin for a few days of jam-packed sight-seeing and alcohol-fuelled nights.
As my last trip was so successful using Air B&B, we plumped for the site again and stayed in Anna’s lovely apartment in Mitte. Wanting to be right in the heart of things (Mitte translates to ‘centre’), we knew that Mitte was our best option and we were well located. However, we definitely underestimated how sprawling this city is – and how hidden some of its best spots are! If you decide to try and take on the city, be prepared to use the metro… a lot. Being an avid walker and relatively experienced when it comes to other European cities (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lisbon…), I optimistically thought that a good deal of the sight-seeing could be covered on foot. Whilst the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Jewish memorial and Berlin’s park were all in the same area, many other parts of the city could realistically only be reached by the metro – unless you plan to pull a Jesus and walk forty days and nights to reach the East Side Gallery. There is the option to get a 24, 48 or 72 hour metro pass but we realised that dependent on the zones you want to cover, it worked out cheaper to go day by day.
Slightly undermining what I’ve just said, on our first day we went on a free walking tour which was definitely the best way to hit the main historic sites in Berlin. Our tour guide was wonderfully comprehensive (my friend is a history student specialising in German history, so she was able to check his facts) and within a couple of hours we had already been shown the iconic parts of Berlin. The Brandenburg gate is as magical as its pictures but for the full experience you should visit at night. The soft, orange low lighting majestically illuminates Victoria in her chariot on top of the gate and makes for great pictures. The Reichstag too is impressive, its dark impressive exterior and large German flags making it quite an imposing image (the rainy weather probably added to this). German architecture, in general, proved to be a real eye opener. Due to the large division of wealth between East and West Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall, huge reconstruction and building work is happening in the eastern part of the city. You can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without coming across a piece of scaffolding or a crane. In this respect, the city can’t exactly be called beautiful.
It is, however, very honest. The Topography of Terror – a museum recounting in depth the persecution of groups during the Nazi regime – objectively described the horrors which took place in this city, taking its visitors on a painful journey of discovery. The shocking images, documents and accounts on display brought the history to life in a way that put my history textbook during GCSEs to shame. For a more moving experience, the Jewish and Holocaust memorials (right next to each other, with the Holocaust memorial being below ground) must be visited. As I walked through the Jewish memorial, with the huge concrete blocks growing larger and my surroundings more maze-like, I gained a sense of what the artist was trying to achieve. Pictures really don’t do it justice. Whether you interpreted his work as a journey through the gas chambers, placing you in the position of a Jewish prisoner, the blocks symbolising the oppressive officers, or they became the faceless graves of those who lost their lives (the artist chose a random number of blocks, perhaps to indicate the unknown number of those destroyed by the regime), the memorial was powerfully emotional for everyone who walked through it. The Holocaust memorial too had a disturbing effect. Split into five sections, from timeline, to final words of victims, personal family stories, accounts in the concentration camps and, most upsetting of all, a room listing the names of all those recorded dead because of the regime (it would take seven years to sit and listen to all of them said aloud), my group left with tears in our eyes.
The Concert House was also really spectacular. Two of my friends are classical music buffs so it was a must-see on our trip but even if you don’t know your Wagner from your Chopin, it is worth a visit just so you can climb the red carpet to the top and look over the square. A little further from the centre, we visited the East Side Gallery and the amazing graffiti still intact on part of the Berlin Wall. Although some more recent (and less artistic) graffiti has been slapped on top of this wonderfully, expressive work, efforts are being made to clear it up (sadly metal fences currently shut off certain parts of the wall). We were headed straight for ‘The Kiss’ and it didn’t disappoint. We immediately knew its location because of the group of eager tourists clustered around, desperately trying to push themselves to the front of the crowd so that they could be the next to take a selfie with the wall. I had my moment when me and a friend staged our own little recreation. It is difficult cramming in the whole of Berlin in three days and when I return, I’m going to spend more time in this area, looking at the art work for the entire stretch. On the day we showed up – Easter weekend – an impromptu party had sprung up along the river front, with beers flowing and music wafting through the air. And this is the other side to Berlin. Whilst there is so much history to explore and attractions to visit – from the obligatory picture at Checkpoint Charlie to the jumping shot in front of the Brandenburg gate – it is worth spending some time in the districts a little further from the city. I’ve heard that Kreuzberg is great for traditional food and Friedrichshain should be visited for some nice bars – again, we didn’t have time to cover them!
Of course, as this was a girls trip abroad to celebrate my 21st, nightlife has to feature somewhere. Although you have a map and plenty of signs to direct you to the main tourist sites, finding the nightlife hot spots proves a little trickier. So much is hidden: from underground clubs to ‘in-the-know’ ways of getting into the exclusive clubs. If you’re planning a trip to Berlin, chances are you’ve heard of Berghain (we were googling ways to get past Sven the bouncer before we arrived). It’s only open on a Saturday (the day we left), however, if you aren’t fortunate enough to get beyond its doors, there are plenty of other places to try out. My favourite club was Matrix, near both Watergate and Berghain, and hidden beneath the bridge next to the metro. It is surrounded by no other bars and it was quite the victory when we found it after searching for something ‘happening’ for over an hour. The music was great – a remix of commercial music with a heavy baseline. The two predominant styles are techno and hip-hop in Berlin, but this club is proof that there is something for everyone. Mein Haus am See is a great little bar with more of a club atmosphere downstairs and it can be found by catching the metro to Rosenthaler Platz. You can have a dance or just relax in some of the spectator seats next to the edgy bookshelves lining the walls. And of course, no trip to a capital city in Europe would be complete without the notorious bar crawl. Sadly, however, despite what I had heard, this didn’t live up to expectations. Yes, I had to expect the grotesquely drunken Englishmen on their stag-dos, and the feeling of being shepherded like a five year old. But unlike, for example, the red light district bar crawl in Amsterdam, there was no sense of mingling within the group. Perhaps some body shots would have helped.
As my last post would suggest, I am a HUGE foodie and was excited to sample the Berliners’ cuisine. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much beyond bratwurst and currywurst – both dishes being the same but the latter with a strange, unknown curry sauce on top. I felt like a true German but I don’t know if I can enthuse about currywurst in the same way that I lusted over the cheese platters in Lisbon. Perhaps Bavarian dishes just aren’t my cup of tea. One thing is for sure, currywurst or not, I will be returning to Berlin. This time ready to tackle Sven.
There are no words…