Berlin, April 2017

I happen to be a member of a certain British airline’s reward programme, which means that if I spend over a certain amount of money in a year, I get a buy-one-get-one free ticket to use within the next 12 months. Last year, I qualified for that deal, and knowing that I had to use it up by (this) May, was scouting about for places to go. The problem was that we didn’t have a whole lot of annual leave or cash, and the destinations we could have gone to with the ticket didn’t really make much sense. On my online exploration, I stumbled across a really good deal for flights to Berlin, and so booked up to go for a few days. As it turns out, I never did use that ticket.

When looking at accommodation for any trip, I usually default to AirBnB for a variety of different reasons… primarily because they are usually better located, cheaper, and more interesting than hotels. I was happily surprised to find that this was not necessarily the case in Berlin though, and we booked up to stay in two pretty unique places.

First up was the quirky hostel Hüttenpalast, nestled in one of the quietly trendy areas of the city. I have never been a big fan of hostels, even in my poor and footloose youth. The idea of sleeping in a big room with a bunch of random strangers that I had no connection to never factored into my idea of adventure or having a good time, and I always preferred couchsurfing for my explorations. However, this place seemed different enough to give it a go. Rather than a big dorm room, the hostel is built in an old industrial building, where two large spaces are filled with an assortment of different old caravans and mini cabin structures.

We opted to stay in one that resembled an Airstream trailer:

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The inside was surprisingly spacious, and much like the pods in Japan, was pretty great for sleeping in. There’s some sort of innate reassurance in going to bed in a relatively small, all encompassing space.

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There was also a really cool courtyard area, which I imagine would be awesome to hang out in during the warmer months. Perhaps sadly, we got something more akin to Glasgow weather… sunny spells broken with heavy rain and hail. At least this was familiar – or so I told myself.

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We stayed here for the first two of our four nights on the trip, and whilst it was a cool experience that I’m glad we did, I was equally as pleased to move on after those two nights. The caravan provided a level of privacy that you don’t usually get in a hostel, but didn’t do anything to block out the echoing sounds of children screaming, or drunk fuds coming back at 3am and shouting about how they had lost their phone. It’s fine to just have a place to rest when you are exploring a new place, but when that’s what you’re after, you really need to be able to have the quiet to actually get that rest when you need it. That means all the more in a city like Berlin, which lives on late into the night, and then into the next day.

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The next place we stayed was truly magnificent, and came as a recommendation from my friend Heidi: the Michelberger Hotel. There are a variety of different rooms available, from the tiny bed-and-shower-only combo, to huge self contained suites… but all designed to look and feel great, and not at a ridiculous price either. We ended up going for a ‘loft’ room, which was really striking from the moment we walked in. It felt like it could be a studio flat that you could live in and work in for a few months pretty easily. As seemed to be common in Berlin, it was also right next to a main train station, which was extremely handy.

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It might seem like I’m over-egging the pudding a bit here with the praise, but it really was probably the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The real strength wasn’t even the rooms themselves, but the place as a whole. Every single member of staff we met was extremely friendly without it ever seeming forced, and they had a bar and restaurant that you actually wanted to hang out or eat and drink in. Next time we go to Berlin, we’re definitely returning here.

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Anyway, enough about where we stayed, for that is but a practical detail when it comes down to it.

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Berlin is somewhere that has been on my list for a long time, and all I’ve ever heard from anybody who has already visited has been positive, and simultaneous surprise that I haven’t been before.

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What surprised me about Berlin was just how different the various areas of the city were. Rather than one particular culture spread across the whole thing, it was as if there were a number of very different cities all mashed together. There were parts that reminded me strongly of Athens, where the buildings were covered in graffiti, and punks walked about amongst takeaway food joints, but there was also areas that felt more like the leafy streets of Amsterdam, or parts of Chicago.

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I love the analogue, film photobooths here that do pictures for 2 Euros. I wish we had gotten more than one strip done.

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but there’s plenty of other cool things kicking about too.

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Berlin is the sort of place that you can literally stumble across a community ‘garden’ project in the middle of the city, right next to a major road, where anybody is free to come in, buy some plants, or have a drink.

