Berlin Musings & Travel Tips

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:22 am -

After another week of thinking about Berlin, it’s more than clear there was no way we could do the city justice with a fast in-and-out trip. Living in Paris has so many advantages including being the ideal jumping-off place from which to travel. If you’re a travel junkie and find it enriching, it’s heaven.

Don’t get me wrong: I had no illusions or delusions we were going to see and do it all. Berlin is approximately eight times the size of Paris. There are plenty of neighborhoods here in Paris with which I only have a nodding acquaintance. I’ve designated specific days when I pretend I’m a tourist, with the conviction there’s no place like home. And, I want and need to explore it, especially if I’m going to maintain my being considered a Paris expert.

People who go to a place of any size, spend a day sightseeing and think they’ve seen it amaze me. That’s one reason to steer clear of tours where travelers are whisked from here to there with an agenda like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels… or maybe Berlin?” How about seeing the city? How about seeing what’s in between this city and the next?

You probably read the “three days here and three days there” articles as do I. If you have unlimited energy, an infallible sense of direction, don’t get confused or take the wrong bus or subway, perhaps you can do and see what’s on the must-see list. That’s simply not the way I travel since I like to wander and invariably do, since I was born without the sense of direction gene and find myself exploring whether or not I’d planned to do so.

OK, here are some suggestions, which does not mean we did them–we certainly did not get to all of them!

For a 360-degree overview of the city, the Visit Berlin Tourist Office suggests you go here. It is a TV Tower 680 feet high (270 meters) where you can get an stunning overview of the city; you can see many of its tourist attractions from here, including the Reichstag (Parliament building), the Brandenburg Gate and the Main Railway Station, as well as the Olympic Stadium, the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Potsdam Square (Potsdamer Platz). This makes sense.

We didn’t go. Instead, because of a recommendation, we ate at Solar, located at the summit of a high-rise building. Our source assured us it’s a local hangout where we wouldn’t encounter tourists. She was right. The food was more than decent, portions were huge and could be split and the prices were moderate especially compared to Paris. As guaranteed, the view was incredible and the decibel level could blow out people’s eardrums.  Décor-wise (all-black and glass), it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s the type of place you either love or hate, and you know darn well there’s a whole lot of shaking going on after midnight.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie (and yes, there’s a kind of cheesy feeling that comes from being besieged by people being able to buy a piece of the Berlin Wall) and other relics of the Soviet era. We walked through The Brandenburg Gate and studied the exteriors of Museum row.

I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t go to the Jewish Museum. You need to dedicate three days to do it justice.

But, contrary to what you may think, this is not a to-do-and-what-to see article. It’s more about the very superficial conclusions I came to. If you’re looking for tourism information, the Berlin Tourist Office has a first-rate site.

My way of learning is to interview people and ask lots of (often, too many) questions. One of the pluses of living in Paris is I know I can and will return to Berlin. And, sooner than later.

I grilled Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, a Bonjour Paris contributor, who lives in Berlin and commutes to Paris. She shared her insights and said, “I can’t emphasize strongly enough is that Berlin is a poor city. It was flattened in WWII, isolated by the Wall, and it’s never recovered. In 2004, Klaus Wowereit, the mayor, said in an interview, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)

Beginning with the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 2009, investors have been building non-stop, so construction is always visible. I love the quote from Jack Lang, former French minister of culture, when he talked about Berlin’s growth and how quickly it’s changing. “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” Of course, Lang missed Baron Haussmann.

“Literally every week a new store opens up, a new building is being built… fueling the economy with the hope it will pay off. People, especially Americans, are investing in Berlin, but you have to think long-term to make it worth your money,” Toma said.

Some things I learned:

Even though Berlin and Paris are so close (by plane), it’s an eight-hour drive and an overnight (12 hour-long) train trip between the two capital cities.

Think BIG. Streets are wide, stores are big and the city feels quasi empty.

