Was ist los, was ist das? (MODO)
NEW! See this online map to Bookpacking's Berlin
The gentle tring of bicycle bells on East Berlin's supremely-civilised cyclepath network belies a history of violence on those streets. In 1806 Napoleon marched his troops through the Brandenburg Gate humiliating Prussia in a pre-unified Germany. Then in 1919, revolutionaries fought in the streets before the the short-lived Weimar Republic took hold.
The headily decadent interlude that was the "Golden Twenties" was soon brushed aside by the brutality of Nazism which segued into the Red Army occupation which crushed the workers uprising of 1953. For four decades the violence was mostly psychological as the Stasi turned the surveillance screw.
But now, post-'89, in areas like Prenzlauerberg trendy couples show off their new babies in the burgeoning cafes and restaurants; Berlin is a byword for the cutting edge in arts and culture. Scenesters flock to Neukolln, squatters stubbornly cling to Mitte, and pockets of punks stick two fingers up to the gentrification process. Meanwhile, an expanding EU puts the city quite literally in the middle of Europe.
An eclectic island of internationalism, and a city of singletons, in 2009 Berlin celebrated 20 years since the Wall took a fall. By all means, see the Stasi museum, visit the Wall memorial and be thankful it wasn't you – but Berlin stops for no-one and moved on a long time ago. Hit a poetry slam; browse the cool bookshops; gallery-crawl till you can’t take any more art – then dance all night. Berlin offers you the world, but won’t cost the earth.
A good place to wash down that currywurst (see pic above) with a beer and mingle is the (semi-regular) Tuesday film night at the Saint Georges English Bookstore, just off the much-gentrified Kollwitzplatz. Paul mans the bar for films like The Swimmer or Baader-Meinhof-based dramas. Down in Kreuzberg you can find a more sedate vibe at Another Country. As well as the range of Berlin books and latest must-reads that are lending-only, there's a wide range of second hand books and tea on tap if you want to settle into an armchair for an hour or two.
Whether you fancy whiling away the hours in a late night cafe, dancing to a little electronica, or watching rubber-clad strangers enjoying each other at the infamous Kit Kat Club – alles klar, Herr Kommissar. You can even party Stasi-style (ie not much at all) at the secret police-themed bar in Lichtenberg with a glass of Korn. Long for the 'good' old days as you make an anonymous phone call naming that man who stole your seat as a subversive.
With a more irreverent take on the GDR-era vibe, Kaffee Burger on Tor Strasse (Torstraße in German) is a good place to hear the politicians of the day slated in a German language poetry slam at the Reformbuhne, or just dance all night at Russian Disco (see below) night. It's the sort of place you can turn up by yourself, and stay till dawn.
White Trash Fast Food on Schonhauser Allee has Chinese decor, Rockabilly staff, an international (but German-dominated) crowd and hosts unlikely events like the Hank Williams Tribute Night. Enjoy a few Weissebeers over a burger or chips smothered in melted cheese and chilli sauce. Forget which language/country/era you belong to as you melt into this cultural melange.
Berlin is teeming with cafes and boltholes of every style and vibe, whether you're a squatter or a scenester there's something for everyone. The thriving squats even have their own listings website (German) for parties and cultural events.
Sankt Oberholz on Rosenthaler Straße in Mitte is a wide-windowed Mac mecca that even has its own blog. It's a great spot to work remotely or just watch the world go by. But part of the fun in Berlin is finding your own personal spot, and you'll be spoiled for choice.
The Kunsthaus Tacheles building in Mitte is a Berlin institution; not that it stops the authorities from trying to close it down every so often. An ex-squat in Oranienburgerstrasse, by all accounts it's not the radical creative force it used to be but still provides a space for struggling artists. Judge for yourself in this monolithic monster of a former department store.
The Hamburger Bahnhof used to be a railway station but is now a contemporary art museum (a la Musee D'Orsay) , hosting exhibitions that range from artist-as-celebrity Warhol to democratiser-of-art Joseph Beuys. Berlin is full of galleries, but in some respects the whole city is a canvas, Keep your eyes open as you walk around and you never know what you might find.
Russian Disco: Tales of Everyday Lunacy on the Streets of Berlin – Vladimir Kaminer's laugh-out-loud stories about the Russian community in post-wall East Berlin. Read it in Prenzlauerberg or Wedding for maximum appreciation store.
Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others) – claustrophobic cinematic recreation of the climate of fear in Stasi-controlled East Germany. Pause for thought when you visit locations from the film like the Stasi Museum or stores on Karl Marx Allee.
Stasiland – in Anna Funder's prizewinning book, victims of the Stasi tell how the application of psychological (and sometimes physical) pressure steadily ate away at their self belief and undermined them in every avenue of their lives.
city-lit Berlin – this latest offering in the Oxygen Books series of anthologies (containing gems from Bowie and Isherwood, and 90s writers like Rory Maclean) is winning rave reviews and even contains several contributions by Bookpacking.
If you're interested in knowing more about the Berlin Wall and the GDR, see my blog Running the Berlin Wall.
Berlin is in easy reach of Leipzig, Dresden and literary history hotspot Weimar (c. 2hrs by high speed train). Goethe and Schiller are just two of the names associated with this small but significant town. Further afield, Warsaw (via the thrice-daily Warsaw Express) and even Kafka's Prague aren't too far away (see Bahn.de). VW fans might want to visit the Bundesliga-winning Wolfsburg, doffing their (petrol) caps to the town created to manufacture this iconic marque.
If you can manage a few token words of German, ride sharing is an easy and economical way to get around the country while meeting the locals. Journeys typically cost one third of the train price.
The revamped Exberliner is the city's English language listings magazines, and a good way to tap into latest developments. Others are (German only) Zitty and Tip.