My journey to Berlin was a stressful one, filled with cancelled trains, controlled explosions leading to missed connections and an unexpected diversion into Switzerland. By the time I made it to my hostel, I was absolutely shattered, aching and pretty stinky.
I had planned on having a drink, chilling out and prepping for the next day but instead I grabbed a much-needed shower and collapsed into my bed.
The hostel was freezing that night – thankfully one of my dorm mates had an extra duvet which he let me use – but I didn’t particularly sleep as well as I wanted, so when I woke up on Saturday, I felt more exhausted than I had the night before. Over the previous two nights, I think I had no more than 7 hours sleep in total.
Early Saturday afternoon, my friend Damian was arriving, so I decided to use the morning to have a little explore, find some coffee to perk me up, and head to our pre-arranged meeting place. Simple, right?
I couldn’t get cash out on my first attempt, the first coffee shop I found didn’t take card, and then when I finally found somewhere to get cash and coffee I managed to get completely lost.
I’m normally excellent at directions, but the map I got at my hostel was terrible and I am blaming my lack of sleep for my disorientation.
But then, in what I took as a sign, I found a street called Sophienstrasse, so of course I went to have a little explore down there (and it was one of the only streets on my shit map that was named) and then I stumbled across Grosse Hamburger Strasse (food!!!!) that lead to Auguststrasse (my birth month), and all of a sudden I found myself out of the fog (literally, it was thick, grey and miserable) and on the right way to Alexanderplatz. Success!
Feeling more confident, I was on track to meet Damo and get my first caramel latte in months (it’s the little things).
It being -2 outside, I comforted myself in the warm Starbucks with my soothing coffee until his arrival, and made some plans for the rest of the day.
And then as soon as Damo arrived we were off for a proper explore. There was a thick fog hanging over Berlin and the TV Tower was barely visible, so unfortunately the plan to go to the top of the tower was off the cards.
We had already booked tickets for the Reichstag (free, but essential) so headed there, via somewhere for food. Again, because of the fog, the views were extremely limited. I got one of the free headsets (too nerdy even for Damian) but a lot of what was being described wasn’t visible that day. Annoying as it was, I still learnt a lot about the building and modern German history and politics.
We then made our way to the Topography of Terror via the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial.
Due to the weather, each of the pillars of the memorial were covered in condensation and I was quite upset to see that a number of people had found the need to write such things as “I was ‘ere” and “so and so hearts so and so” on the memorial. It felt like many of the visitors had no comprehension for what the memorial represented and that laid heavy on my heart.
I also did not understand the need of many of the tourists to take pictures of themselves amid the stones. Of all the things that you visit in Berlin, this is one of the places that has the least to do with you than anything else. Take pictures, yes, but a memorial for the 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims has absolutely no need for you to pose among the pillars. Would you take selfies at Birkenau? Pose among the ruins of the gas chambers? The answer should always be no. Take a step back from your selfish need to show you are “thoughtful” by visiting such places and just take in what it all means. Understand the significance, learn from it, and promise never to let anything like that happen again. That can all be achieved without an Instagram post of you looking wistfully into the distance as you ponder all those things.
We continued on our way to the Topography of Terror, just as the fog was starting to overcome the city, and after an hour or so of learning about the Third Reich and seeing just how easily a rhetoric can be accepted by the masses (sound familiar), our mood was somewhat in need of lifting. As we were close to Checkpoint Charlie we headed there (and mistakenly visited the gift shop – seriously, you can sell tat for anything) and then back to Prenzlauer Berg, the district where our hostel was based.
We found a very edgy bar round the corner from the hostel called Cafe Morgenrot where the beer was cheap and the atmosphere lively. Sometime later, after some heated debate about equal rights and politics (I think we were feeling pretty riled up after our day), we found a kebab shop a couple of doors down where we got a pitta the size of my head filled to the brim with meat and salad for 4 Euros – 100 times tastier than your Friday night drunken kebab – and made our way back to the hostel with aching feet, filled bellies and slightly light heads.
Having been quite overwhelmed with history and politics on Saturday, we spent Sunday morning enjoying breakfast at Cafe Krone – more hip than anywhere in Shoreditch – (although my eggs were slightly overcooked, and that’s not a euphemism for my age) before heading to the flea market at Mauerpark just up the road. It is any true hipsters dream. Rows upon rows of vintage clothes and goods, boxes of treasures from times past. If I were not only travelling with just my rucksack for the foreseeable future, I could have quite easily bought half the market. But that didn’t stop Damo being roped in to spending 15 Euros on a Soviet hat; the stall owner saw him coming a mile away.
Mauerpark – literally Wall Park – was part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip, so once again in Berlin you find yourself dragged into its unsettling and gritty history. The city is rich and interesting and varied, and extremely modern in parts, but it is so hard to escape the last century’s history. Whether the city – and country – should begin to move away from that is another question. It is so important that what happened there is remembered, and it is still so recent that it is right that visitors come away with a greater understanding of that history, but I think it must be so hard to be part of the younger generations and perhaps feeling unable to escape the mistakes and terrors of your country’s past, especially when so many tourists are there primarily to visit the sites that represent that. Perhaps that’s why Berlin has such a vibrant nightlife. An escape.
With a train to catch to Krakow that evening, the rest of the day was spent exploring, wandering, grabbing hot drinks in the warm to heat ourselves up and to rest our weary feet.
Two days in Berlin is not enough, and I will definitely be back, if only to enjoy more of its nightlife and to explore the many more gems I know it has to offer.
How I got there
Train – Perpignan > Narbonne > Basel > Berlin (17 hours)
Where I stayed
East Seven hostel in Prenzlauer Berg
How much I spent
£140.76 (including £43.54 in additional reservation fees for my interrail pass*) or £47 a day
Have spare change to hand if you need to use the loo while you are out and about – both public and many restaurant (including fast food joints) toilets charge between 0.5-1 Euro a pop
*I will explain more about Interrail fees, and pros and cons of the pass, in a later blog