Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Ode to Berlin

So, Berlin.

Berlin was, well, it was wonderful. I love Berlin. I love its history, its architecture, its graffiti doused scrappiness, its people, its wide streets, its bars, its flea markets, its café culture, its energy, its bike friendliness, its green spaces, its ease and in the summer, its beguiling weather. All of it and so much more I just love.

In case you haven’t gleaned, my affair with Berlin is not a recent thing. Really, it goes all the way back to 2006 when it changed my life.

That first trip was a flying three-day visit with my sister. It was part of an extended stay in London that was itself a desperate attempt to jump tracks and end the vicious skip-skip-skipping on a loop of depression that had been caused by a symphonic trifecta of chronic injury, heartbreak and redundancy six months earlier. I was not in a good place.

But something about being in Berlin that December, when it was minus-6 and mostly dark, and being so acutely aware of the city’s history and heartache and really, its integrity in the face of all that, well it cleaved me somehow from my own reality and reset my inner track. I was and still am grateful for that experience.

And so my next two visits, in 2007 and 2008 were pilgrimages of sorts. Both times I travelled there on my own and both times I threw myself at Berlin like a zealous student, desperate to learn and keen to demonstrate my admiration and gratitude and my not-so-secret love.

Biking along the Spree
I did this by honest to god visiting every single museum in Berlin. The Pergamon, the Altes, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Jewish Museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof, Kunstwerk, the DDR Museum, the Topography of Terror, Martin Gropius Bau, Gemaldgalerie, the Museum of Photography, the Helmut Newton Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts. I visited them all. Plus the Reichstag, the Tiergarten, the Spree, Parisier Platz and the Brandenburg Gate and the Jewish Memorial.

I biked through Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Mitte. I lay in parks, I swam in lakes, I bought second-hand clothes from basements and cherries from food markets, both by the kilo and I could not have been happier. I just wanted to dissolve myself into the fabric of this amazing city. And yes I am aware that sounds ridiculously stupid. 

My fourth trip to Berlin was also in 2008. I went to stay with my friend Lou for a long weekend. I’d only just moved to London the month before and had just started my MA and was feeling overwhelmed, unfamiliar and a little bit lost.

The view from our balcony
By now the leaves were turning, the sun was crisp and efficient but no longer lingering and the city had shifted gears again. We ate, we biked, we trawled the flea markets and the Turkish food markets, we saw some great art, we went to a great concert at the Berlin Philharmonic and we spent a day at a spa, lolling around with lots of naked Germans. It was another significant reprieve and just four really brilliant days amid a wider shift in life gears.

And I haven’t been back since. Until this recent August long weekend. LB had been a couple of times before, both fleetingly and in the winter, and so I was excited for us both to be there, not least because it would be our last European holiday together for an indeterminate amount of time. And it didn’t disappoint (though globalised consumerism has really got its sticky hands on Berlin since I was last here. Can someone please tell me why the world needs another Urban Outfitters?)

We arrived late on the Thursday night and were staying in a brilliant apartment in Prenzlauer Berg that we found on airbnb, with a balcony hosting uninterrupted views of the TV Tower. We had four days and not a lot planned – some flea markets, some food markets, some bars, some schnitzel, a micro brewery (guess who’s list that was on), an exhibition and some general submersion in all things Berlin Late Summer.

The chestnut trees in Prater Biergarten
It was killer. On Friday we ambled around Prenzlauer Berg, had beers under the chestnut trees in Prater biergarten on Kastanienallee, ducked into a few little shops (guess who wanted to do what), drank gin & tonics in the afternoon sun and had schnitzel for dinner.

On Saturday we walked over to Kollwitzplatz for the weekly organic food market and stocked up on cheeses and strawberries and white peaches before taking the clanging old bikes that came with the apartment out for a spin.

Organic market on Kollwitzplatz
Heading out of the Berg through Mitte, down Unter den Linden and out under the Brandenburg Gate, we made for another food market, this one on Winterfeldplatz in Schöneberg. Lunch was Turkish gozleme, raclette, chunks of watermelon and fresh orange juice and we had a great time just generally ogling all the colours and smells and activities.

