09 January 2011

Berlin, 7th-9th January 2011

Deciding where to travel with a friend of mine, I found a cheap city break on lastminute.com, which includes a flight through easyjet. As bargain basement as that sounds, we did get to stay in a four star designer hotel, which was the main reason I was tempted: the Tryp Hotel Mitte. That handily has a train station right by it, although less handily it has changed its name recently to Naturkundemuseum (due to the Natural History Museum which is also close by), having previously been known as Zinnowitzer Straße. That's also what it was still called in my otherwise very useful little Berlin guide from Lonely Planet, which confused me until I realized what had happened.

In order to get into central Berlin from Schönefeld Airport, you can take a train from the nearby station (about five minutes walk via a covered walkway). Either jump on an S-bahn, or an Airport Express. Note that it won't actually say Airport Express on the departure information board, just on a bit of paper attached to the side of the train itself.

You'll also obviously need a ticket from one of the machines, for zones ABC: zones A and B are central Berlin, so you only really need C for the airport. A single cost €3, and got us to Friedrichstraße: make sure you validate it in one of the machines on the platform, which will stamp the time at the top. The transport system in Berlin is excellent, once you've worked out the various lines. There are both underground (U) and overground (S) services, which you will sometimes needs to switch between. You can get a map from the BVG site. To get around the whole thing, it is worth investing in a tageskarte (about €6.10), which lasts until 3am the next day. So, rather like a travelcard on the London Underground, but unlike London Transport, it isn't a massive rip-off. ;)

The next day, passing by the closed Reichstag and through the Brandenburg Gate, we headed to the Tiergarten. This is a huge green space in the middle of the city. Or at least normally it's green: as we were there at the start of January, it was more like a grey space from all the ice and slush. So, not quite as attractive as I'd hoped, though there are plenty of monuments to check out as you pass through. For example, the one pictured on the right, commemorating a trio of great composers.

For eating, I can recommend heading over to the beautifully situated Café am Neuen See, which has a great view of a small lake inside the park grounds. I had Rühreier (scrambled egg), which cost around €4.50, along with a hot chocolate for another €3.80 or so. Unusually, the hot chocolate comes as a semi-solid lump, over which you pour a steaming jug of milk. Either way, tasted good, especially with the chilly temperature outside.

After food, I headed off to the main highlight of the trip for me, the Gemäldegalerie. I really like the art of the Northern Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age, which are both extremely well covered at the Gemäldegalerie. Along with a large collection of Rembrandts, a good number from Franz Hals and a couple by Vermeer, there are earlier painters like Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Lucas Cranach and Pieter Bruegel, among numerous others. I was especially excited to see one of my favourite paintings, 'Portrait of a Lady' by Petrus Christus.

I only had a couple of hours, but there is more than enough to see. I could very happily have spent all day inside, or indeed longer. Due to the time limit, I concentrated on paintings from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, but England, Italy and France are all also well represented, which includes major artists like Caravaggio. I'm keen to go back at some point to explore the gallery properly: my friend isn't the biggest fan of spending all day staring at paintings, so that's something I'll probably have to do on my own.

The gallery is situated within the Kulturforum, and will cost you a mere €8 to get in: that includes an excellent audioguide. Navigation is easy, as the building is purpose-built, with all the rooms set around an enormous central hall (with plenty of seating, so unlike many other galleries, there isn't a problem giving your tired feet a rest). You can get a combined €12 ticket to go into multiple museums in the same area.

There is a similar ticket for the Museuminsel over in Mitte: Berlin is overflowing with museums and galleries, from a broad variety of historical periods. Besides all the other terrible atrocities committed by the Nazis, the manner in which the incredibly rich history of Germany often gets forgotten due to that dark 20th century stain is one of the more depressing.

Berlin is famous for its open-minded tolerance, with a large gay and lesbian population, not to mention sex clubs. I wasn't quite brave enough for that aspect of Berlin nightlife, but did enjoy the somewhat tamer option of drinking at a couple of places around the city. I particularly liked the friendly and relaxed atmosphere at the Ankerklause on Kottbusser Tor. It is right by the water, so I'm guessing has great views of the canal in the summer (they had sheets up when we were there, presumably to keep out the cold). There was also a great bar with free WiFi on Tucholskystrasse 32, although I can't remember the name. That might be because the barman doesn't seem to care about measures, so my Martini and bitter lemon was mostly all Martini.

The main sight for our last day was Schloss Charlottenburg, over near Richard Wagner Platz train station. There are several buildings spread around the park, but we decided to just go to the Neue Flügel (New Wing), which is €6. Again, that includes a very good audioguide, directing you around the suite of rooms over about 1.5 hours. This is excellent value for money, as there is plenty to see: to my surprise, that also included some major paintings. One of the five versions of 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps' by Jacques-Louis David dominates a downstairs wall, preceded by an equally arresting equestrian portrait of von Blücher in the previous room.

Unfortunately, much of Charlottenburg was gutted by fire during World War II, meaning that you aren't generally looking at the original architecture, but a faithful copy. However, it remains grandly attractive, with a couple of rooms retaining their earlier features. Unlike the building, the furniture and paintings tend to be original, as they were removed from the palace before the war. The picture below is of another building next door, the Altes Schloss. We didn't go in (its an extra €10, or as part of the day pass), but thought the statues outside looked pretty cool.

For a bite to eat, check out the Piazza del Castello on Luisenplatz 2, in view of the Schloss. They do a good offer on coffee and cake for €4.50. Afterwards, we went to the rather more touristy Oranium on Oranienburger Strasse 33, where the service was much slower and far less welcoming. However, the food was tasty (I went for the Würst Triologie, which is basically a bunch of skewered sausages in sauce), with a wide selection, and the décor is lovely.

The previous night, we ate at Zur Letzten Instanz, where your choice is a lot more limited. Nevertheless, the food is decent with large portions, and as appears to be typical for Berlin, affordable. I was also pleased that they were willing to accept a reservation via email. Although I repeatedly tried out my German, people normally switched to English as soon as they heard me speak to my friend: I get the impression that if you don't speak German, it won't have a particularly negative impact on your ability to get around and be understood.

Next time, I'll definitely want to spend longer than two nights, and hopefully I'll have a chance to go get in some grappling with jkdberlin (who runs the Kampfkunst forum, and also posts regularly on Grapplers Guide). My friend was quite fond of the shopping around the Absinth Depot, so with more time I'll be sure to pack my gi.

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