Spending six days in Berlin shooting our new TV show on the city, we found ourselves most impressed by the energy of what was East Berlin. Areas that were, just a decade ago, squatter neighborhoods with ruin pubs have become gentrified. Now, while still a bit edgy, these areas are much more welcoming.
A remarkable thing about Berlin is that it’s actually cheap. It must be the most affordable capital city in Europe. Eating out is inexpensive and an absolute joy. But don’t be fixated on “German” cuisine. The most authentic local cuisine in Berlin is ethnic: Asian, Lebanese, Italian, and Moroccan.
And what’s most remarkable about Berlin is how it’s gone from a home base of aggression to the capital of chill. Otto van Bismarck was the ruler of Prussia as that German state spearheaded German unification in the 1860s. The popular joke was, “Most countries have an army, but in Prussia, the army has a country.” But today, the military trappings of Prussia are well incorporated into the mellow and pacifistic approach to life that characterizes Berlin.
I know that the gloomy news these days — with crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Ferguson, not to mention Ebola — can make it feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I’d challenge people to remember there have always been atrocities and horrors like these — but there has not always been 24/7 news with an agenda that mixes entertainment and politics to boost ratings. Without minimizing the seriousness of our world’s trouble points, we need to remember that crises come and go while 90 percent of our world is generally stable and at peace. (Ironically, the issues that affect a far higher proportion of the world’s population — such as climate change and the extreme gap between rich and poor — don’t make headlines, and consequently don’t hit us like ice buckets of awareness.)
My sightseeing in Europe this season seems to revolve around the theme of nations grappling with a heritage of war. But today, Europe is as stable, free, and peaceful as it’s ever been. In fact, so is most of our world. For that I’m thankful.
Or am I missing something?
Berlin turned its back on the Spree River bank during the last generation. No one went there because much of it was a militarized “death strip” — part of The Wall that separated people on the East and West. But today the river is a people-friendly park lined with impromptu cafés. You grab a lounge chair from the stack, set it where you like, and enjoy your drink. The theme at this café: the Ampelmännchen, that jaunty “traffic-light man” that fills even avowed capitalists with a tinge of nostalgia for the communist era. You’ll know you’re in the former East Berlin because these DDR pedestrian-crossing lights have been — by popular demand — preserved.
What was dreary and run-down East Berlin is now clearly the happening zone. Bohemian-chic restaurants are thriving, and the café and restaurant scene is ever-changing — very tough to nail down in a guidebook. My best advice: Wander around Prenzlauer Berg (using Kastanianallee as your spine) and see what appeals. One thing’s for sure: Berlin is cheap. You’ll eat well for around €10.
Standing on a ridge next to a fragment of the Berlin Wall while overlooking the former “death strip,” I surveyed what’s called “The Wall Park.” It was Sunday, the park was packed, and what must be the world’s biggest karaoke stage was the fun-loving main event.
Otto von Bismarck was the political genius of the 19th century and the mastermind behind the unification of Germany — against the wills of the existing powers of the day. Traveling in Berlin, you can learn a lot about the emergence of a united Germany onto the European stage in 1870, and how that led to turmoil in the next century.