It took me a while to write this blog post. Summing up Berlin isn’t as easy as it sounds. In general, I found that in Berlin you have all the extremes, and for a city so known for its history, you rarely find a building older that 100 – maybe 150 – years.
On May 15th I took on the German capital with a friend from Paris. We arrived relatively late and quick fact: Berlin train stations have very confusing names, with S’s that look like B’s and pronunciations that baffled even the Afrikaans girl. Luckily we found some very friendly locals that helped us to purchase our train tickets and pointed us the right direction. I don’t know if this is true for all Germans, but in Berlin you’ll find that when you ask for help, locals will either be very friendly and helpful, or they ignore you completely and avoid eye contact at all cost.
Side note: the transport system works the same in essence as any other European city, but in Germany you have the S-Bahn, which is the fast trains, usually above ground; the U-Bahn, the underground; and the H-Bahn, which is the bus system. You buy your ticket at any station, but remember to VALIDATE it, because there are no machines to walk through that check if you have a ticket. They just trust that you’ve bought and validated your tickets. And if you get caught by officials using public transport without a validated ticket, they fine rather heavily. Apparently.
See my first blog post on how to use trains in Europe here.
I strategically divided my time in Berlin into two parts of 5 days each. The first 5 days I spent in East Berlin, the last 5 in West Berlin. For the first half we stayed in the Plus Berlin Hostel and Hotel, which I could recommend to anyone. The service was great, the rooms were very comfortable and it has a pool. It is also very close to a U-Bahn and S-Bahn station.
Since neither my travel partner or I had been to Berlin (and the city seemed oddly overwhelming), we opted for a free walking tour of Berlin on the day after our arrival. The company who organised this does various walking tours in Berlin, but also in many other cities in the world. You can check them out over here. I found it very worthwhile. It was about 3 hours of condensed information, and me getting my bearings and figuring out where I was and which sights I wanted to revisit. The general walking tour only guides you through the city and points out sights rather than spending a lot of time at each. We’d enjoyed the free walking tour so much, we decided to invest in tickets for the alternative walking tour, and tickets to visit Sachsenhausen (the concentration camp just outside Berlin).
The alternative tour focused on the artsy side of Berlin, like street art, food markets, abandoned buildings and previously abandoned buildings that are now occupied by squatters. Please note that what Berliners refer to as squatters is not quite the same as what we refer to in South Africa. These are basically a lot of hippies that moved into an unoccupied building and started a community, producing their own electricity and plumbing systems, and mainly being of the artist variety. Some have their own cinemas, bars and clubs, which are occasionally open to the pubic in some of the bigger of these establishments. This is typically where I felt huge contrasts within the city.
In one day you can experience an extremely modern, alternative and lively side of the city, and within minutes be surrounded by places you wished didn’t exist to begin with. That’s what happened to me…the ordering was (thankfully) just turned around. As previously mentioned, we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp during our stay. For obvious reasons I didn’t take any pictures, but I will say this: even though the visit wasn’t “exciting” or “enjoyable”, I’m glad I went. We hear all these horror stories and watch films about times in these camps, but to me, it was an eye-opening reality to be faced with, and the fact of the matter is that this history, however horrible, needs to be remembered and acknowledged. I won’t expand on this topic.
In order to lighten the mood, let’s talk about the city itself. Having come to Berlin from Paris, the city seemed almost like a ghost town. It is said that after London, Berlin is geometrically the largest city in Europe. But where London contains about 10million people, Berlin only has 3.5million. On top of that, most of the city was ruined in the war, so it has fairly modern architecture. This means that the streets and roads are very wide in comparison to most cities in Europe. So imagine if you will, very wide roads, but hardly anyone about. Strange to say the least.
Personally, I could see and feel the difference between East and West Berlin, even though most locals will tell you there is no difference these days. The communist architecture in East Berlin is a morbid contrast to the neighbourhood feeling you get in West Berlin.
On things to see, the options are endless. And since this post is already rather lengthy, I’ll just quickly list some of them:
- Stasi musuem. This is very educational on the time just after the second World War.
- The Memorial to the German Resistance.
- Jewish Musuem. Amazing architecture.
- Berlin Musuem of Modern Art. …Modern art.
- Old train station, new art musuem and gallery.
- Book burning.
- Nice restaurants, shops and architecture.
Berlin also offers an amazing variety of cuisines. If you ever find yourself in this fascinating and mind-boggling city, please make a point of trying something different everyday. Food is very affordable. Also do try the local specialties. Most of them sound worse than they are – I enjoyed everything.
Until next time!