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and of course, I had to drop by the famous Schneidersladen synth shop for ten minutes. Ten minutes that Grace clearly savoured every last drop of.

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What was really interesting about exploring Berlin though, was seeing the expressions of support and solidarity for refugees in a city that has been shaped heavily by its violent and difficult past. From signs on bars and messages on the streets stating that refugees were welcome, to entire buildings dedicated to helping immigrants of all kinds settle in, there was a definite determination apparent to look out for those who found themselves in Berlin – perhaps in defiance of those who might believe otherwise. I’m not sure if inspiring is the right word, but I’m glad it was that way.

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(no human is illegal)

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Having mentioned the Berlin’s troubled history, it would be impossible (and improper) to view things completely in isolation from that, as it has obviously shaped the city deeply. We visited the Topography of Terror museum, and what really struck me was the sheer amount that happened in such a short time, from the way the Nazis rose to power, to the laws they enacted, and all the way up to their eventual military action in Poland and elswhere. I always thought I knew a decent amount about the Second World War, but clearly not.

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Some of the other visitors had some strange clothing choices for a day out to such a place, it has to be said.

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Checkpoint Charlie was one of the most touristy spots we came across, but even then it was pretty surreal to stand and imagine that at one point this was one of the few passageways between East and West Berlin. Some of the stories about encounters that took place here are pretty crazy, and well worth taking some time to read up on. One in particular that stood out for me was that of a US diplomat who wanted to attend the opera in East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport before allowing him through, which he insisted they had no right to do, and this eventually led to a standoff between US and Soviet tanks, which threatened to spark another serious conflict.

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The best view may well be from McDonalds balcony.

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Seeing what was left of the Berlin wall was also a pretty visceral, and surreal experience. The wall was apparently erected in an extremely short amount of time, and the pre-cast single slabs of concrete remain a pretty imposing sight. It’s hard to imagine the sheer scale of it before it fell in 1989.

Now, parts of the wall known as the ‘East Side Gallery’ are covered in symbolic images by artists from all around the world – including those from Denver, and Scotland.

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There is a rather annoying, cheap fence that has been put up to protect stretches of the wall from other graffiti ‘taggers’ who have been ruining some of the artwork – but really just obscures the view. Apparently this has been up for ages, and you would think that for such an important piece of history they might invest in something a bit more functional.

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Still, the memorial showed its ongoing relevance with direct and specific references to the contemporary threats faced by the world. The similarity to the rhetoric used by Trump, and the actual experience of Germans was reflected all over the city, including in the rather prophetic piece below at the East Side Gallery.

The translation of the text at the top there is something along the lines of: ‘There are many walls to be dismantled”.

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One of the more famous landmarks in Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – an art installation not far from the Brandenburg Gate, also known as the Holocaust Memorial.

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The various concrete slabs are all the same length and width, but with different heights, allowing you to walk in between them and feel totally engulfed – cut off from seeing much else. You wouldn’t be able to see somebody coming until they literally turned the corner and bumped into you. The design creates a sort of stillness, even with a significant number of people exploring the grid.

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Originally, I hadn’t wanted to visit the Memorial. After seeing so many pictures of people doing yoga or juggling in between the slabs as was so infamously reported on recently, I had thought the behaviour of others would irritate or disgust me more than anything else (much like they did at the Monasteries in Meteora before), but the reality was pretty different.

Like I mentioned already, you could easily lose yourself and others due to the clever design of the memorial, and whilst there were undeniably some people doing stupid and disrespectful things like rolling around to take glamour-esque shots on top of some of the slabs, I found myself coming to a different perspective. Those climbing across the stones when we were there weren’t necessarily desecrating the memorial’s purpose – rather, they were taking the time to get to a place where they could view the whole of the grid, to sit and take it all in. Showing respect doesn’t always mean trooping along in somber silence after all. Perhaps the kids laughing whilst running and hiding behind the pillars in the narrow walkways, or the couple holding hands while sitting on top of one of the stones are exactly the kind of thing required to face and challenge the terrible, evil darkness that was faced.

Who knows.

