Most of the things you will hear about Berlin are probably true. “Arm, aber sexy” – “Poor, but sexy” (the slightly shortened quote from former mayor Klaus Wowereit). I’d say sometimes poor, sometimes sexy. A big city, a wide city, a city with a feeling of space. Contrasts meet, world-famous landmarks stand with new construction sites towering behind them. Single S- and U-Bahn subway stops sometimes being as big as a central train station. The immediately recognizable Plattenbau, popping up between streets, or filling entire districts. And, of course, the ubiquitious, uniquely local Currywurst. I think the sight of another commuter contentedly munching on the latter was what cemented my feeling that I was, indeed, once again visiting the German capital. As he carefully and methodically speared the sausage pieces on a tiny wooden pick and dipped them in the curry sauce, I thought once again that this snack alone was already a prime example of the melting pot of experiences that Berlin is.
“Do you like it?” is a question which is always a little difficult for me to answer about Berlin, because the word that I primarily associate with the city is interesting, and also because I have only been to several districts so far on short trips. But together these glimpses gradually come together to form an impression of a place which is an epitome of being distinctively eclectic. “Berlin is so diverse” is what you will hear from a lot of people.
One day in Berlin needs a plan, and the plan included the classic stops, many of which are an excellent starting point for getting a feel for the city’s character, not to mention its exciting, arresting history.
The morning began with a trip on the S-Bahn from the district of Charlottenburg to the Ostbahnhof station, a day ticket in hand for the zones A and B, covering the city transportation range. The train moved completely above ground, already an opportunity for some passing views of massively graffitied walls, the aforementioned Plattenbau and modern, gleaming shopping centers. Sometimes the train passed so close to a building that occupants could have reached out of their windows and shaken our hands, if we were moving slower. Once at the Ostbahnhof, I looked at the exit signs and picked one solely based on intuition, relying on memories from an earlier trip to steer me once I was outside. And they did (who needs Google Maps). If you walk out of the station and see the bridge with the S-Bahn track in the distance to your right, you just need to head in that direction. Some 15 minutes later you emerge among a mix of concrete, bricks and the enormous front facade of the Ostbahnhof. And ahead of you stretches the East Side Gallery.
I actually learned about this significant item on any Berlin tourist’s list fairly recently from a friend, and I’m glad I did. The 1,316 meter long expanse of history is perfect for enthusiastic snapping and a long, satisfying walk. The biggest open air art gallery in the world spans like a bridge between the Ostbahnhof and the impressive Oberbaumbrücke at the end of the stroll. It’s also free. The landmarked gallery had wire fences blocking several works of art this weekend. Unfortunately, despite firm warnings, paintings in the gallery still get scribbled on and sprayed. Nethertheless, the eye-catching creations on the remains of the Berlin wall from 118 artists are a magnet for anyone visiting the city, pulling you in to an atmosphere that is both heavily reminiscent and ringing with the present.
Back to the Ostbahnhof, snapping some more pictures along the way, and in to the train to Alexanderplatz, ganz klassisch. Everything else that’s firstly famous about Berlin is centered around that massive transportation knot. The TV tower is a convenient focus point for reassurance if you need to retrace steps, and basically, wherever you walk, you will end up where you want to be. My main interest this time was finding an opportunity to both explore something and hopefully get a view of the city from way up high, and I got to do just that. Actually, there are several good ways to do this on or near Alexanderplatz, so take your pick. One of them is the Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral.
The cathedral is stately, gorgeous, very large and slightly unexpected (even if you know about it) after a morning spent at the East Side Gallery. It’s also a kind of relief – I have a weakness for cathedral architecture, and my hankering is intensified by the fact that Hamburg, unfortunately, doesn’t have one. The Berliner Dom can be satisfyingly viewed from all sides, after which one does want to go in. This weekend it was surprisingly uncrowded, with a conveniently placed ticket machine speeding up the process of getting inside. Initial scepticism about the admission price was quickly wiped out. I spent an hour climbing everywhere I could, and had I not needed some fresh air to digest the multitude of impressions, I would have probably stayed in there longer. Inside, the cathedral is magnificent, beautifully kept and restored, with the domed ceiling immediately claiming one’s attention.
The cathedral was completed in 1905, but later suffered colossal damage during the Second World War. The main hall was opened for mass again in the mid nineties. A good amount of staircases lead upward from the entry level through the rest of the cathedral. Everything is sensibly labeled to ensure correct exploration procedures, though this doesn’t stop me from gravitating towards KEIN ZUTRITT and hearing a polite, “Nein” from staff. Note – when you find yourself on a landing by two signs, one saying Crypt, and the other pointing up, go up first. The crypt contains some 90 coffins and is, of course, also very interesting (though sad and at times scary). But the (technically) only way out of it leads towards an exit, which leads outside and thus eliminates you entering the cathedral again. I just quietly scampered back up the way I came.
One of the most exciting parts of the journey inside the Dom starts further up, with signs eagerly announcing the walk to the dome. They also constantly warn about the trip being physically taxing. Broader staircases give way to narrow metal ones which spiral underneath low ceilings and alternate with horizontal stretches of wooded floor along the inside of the dome. Excitement mounts, and just when you wonder how much longer this will go on, 270 steps later you emerge outside, with one of the most breathtaking views of Berlin you could hope for. Everything comes together, melding with the impressions from the cathedral, and the TV tower in the distance once again confirms that uniquely local feeling of past and present always existing side by side. One with an unseen, but intense energy, the other in-your-face and urgent.
These romantic musings were brought to a halt when confronted with the practicalities of going back downstairs. To put it as bluntly as I can, visitors of a more corpulent stature might find themselves in a difficult position (pun unavoidable), as in more than one place along the dome the space between wall and railing is only slightly wider than the average ruler. What would happen, I wondered randomly, slightly horrified at the image in my head, if someone got stuck? Yes, the Berlin Cathedral definitely leaves a lasting impression.
Tumbling back outside in to the sunlight was slightly strange, but then again, that too felt natural, as it all seemed part and parcel of the experience. The sight of the Brandenburger Tor at the end of the tour fittingly capped off this one day of rambling around Berlin, as I bought a typical postcard and slipped again in to the S-Bahn.