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Trip Report Eight Days in Berlin; Walks, Food, Museums and Ambivalence

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I'm finally finishing up my blog posts from a summer trip and I thought I'd post the links (as they are done) for the Berlin section of our trip.

Berlin has been on our list of places to go for years and as big museum people we were very much looking forward to visiting. Unfortunately right before we went I lost a very close friend in difficult circumstances and I think it affected how I felt about the city, frankly we'd been traveling for three plus months and by the time we got to Berlin I was ready to go home.

I can see that Berlin would be a great place to live but for me it isn't one of my favorite European destinations. The city is quite sprawling with large boulevard type street and to me it doesn't have a particularly attractive core. There seems to be endless rebuilding - which the locals complain about all the time. We were there around Fashion Week and so a number of the places I thought about staying were fully booked so opted for the Sofitel on Gendarmenmarkt square in the former Eastern area very near the Museum Island.

Hotels in Berlin are a great value compared with many other European capitals and we were happy with the Sofitel. Their standard rooms aren't large so we'd booked a Junior suite (with a lovely view over the historic square) at a great rate through However, when we arrived there were some problems with the air-conditioning and they upgraded us to a suite for the entire stay which was very nice. I loved their buffet breakfast which set us up wonderfully every morning.
Here's a blog post in getting a good hotel rate.

I think there are several common questions that go along with planning a trip to Berlin, where to stay East or West and where to get a museum pass and perhaps which one? Having been there I can say I would tend toward the east and we went for the three day museum pass along with a seperate one week transportation pass for the wonderful public transport system.However, I think you could have a good stay in either part of the city and it may well be that depending on your interests a different pass would be better. In general I'm not a great believer in museum passes as they often aren't a great deal but the three day museum pass one was incredibly worthwhile for us and we made very good use of it. Do remember to make your Pergamon reservations online even if you have the pass as you'll need these to skip the line. 24 euro seemed an amazingly good deal.

We started off our trip with a walking tour of street are led by a street artist. I love walking tours but I don't like a big crowd so I was looking for a company that would be taking a small group. We ended up booking several walks with SLOW TRAVEL BERLIN and I recommend them highly. This is a company that specializes in interesting cultural tours for the curious traveller. They have so much useful information on their blog including reviews, restaurant recommendations and other Berlin related discussions.

We loved the street art tour and learnt a lot about the changing scene in Berlin including the situation with squats and the pressures of gentrification in some of the working class neighborhoods like Kreuzberg - I can understand why it's a popular places and I have to say this was one of my favorite parts of the city. For anyone who is interested there are photos on the street art on my blog...

I'm not going to give a day by day report but just to say we enjoyed the Pergamon despite the fact that a great deal was closed. The Ishtar gate is truly extraordinary. I very much enjoyed the Berggruen Museum in Charlottenburg which has an extraordinary modern art collection including a to of Picassos, Giacometti, Braque, Klee and Matisse. After our trip to Egypt last year we were delighted to be able to see the Nefertiti head and other Egyptian artifacts in the Neues Museum which of course has lots of other stuff too. Also on Museum Island we visited the Bode Museum where they have a charming cafe and a wonderful collection of religious art.

We went out to Wansee to visit the Max Liebermann Villa which I highly recommend. It gives you a sense for the world of the artistic class in the years before the Holocaust and in a way it helps you understand why people didn't leave. It's a very beautiful home with a lovely garden right on the shore of Lake Wansee. You can get there easily by train and bus.

However, it's hard to remember the beauty of the villa after our visit to the nearby WANNSEE CONFERENCE SITE . My brother had said that this was the one place we HAD to go and Iunderstand exactly why he was so emphatic. This is one of the most disturbing places I've ever been. I'm very interested in visiting sites of Jewish cultural heritage. I've sought out synagogues all over the world, in Croatia, Venice, Spain, Syria, Morocco, India, Burma and elsewhere but personally I've chosen not to visit any of the camps.

Wannsee is emotionally difficult to visit because this is where, in a lovely villa in 1942, the Nazi's planned their "final solution" to the "Jewish Question". What is so chilling about the museum is that it documents that killing this many people was a logistical problem that required a bureaucratic solution. The museum lays out this out in a very straightforward way. There are simple placards and everyone is pretty much stunning or horrified into silence. By the time you see what happened to the men that were at the conference, and how many of them were not held to account ,you are both angry , alienated and sad. It's a chilling memorial in a charmingly bourgeois setting which makes it all the more unsettling. It's also fascinating to read how and why it was opened as a memorial. Though I won't go into this here I was very struck by how recent so many of these memorials are and how long the journey to acknowledgment took..

