The first leg of our trip took us to Berlin, the symbol of freedom from communism with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also a city which seems to be caught between the old and the new world. We found it to be a city searching for an identity, as the street artist celebrate the vibrant counter-culture all over the city’s buildings with their spray-paint of artistic quality, but was also extremely modern as well.
I decided to use AirBnB, the online site that allows people to rent out their apartments/homes to travelers. I had used it recently for a work trip to New York City, and loved it compared to the normally stale hotel rooms that I stay in. Doesn’t hurt that they’re an SVB client, and also an investment of my clients. We got a great apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, and our host, Liana, was very helpful and accommodating to us westerners. While we never met, staying in someone’s home gives you a pretty good feel of the person – neat, fashion oriented, simple yet stylish – it was a great place for Janet and I to use as a home base, and Liana was a great host.
Many thanks to the Turkish taxi driver who raised his hand proudly at 1am when I asked the few taxis at Berlin’s old Schoenfeld airport, “Anyone accept credit cards?” After the fourth stern “No!”, I yelled down the line and our guardian boldly raised his hand. What a relief, as the fear of arriving in a foreign city at 1o’clock in the morning, with no local currency, and unable to speak the language can be a little disconcerting at this point in my life. Didn’t help that we had just traveled for about 20 hours, and that last beer at Kate O’Briens’s in SF had long worn off.
Our first day we woke up early, and walked around the local neighborhood. We quickly learned that Prenzlauer Berg is a family oriented area, with tons of kids, dogs, and smartly dressed 30-something’s all around (many of whom were pushing baby carriages). We definitely stuck out as tourist, but that was just fine. We decided to walk our way to Alexanderplatz, where our walking tour was to begin at noon. on our way, we ended up finding a farmers market a couple blocks from our place. The scene was not that different from the Saturday morning Farmers Market in Pleasanton, except for the old ladies drinking white wine on the street at 10am at the beer and wine truck.
It was quickly apparent to us that the Germans like their drink, and they seem to consume beer like Americans do soda. Beer with breakfast, beer as you’re walking around shopping, beer with lunch, and more beer as you ride around the subway and trams. Funny thing is that you’d expect the German people would be overweight from all the beer, but they’re not. Maybe it’s their healthy diet of meats, cheeses, and potatoes? Doubt it. I think is because everyone bikes and walks everywhere.
Our walking tour of the city that I booked through Gidsy, was dubbed “The Real Berlin Tour”, and focused on the different cultures and alternative lifestyles within the city, and less on the historical side. The difference between East and West Berlin was surprising, as the revitalization of East Berlin is impressive, and much more appealing to us. The highlight for me was the beer garden, Prater beer garden, serving beer since 1837. It is the oldest beer garden in Berlin, and while we were the only ones there at the time, you could tell it would be a fun place to hang out with friends on a hot summer day.
Dinner was at an Indian restaurant across the street from our apartment, Desi. Good food and drinks, although the service was horrible. It didn’t seem like they were interested in serving us, and they limited us to one drink each, which was disappointing as I was looking forward to pumping the Berlin economy with the gross excess that most Europeans expect from Americans. We ventured down the street for an after dinner drink at Esquina (great atmosphere and service; seemed like a popular neighborhood place to go at the corner of Dunckster and Danziger.
My primary observations of Berlin on our first day were:
1) Beer, and drinking in general, seem to be an important part of the culture, but I didn’t see it consumed to excess.
2) Bees are everywhere across the city. They aren’t overly bothersome, but showed up in force wherever there was food. I’ve heard that having a thriving bee community is good sign for the local habitat…whatever that means.
3) Bikes are the preferred form of transportation for Berliners. I guess they can rely on bikes due to the lack of any hills to climb (Berlin is really flat), but they’re everywhere. There’s even a great “ZipCar”-like service for bikes, where you rent.a bike from a little unmanned kiosk that automatically unlocks the bike as you feed the meter. Brilliant!
4) BVG.de was an indispensable website for us in Berlin, as it helped us to manage the confusing public transportation system. U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams, and buses make getting around the city really easy for locals, but the transportation maps were somewhat like looking at a multi-colored Intel chip with the small lines and tracks running all over the city in hundreds of different directions. BVG.de allows you to input your starting point and destination, and shows you the exact times, route, and transfers needed to get to your destination. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
5) Berlin seems like a city searching a bit for an identity. It’s at this interesting cross-roads of east vs west, old vs new, liberal vs conservative, counter-culture vs gentrification. There were these constant dichotomy of ideas and senses as you travel around the city, which made it difficult to get a true feel of what was the true Berlin.
Our second day was pretty uneventful, as we slept in past noon and missed the Berlin marathon that was being run that morning. Funny how 10’s of thousands of people came to the city just for the marathon, but we were oblivious to it. We had a big night ahead of us with tickets to the Radiohead concert at the great Kindl-Buhne outdoor amphitheater in Wuhlheide. I’ll do a separate post and review the concert.