Bohemian Berlin

I arrived at the awesome Berlin Hauptbahnhof dead on time! Once orientated I checked my Google maps to find the way to my digs The Three Pigs Hostel. Berlin’s flat so that was manageable but the bloody Australian Caribee back-pack I’d invested shed-loads in, had become the stuff of nightmares. The main buckle that fastens around the hips had spilt meaning the weight destroyed my shoulders and chest. Me being a fool I hadn’t worked out which bus to take from the station. I stoically struggled through Spreebogen Park with the Reichstag on my left.

I therefore set out on my trek stopping to avoid impending doom at the LebensArt Cafe at the corner of Großer Tiergarten and Lennestraße. The breakfast was excellent if a little steep, location, location, location. Struggling on I spotted the Berlin Buddy Bears eventually arriving at the Three Pigs which is a former nunnery! No Freudian comments please. It’s a maze of a place but the accommodation is fine the only downside being showers and bogs are not en-suite. There was a wash basin in the room.

After a refresh I strolled over to the HoloUnknowncaust Memorial. I love the graphic simplicity of the sculpture. In May 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II, the city of Berlin dedicated their Holocaust Memorial, designed to remember the murder of six million Jews at the hands of Hitler and his forces. Across the road in the Tiergarten,  are two like minded memorials. One commemorates the Sinti and Roma who died in concentration camps. The other one commemorates homosexuals who were persecuted under the Nazi Regime.

I discovered that evening that a festival was taking place in Schoenberg. After a top notch Indian at Maharadscha I stopped for a beer and watched the world or the Leather Fetishists stroll by. The Berlin Leather und Fetish Treffen is a yearly party weekend during Easter.  Gay men (I think) from all over Europe pack their leather, rubber, skingear, uniform or other fetish clothing and head to Berlin. Each to his/her own but where is the individuality and where were the women? The good thing about all this is that when queuing for a beer us none-fetishists stand out and get served quicker. I chatted to some normally attired Spaniards who also found the event immeasurably amusing. I mentioned in conversation that its not really different from being a Barcelona or Man U supporter, uniforms become de rigeur!

Day 2 started with an awesome chorizo and goats cheese bagel plus coffee at ? I  can’t remember the café name and Google maps has failed me! It’s 5 minutes walk towards Potsdamerplatz on the left. I crossed over to the Topography of Terror. The exhibit documents that between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror  the Secret State Police Office with its own “house prison,” the leadership of the SS and, during the Second World War, the Reich Security Main Office –  were located here, next to the Martin Gropius Building and close to Potsdamer Platz. I was stopped by an elderly dutch woman who guessed I was English, the Dutch are not the germans greatest fans. She was glad that the museums and installations are recognising the atrocities of the past but I still felt some cynicism. “There’s a mass of information,” she said, “it’s always shocking to see the Nazis’ atrocities. I’ve asked myself many times how it could have happened. That’s the first thing you need to come to terms with.” Her husband and daughter nodded in agreement. “I think it’s good that the Nazis’ crimes are documented on this historical site. It’s important. And it’s good that the texts on the panels are presented in English and German and that you hear so many languages here.” No one should forget and German school parties are testament to the fact that we should learn from the past.

I troll over to Check-point Charlie which has become much more commercialised than my last visit. Why allow Starbucks and McD’s? I’m not sure why I should pay to enter an exhibition so I don’t. A hot air balloon is tethered ready to carry ever willing tourists.  There’s a major dichotomy here between the TOT on one side of the street and the almost theme park atmosphere here. I pass through quickly intending to head towards the Gendarmnmarkt. As I walk along I notice a perfumers Frau Tonis and enquire about their male scents. I finish up purchasing No. 48.

“This classical oriental fragrance cradles an entire bouquet of fragrant spices in warm balsamic wood: star anise, pepper, cardamom and fennel seed ignite this scent’s fiery spice, while cedar wood and vetiver create an unforgettably mellow dry down.”

This scent reminded me of Bel Ami which Hermes ain’t doing any more. Anyhow it transported me back to living in NYC in 2004 and so I was smitten.