The trip to Wansee felt like a shadow over my perceptions of Berlin. My brother may be right that this is the most significant thing you can see in city but it's hard to move fluidly between this kind of site and the usual travel discussions about museum, contemporary art or artisanal restaurants.

What else did we see in Berlin?

Well we went on a literary walk that covered Brecht, Walter Benjamin and others with Slow Travel Berlin which I'd recommend. We did a small group walk focused on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin (cabaret was based on his work) which gave you a good sense for Berlin in the Weimar period and the openness of the city after World War One. The guide is very knowledgable about the topic and has created a very nice circular walk through Schöneberg which is very much worth checking out.

We went to so many museums in addition to the ones I mentioned above.
We went to the MuUSEUM DAHLEM which houses the extraordinary ethnographic collections of the state museums covering Asia, Africa, the South Pacific, Central Asia, Mexico and Latin America. It's the most cavernous space and you would need days to see the whole place. I was astonished at the quality of the collection and highly recommend the audio tour which was included.

On the same day we visited the Brucke Museum (about a mile or two from the Dahlem). which is a wonderful museum set in an affluent inner-suburb. It houses the collection of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and many works by prominent German Expressionists including Otto Mueller, Erich Heckel and Max Pechstein. They run rotating exhibits rather than a permanent exhibition gallery so you'll see something different overtime.

My husband enjoyed the Bauhaus archive and museum and I liked the decorative arts museum the Brohan which is right next to the Berggruen in Charlottenburg. While I was admiring the Art Nouveau and Art Deco objects at the Brohan he was across the road at the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg. This ia a surrealist museum (they define this very broadly and it includes Goya under the art of the "fantastic") which surprisingly houses one of the Egyptian temples that was removed from Nubia as part of the Aswan Dam project.

I went to the JEWISH MUSEUM and I'm not sure quite what to say. I now understand exactly why so many visitors are ambivalent about this place. Suffice it to say you have to go through an entire "experiential section" before you get to the main museum rooms. Personally I'm not a fan of this stuff before the museum, though I do think it could have a good place at the end. Plus I prefer experiential stuff designed by contemporary artists rather than architects. The only part of this section I could relate to was an immersive piece by an experimental artists ( a room filled with flat metal disks of faces that you walk on as the noise echoes) rather than the architectural spaces design to invoke emotions, one for the Holocaust, one for exile etc..The main museum rooms give a broad sense for the long history of the Jews in Germany.

Have a look at Slow Travel Berlin for lots of great up to date recommendations on their blog.
I can highly recommend the restaurant VOLT, elegant, modern German food. I'd be surprised if it didn't get a Michelin star.

We also loved the charmingly relaxed Das Lokal where the food was excellent and service and welcome were the warmest we experienced in the city. Highly recommended for excellent local food in an elegant but unpretentious setting, very Brooklyn.

We had good meals at Pantry and Luck Leek i(a very good vegan place) but I can't recommend the service at either. In general we try to avoid bottled water, it's just not environmental but what a fuss that is in Berlin, despite places being touted at "sustainable" don't try to order tap water. We had no problem at a more expensive place like Volt or a truly sustainable place like Das Lokal but it was a BIG hassle at Pantry and Lucky Leek. At the former we had to listen to hassle from the waitress, "I'm not here to bring you water all night "Yes Dear that's what a carafe is for" somewhat resolved after speaking to the manager. At Lucky Leek they refused outright despite us ordering a tasting menu with wine! I don't understand the devotion to bottle water in Berlin, it's meant to be a very environmental city and these restaurants were picked out for that in particular, you don't encounter this kind of thing in France anymore.

We went to Markthalle Neun's Street Food Thursday (in Kreuzberg) which was absolutely packed, what a scene, very much local hipsters and foodie tourists. LOTS of great food from all over the world though it was almost impossible to find a perch to eat it at.

I have to say there is a lot of good food in Berlin and it's far more reasonable than London.

We used City Mapper and the local transportation app to get around. The buses, trains and subway are easy to used. Like many tourists we took the number 100 and 200 buses to get an overview of the center of town which was enjoyable.

We ate well, enjoyed the walks we took and liked the museums but I can't say Berlin was a city I fell for - despite so many friends assuring me I would love it. Perhaps I didn't come in the right frame of mind, but architecturally I didn't find it particularly engaging as large parts of the center have a rathe monumental scale. I think it would be a nice place to live but it's a city changing fast and from what people told us the "cool" factor is waning with the rising rents -not that I'm cool enough to know the difference! I wish we'd seen more of the contemporary art scene but eight days wasn't enough time to scratch the surface of all the museums and galleries.
I'm glad I went and I get that others adore the city. However, the fact that I didn't probably means I won't be rushing back.

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