A cultural tour of the
German capital offers endless possibilities. Explore a city in constant
self-renewal, from a floating swimming pool to a Weimar-era ballroom.
Morning: The sunny side of the Spree
On the eastern banks
of the River Spree, among the skeletons of warehouses and watchtowers left over
from the Cold War, Berliners make their way to the shore for a morning dip.
Towels tucked under arms, they head for the Badeschiff (‘bathing ship’) –
a huge heated swimming pool made out of the shell of an industrial barge that
floats in the cold river. As the day draws on, the temperature rises and sun
drenches swimmers and the city. Deckchairs scattered around the pool’s sandy
terraces fill with people escaping work for a lunchtime drink with friends.
Badeschiff may be
unique in engineering terms, but it is not alone: few cities have taken to the
urban beach quite like Berlin. There are nearly 30 here, bringing new life to
the wastelands that remained when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Many are
tucked behind the East Side Gallery, a section of the Wall covered with
graffiti art that lies across the river from Badeschiff. One longstanding
favourite here is Yaam, an African- and
Caribbean-themed beach bar where sunseekers listen to reggae while sipping
imported bottled beers. It doubles as a community centre: small groups
congregate on the grass to make artworks or sell handmade knickknacks, while
kids play on the sands surrounded by people lazing on blankets or tucking into
The concept of urban
sunbathing may have originated here. The city’s surrounded by huge lakes, which
have drawn urbanites from the centre for generations. Sections of the shores
around the huge manmade lake at Wannsee,
a plush suburb to the west of the city, have acted as faux-beaches since 1907.
YouTube videos poignantly show a generation who were to be wiped out in WWI
happily frolicking in the shallow waters, and not much has changed. Today, the
main stretch of its 1,000 metres of sand is packed with young couples snuggling
up in stripy two-seater beach baskets, gazing out over the midnight-blue lake.
An elderly woman lies back in a deckchair enjoying the sunshine, while a trio
of grandchildren race around her and construct elaborate sandcastles. It
doesn’t take much imagination to feel like you’ve been transported 500 miles
north to the coast.
Early afternoon: Mind the art gap
Squats get a bad rap
in Britain, but in Berlin they were the creative engines that helped get the
city on its feet when the Wall came down. Today, they offer the visitor a
unique way to tap into the changing cultural life of the capital.
Hundreds of buildings
lay abandoned after reunification in 1990. The Kunsthaus Tacheles department
store was one: used as a Nazi prison in WWII, it fell into disrepair under East
German administration during the Cold War. It was primed for demolition after
reunification before a group of artists moved in, transforming its maze-like
passageways and endless rooms and halls into studios, nightclubs, cafés,
performance spaces and even a cinema.
Martin Reiter, one of
the group’s founders, recalls how ‘this area was ruined back then. It was very
close to the Wall, on the East side, lined with military. No-one wanted
anything to do with it. Yet suddenly, in the middle of the developed world
there were these spaces free, places where new things could happen, and artists
from Berlin and internationally began to make them happen.’
There is no sign of
dereliction today; Tacheles is now surrounded by designer stores, opulent
arcades and marble mosaics. A huge arch marks its entrance and a winding
staircase covered with paintspattered imagery and graffiti leads up five
floors. Doors are left open, inviting the curious into rooms filled with
artistic projects: sculptures, paintings, huge pieces of machinery reshaped
into twisted new forms. There’s a scattering of people here, some tourists
(Tacheles gets around 400,000 a year), some partygoers who haven’t made their
way home from the night before.
Jochen Sandig, one of
Martin Reiter’s co-founders at Tacheles, moved on to transform other neglected
buildings in Berlin, including RADIALSYSTEM V,
an impressive cultural centre that opened on the banks of the River Spree in
2006. Once a water pumping station, it is now one of the city’s leading spaces
for dance, concerts and contemporary art. ‘I love abandoned spaces, and Berlin
has a lot of them,’ says Jochen, a sparky and gregarious veteran of the city’s
counterculture. ‘Berlin has always been a city of poor people with big ideas.’
Late afternoon: Out of the ruins
Tempelhof Airport was
once the international gateway to Berlin. In the mid-20th century, this vast
building was a backdrop to news footage of arriving celebrities, and became a
lifesaver in the Berlin Airlift of 1948, when Western air forces dropped in
food and supplies after the Soviets blockaded the city.
In the years following
reunification, Tempelhof found itself
surplus to requirements, shutting down for good in 2008. Yet its closure proved
the adage that where space appears in Berlin’s urban fabric, remarkable things
happen. In 2010, Tempelhof was re-opened as a vast park. Walking through this
windswept flatland is a peculiar experience: the runways are still intact, the
airport building looks much as it did when it was receiving thousands of
visitors a day, and signs warning pilots to contact air traffic control remain.
It’s hard to shake off the feeling that a jumbo jet might be moments from
landing on your head.
Berliners have now
adopted Tempelhof as a public park. Every afternoon, its runways are packed
with cyclists, joggers, footballers, rollerbladers – and rather appositely, one
man zooming a toy plane over the landing area, its tiny shadow casting memories
of a former life across the heads of the new visitors. Martin Dixon, a British
ex-pat who has lived in Berlin for a decade, says that Tempelhof’s lack of
trees and huge, flat expanse explains its popularity. ‘It’s completely exposed
to the wind, so it attracts kite-fliers, wheeled windsurfers, or just those who
enjoy the kind of bracing walk you’d normally find on the coast.’