Further along the Gendarmenmarkt is trumpeted as Berlin’s most magnificent square. The square dates back to 1700, part of King Friedrick I’s plan for Friedrickstadt, an emerging new quarter of Berlin, where the recently expelled French Protestants or Huguenots had settled following the Edict of Potsdam in 1685 which granted them asylum in the Prussian capital. The name is in fact of French origin as “Gens d ’arms” which was a Prussian regiment consisting of Huguenots soldiers. Its surrounded by posh cafes, restaurants and boutiques none of which suited my budget as I’s blown that on the No. 48.

My intention was to pass through Museum Island quickly as I’d visited before; even the Gates of Babylon couldn’t entice me inside from the lovely weather. I stopped at an art market to watch the portrait painters and then for coffee by the Kupfergraben Canal. The Berliner Dom overshadowed the wonderfully named formal Lustgarden which was crowded and flanked by cycle taxis preying on the tourists. I took lunch, chatting to some Danes, at the DDR Restaurant Domklause by the Spree Canal. I had the Pan-fried tenderloin at 15.30 €. This consisted of three small pan-fried pork sirloin steaks with a scotch egg, mushrooms and Letcho vegetables, served with peas and fried potatoes, awesome. I washed it down with a glass of Portugieser Pfortenser Köppelberg, well good! The Danish were an architecture student, Jan and his mate Lars who was an electronic musician. Jan was not a fan of the new architecture of Berlin and was into sustainable housing, an interesting pair.

Next I crossed over the dual-carriageway as I headed towards Alexanderplatz. The Neptune Fountain or Neptunbrunnen was the scene of selfie hell! Quickly moving on I saw the queue for the TV tower and again it wasn’t worth the wait. Lunch at the top is spectacular but I’d been there before. Looking at my map I noticed a local market that I’d not listed before so followed the tramlines to Hackesher. The area around Hackescher Markt is not the place for finding big chain or department stores. Instead, Hackescher Markt is a shopping hotspot for famous designer shops as well as newer and younger Berlin labels. Unusual clothes, outrageous shoes or fancy accessories can be found in small and medium-sized shops in this area. Trendsetting over I took the Sbahn to berlin hbf. The overhead railway passes old building stock rejuvenated by modern architects alongside some awesome graffiti on a very large-scale.

Leaving the station I’d decided to circumnavigate the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten (animal garden, more formally called Großer Tiergarten – great animal garden) started life as a hunting reserve for the Kurfürsten (prince electors) of Brandenburg. Under king Friedrich II (otherwise known as Friedrich der Große – Frederick the Great) of Prussia (also Kurfürst of Brandenburg), the reserve was turned into an ornamental park, with Friedrich not having much interest in hunting. The trees were cut down after World War II to be used as firewood. In their place, potatoes were planted, to help combat the food shortages of the immediate post war years. It has of course been re-planted with trees since! The Tiergarten is an awesome place to replenish after a monumental potter as I’d had today. It’s a relaxing place to stroll along overgrown paths, find ornamental bridges and small waterways, rent a boat, have a snack in a beer garden, and sunbathe on the lush lawns (weather permitting).

After a beer at Cafe am neuen See I exited by crossing over the Landwehrkanal as I knew I could follow the canal back to Kreuzberg and my hotel. Built between 1845 and 1850, the canal connects the Eastern part of the Spree in Friedrichshain with the Western part in Charlottenburg. I was at the Charlottenburg end, it’s one of the most beautiful strolls you can take on a sunny day in Berlin. Along the waterside you will meet boule players, sunbathers and other followers of the bohemian lifestyle – along with plenty of nice cafés and beer gardens to quench your thirst. The hour-long stroll as a result took 2.5 hours.

I spent the evening in the trendy bars of Turkish Kreuzberg. There is one must – the Ankerklause, a nearly mythical pub in this district. The pub is decorated in a kind of “sailor-style”, a little battered but very funny. Feed the jukebox for your favourite songs and enjoy a very tasty Czech lager.  Opposite this pub lies the Fuchsbau – also very nice, but far from being battered. It’s a quite hip and down-to-earth bar in a nice and very basic room. Next the Luzia. A very hip location in-between a bar and a club (on weekends) with an excellent and enormous room, furnished with chattels from the fifties. Then the Sofia – a rather run-downed and bad taste but very funny bar in a former Greek (?) restaurant. Finally the San Remo Upflamör. A bit calmer but nevertheless a fine bar to start the evening with a few drinks, situated almost directly at the river Spree and the former run of the Berlin Wall. Next   day three.