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Berlin fame isn’t just confined to its violent past, with a modern reputation for great food and some of the best nightlife in the world. The former of this was pretty clear with the number of street food places available, which almost always included some kind of (quality) vegan or gluten free options.

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We obviously tried out the currywurst…

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…and actually took things a step further visiting the rather ridiculous Currywurst museum.

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No, I have no idea why this place exists either, but it does. And it has tomato sauce squeezy bottle shaped listening devices, and even a currywurst flavoured energy drink, which, believe it or not, wasn’t actually that terrible.

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It wasn’t all of that bizarre standard though. We ate in some really awesome places thanks to tips from various local folks in the know… including my colleague Con and his girlfriend Anna, who very kindly hung out with us and helped us find our feet.

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Con even headed out with us one night to Suicide Circus to get a taste of Berlin subculture, where I rekindled a love for techno. It was a pretty refreshing experience to go back to an electronic club after so many years working in rock clubs and bars, where people were stocking up on caffeine rather than booze so they could dance until 7am, and where people genuinely didn’t give a toss what toilets you chose to use.

I did have a bit of an amusing encounter in the toilet queue with a couple of German girls who decided to keep speaking in German to me, even after they realised that I didn’t understand a word. I think they were enjoying taking the piss out of one of the stupid English speaking foreigner types who often come in to these places without really knowing what they are getting into, but the tables quickly turned when I replied in the broadest Glaswegian accent I could manage, and they rather sheepishly had to concede that they had no idea what I was saying either.

No photos from the club for obvious reasons. It was a bit of a theme that Germans didn’t like cameras in bars, so this shot of the German equivalent of Red Bull will have to do.

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Despite being more than acquainted with bars and clubs than the average person (or maybe because of that), I always feel a bit apprehensive about just rocking up to them in a different country where you don’t speak the language, or know the etiquette. That’s why it was particularly awesome to head out with Con.

Clubs aside, there was also a whole bunch of quirky little bars that we found ourselves in. On previous trips (our 3 months in Athens specifically), I think we’ve either been too hesitant to head out a lot at night, or been too tired from doing stuff during the day, and missed out a bit as a result… so in Berlin we made sure to not over-do things and grab a tactical nap so we could properly explore after dark as well.

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One place which deserves a mention is the Ramones museum – which is really a bar with a back area loaded with an impressive collection of memorabilia, like these awesome black and white photos. There was a time where what I really wanted to do was be a tour photographer and take shots like this:

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That wall is full of photos of various artists who have visited.

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and looky here… what’s that we spy? A poster from the best venue in the world.

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Another rather interesting place was this subterranean bar set up like a living room, but where everything was upside down, with the furniture on err, the roof. You’ll see what I mean:

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It might take a minute to work out what’s going on in this picture:

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The other place we went to which stood out is a ‘secret’ bar which resides on the top floor of a car park. To get there, you need to take the lift through a rather painfully ordinary shopping centre, then walk up the ramp the final portion.

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Even when you know it is there, it isn’t immediately obvious where you need to go.

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The view at the top is worth it though:

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and after paying a few Euros (after 4pm), you find yourself in one of the most surprisingly cool bars that I’ve been in for a while – spread out in a giant terrace with weird artwork, a sandpit, and live music.

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It’s not hard to imagine this place getting rammed during the summer months.

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It was a rather nice place to watch the sun disappear over the horizon, but even at the end of April it was fairly chilly, so we decamped rather quickly once that had happened.

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And with that, the trip was over. Some final miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Berlin is a really multi-layered and interesting place. With so much to offer, it seems like an awesome place to live in and explore.
  • Having to pay 50 cents to use the toilet everywhere you go in public was pretty annoying though, and I couldn’t help but hark back to the glory days when we were in Japan, with free commodes in abudance.
  • The weather was more unpredictable than I had expected. I am definitely glad I brought a jacket.
  • People were generally really nice, but nobody ever really got chatting to us when we were out in pubs or bars. That can be a good thing, but as a Weegie abroad it always feels a bit weird.
  • Next time, I would definitely plan on heading out to a few more techno clubs.
  • Club mate is your friend.
  • A whiskey sour can be hard to beat.

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