So, my timing could not be better:
“Berlin isn’t just another town cashing in on a tech gimmick — it’s the hottest startup capital in Europe. Our city’s openness to new ideas attracts doers from around the world, from enterprising artists to optimistic entrepreneurs. Here, they learn new skills, make new friends and constantly shake things up in this ever-evolving metropolis. If you want to join in on the action, spend some time at these places: the best spots to chill, network, co-work and dream up what could be the next big thing. Business as usual is never the motto.”
Arriving here after 45 years, I found a very different city. As Jack Lang, the French minister of culture once said, “Paris is always Paris, but Berlin is never Berlin.” It is always changing, evolving, and transforming. It is an eclectic place, with youth, change, and a tolerant mentality.
The reunification has made one big city. But thirty years of division created institutions that developed separately. The result is two world famous concert venues, two zoos, and three opera houses. And abandoned factories are morphing into restaurants and businesses. For instance, a former power station has morphed into a gourmet restaurant, called Volt.
Yet: In April 2013, a Canadian astronaut published an impressive photo of nighttime Berlin taken from space. The division between East and West is still very clear in the image, apparently because the street lamps in the two halves of the city, installed when Berlin was still divided, differ. Lighting aside, the border between East and West may be gone, but traces of the city’s Communist past are still very easy to find.
I want to find traces for selfish reasons. My first trip here in 1971 was so memorable, because of the Berlin Wall, because of the Cold War, and because of the stark contrast between East and West.
What else? Tempelhof, the old airport built in 1923 in now a huge public park. But the hangars are used to house refugees. Several slaughterhouse buildings have been turned into luxury apartments. And breweries have been turned into galleries, restaurants, shops, and a hostel!
True to form, Berlin had over 350 breweries as far back as the 19th century. They consolidated, went out of business, and buildings fell into disuse, left to crumble. Recently, they are getting new lives, as centers for art and culture, reinvigorating the areas around them.
Since the fall of the wall in 1989, Berlin has become synonymous with the alternative lifestyle. Google has received almost half a billion hits for the “next Berlin”!!! For instance, Kreuzberg hosts official street food nights on Thursdays at Markthalle Neun. Friedrichshain becomes party central once the sun goes down, but starts as a great place for daytime shopping. Neukolln is home to the Tempelhof Park, as well as the culturally diverse Turkish market. Live music, barbecues, kite flying, and Turkish tea are the order of the day.
The glitzier Mitte is the place, with Reichstag buildings mixed with a Holocaust memorial. Studio, a restaurant, sits directly on the Berlin Wall trail. And Crackers is a hidden nightclub, similar to the enormously successful Cookies, and a veg restaurant, Cream. (Get it! Cookies and Cream?)
No German city is complete without the three “wursts”, currywurst, bockwurst, and bratwurst. Brats, the most internationally known, are pork, veal or beef sausage, pan-fried and served with mustard and bread. Currywurst was put together with British Army borrowed condiments, and German sausage. It is grilled bratwurst, sliced, and topped with catsup and curry powder. It is the most popular among Berliners, and even has its own museum! Bockwurst looks like an American hot dog, made of veal and pork, but seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika. Then simmered and served with mustard. It is best paired with bock beer.
Some travel conglomerate came up with an annual index of Western countries, with Germany crowned the best country in the world. They are, naturally, celebrating by raising a pint, despite endless options. A rather unique local beer is the Berliner Weisse, a sour, tart, fruity and spritzy beer with a unique flavor. Love it or leave it! It is brewed only in Berlin, and is ordered as green or red, referring to a shot of raspberry or woodruff syrup, to cut the tartness. Apparently, this tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. And maybe best left there?
The point of all of this rambling discussion is that Berlin has transformed itself. Is it one big city or still two cities with distinct histories and cultures? Is it the hippest place in Europe, if not the modern world? I assure you that I will do my best to find out.
A big weight seems to have lifted from my last visit, 45 years ago, the Berlin Wall the focal point, not life in general. Great to see somany bicyclists, young and old. Many are quite elderly!
But the number of smokers is alarming. I knew Amsterdam and Dublin would be bad, but Berlin wins the “I got cancer and emphysema award” for the New Millenium. The numbers, just guessing, are close to 50%!!! Even the great looking young chicks.
But do not let it distract from this city of cities. Berlin is the center, not only of Germany, but all of what remains of the European Union. This is THE place, despite the travails of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Cameron..
More practically, I had a fabulous dinner at Leibnizklause, about 4 blocks from my hotel, the Kempinski Bristol. A real hotel, after two rather spartan, and smallish hotels in Dublin, and Amsterdam. I started with three extremely necessary beers. I followed that with French onion soup, then the famous Sauerbraten, made not with beef, but wild boar!! I topped off dinner with apple struedel, and a glass of sweet white wine whose name escapes me.
Needless to say, I could not eat it all, but the German came spewing out of my mouth like a Kraut at a spelling bee. The waiter spoke some English, and the locals were holding court in the bar.
Most definitely, I am staying on the fashion corner of all of Germany, the famous Kurfurstendamm, the most stylish section of Berlin, and the entire country. Every designer brand is here, including Tesla, and Prada. It is a shoppers paradise.
As I may have told you, I had a 3 hour delay getting here today on Easyjet, which rivals Air Asia and Buddha Air as the world’s worst. But we got here safely. My only worry now is getting out of here on Thursday, to catch my flights home, starting in Amsterdam, with a connection in Dublin.
I am most anxious to see this great city after a 45 year hiatus. Already, it seems destined for great things. This is when a city becomes exciting to be part of. And it certainly is!!! You must go!