Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Berlin: poor, sexy... and too much for just one long weekend

Arriving in Berlin for an unseasonably warm spring break, the stark contrasts to London are a welcome smack in the face. From the clear and still twilight, and the verdant pockets on every street, to the happy shiny locals reclining in parks on picnic rugs with Berliner Pilsner – around Lambeth’s open spaces we’re more familiar with the drinking schools downing Carlsberg Special Brew. For this never-been-homesick ex-pat Melbournian, the similarities to Australia’s second city were sneaky and a little unnerving: three million-odd inhabitants feels positively villagey and street art is the dominant urban feature; cycling is less a political statement and more just a practical way to get from A to B; and black is the sartorial go-to tone for the locals in neighbourhoods like Mitte and Kreuzberg.

Kaiser Karl looms over the East Side Gallery

It’s not like Berlin as hipster epicentre and capital of cool is a big secret; it’s been crowned the new NYC for its cheap rents and appeal to college graduates, creatives and musicians and, predictably, as the city’s gentrification has pushed the working classes further into outer suburbs, it’s created a palpable ‘anti-tourist’ vibe in pockets of the former East Berlin which makes it even more appealing for the young and edgy.

Hipsters, take note: street graffiti in Kreuzberg

Instant accommodation upgrade
However for Londoners wanting to experience an inaugural Berlin experience it’s easy to put it off, since it’s comparatively freezing in winter and blistering in summer, and boasts too many must-dos to squeeze into a Bank holiday weekend. Given you’ll want five days minimum – we had seven days – forget hotels and hostels and sub-let an apartment through
Air B’n’B – a slicker version of Craigs List or Gumtree, where hosts and travellers build profiles and rate each other for added security. If you’re used to London rental prices and hotel tarriffs, sub-letting in Berlin will be a pleasant shock to the system. We stayed on the vicinity of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, where chic neighbourhood café-bars dot every street corner (perhaps the Brixton equivalent would be a betting shop...) and you could have squeezed half a dozen dossers into our 1BR apartment (obviously we didn’t – we were on holidays, right?).

Apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg

Get your bearings in style
I’m all for the kitsch appeal of an open-top bus around Westminster, but Berlin calls for something a bit more DIY and grungey. If you're interested in a city’s living history – a.k.a. bars, gig venues, art and design hot spots, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll... – the Alternative Berlin Tours’ free tour should be top of your ‘to do’ list. It’s a walking tour interspersed with a few U-Bahn rides and points out the squats, street artists, reclaimed community hubs and ethnic enclaves that characterise modern Berlin. Guides point out all the remnants from Berlin's chequered past that you'd only notice after years in the capital. It’s “free”, but guides well deserve a €10 tip at the end - and a drink if they finish the tour at Yaam reggae beach bar - especially since they'll happily mark their local recommendations on your map.

Tommy-Weisbecker-Haus: squat, community centre and music venue

You can't sit around being a drunk/hungover hipster the whole time you're in town, but there are options for tourists who hate history, museums and antique architecture. Fat Tire Bike Tours’ all-in-one bike tour does exactly that – providing historical context in situ (on your own super-comfy cruiser) and explaining everything from the Third Reich and World War 2, to Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War - not to mention cruising through the city’s lush Tiergarten and chilling in a beer garden. No matter if your only understanding of the Berlin Wall comes from Scorpion’s Wind of Change (and that’s nothing to be ashamed about, *cough*), once you do get your head around the whole East/West Berlin-Berlin Wall thing, you’ll understand why you never understood it in the first place.

Shop for vintage one-offs
Given its history dotted with political upheaval, a cultural predisposition to design precision, and its contemporary “sexy but poor” reputation, Berlin’s flea markets are a treasure trove of random gems. Prices are, predictably, cheaper than anything you’d find in Paris’ Puces de Vanves or the Camden stables in London. If you’re a shoe-loving lady with 41-42 size feet, you’ll be in heaven. I’ve never seen such a range of vintage footwear in big sizes.
The Flohmarkt in Mauerpark (Prenzlauer Berg) runs every Sunday, with stalls selling vintage clothes, shoes and collectibles, plus new clothes and jewellery most likely made by a Central St Martins graduate who’s moved to Berlin for the cheap rent. I scooped the vintage find of a lifetime here on Easter Sunday: a purple, yellow, red and green leather bomber jacket – think early 90s Cross Colours – complete with padded appliqué shapes, for €35. Just down the road there’s another Sunday flea market in Arcona Platz. It’s smaller – definitely not so overwhelming for half-hearted thrifters – but boasts some great art and antique vendors.

Tempelhof Park: Berlin's revamped airport

Get on yer bike
In May 2010, Mayor Klaus Wowreit – he of the infamous "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy" quote – opened the former Tempelhof Airfield to the public, in doing so creating the city’s biggest park. Hiring a bike and cycling down to Tempelhof – an easy 20mins from Alexander Platz – ticks a ‘tourist attraction’ box as well as well as hanging out like a local. After WW2 Tempelhof was Berlin’s gateway to the West – Allied planes delivered supplies to stranded West Berliners, and East Berlin refugees could depart for West Germany without controls (this will all make sense once you’ve done the Fat Tire Bike Tour, trust me).
The 355-hectare space is testament to Berlin’s knack for reclaiming bleak industrial spaces into community hubs – the runways now buzz with cyclists, skaters and joggers, you’ll see some pretty impressive barbecuing on the grass, and it hosts international trade shows and events such as the Berlin Festival.

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