Day 3 was cancelled (see above) but I toddled over to Schoenberg in the evening and met up with some new pals Suzanne et al for some beers.

Rejuvenated day 4 was bike hire day. I headed past the Kreuzberg Jewish Cemetery and then took a left towards the former Templehof Airport. Berlin is fantastic for cycling with almost every road having an independent cycle lane. I entered the former airport through the Volkspark Hasenheide whch was slightly bizarre. This was broad daylight and the dog walkers were out in force along with the African drug dealers who appeared nonplussed by the city gardeners. Volkspark Hasenheide is a place of contrasts. Its open sunlit meadows are ideal for volley ball, football/soccer matches, sunbathing, kite-flying, and family picnics or barbecues. Those meadows are separated by long stands of wonderful shade trees, beneath which local musicians gather for jam sessions. On the other hand drug dealers congregate at the park’s entrances, and have no compunction about approaching visitors both in and on their way out of the park. They stash their wares in the bushes to avoid being arrested for possession. During the day the dealers usually stick to peddling hash or grass, but if you decide to take in a film after dark, you might be approached by someone with hard drugs. Just keep your head down and keep walking and you should be fine, actually avoid after dusk!

I crossed the road passing a mosque to enter the former Tempelhof airport (built in the early 1920s). After the airport closed in 2008, the city of Berlin reclaimed the 386-hectare open space and one of the world’s largest buildings in a central location for public use.
Today, the area has a six-kilometre cycling, skating and jogging trail, a 2.5-hectare BBQ area, a dog-walking field covering around four hectares and an enormous picnic area for visitors. Bike riding is by far the most popular activity for visitors to Tempelhofer Freiheit. They take advantage of the wide former take-off and landing runways for exercise or just to have a relaxing ride. The former airfield however has its very own characteristic it’s NOT flat. There were rollerbladers, joggers, dog walkers and para-gliders but bizarrely nowhere to sit.

Passing out of the park at the end of the runway I was in Neukoln. Air B&B says:

“Often referred to as “Little Istanbul,” Neukölln brims with Turkish specialities, but cumin-flavored delicacies are only part of this southeast Berlin neighborhood’s appeal. Artists congregate in Neukölln’s reimagined public parks and easy-going bars that invite fierce self-expression and late night philosophising. This progressive-leaning neighbourhood’s busy streets and graffiti-covered surfaces look intimidating, but underneath its brusque exterior is a community based on shared support”

Translating this into “it’s trendy” is about right.  Apartments are relatively affordable for a European city and there are smart cafes and bars that give it a youthful and busy vibe. I stopped for a Mocha and Apple Strudel. Once again Google Street View is out of date and I can’t remember the name but I think it was around 21 Herrfurthstrasse. The host was really friendly and the café busy, the coffee, food and wi-fi excellent.

I cycled on stopping at a Santander to withdraw money, which was an unfruitful stop. Heed this NEVER EVER open a Santander account. Even though I have a Visa Debit and I was inside a Santander (Germany) branch my card would not work. Speaking perfect english the staff could not help me, this is Santander Germany your card is Santander UK you need to call them. I explained about my journey from Korea and that I had no cellphone account just wi-fi. They refused to help full-stop!

Continuing on I crossed the Neukollner Schiffahrtskanal and cycled down Elsenstrasse on the way to Treptower Park. Treptower Park is part of the larger borough of Treptow-Köpenick. The park dates back to the end of the 18th century, when the area it now stands on was partly cleared of a forest. Treptower Park was born, and in 1896, the Berlin Industrial Expo took place on the land, which spurred industry and development and heavily influenced the surrounding areas. I reached the communist memorials which are atypical and epic. Stretching over 10 hectares, the memorial consists of two enormous triangular red granite flags which flank a walkway down the middle. On one end, a statue of mother Russia weeps; on the other, a 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier stands upon a burial mound. He holds a German child in one hand, and a sword in the other, which he thrusts powerfully into a swastika under his feet The memorial is home to the bodies of 7,000 soviet soldiers, and commemorates the death of the 20,000 Russians who lost their lives in the Battle of Berlin. I met an elderly man and his wife who took a great interest in my Olympus Penn. He asked me where I was staying and that he now does not use hostels, he travels 6 months a year but uses Air B & B. I chuckled as he explained as the bones get older you need something more comfortable. He said hostels have become too noisy with parties of school kids, my experience thus far at The Three Pigs meant I fully concurred.