Don’t expect people to speak English. It’s a plus if they do if they’re of a certain age. Younger Germans will, but they’re not necessarily the ones who are manning information booths in the train or subway stations. Use transport maps, or a smart-phone application if you have one.

Many Germans steer clear of making eye contact. I hate generalizations, but that tends to be the norm if you’re passing by and through. If they know you, it’s something else.

Waiters are professional and appear to do their jobs well. But, they’re not as friendly as those in the U.S. nor as professional as waiters in France. Tips are not included. Supposedly, 5% (more or less) of the check is the norm.

Taxi drivers don’t necessarily speak English.  Be sure to have the address in writing of where you’re going plus your return destination. If you find the “right” driver, however, you’ll learn a lot. The one we snagged when we went to the airport was full of information and was happy to share his sense of how the city and housing demographics have changed. When we thanked him, he thanked us, remarking that passengers usually treat him as if he’s invisible.

People aren’t supposed to cross the street when there’s a red light – even if there’s not a car in sight and it’s 6 a.m. Moi?

Even though graffiti is an art form, don’t toss your trash on the sidewalk including a napkin that happens to fall.

If you happen to have a car and park illegally even for a minute, even if the police don’t arrive in time to give you a $5 ticket, other drivers and passersby will reprimand you.

Berlin is a safe city as long as you use big city smarts. At the same time, some younger Berlin residents buck the establishment. Don’t be surprised if you see storefronts that have been bashed in and because it’s non-shatter glass, you might mistake it for being an art statement. It’s not. One shop owner told me it’s frequent and perpetrated by Berlin punks.

Compared to Paris, it’s cheap. If only it weren’t so expensive to check luggage, it would have made dollars, cents and euros to have bought drugstore and grocery items and so much more and brought them home.

Food and More:

Berlin is the land of coffee here and coffee everywhere. The first café in Berlin was opened in 1670. Between Einstein and Starbucks, fast, good and moderately priced carryout coffee to go is available whenever you’re in the mood. And you can sit down in the shops, inside or out, no matter how cold it is. Bring on the lattes and the “white coffees” that are made with condensed milk. The majority of these places have free WiFi and are enormous compared to those in Paris.

I’m told women with curves are appreciated…it’s a bit of a culture shock after living here where Parisian women are forever on a diet and are seemingly born without hips and thighs.

Come to think of it, you’ll see relatively few French women drinking beer contrasted to those in Germany. Yes, there some very good wines produced there, but nothing compared to the amount of beer. On nearly every block, you’ll see a restaurant with a cheery rosy-faced (wooden) man beckoning you in for beer and local cuisine. If you like heavy and copious, you’ll be in heaven. Expect to be served bratwurst, other sausages and foods that don’t leave you craving for another meal within two hours—or maybe two days. Portions of Wiener Schnitzel are enough for two people if you aren’t into super-size-me portions. Head to Ottenthal if you want to taste the real thing perfectly prepared.

Berliners are crazy for organic and you can get organic almost anything for same price as nonorganic.  Go figure…

Clubs and more:

There’s an enormous club scene in Berlin and, generally, it doesn’t get going until late and not every night. We were advised to go to Cookies Club in Berlin, which is hot and heavy on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but were told it didn’t really get swinging until 2 or 3 a.m. and stays open until 6 a.m. Even though it was practically in the Westin, there was no way I was going to make an appearance. Although I awakened at 2 a.m., wearing a terry cloth robe to a hip hang-out isn’t comme il faut.

There’s a super jazz club, but hey, tired is tired. Badenscher Hof is by reputation a crowded hole in the wall in West Berlin that reminds you of what a night out in Berlin would have been like in the 20s. For a more modern feel, and perhaps bigger names, there’s also A-Trane.

Neighborhoods and shopping:

The reason we weren’t museuming is because we were exploring neighborhoods trying to decide why the city is so über hot and hip.

OK, I am way over the word count. If you say you’d like more, I can write about so many shopping revelations. Some are ours, others are Toma’s. Few (if any) are boring.

C’est à vous to decide yea or nay.

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