When we travel, Linh and I usually like to spend a great deal of time immersing ourselves in one or two countries rather than flitting between a few well-visited, high-profile attractions. Most of our journeys involve some overland travel and exploration and often take place outside cities of population centres. More recently though – particularly since we’ve started travelling in Europe – we have found ourselves taking more short breaks where the idea of exploration is a much more protracted process.
Early in 2016, we took a flight from Amsterdam to the German capital of Berlin. This was on the tail end of our 6 week trip to Europe and we had a few days before heading home for the reluctant return to work so we’d allowed three days to explore a city that – considering the history of the region – perhaps deserved a little more than 72 hours.
We landed at Tegal airport, Berlin’s main international hub which was built during the Berlin airlift in 1948, and were collected by our friend Henny (who had driven to Berlin to meet us). As we drove through the rain towards our hotel near the centre of the city, I scanned the streets for sites and buildings that I’d read about or studied in History class. Berlin is a place I’d read about and studied throughout my schooling and to drive past the locations mentioned as we discussed the World wars and the Cold War was particularly exciting. Our hotel was about 300 meters from Checkpoint Charlie and surrounded by monuments and attractions from almost 100 years of tumultuous history.
Understandably, however, Berliners tend to look at their city very differently. Time and again people apologised for the weather and expressed their regret that we visited in winter because “Berlin is beautiful in summer”. I wasn’t convinced. Berlin to me looked anything but beautiful, but that doesn’t matter – I don’t go around judging cities on their aesthetic qualities (at least not entirely). Berlin to me was exciting, edgy and altogether amazing, particularly considering the fact that it has been practically destroyed (during World War 2 to the point that the site was almost abandoned), cut up and shared among other countries like a birthday cake and practically bankrupted during the long rebuilding. Such a dynamic history makes the weather or the appearance of the city irrelevant.
I reveled in the icy, grey sludge on the pathways and the overcast, foggy outlook as we walked around the centre. I loved touring the monuments in near freezing temperatures and watching the rivers begin to freeze over, I could have spent weeks sitting in cafes enjoying the juxtaposition between the warmth of the heaters and the chill of the city wind. Berlin has built an image of a bohemian, edgy city complete with art spaces, boutique restaurants and a grungy underground scene, but what I loved most about Berlin was that it was there, all mashed together – history, past, shiny and dirty. If you find yourself walking through Berlin, take a detour – anywhere – and see what really makes it tick.