Walls, wars and wasteland…
A word of advice for those of you planning a trip to Berlin. There are two functioning airports serving the German capital – Tegel, to the north-west of the city centre, and Schoenefeld, in the south. For the love of all that is holy, don’t fly to Tegel. I did…
Yes, it’s more convenient for the city centre, just. But it’s bloody awful. Ugly as sin, laid out wrong, with cramped security and departure areas, and a duty free that’s about the size of a telephone box.
It is however one of very few things I could pick fault with during my long weekend in Berlin – broken glass and a confusing overground and underground metro system were probably the only others.
Staying in Berlin will likely lead to you being camped in one of the three main central districts – Mitte, Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain. The east side of the Berlin wall separates the latter two, while Mitte is city centre. Base yourself in one of these areas to ensure you’re at the hub of everything you want to see and do.
I’m staying in the Kreuzberg district, right next to Gorlitzer park – arriving late at night in Kreuzberg drops you neck-deep without warning into the vibe of the area, a heady mix of scuzzy and vibrant. It’s a little intense at first, but once you acclimatise to this you’ll enjoy it for all its worth. Chilled cafe bars occupy the same streets as some of Berlin’s famous nightlife venues, which makes for an eclectic mix of footfall. You can find Chalet, Watergate and Berghain clubs all within walking distance of the eastern stations on the U1, green U-bahn metro line.
Kreuzberg is a decent base for exploring Berlin, with major things to see and do in each of the compass directions. Heading North will take you over the Oberbaumbrucke bridge (below), crossing the river Spree and down by the Berlin wall and East Side Gallery. South takes you through the suburbs to the disused airport at Tempelhof, now a massive open-air park and recreational area. East leads you out of the centre towards Treptower park and the Planterwald area along the river, while West takes you towards the centre of town for all the main documented attractions.
While the metro system is efficient and reasonably priced, I’d recommend hiring a bicycle if you want to get around quickly and freely. I managed to walk 10km on the Friday, but hired a bike for the Saturday and covered over 35km – don’t underestimate just how big Berlin is!
Starting west, in Mitte, most of the famous landmarks are actually really close together. You can find the Brandenburg gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag and the Holocaust memorial are all within about 1km of each other. I really don’t want to give too much away about the Holocaust memorial, but my advice as was given to me, is don’t research it or go to it with any forethought or expectations if at all possible. It is indescribably powerful going in blind.
I recommend you do that first, better still if the sky is not blazing with sunshine. Afterwards, take the short walk through the park to the Reichstag – this massive building is impressive and imposing in equal measure, and there’s a decent expanse of greenery in front where families enjoy picnics and friends enjoy beers and frisbee. I didn’t go in as I’m more focused on the outsides of buildings, but you can for a small fee.
A few steps back towards the centre will take you to the Brandenburg Gate and the Pariser Platz square – usually there will be something going on here as it’s flanked by US and French embassies, as well as the Academy of Arts and a focal point for marches and parades. Brandenburger Tor, as the gate is known in German, is pretty impressive as far as monumental gates go. It’s a site of huge political and historical importance, as well as a modern day symbol of peace and unity. Looks great in the early evening sun too…
I walked the long way back around the central area to the North side, where Kreuzberg meets the vibrant bohemian district of Friedrichshain. This is where you’ll find the wall, and the East Side gallery. One side is made up of graffiti and urban art – some political, some fun. The other is currently a photographic account of the war in Syria, a chilling and sobering experience that you should absolutely be prepared for. I’d say there’s probably about 500 metres on each side, equally interesting and thought-provoking whichever side you choose first.
If it all gets too much and you just want to chill out with a beer and some music nearby, look out for Yaam, near the Ostbahnhof station. This West African / Caribbean style village complex is a hidden gem, hosting live music sessions in the evenings but with bar, art gallery, beach area and authentic street food stalls during the day. Check out the jerk chicken van by the entrance…
A mile or so further along the Spree, heading East and out of the city, is Alt-Treptow. This district is worth half a day on its own, complete with pier and floating restaurants at the Insel der Jugend, the expansive Treptower park – great on a sunny Sunday morning, the enormous Soviet war memorial, and Spreepark at Planterwald. It’s where Berliners go for their peace and quiet.
