Travel Writing: Big, Beautiful, Bohemian Berlin

To say that Berlin is beautiful is too nonspecific. Cars can be beautiful, films can be beautiful, burning trains hurtling in a fireball towards innocent townspeople can be beautiful; Berlin, though, holds a unique beauty and essence which, replicated elsewhere, could come off as cheap or – whisper it – intentionally bohemian, like modern day Jeff Goldblum or the regulars of Glasgow’s Tchai-Ovna.

Walls adorned in graffiti are not markers of socioeconomic failure in Berlin but of lived-in spaces, bustling places with chatter and commerce and culture. Internal neighbourhoods of the city do not function as single-purpose cogs in the wider city machinery as we have perhaps come to expect from urban living in the UK. Neighbourhoods are often self-contained mixed communities with more dining and drinking gems to be stumbled upon than is humanly or healthily possible over a mere weeklong visit. Though trying is certainly to be recommended.

We decamped in Schöneberg, the closest thing Berlin – the gayest city in Europe – has to a tangible, coherent gay scene. Though to resolutely call it such is to offhandedly disregard the joyous excess of gay clubs, gay bars and queer art installations I pretended to understand scattered across the city like drag queen jigsaw pieces.

Illumination upon the neighbourhood’s character is swiftly shone upon visitors via the abundance of male-centric sex shops and pride flags.  I intentionally chose to stay at the Quentin Design Hotel, situated on Kalckreuthstraße, as the street was once home to expat and mid-century literary icon Christopher Isherwood, author of Goodbye to Berlin and oracle of pre-National Socialism (they don’t say “Nazi”), super-liberal Berlin: a brief but fascinating period in German history. Regardless of your sexuality, visit Schöneberg, read Isherwood, drink in Puff or even – if you’re brave – in Tom’s Bar, which casually screens hardcore orgy porn like it’s Hollyoaks.

Make a point of popping, as we did, in to some of the many scenic Parisian-style cafes in the area. Sample the pancakes of Café More on Motzstraße before making your way to Berlin Zoo, also located in Schöneberg. The zoo is huge and home to polar bears, lions, penguins, unfortunately dressed American tourists, giraffes, and elephants, to name but a few of its attractions.

We got lost and find ourselves in Kreuzberg on our first evening, an area enriched with a spectacular concentration of not-particularly-expensive dining and drinking. We sampled currywurst from Curry 36, a delicious German delicacy curiously absent from menus home here in Britain and dropped in to Burgermeister and Que Pasa on other nights because the pull of the local food in Kreuzberg was simply overpowering to us hungry tourists.

Of all the breakfast eateries we sampled in Berlin, nothing came close to rivalling Café Rix on Karl-Marx-Platz (tag your location on Facebook so that your friends may marvel at the existence of a street honouring the father of Communism), a former Prussian ballroom repurposed from its former life as the haunt of high society aristocrats, and still visually as grandiose. If you are in the mood for shopping or browsing or holding up a store at gunpoint, walk a few minutes up the street to Rag And Bone Man, one of the city’s finest vintage stores, located on Briesestraße near SchwuZ nightclub. It would be criminal of me not to recommend, here, Berlin’s most impressive vintage store, nestled among the pricier fashion houses of Neue Schönhauser: Made in Berlin, an emporium of woollen vintage treasures.

The city’s locals, who tend to fiercely resist gentrification, define the makeup of Berlin. Berliners have maintained a truly mixed city where spaces are shared cooperatively. Rich and poor have a shared stake in public transport in the form of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines, a fantastic contrast with other cities, Glasgow included, where public transport can feel second tier, even lowly. It being Relaxed Berlin, of course, not once in the week were our tickets checked by anything remotely resembling an inspector, nor blocked by any barrier. We law-abiding Brits effectively flushed away €7.40 each per day in our police state mentality: oh, the anarchy!

Sweaty and irritable as I occasionally became, the coinciding of my visit to Berlin and the humidity-laden heat wave sweeping northern Europe shortly revealed itself to be a blessing. My pre-emptive notions of what Berlin was – grey, ugly, and architecturally severe – were swept away in the pleasure of al fresco dining and drinking in streets with aesthetic allures to rival that of Rome or Paris. One boat tour along the River Spree permitted me a surprising insight in to an architectural wonder I had never heard of nor expected in a city renowned for being almost entirely rebuilt out of necessity and functionality within the past seventy years: Museum Island. A collection of five mesmeric, imposing museum buildings, now collectively deemed a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Having studied the country for years, to walk under the Brandenburg Gate and to visit the Reichstag, even to see up close the iconic and deafeningly quiet Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, was to reconcile the almost-folkloric centre of world history, even today under the Eurozone saga, with the reality of a really quite beautiful place. And next time I hear Germans being blanket stereotyped as ungenerous, I’ll think back to the city’s vodka measures and know that it’s untrue.

[Rhys Harper – @RhysRHarper]

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