48 hours in Berlin

November 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm

According to legend, Berlin’s residents take pride in being blunt to the point of grumpiness. The phenomenon even has a name: The Berliner Schnauze (“Berliner snout”).

Are the Berliners hard done by? Or is the reputation deserved?

Either way, Berlin is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s top destination cities, so Slip of the Tongue spent a weekend in the city to check it out.

I heart Berlin

Would 48 hours be long enough to sample a city famous for parties that last longer than that?

Friday 14:00 – Alexanderplatz

First impression of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof after arriving by train: the terminal could have been designed by M.C. Escher (it later became clear that this is standard for larger Berlin stations). Going from deep underground to elevated platforms, it’s a monster. Still, the train was comfortable and on-time, so no complaints there. My local guide Max threads us through the station like a nimble seamstress and we are soon on our way out into the city.

Mobile Hotdog Men

“I really don’t get why tourists come to Alexanderplatz” says Max, and he might have a point. Apart from the guys walking around with hot-dog making equipment strapped to their backs, there is little to commend a square looks like a slice of particularly drab 1960s communist public planning. Which is, of course, exactly what Alexanderplatz is. The enormous Fernsehturm (TV tower) dominates the skyline and is the Berliners’ favoured navigation point.

Fernsehturm

We promptly leave the square and take a stroll through some of Berlin’s famous sights, including the Brandenburger Tor and nearby holocaust memorial.  There are cranes and enormous building sites everywhere. You cannot turn a corner in the city centre without bumping into one.

Most of the building sites are also accompanied by pink tubes coming out of the ground, apparently to remove excess water. They give parts of the city a certain screensaver aesthetic.

Friday 16:00 – Relaxing by the Spree

Now this is more like it. In the railway arches along the banks of the River Spree, we settle down for a couple of those famous German beers in the sunshine. On the opposite bank, the giant Pergamon Museum looms over the river.

The cafe is called Ampelmann (ampelmann-restaurant.de) and is named after the charismatic little man who appears on East Germany’s pedestrian traffic lights.

He is the ampelmann, I am the walrus

Outside, the Berliners are taking it easy in the autumn sunshine, and the sound of deep house music spills out over the terrace. All of which is very nice indeed, but starting an evening out in Berlin at 4pm cannot be a good idea, considering the fearsome reputation of the local nightclubs. So, on with the historical stuff.

Friday 18:00 – Bernauer Straße wall memorial

Bernauer Strasse Death Strip

The Berlin Wall memorial is chilling. A section of the wall and its “death strip” have been left standing, alongside a park dedicated to the people who died trying to cross into the West. In the nearby U-Bahn station there is a permanent exhibition showing how the network was divided during the Cold War and how people tried to escape through the underground train tunnels.

It really brings home how recently Berlin was unified.

Friday 19:00 – Prenzlauer Berg

If Berlin is a city fighting against gentrification, the battle has been well and truly lost in Prenzlauer Berg. The punks’ loss is the visitors’ gain as the wide streets are brimming with activity in the evening. Dinner on Kastanienallee is not especially cheap, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere is gemütlich.

Gemütlichkeit, however, isn’t the ideal preparation for a trip to the nightclub Berghain, which is our goal for the evening. So we head eastwards to Friedrichshain.

Friday 20:00 – Friedrichshain

Arriving by S-Bahn in Friedrichshain, it is clear that this was, until recently, on the “less architecturally pleasing” side of the Iron Curtain. But the ugly old buildings are being given a new lease of life by local artists and the street art is truly impressive.

Broken Fingaz

There is really something in the air in Friedrichshain. After dropping off luggage at the rather nice (and very affordable) PLUS hostel which will be home for the weekend, the short walk to the grid of bars, cafes and restaurants north of Revaler Straße takes us past 3 different sets of street musicians that were worth listening to. One was a trombonist who was sampling and looping himself, which was particularly impressive.

Friedrichshein photoautomaten

The area is really vibrant, with bars, shops and restaurants spilling out (in an orderly fashion) onto the pavement, although the coolest kids appear to be drinking on the street outside an off-license. Deep house music is everywhere.

Saturday 02:30 – Berghain

Berghain (berghain.de) is probably Berlin’s most famous nightclub. Its “dark rooms” where anything goes are legendary, as are the capricious door staff. A no-camera policy only adds to the mystique. Located in an abandoned power station, this is the refined essence of techno clubbing.

Despite its size, finding Berghain proves surprisingly challenging. After walking for at least half an hour through Friedrichshain and an apparently abandoned industrial estate, asking at least five different people how to get to the club, gradually the dull thud of a distant drum machine starts to resonate in the night air.

The listing for the evening said electro-funk. Electro-funk in Berlin should sound something like “Kompakt meets Afrika Bambaataa, with a hint of Donna Summer”, right?

When we get to the door, there is no queue at all, which is rarely a good sign for a nightclub. Still, this is Berghain, so in we go. Another pair had turned up half a minute before us and been stopped by the bouncers, apparently just because they could.