Myself and an Australian called Sam (whose German, and possibly English, was better than mine) chose a glorious Sunday morning to check it all out. We also managed to find a tourist at the Soviet memorial with what’s possibly the biggest extending selfie-stick I’ve ever seen. I’m not joking, this contraption was easily 5 metres long, with a DSLR wedged on the top. Ridiculous – just buy a drone if you want to see that high up!
The real treat here though, was the abandoned theme park ‘Spreepark’, just along the river at Planterwald. An 8-foot green metal fence guards the perimeter of this once-popular attraction, as does the occasional security guard complete with dog, bicycle and torch, So you can’t go in. But this Sunday morning, while Klaus was reading his Bild am Sonntag from the comfort of his own home, we found a (just-about) man-sized hole under the fence.
As quietly as possible for two 13-stone men, we crunched through the over-grown perimeter gardens towards the main attraction – a creaking, still mechanically operational ferris wheel. Having realised we weren’t going to be busted by security or the Polizei, we explored the site further to discover some fantastic fun-park relics. Apparently the owner went bankrupt 15 years ago, and various projects to revive and refurbish have failed before they’ve even got started. Fine by us…
There’s a rusty, battered old rollercoaster track which feeds rather eerily into the gaping mouth of a rainbow-coloured cat, a fallen dinosaur that seems to have met a rather lonely demise, and an old wooden boat which looks like it used to float across a lake carrying passengers, pirates and pilgrims alike.
Good old black and white filters are brilliant for capturing the mood here – the park where nobody plays. Except us, and a few other urban explorers who ignored the ‘VERBOTEN’ signs and hopped the fence. And play we did. Some bright yellow tea-cup rides caught our attention, which to our surprise still worked. Well, minus the electrics, but they were perfectly good for a spin and ten minutes of acting like we were ten again!
It seems the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ rings true here. Hell, even if it is broken, don’t fix it, just build a new one, and never actually finish it. That’s the story with Tempelhof, to the South of the city. A massive disused airfield that used to be a major transport hub for the city – well, it’s disused as an airfield anyhow. Today it’s a hugely popular public recreation area, used by kiteboarders, cyclists, picnickers and families. I even managed to find a few games of bicycle polo happening in some makeshift plywood-and-pallet courts.
Tempelhof is a great way to kill a few hours if you’ve got some friends, a barbecue and a basket of beers. There are also a number of S and U-bahn stations around the perimeter depending on which direction you’re coming from. If you like your enjoyment a little more challenging to find, and in the form of urban exploration, then head west out of the city towards the Grunewald forest.
I went via the Olympiastadion, home to Hertha Berlin football club but also the site of the (in)famous 1936 Summer Olympics, where the black American athlete Jesse Owens managed to royally piss Hitler and his Nazi band of merry men off by winning 4 gold medals. There’s a plaque of all the winners’ names and nationalities at the stadium, as well as a road running parallel which has been named Jesse-Owens-Allee. Suppose that’s the least they could do…
A good mile or so from here is the Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) former Allied listening station, perched on top of a massive man-made hill of rubble nearly 400 feet above the Berlin skyline. It covers an unfinished Nazi military technical college which was so well-built, it was easier to cover with rubble than blow it up. Devil’s Mountain indeed…
The draw now is purely artistic, as the buildings and radomes are a gallery of graffiti. It’s not the safest structure in the world but you’ll be fine unless you’re an idiot – I’m terrible with heights but access via the main stairwells is fine and there are decent barriers at the top. Find the main entrance and pay your £7 to the man on the gate. Be warned, it’s a bloody steep hill and a fair walk/cycle to the nearest station! Very much worth the effort if you enjoy this kind of thing – some excellent work and some good vistas of the city can be seen from the top.