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Berlin: the European chameleon

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment
The Berlin skyline from the InterContinental Hotel. Photo: Thomas Volz

The Berlin skyline from the InterContinental Hotel.

Berlin has something for everyone. From its sophisticated cocktail bars for the urban elite and edgy bohemian hangouts for artists to attractions for the young and old and everything in between, you’ll never get bored. Even if you’ve been there ten times, there’s always a new exhibition in town, a new museum or monument just opened, or scores of new trendy restaurants and bars to discover. The beauty of Berlin is that it’s still affordable compared to other European capitals like Paris or London.

I worked in Berlin in 2000 when the Potsdamer Platz was still a pile of rubble dotted with construction cranes and I have returned six times since then. Even though the general cityscape remains the same, I never tire of rediscovering the city. I’ve stayed in several hotels in different parts of the city, but my favorite is my ‘old home’ the InterContinental at the Tiergarten where I spent two months overlooking the zoo’s elephant house. It’s perfectly located in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the Kurfürstendamm (aka Ku’damm) shopping street in a green belt (the Tiergarten) close to the embassy quarter and German Parliament (Reichstag). If your room is on one of the upper floors, you can see as far as the TV Tower at Alexander Platz and the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz. But, while the hotel still is as familiar as ever to me when I walk through the door, it’s good to see that time has not stood completely still – the rooms have been completely renovated as has the pool and top floor restaurant.

The "Party Mile" with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. Photo: Thomas Volz

The “Party Mile” with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

Traces of Berlin’s military history still loom; this piece of equipment is filled with Gluhwein (hot mulled wine). /caption]

This time, I decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Berlin, under the Brandenburg Gate, along with over a million other visitors and locals. Berlin’s Street Party – held along a two-kilometer stretch from the Brandenburg Gate along the Strasse des 17. Juni to the Victory Column – is considered one of the largest New Year’s Eve Open Air events in the world. But Berlin being Berlin and embracing its love for everything that’s different, don’t expect a stiff organized German affair, it’s an international and relaxed affair. The “Party Mile” as it is called is lined with kiosks selling everything from local Berliner Currywursts (sausage with ketchup and curry powder) and beer to Glühwein. For every German sausage stand, there’s one selling Hungarian lángos, baked potatoes, vegetarian, crepes, Asian and even garlic (Knoblauch) specialities.

Once the bells have struck midnight, the skies over Berlin light up. Forget an organized to perfection firework display, it’s time for all the locals to let their crackers off too. For every perfect firework formation, there’ll be a splattering of adhoc crackers going off next to it. (This is the one time in the year when it’s possible to buy fireworks in the supermarkets and let them off in public places.) Tip: From the 12th or 14th floor of the InterContinental Hotel, you get a magnificent view of all the action.

[caption id="attachment_942" align="alignleft" width="297"] Multicultural Berlin is full of foreigners; it’s said to be home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. caption]

This trip, I also decided to explore the Kreuzberg area, home to many of Berlin’s immigrants (the majority of which are Turkish). Formerly in West Berlin, Kreuzberg was once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. It’s always been a magnet for hippies, artists. Today it’s got more of an upmarket feel to it, but it still retains its hippy-ish roots with trendy restaurants and quirky cafes and boutiques. It’s also home to the former Templehof Airport which has now been converted into a park called the Templehofer Freiheit Park.

Wandering through the grounds of the former Templehof Airport, my mind drifts back to my first time I landed in Templehof, on a Brussels Airlines flight back in 2000, shortly before it closed. Not only did it feel like we were landing on the rooftops of the houses by the airport, the arrivals hall was more like a giant train station than an airport terminal. Then there was the single lane (not carousel) luggage belt and I can remember the struggle to lug my 30-kilo suitcase up a flight of concrete steps as there was no lift. Today, the former airport has been converted into a massive park for skateboarding, jogging, cycling and other outdoor activities. Aviation enthusiasts can still take a tour of the former airport which is steeped in history when the city was divided between East and West; the main building is considered one of the largest listed monuments in Europe. Like many of Berlin’s attractions, the airport park is achingly simple and completely unique.

Regardless of whatever’s new in Berlin, there are a few haunts that never change and are always worth going back to. I always make time for a browse around the KaDeWe, one of the largest and oldest department stores in the city, located on the retail paradise of the Ku’damm finishing off with a glass of Prosecco or coffee on its exclusive top-floor ‘food hall’.  And I never miss a lunch of grilled tiger prawns soaked in garlic at Sylt on the Ku’damm. And, nobody can leave Berlin without a Currywurst and glass of champagne from one of the street kiosks.

Sausage served street-style with a glass of champagne on the side. That pretty much sums up Berlin and the Berliners attitude to life: full of surprises and a laid-back coolness and individuality that you won’t find in many other European cities.

[caption id="attachment_943" align="aligncenter" width="595"] Berlin’s New Year’s Eve (Silvester) party is one of the world’s largest open air new year celebrations.

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