After our stressful ordeal at the Wrocław bus station, we arrived into Berlin around midnight and managed to check into our Airbnb without any problems. Our apartment was actually very nice and spacious. Since we were staying in Berlin over New Year’s, hostels turned out to be very expensive (mostly over €100 a night), so staying in our apartment was actually the cheaper option. We were in a quieter part of former East Berlin, in Neukölln, but had quick access to the metro and could easily venture into the city.
The next day was New Year’s Eve, so we weren’t sure how many places would be open and simply decided to walk around and explore. Although I knew Berlin had been fairly destroyed during WWII, I was surprised by how different it felt from other Western European cities I had already seen. While it did have some of the European charm, it felt more subdued, and sterile as well. The gloomy, overcast weather didn’t help either, but in a lot of ways Berlin was less inviting than I had been expecting.
Nonetheless, it was still interesting to walk around and explore. Unfortunately, one reality that the trip was quickly making clear was that I had not packed adequate clothing for the cold weather. To be fair, I had packed all of my winter clothing, but realized that my real cold weather clothing that I had relied on during Colorado winters was idly hanging in my closet in California. I tried to push the numbingly cold weather out of my mind, but found myself craving the advanced floor heating system that lay dormant in our apartment every time we wandered the streets.
Still, it was interesting to explore the city. Berlin definitely felt much larger than Madrid; the center of the city seemed to cover an incredibly expansive area that was well connected by public transport, but still took a while to navigate. After walking around most of the city, we decided to prepare for that night (New Year’s), and bought some beers from a grocery store.
Although I had been initially planning on celebrating the night with my friend Maria, she was out of town unexpectedly, so Ben and I were on our own. In addition, while my initial enthusiasm about New Year’s was high, the weather quickly became colder, making the realities of the situation come into clearer focus.
I knew that the most popular spot to ring in New Year’s was on the massive grass field behind the Brandenburg Gate. I briefly considered heading over that way, but realized I would be fighting endless crowds and increasingly cold weather, and nixed the idea. I also thought about going to a nearby bar to celebrate, but decided against that after realizing there weren’t any interesting bars near our apartment and that it had begun to rain as we were finishing dinner. Since we already had beer in the apartment, we ended up just going back and ringing in the New Year with wheat beers and stand-up comedy.
The next day we decided to do a walking tour of the city. Although we had already seen most of the main sights, we heard about an “Alternative” walking tour which promised to go to graffiti spots, squat areas, and interesting places that were important during the Cold War. Having always had a fascination with graffiti and knowing that Berlin had some of the most interesting graffiti in the world, I was very interesting in seeing the most famous graffiti and interested to learn more about the history of the city during the Cold War.
To begin the tour, we congregated at the base of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz and were introduced to our guide. Although my guide had been living in Berlin for about twenty years, he was actually from San Francisco. We headed by the metro to our first spot, a former train repair station that had been abandoned before being reclaimed by squatters, skaters, and now by cafes and other semi-legit businesses that pop-up in the space.
The tour was altogether very interesting, but I was literally freezing my face off the whole time. The cold was so intense that our guide suggested that we stop in several different cafes and shops just to escape the frigid weather for a few minutes. I had no qualms about ending the tour if the cold became too intense, as it was free, but found it so interesting that I willed myself to tough it out.
It was certainly worth it; besides learning about the inspiration behind many different pieces of graffiti, we also talked about important spots in both East and West Berlin, saw spots where people made the desperate attempt to cross the wall, and ended the tour at the wall itself. One of my favorite neighborhoods we saw was Kreuzberg, in former West Berlin. Kreuzberg grew from a small, insignificant neighborhood in West Berlin to the center of the “alternative”, hipster, and rap scenes today.
It was also interesting to learn that the wall was built to follow old zoning maps of the city. This meant that the wall was far from straight; there were some sections that curved far more than others. This also meant that although it was suicide to cross the wall at most spots, there were actually spots where the “no man’s land” in between the wall was out of sight of soldiers, giving more of a chance for a safe crossing.
The tour was fantastic overall. Although I had felt less than enamored by the city of Berlin, the alternative tour greatly increased my appreciation and understanding of what the city had been through, and its evolution towards the future.
After giving our guide a tip, we quickly scurried back to the apartment to soak up some heat. I took a shower and finally felt the chill in my bones start to lessen, and ease into full body warmth. I was silently grateful to be living in Spain rather than Germany, as I knew even the coldest days in Madrid were nothing in comparison.
After a quick kebab dinner, our cheap standby, we headed to a bar that I found intriguing. The bar was chemistry and laboratory themed, so all of the drinks were served in test tubes and beakers. I was also intrigued by their homemade absinthe, which I ended up ordering while Ben got an intense Bloody Mary.
I was somewhat at a loss at the correct way of pouring the absinthe; I was served the absinthe in a glass with the customary “spoon” and sugar cube on top with a glass of water on the side. I figured I was supposed to somehow dilute the sugar with the water into the absinthe, but when I poured water onto the sugar cube it instantly dissolved completely into the absinthe which didn’t seem like the intended idea. I downed the absinthe shortly after, which tasted like black licorice combined with rubbing alcohol, and we headed back.
The next day we hurried to catch the bus to Munich. Although I really enjoyed the alternative tour in Berlin, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down by the city. In part, I knew that I had enjoyed Poland so much that I had very high expectations for Germany, but I also realized that New Year’s had been lackluster and the city less enthralling than I had hoped.
Still, I had fairly high hopes for Munich. The city seemed to have more going on culturally, it was situated near the Bavarian Alps, and of course, Neuschwanstein Castle was only a short distance away. To my surprise, the weather was also forecasted to be warmer than Berlin, so I packed my bags onto the bus, happy to be escaping the cold, infinite gray expanse of Berlin.