Cycling along the Spree, the quirkiness and ingenuity of Berliners is obvious. Parked along the river are rows and rows of boats. At first glance, they look perfectly normal: just some more tourist river cruises and yachts. But among closer inspection, potted plants, dining tables, and in one case even a mobile home atop the boats can be spotted. These are Berlin’s Wohn-Schiffe (House Boats), and they have a long tradition in Berlin. The boats range from 20-100 years old, and have been reincarnated to house Berlin’s adventurous river-dwellers.

Many were old GDR barges that, after the fall of the wall, were sold off and then renovated. Most of them don’t have engines, so are completely stationary. There are about 100 of these boats in Berlin, and many of them can be found in the docks of Treptower Park. Each has an interesting history; the bright blue Risiko, overflowing with foliage trailing down from its roof, dates back to the 1950’s and was used to house up to 14 dockyard workers.

From here I crossed under the S Bahn and headed towards Gorlitzer Park. Once an old railway station and then home to British anarchist art communes, Görlitzer is now a full-time, run-down, graffiti-garnished park space and a meeting place for Kreuzbergers of all kinds particularly if the sun decides to shine as today. The café-come-club Edelweiss is there to lubricate proceedings. Once again the African drug dealers were out in force and the deals were being done among the pushchairs, breastfeeding, young and elderly couples. Apparently large-scale raids have been ineffective most of the sellers or their successors come right back. Primarily, they are selling marijuana, but harder drugs are also available. And visitors can no longer walk through the park without being approached. The antidote for me was no eye  contact and my Sennheisser Momentums :-).

Emerging at the far end I took a right and crossed over the Oberbaumbrucke Bridge. Berlin’s double-decker bridge links the two Berlin districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain separated by the River Spree. Traffic runs on the lower part and trains on the second level. It was built on the site of a previous timber bridge built in 1724 when the construction of an elevated railway required a reinforced structure. The result was a seven-arched concrete bridge with a granite and brickwork façade. It is distinctive architecturally because of its mock medieval turrets – which recall the function of toll bridges and arches. Obviously at one time it was also a border crossing.

On the Friedrichshain side to the left is the East Side Gallery which is the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. To the right is an area of bars and galleries including Skalitzers Contemporary Gallery and Cassiopeia Bar. I circumnavigated the former railway siding taking many images of the street art before taking a left just beyond Skalitzers towards Boxhagnersplatz where the iron-work public loos where sealed up and covered in artwork. Across the park people ate lunch at the Kurhaus Korsakow Restaurant. This area is becoming very gentrified but still has an arty atmosphere. Passing along Grunbergerstrasse I took a left along Warschauerstrasse towards the East Side Gallery.

This is an open air gallery created from the Berlin Wall which is more than a kilometre long.  After the Wall came down in 1989, hundreds of artists from all over the world gathered and transformed the eastside of the Wall which had prior to that been untouchable. The art visually represents the change from a separated to a unified Germany.

Leaving the wall I passed the Berlin Ostbahnhof Station and took a left over the Spree following the road towards Mariannenplatz and Kreuzberg. On reaching Heinrichplatz I stopped for a sandwich and vino rouge at Pfeiffers, tres satisfying. One vino rouge turned into three of course! I cycled towards Orienienplatz and then Orienenstrasse heading to another Santander near Checkpoint Charlie. You guessed it on arrival it was the same party line, this is Santander Germany blah blah friggin’ blah. Irritated I set off to the Three Pigs but on the way spotted a cash machine. Out of curiosity I tried my Santander card guess what it worked so I can officially confirm that you cannot use a Santander Visa debit card at a Santander in Berlin but at any old hole in the wall you can! Charges to follow!!!!!

Day 5 was a rest day 🙂 and the next morning I had to take the train to Amsterdam. As usual in mainland Europe the train departed Berlin on time. The journey passed without a hitch and the dining carriage was pretty good even if the prices were somewhat hiked. So there it was 575km and 6 hours and 20 minutes later I arrived at Amsterdam Central on time, transferring to my hotel the Royal Taste.

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