A similar story of
renewal can be found at Planterweg, just south of the city centre. Here a huge
railway terminal, once home to battalions of steam trains and engineers, has
been transformed into Natur-Park Schöneberger
Südgelände. Thick woods have sprung up around the crisscrossing train
tracks, some of which have been filled in and turned into woodland trails. The
former train depot building has been turned into an art space, while industrial
hoardings and even an old steam train are dotted across the park as art
That this peaceful
haven could once have been a pulsating mass of hot steam, burning coal and
industrial noise seems somehow preposterous – which is a true testament to
Berlin’s capacity for transformation.
Evening: Man cannot live on sausage alone
For a reason why
Germany doesn’t have the greatest culinary reputation, look to the bratwurst.
Around every corner in Berlin, you’ll see people tucking into cardboard trays
of the German sausage, piled high with chips. Though undeniably delicious, it
is more teatime snack than grown-up gastronomy.
For years, the city’s
top tables showed off a cavalcade of multinational cuisines while German
cooking lagged behind. Now, however, Berlin’s best chefs are returning to the
food of their forebears. Matthias Gleiss’s restaurant, Volt, is set in a former electricity
station on the banks of the Landwehr canal. Matthias takes elements of
traditional German peasant food and local Berlin dishes – such as meatballs,
veal chops and blood sausage (aka black pudding) – and expertly transforms the
heavy, rustic ingredients into lighter meals.
‘I like to evoke a
traditional image in the name of the dish and then surprise people with its
execution – taking the comfort of homecooked food and putting it into a new
setting,’ he tells me. One of his most popular inventions is a brilliant
combination of halibut and black pudding, its smoky weight a pleasant contrast
to the light white fish.
In the borough of
Mitte, Weinbar Rutz is split between a
Michelin-starred dining space upstairs and a ground floor wine bar. Its stated
aim is ‘the rescue of the German cuisine’. Dishes like ham sausage from the
Berlin district of Neukölln, lightly crisped on the outside and intensely meaty
within, are a banishment to the humble bratwurst. The floor-to-ceiling wine
racks are rigorously nationalistic too, with every Riesling imaginable squeezed
on the shelf.
Matthias believes that
while the stereotypical Prussian mentality of all work and no play has meant
that culinary indulgence has historically taken a back seat, it is now coming
in handy. ‘The work ethic plays a big part in German kitchens,’ he says. ‘That
strict focus on detail benefits more elaborate dishes. We take a very clean,
disciplined approach, and it is taking German cuisine to new levels.’ Berlin is
a city where little details matter, and where even a dinner plate can contain a
Night: Life is a cabaret
The aloof exterior of
the building belies its former life. Now home to the Speisekammer Bio
Supermarket, the only clues to its infamous Eldorado club incarnation are an
Art Deco sign above the door and black and white photographs on an inside wall.
They show a bar filled with glamorous women – and men in drag – by a portrait
of Marlene Dietrich. Ninety years ago, this was the heart of the city’s cabaret
scene, known for its decadent, sexually charged stage shows.
‘This has been a gay
area for 100 years,’ says Brendan Nash, whose Cabaret Berlin blog chronicles the
buildings that have survived the Weimar years, a period of particular cultural
intensity in Germany. He lives nearby in an apartment backing on to the former
home of British writer Christopher Isherwood, and gives tours of the area.
Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929, capturing the era in his book Goodbye to
Berlin; when he left in 1932 it was well on its way to destruction. ‘When
Hitler came to power, one of the first things he did was to bring in closing
times for all bars featuring decadent or “homosexual dancing”,’ explains
Brendan. ‘Eventually, most clubs were raided and shut down.’ The Eldorado
building itself was turned into a Nazi headquarters.
Yet the spirit of
Weimar Berlin and cabaret survived the onslaught. The 1972 movie Cabaret,
inspired by Isherwood’s stories, provoked renewed interest. And in recent
years, Berliners have set about recreating and reimagining the excitement of
the Golden Twenties once more. For Viva Misadventure, a cabaret dancer taking
Brendan’s tour in order to research the roots of her vocation, Weimar Berlin
still has untapped potential. ‘It was a period of so much hope and energy, of
real freedom and lust for life. And it all went horribly wrong. People want to
know why, to understand what happened and get back that feeling.’
The swanky Las
Vegas-style cabaret shows at the vast Friedrichstadtpalast offer a taste of the
Twenties, but true authenticity can be found at smaller club nights. The raucous
all-night parties of the cabaret-era Clärchens
Ballhaus draw Berliners of every generation, while the Bohème Sauvage events are joyous
celebrations of the Weimar era. Every month, a crowd dressed in scrupulously
authentic outfits dug out from the city’s vintage stores descend on the
fantastically opulent Weimar-style mirrored tent of Bar Jeder Vernunft. Red velvet drapes
hang across a tiny stage, where bands play whipsmart jazz and swing, and
singers in ballgowns, silk gloves and slick bobs smoulder in front of an
audience sipping cocktails long into the night.
The article 'Berlin, a day in the life' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.