Berlin 2017

By Colin McFadden

We recently visited Berlin for the first time. Because this was mostly a work trip for me, we didn’t do our normal daily-blogs. Blog entries about structure from motion and debates on LIDAR point cloud density would be a bit off topic for this site. We did want to capture our thoughts on the trip though, for our own memories and because we absolutely loved our time in Berlin.

My preexisting knowledge of Berlin turned out to be pretty rudimentary. There was a war, a wall, Bowie and Iggy, and then no more wall. That’s basically it. And as we explored the city, it turned out I knew almost nothing about each of those (even Bowie!).  Kat knew more from her German history class in school, but that too lacked any focus on the culture of the city during the Cold War.

We stayed in an Airbnb in Friedrichshain. That’s neighborhood in former-East Berlin. Now it’s home to a lot of hipsters, artists, and international students. A note: the legality of Airbnb in Berlin is questionable at best. There’s always some risk when booking one that it’ll get shut down before you arrive. The advantage is that you get to stay in real neighborhoods, and enjoy the dynamic urban life of the city. Choose accordingly.

Our apartment was close to everything we could possibly need – a Lidl for groceries, plenty of restaurants and food marts, bakeries and cafes, and a train station. After exploring a bit, we settled on a particular bakery run by a charming Turkish family a few blocks down for our morning breakfast stop. By day three, we were greeted as regulars – “two small coffees, black?” as soon as we walked through the door.  Kat also got to practice her German, ordering food and translating menus.

Our walk to the bakery each morning took us past the graffiti park on our block. Friedrichshain is full of amazing street art, and this park is a hotbed. Sometimes we would see a piece going up in the morning, only to have been replaced by evening. It’s like a constantly changing art gallery on your daily commute.

We landed relatively late on Saturday, and it was dinnertime by the time we’d picked up the keys to the apartment and gotten settled. Rejecting the hated jetlag, we decided on an excursion for dinner, to Maroush, a restaurant recommended by our friends Zach and Dani. Maroush is across the Spree river, in Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg is sort of Friedrichshain’s West-Berlin sibling (and now they’re a single district, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg), full of young people, restaurants and bars, and lots of art.

This walk gave us our first sense of the city and the neighborhood. You can’t ignore the youth – people younger than us seem to dominate the city. The diversity is amazing as well – language, race, religion, everything is on display. Throughout the week, we felt like Berlin is a city that welcomes anyone to be themselves.

Our first dinner was also a good introduction to food in the city. German food doesn’t have the same epicureal ring to it as French, Italian or Spanish. What that means is you get an incredible diversity of food. During our stay, we had North African, Korean, Indonesian, Sri Lanken, Malaysian, Indian, and Thai. Oh, and some currywurst.  There are also some awesome food halls and weekly and monthly food events.  We visited the Markthalle Neun for a delicious lunch.

All Aboard for Fun Time

Sunday was our first full day in the city, and it was devoted to the “Bowie in Berlin” walking tour.  Not only was this a chance to learn more about the time Bowie spent recording the “Berlin Trilogy,” but it was also a great chance to get a history of Berlin, from an on-the-ground perspective.  Our tour guide was passionate about giving us a feeling for what Berlin was like when Bowie was recording, and to think about how that plays into the music.

The most striking example of this came when visiting Hansa studios, where Low and Heroes (and Lust for Life and The Idiot!) were recorded.  Today, it’s a nice old building on a block with lots of new buildings, a few blocks from where the wall stood.  Down the street is the fancy new office of Gazprom.  It’s that kind of neighborhood.

Then the guide showed us photos of the area from the 1970s.  Hansa was essentially the last building before the wall.  Everything else was just empty space, having been destroyed in the war, cleared away, and not rebuilt.  When Bowie sings in Heroes about the wall he literally could see the wall from the studio space.  History seems to remember that time in Berlin as a sort of bohemian stateless party.  Understanding that the city was just full of empty spaces (and continued to be until very recently) was eye opening.  And, having recently visited Detroit, sadly familiar.

Walking with Rick

Monday, we spent time following the Rick Steven “audioguide” walking tour of Berlin.  We love these tours, delivered for free via the Rick Steve iOS app.  While the tour hits some of the big sites like the Brandenburg Gate, it also takes you into places you wouldn’t likely go, like the Brandberg u-bahn station, which was once a ghost station under the wall.

One of the fun things about the walks is that Rick keeps talking to you while you travel between sites – pointing out shops with interesting histories, or telling you more about the city.  We might look a little silly, walking side by side with our earbuds in, but it’s pretty great.

Museum Island

Tuesday, we spent some time exploring Museum Island (and surrounds), including the German History Museum, The Pergamon and the Neues Museum.  The last two contain artifacts from German archaeology (and “archaeology”), primarily in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece.  The highlight, by far, was seeing the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum.  The color is so striking in person (and since it’s the only room where photos are banned, you’ll have to go see for yourself anyways).

The German History Museum is a bit of a different story.  The top floor is mostly similar to any history museum in Europe – lots of knights and kingdoms and Hapsburgs, all with funny hair and frumpy coats.  It wraps up with World War I.  Then things take a bit of a turn.  The ground floor takes you through the rise of the Nazis, World War II, and the Cold War.

The layout of the exhibit can make it a bit hard to keep the events straight, but nothing is held back.  The bluntness is striking: in one section, about the extermination of mental patients and the disabled, it simply stated “while a few Germans protested, most did nothing.”

Lust for Life

Berlin blew us away.  We knew we’d have a good time, because you always have a good time in a big European city.  But the energy of the city was unlike any we’ve been to.  And like the Twin Cities, it’s got those good technocratic roots that mean the trains work well, the streets are clean, and the signage makes sense.

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