So, how was it? Pretty dull, to be honest. The sound system was only half on, the Panorama Bar was shut and the electro-funk was being poorly mixed by men in balaclavas standing behind Apple Macs. How could this be? A local couple broke the sad news: Saturday is the night to go to Berghain, when the party starts at midnight and goes on until Monday lunchtime.

Oh well, the kebab stand outside does a great falafel, so the trip is not entirely wasted.

Saturday 05:00 – Matrix, Friedrichshain

Before arriving back at the hostel, that familiar nightclub thump appears again. We are pulled off course and ready to reimmerse in the darkness. Sadly, as we approach the busy Matrix nightclub (matrix-berlin.de), that sound turns out to be a Bruno Mars song, so we reverse 180° and call it a night.

Saturday 15:00 – Berlin Underworld Tour, Gesundbrunnen

After a currywurst to reinvigorate the senses, next stop is a half-destroyed Second World War flak tower. Berlin Underworld Tours (berliner-unterwelten.de) have been running for the last decade and offer a fascinating glimpse into the city’s past. Particularly the dark and dank parts of it.

Underworld tour

The tours are offered in a variety of languages and our particular trip goes through a monstrous fortress built by the Nazis to protect Berlin from Allied air raids. The walls are made of 3.5m thick concrete and have survived various attempted demolitions. Our guide is extremely knowledgeable and we come out feeling enriched.

On the side of the tower, which is now half-buried by a park, local climbers ascend the graffiti-covered walls, while an impromptu drum and bass party is in full swing on the top.

Saturday 20:00 – Braufest Berlin, Friedrichshain

Berlin Braufest

After seeing giant beer bikes rolling around the city centre all weekend, it’s time to enjoy brews from smaller breweries across Germany and beyond. The beers have wonderful names like Holy Shit Ale, Szechuan Saison and Wedding Pale Ale, but our favourites are the Schneider Weißbiers. Weizen is really a Bavarian thing, but it tastes fantastic in the open air.

The event takes place at the RAW-Gelände, a public arts and events space in Friedrichshein that is beautifully decorated with graffiti.

Sunday 01:00 – Salon zur Wilden Renate, Friedrichshain

Now THIS is a nightclub. A long walk past the corporate HQs of some multinationals takes us to an unassuming doorway on a street corner near the Treptow Harbour. After paying the €10 entry, we find ourselves in a courtyard with an open-air bar, eclectic decoration and a boat suspended in the middle of it all. Inside, the club is a maze of corridors, small dance floors, bars and bizarre rooms to be used or abused as patrons wish. There is even an occasional bed dotted around the club.

Renate

As the night goes on, new rooms and corridors open and the party spreads like the tentacles of a horny octopus through the old building. The crowd is very cool and international; we chat with people from Spain, France, Slovenia, Britain and Berlin and the conversations regularly change language. More people confirm that Berghain is usually excellent, so it appears we were just unlucky.

A few people complain that their friends had been turned away on the door at Renate, which seems to be a theme in Berlin’s nightlife. Is this a good thing or not? Throughout the weekend, the bouncers were barely present inside the clubs, and the atmosphere in Renate was excellent; perhaps a selective door policy contributed to that. Speaking German certainly appears to help when dealing with bouncers.

Anyway, the music is first-class, ranging from the ubiquitous deep house to dub, via an excellent room of (proper) electro-funk where the chequered dance floor has almost been ground into non-existence by dancers having a great time. When we leave at 7am, the crowd have migrated into the smallest room of the club, where the soundtrack could have come from a Tarantino movie. But the party is still going. Wild indeed.

We later found out that there is an actual maze, decorated by local artists, underneath the club.

Sunday 11:00 – East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

The longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall captures the excitement in the air in 1990. Artists from all over the world were invited to decorate 1.5km of the wall along the Spree. Many of the paintings are now covered in graffiti, but lose none of their impact.

A leisurely stroll along the gallery takes a good 30 minutes and is well worth it.

Sunday 12:00 – Mauerpark Flea Market

…or at least that was the plan. Famous for its bearpit karaoke and diverse stalls, Mauerpark is supposed to be one of the best open-air markets in Europe. But leaving nightclubs at 7am is not conducive to afternoons of shopping and singing.

So, instead, let’s reflect on the beauty of the döner kebab, something that definitely goes well with a hangover. Berlin is the home of the döner and the greasy treat is more popular than ever. See evidence below.

Kebaborama

Apparently the döners in Berlin are the best in the world. All I can tell you is that the combination of salt, fat and protein is like a greasy elixir for a sore head.

Sunday 14:00 – homeward bound

So, is 48 hours long enough to get to grips with Berlin?

No way! All it does is leaves you wanting more. There was something very exciting in the air, a mix of youth and creativity.

Parties at Berghain last almost 48 hours. Edgar Reitz’s film Heimat lasts 53 hours. Who knows how long it would take to walk around the gigantic Pergamon museum? This is a city that deserves your attention.

It was really affordable too, with a bed in a hostel costing €15 per night, a beer costing around €3 and public transport costing around €2.20 per journey (which means a ticket valid for 120 minutes).

In short, highly recommended. And not a snout in sight. Except possibly in the döners.

Thanks to Epochend for the additional photos

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