Berlin, Railways, Bridges, a Nation’s Glass, and Grass.
Being in a country where I don’t speak the language always gives me a revived interest in the conversations of people around me. Oftentimes at home I wish I couldn’t hear what people were saying, but in Berlin I found myself continually wondering what was being said in German. A knowledge of the language spoken undoubtedly gives you a greater sense of the people of a country. Despite this lacking of mine, I would enjoy the cadence and intonations, watching people’s faces as they spoke to one another. There was almost an ancillary silence that accompanied the soft music in my brain. I was more free to question ideas of the present, of art.
I spent a majority of my time seeing museums and galleries, all so varied in what they contain. Berlin has a whole piece of land entitled Museum Island, containing the Pergamon Museum, Neues Museum, Bode Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Altes Museum; these grand Neoclassical buildings rise up from the water, containing relics of antiquity. I came upon these structures by happenstance my first day there, among the various tourists wandering from one of the city centers, Alexanderplatz. Red carpets on stairs, marble, and rounded skylights are among the many things to catch your eye.
Another day found me at the Hamburger Banhof Museum, what I would liken to The Whitney Museum in New York City. The museum was originally a railway station and is now home to contemporary and modern art with an emphasis on installation pieces. Inside was a glass clock with no hands, surrounded by iron sculpted birds, all at my feet warning me not to misstep. The main room’s walls were covered in musical scores and confidential files. I am admittedly not the largest fan of modern art, and so had a Berliner Pilsner outside before entering. Mind you, I had also been walking around for hours before, slightly lost, given I stupidly chose to go the roundabout way from Tiergarten and around the massive Hauptbahnhof station currently encased in construction. As they say, all part of the experience. My being able to walk around and even ride the U-Bahn or S-Bahn with an open beer bottle is very much a part of that as well!
Walking for me is always the best way to really see a city, and in Berlin this was no small feat. The vastness of the city is extraordinary; you never really feel as if you’re in a busy city. The larger roads and areas are very spread out, regimented if you will, and not nearly as crowded as you would expect. The Spree river cuts through the center of the city and is beautiful to walk along. The sunsets seem pink even on rainy days, and the light reflects off of the countless colorful buildings. In the more secluded areas you will find cobblestones, possibly my favorite feature of a any place, and will only see a handful of people at a time. I often wondered if everyone was hiding away in their favorite bar somewhere…
I did find a favorite drinking hideaway myself, a wine bar, or weinerie, called Perlin in the Mitte neighborhood. With lush red colors, night lights in the form of saints, large nudge paintings, cushions, candle votives covered in glitter, and jeweled chandeliers, I certainly felt like I had found a piece of the old world. I paid a few euros for my wine glass and then was left to my own devices, those being my own pouring of the numerous red wines laid out on the bar table. I sat writing while watching the young workers prepare dinner in the back, rolling dough, taste-testing asparagus soup; the scrawny, blonde boy hugging his girlfriend and chatting along with the music. Most kitchens in restaurants are either too dirty or too sterilized, but the one I could see here was just like a kitchen in a home, the perfect balance. They let me smoke a cigarette inside too, and I realized the rarity of my looking at a red rose on the table and not hating it.
The most surprising aspect of the city for me was the alarming differences in architecture – the neoclassical structures, the many gothic-like churches, buildings clearly constructed in the Reich years, Stalinist apartments with small inlaid balconies, and then the insanely modern buildings that far surpass skyscrapers in concept. In direct contact with this variety is the overwhelming graffiti that covers a majority of buildings, doors, archways… even most of the Berlin Wall. A section of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery is a very impressive open air gallery of paintings along the Spree river. Most of the paintings have been restored during the 21st century after being covered in graffiti. The piece I spent the most time observing was a mural by Dmitri Vrubel of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing. All over the city the more minimalistic features seem almost cruel, and there is a quiet rage in a lot of the art and graffiti that is both startling and inspiring. It is often said that the right thing is not always the easiest, and I found myself wondering if what’s beautiful also isn’t the easiest or simplest.
When I wasn’t looking at art, I was usually eating. Cheese is like my achilles’ heel, and to have it for breakfast every morning was delightful, especially when accompanied by a croissant. Baked goods and sandwiches I often saw being consumed, and it was normal to pass people having a slice of cake or some kind of pastry in the afternoon. Then again, Berliner does mean “donut.” Even with my knowing Berlin to be an international metropolis, I was generally surprised at the number of ethnic foods, particularly Vietnamese, Korean, and other Asian influences. People seemed as likely to stop for a bowl of noodles as they did for currywurst. Kimchi Princess is a notable restaurant for the former. Amidst these were the many cafes ranging from pop art deco style, to gypsy fashioning, to century old that I usually visited a few times a day. These small havens for a good cappuccino allowed me to rest a bit in between excursions, and one day they even allowed me to hide from the sporadic hail storms.
The last weekend I was there proved to have beautiful weather, and I sat in many of the parks that are all over the city. My favorite area in Berlin was Prenzlauer Berg; this neighborhood also contained the oldest public park in the city, Volkspark Friedrichshain, full of monuments, swan ponds, an open air theater, and playgrounds. Despite swans being notoriously mean-spirited creatures, they are still beautiful to watch from afar. On my last day in Berlin I made sure to visit the nearby Mauerpark wherein there is a flea market on Sundays. Not only was this market massive, but it was also unbelievably packed! One of the eating areas even boasted of a large sand area with beach chairs. I made sure to buy some small gifts: pink doorknobs for my mother’s new house, vintage cigarette cases and old photographic prints for myself, and a lovely, paper replica of a theater and actors from an old, German woman for my nieces. I spent the rest of that day in leisure in the sun, reading, watching everyone go by on bicycles, and wishing I had more time. I certainly would miss the high windows of my hotel room, all of the light, and the church bells that woke me up every morning.
Berggruen Museum: mostly Matisse and Picasso (I found a Picasso entitled Dora Maar with Green Fingernails that I thought could have been my own portrait). This museum is also next to the Charlottenburg Palace and near Kurfürstendamm (a shopping strip for the high-end luxury seekers).
The Kulturforum: an artistic and cultural mecca near Potsdamer Platz containing many museums, such as the Neue Nationalgalerie, as well as the Berlin State Library and Berliner Philharmonie (even just googling a picture of this concert hall will wow you).
Sanssouci Royal Park: an incredible area in the outskirts of Berlin which contains the former summer palace of Frederick The Great in which his burial tomb now resides, terraced gardens that rival the Palace of Versailles, gazebos, Rococo and Baroque styles, large grounds, and the New Palace (in which I toured the inside – stunning).
Clubs: while not the goal of my solitary trip, the nightlife is certainly the goal of most in traveling to Berlin. Berghain and Watergate are two of the more notorious spots for underground and electronic music. Others include Blank, Charlet, Ritter Butzke, and Weekend. The electronic scene tends to start at midnight and go through dawn the next day!
Simon Dach Strasse: a great area for bars and mingling, notably Dachkammer, a bar furnished like a living room (fireplace and all).
Oranienstrasse: my kind of area for shopping in vintage stores, eating at deli/market style restaurants, and having a glass of wine or two.
Eismanufaktur Ice-Cream Parlours: as a devoted lover of ice cream, these shops were delicious.
Der Hahn ist tot!: wonderful little restaurant that serves a great moules frites, along with good red wine in beautiful antique glasses. There is also a charming church across the street.
By Codie Steesma