Sunday, 10 January 2016

Currywurst and Steins... Travel Blog: Berlin Edition

When one of your cool mates from home tells you that he's never felt as uncool as he did in Berlin, you start to imagine a world where you're not accepted unless you've either got a man bun, multiple piercings, or spend at least two hours everyday talking about how you found yourself on your gap year. Having heard so many great things about the German capital in the past few years, I thought now was a good time to test how uncool I could feel and finally tick Berlin off the to-do list with a dissertation to avoid and time to kill before uni.

On recommendation, we opted to stay in Friedrichshain, a small district in the east of Berlin just over the Oberbaum Bridge from Kreuzberg. It didn't take long for me to realise why my pal felt so uncool staying in this part of the city. As soon as we stepped out of Warschauer Stra├če station and onto the bridge, it was a bit like walking through Shoreditch x10. Each individual seemed to have mastered a street style which appeared effortless, attractive, and far more comfortable than my trademark rolled up skinnys and Gazelle combo - not one high-street clothing brand in sight - prompting me to do my best to cover up the Jack Wills logo on my jumper. 

Conveniently, the hostel was a five minute walk from the East Side Gallery, making this famous section of the Berlin Wall our first port of call. The initial thing that strikes you about the gallery is the abundance of bright and exuberant colour that makes it stand out from an otherwise pretty bland backdrop. 

Some of the art really is thought-provoking and completely redefines what you'd associate with graffiti. As you make your way along the 1.3km stretch of concrete, you get a uniquely presented sense of Germany's troubled history which makes the gallery a suitably unified symbol of the political divide that the nation has overcome in the past few decades.

The Berliner Mauer, as the Germans call it, serves as somewhat of a microcosm for East Berlin, as the whole area was absorbed by a colourful culture of street art that I haven't personally seen anywhere else in Europe. Almost every street we walked down was covered in graffiti, but it was a lot more like decoration than desecration, making it feel like a free neighbourhood sized art gallery where you didn't even have to pretend to appreciate the paintings. 

The street art culture that is so concentrated in the east certainly became more sparse the further west we moved into the city. The narrow side streets and buzzing neighbourhoods were soon replaced by big shopping centres and modern buildings. 

Everywhere in the city is easily accessible and we opted to use the S-Bahn to reach the so called tourist hotspots, but I'd imagine that a walk from Karl-Marx-Allee all the way over to Victory Column would be a lot more pleasant in the summer. The subzero temperatures really did make it a survival of the fittest style mission to be outside for a sustained period of more than an hour - especially because being English and naive we'd packed for Spring. The snow did make for some pretty pictures though, and should serve me well for a few #tbt likes on Instagram. 

As you'd expect, things got a little more pricey when we hit up the districts boasting the main attractions. Indeed, by the time we'd arrived in Alexanderplatz, €2.20 pints had become a thing of the past so we tried to get the western part of the city centre done in a day. Like all good tourists, we did our best to get lost on the way only to walk round a corner and realise we'd been circling the Reichstag Building for about an hour. 

While the German Parliament and Brandenburg Gate lived up to expectations as impressive architectural structures, the Topography of Terror just down the road stood out most. Documenting Nazi atrocities on the foundations of Gestapo and SS headquarters, the exhibition does an accomplished job of packing a lot of intense information into a confined space without making you want to claw your eyes out. 

Like I said, the main attractions were great, Museum Island and the Cathedral were beautifully picturesque, but the best thing about Berlin is the absence of an obvious centre, and we couldn't help but be drawn back to the atmospheric neighbourhoods in the eastern part of the city. When you have a row of six dudes each claiming to have 'good shit', trying to sell you 'the best weed in Berlin' it's hard to know who to trust, but this somewhat typified the laid back nature of the area. 

Densely packed with cafes and bars, it was nice to find a place where if you order a pint before noon you can bank on someone having one with you. We'd be wandering round a bookshop and all of a sudden one of the employees would ask if you fancied an ice cold brewski while doing some browsing, making me wonder why no bookseller has propositioned me with this juicy offer before.

Having put myself through 5 years of GCSE German at school, I thought it was only fair to sample the currywurst that was my eternal nemesis in my vocab tests. I think the general rule with this local cuisine is that the cheaper it is the better. Curry and sausage is a combo that sounds less likely to work than Gerrard and Lampard, but the flavours strangely complimented each other, and it's one of those street foods which definitely tastes better if you eat it standing up.

Currywurst and schnitzel aside, the best place we ate was a place called Burgeramt that we discovered in a small square near the hostel. Ceilings coated with movie posters and playing 80s Rock classics on repeat, it perfectly blended what you'd want from an American burger bar with a distinct German feel to the place. Advertised as 'the best burger in Berlin', it was definitely one of the best burgers I've had in Europe, and you don't have to invite me to the party twice when chili cheese fries are on offer.

Lots of people make the trip to Berlin for one reason only: to experience the techno dance scene that the city's nightlife has become famous for. Given that we arrived just after New Years and had folk in the hostel telling us about the three day benders they'd just woken up from at the world famous Berghain, we probably hadn't come at the prime time for a binge (Either that or no one wanted to invite us on theirs). 

Even though we weren't always clubbing, Berlin bars were busy and didn't close until the last customer said so. Every bar we went to was a different experience, whether it meant feeling intimidated by a punk rock vibe, nonchalant in a retro 70s lounge, or confused by a barman who looked like he'd been plucked from a black and white French movie, every drink was made interesting by the surroundings. 

So yeah, it's safe to say that Berlin lived up to the hype in every regard. The people were cool, the landmarks majestic, the neighbourhoods trendy and the beer was strong. You get a sense that Berliners totally embrace their city and it's hard not to get caught up in a place that has such a rich culture and so much history. I'd like to think that I'll go back when the weather's slightly warmer, the nightlife a bit busier, and my hair's finally long enough to tie in the treasured man bun. Until then...


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