Thursday, February 18

Berlin | 01: rivers, burgers, bicycles and flea markets

In late August of 2015 we go to Berlin.

Within an hour of arrival we have settled in the first coffee shop we pass (Melbourne Canteen) on one of Neukölln's wide leafy streets in order to study maps and imbibe as much caffeine as possible after our early start.

Neukölln, location of our Airbnb apartment for the next few days, is a bit like Berlin's equivalent of Shoreditch. Except, Berlin does hip better. Falafel isn't a fashion statement, charity shops aren't overpriced, bars aren't contrived to look cool. There are very few chains in the capital: I think I saw one Starbucks, on the most touristy street near Potsdamer Platz. London's independent coffee shops, in order to square their shoulders against the omnipotence of Starbucks, Costa, Nero and the like, have become almost cartoonish in their hipness. But in Berlin, independent coffee shops are the norm. Their minimal signage, distressed woodwork and fancy brews aren't half as achingly pretentious because they aren't a retaliation against corporate competition. They don't need to compete. They just need to make good coffee.

The apartment is on the third floor of one of the many sturdy old blocks that populate what was East Berlin. The ceilings are high, the hallways and windows wide, with white walls and wooden floors. There is a shelf of empty gin bottles in our room, and fairy lights.

Later that day we take an ambitious walk north towards Friedrichshain to see the East Side Gallery. A wrong turn teaches me my first lesson about Berlin: there's no such thing as a minor detour. Everything is so far apart. It's as if somebody has taken hold of London by her circumference and stretched her out like a freshly washed jumper.

Our wrong turn involves a walk along the Spree, the wide river that flattens its way through the city. On this hot day it is translucent, sparkling. We are suddenly thirsty. The East Side Gallery, a stretch of the Berlin wall covered in murals, is busy, but it is nice to see Honecker and Brezhnev snogging, and to test my memory of A level History. Later, we buy pretzels and buns from a station backerei and attempt to snooze by the river in the sun.

That evening we eat the most incredible vegetarian burgers for dinner, along with our first pint of Berlin beer, in a small place called Let it Be. You know it's going to be good when Tom Waits is playing as you walk in.

On our second day in Berlin, after a morning cortado, we cycle north to the Flohmarkt am Mauerpark, one of the capital's popular Sunday flea markets. Berlin is unlike London in that you can't walk everywhere. It's just too big: the city's districts sprawl as far away as possible from each other, and trying to walk between them during a day of sightseeing is exhausting. However, and again unlike London, the city is excellent for cycling. We find a place that rents renovated old bikes for 4 euros a day. This fits well with our 'frugally hip' aesthetic, despite the combination of juddering old bike frames and cobbled streets almost costing us our teeth and bones.

It's a particularly exciting trip for me because the flohmarkt is where I finally get my hands on the secondhand record I've been hunting for for years: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. (Later I have fun trying to translate the German lyric sheet: Heute Nacht haben sie den Chicken Man in Philly hochgejagt, sein Haus noch dazu...)
As well as records, the stalls offer books, secondhand clothes, silver rings and plants; a warren of browsing, thick with students and families alike. And when we escape from under the canvases into the wider park area, it feels like a music festival: people lie on the dusty grass drinking beer, smoking and watching musicians jam. Again there's something relievedly less 'try-hard' about it all compared to London.

We cycle back via the Reichstag and the Tiergarten to pose for photos before heading eastwards towards our apartment. As we near the Landwehr canal we pass a man standing next to a hole in the wall being handed the most incredible looking falafel wrap, and we squeeze the brakes, hard: it's dinnertime.

We prop our bikes on the bank of canal, buy bottles of beer from a nearby cafe. The falafel is hot and delicious and we eat as the sun turns the water purple and orange.

places mentioned:
coffee at Melbourne Canteen | Pannierstraße 57
East Side Gallery | Mühlenstraße
vegetarian burgers at Let it Be | Treptowerstraße 90
cortados from Café Treibholz | Hermannstraße 37
cheap secondhand bicycle rentals from Rent a Bike 44 | Mahlowerstraße 9
Flohmarkt am Mauerpark | Bernauerstraße 63-64
falafel from Mo's Kleiner Imbiss | Urbanstraße 68 (at least I think this was the place - we were too hungry to notice)
beers from Pavillon am Ufer | Paul-Lincke-Ufer 4

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