From here we had one last stop before our carpet picnic back at the apartment, a holiday tradition we started way back in Sardinia. And that was a visit to a micro-brewery in Wedding. This was my concession to LB who was staring down a Sunday spent trawling fleamarkets and actually, despite the epic peddle and the quiet understatement of outer former east Berlin, there was something quite lovely about this little brewery set within the courtyard of an old apartment block under big lovely green old trees. Not being much of a beer connoisseur I can’t speak to the quality of the beverages but I’m informed they were excellent.

Sunday was given over to the fleamarkets – the epic Mauerpark and a new one over in Kreuzberg, Nowkoelln, that happens monthly and has more of a vintage focus than the sprawling, dirty, ad hoc acre that is the weekly Prenzlauer Berg institution.

Hunting for treasure at Mauerpark
In the past Mauerpark has proven a veritable gold mine – knickknacks and jewellery and bags and all sorts of wonder. I wouldn’t say it’s jumped the shark but the ratio of tat to treasure has definitely tipped towards the latter and mining through the boxes of rubble means literally getting your hands dirty. I managed not to leave empty-handed, finding some lovely vintage photo frames and a lovely little black and gold woollen handbag, but between the crowds and the dust and the god awful thrash music wafting over from a nearby music festival, it wasn’t the most rewarding of experiences.

Back streets of Kreuzberg
Because my arse was still killing me from the bike ride the day before, we abandoned the bikes in Mitte, chained to a railing, and hopped the U-bahn stop to Kreuzberg. There was rather a lot of tat at Nowkoelln too but taking up residence along one of the canals that leads off the Spree, under the shade of lovely big trees, it was definitely a more enjoyable experience poking around here in the afternoon. 

And because it was such a lovely day and because we were in anything but a hurry, we decided to walk back to the bikes. It took us nearly an hour and a half but it’s amazing how much more you can absorb of a city when you can stick your nose in every other window.

Getting back to the apartment, LB spent the afternoon dozing on the sofa while I played with my market haul, before we finished off the cheese and strawberries from the day before in lieu of dinner. 

We also drank the duty-free on-sale bottle of Taittinger I made us buy at Terminal Five in celebration of our Last Holiday On The Continent together* And then we went for cocktails. I’d read about a couple of cute little bars within strolling distance and was keen to check them out and LB was happy to oblige.

The first one, Marietta, is low key and gay friendly with great pavement seating to help watch the world go by. Beckett’s Kopf, around the corner, ups the cool stakes with a closed door policy. If you want to go in, you have to ring the doorbell. They don’t want casual stragglers here. You need to want to drink their cocktails in their dark, cool space with their heavy leather seats and friendly bar staff. And trust me, you do want to drink here. 

Marietta Bar.
We almost didn’t go in because it does look closed from the street. LB and I played a game of chicken with the doorbell – LB too scared and me just thinking about the drinks on the other side. So I pressed the bell and LB set to run but then a very genial German opened the door and we were in.

We had a couple of very boozy beverages here, made on the recommendations of our waiter. I’d love something a bit floral, a bit girly, something easy to drink? How about this one – “it’s very sippy.” Sippy, yes. Also, sensational.

And then it was Monday. We were flying out in the early evening so had the best part of the day to use and I made the most of it by dragging LB to Martin Gropius Bau to see an exhibition by Anish Kapoor. I had half wondered if it would be the RA exhibition I saw a few years ago that has been doing the rounds internationally but was impressed and pretty excited to discover that it was a new show with a lot of new work created specifically for it, most of which I loved. I really like Kapoor’s work and his considered use of scale and depth, his textural sensibilities, his interest in entropy and colour and his use of materials, from resin to red wax to stainless steel. Lovely Boy also liked it so I consider that a double win.

We headed back to Prenzlauer Berg for a late lunch and I successfully managed to offload the last of my euros on an amazing vintage dress I spotted in a passing window that LB said made me look like a hipster. I’m fairly sure that wasn’t a compliment but I don’t care because a cotton floral 1970s kaftan has been missing from my wardrobe since I don’t know how long.

And then we were back to London.

Spotted at Mauerpark
It was such a great, great four days. Berlin will always be such a special place for me and I’m already wondering when I’ll next be back. Hopefully not another five years. But until then, Berlin….

* This might have been our last European holiday together but it’s not mine. I’m off to Amsterdam in a few weeks time with my lovely friend Gem. The end is near but it’s not quite here yet.  

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