What do you do when you’ve got a solid month free between finishing placement and heading back for your final, and most challenging, year of uni? Travel of course! With some money saved from working, and a best friend (SO to James) also in search of some adventure, we planned our Europe escape. 4 weeks, 6 countries and a whole lot of stories – I thought it was about time I shared some of them, along with some reviews of the cities we visited. This is the start of a new series of blog posts named The Europe Diaries. Our first stop: Berlin.
A very early Tuesday morning in July, we set off from Bristol Airport eager for the month ahead. Unlike a lot of people, we decided not to purchase an Interrail pass and instead plan our route ourselves. Although this probably meant less destinations, it saved us a lot of money. For the price of an Interrail pass, we had booked all travel including flights to and from the UK and all accommodation. And we had 6 great cities ready to explore!
Berlin is a must-do for any European trip. Jam-packed with culture and history, it is a truly unique city. We had a tourist day of walking around the city and visiting some of the sights. Everything is either a walkable distance from each other or a short ride on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn (Berlin’s train system). Despite the heat (we were in the midst of a heatwave across Europe that would last our entire trip), we opted to walk to save money (did someone say sweaty, budget travellers?). We began at Reichstag, a historic piece of architecture and the building that currently houses Germany’s parliament. From the outside it’s pretty impressive; as immense and grand as expected. Although we didn’t, you can also see the interior, including a climb into the glass dome atop the building to gaze at the view. TIP: doing this requires you to book ahead.
From there, we walked round the corner, through Tiergarten park and past the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. This is a quaint and beautiful memorial dedicated to the memory of hundreds of thousands of Romani people killed in a Nazi genocide during World War II. If you’re walking past, stop and have a moment of reflection. Just beyond this is the Brandenburg Gate and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also called the Holocaust Memorial), two must-see attractions. The former is the perfect opportunity for a cheesy tourist photo in front of a famous landmark, and while it is widely recognisable for it’s picturesque neo-classical architecture, the Gate also proudly signifies the unification of Germany after the Berlin Wall fell.
The aforementioned Holocaust Memorial is something I thoroughly recommend. Berlin is at the heart of a significant period of history, and so I think it is important to visit cultural spots where we can learn and pay respect. At the Holocaust Memorial, there is an underground centre providing information and photos, including names of those who lost their lives. Above ground is the memorial itself which really impacted me. It is spread over 19,000 square metres and consists of 2711 concrete slabs of varying size, some towering well above you. The ground they sit on dips and rises like a wave, causing a sense of unsteadiness. You soon become immersed, not only in the sheer expanse of it, but in the chilling realisation behind its meaning. The vagueness of the memorial leaves room for interpretation and subsequently the ability for each of us to reflect in our own way. Walk around, get lost, feel small, feel big, and take it all in.
Of course, the Berlin Wall is an iconic landmark in Berlin that probably every tourist visits. You can go to the East Side Gallery, the world famous 1.3 kilometre stretch of wall that is now gloriously covered in a kaleidoscope of graffiti. There is also the Berlin Wall Memorial site, which has a preserved section of the original wall as well as an exhibition and Chapel of Reconciliation. While the East Side gallery celebrates freedom and expression, the Berlin Wall Memorial is a more pensive commemoration of another sad era of Germany’s history.
Other must-sees include Berlin Cathedral (pictured below), Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin TV Tower (to the right of the Cathedral in the picture) and the many great squares such as Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz. On a day where we were feeling slightly fragile from the night before, we decided to travel slightly out of the centre to find some refuge from the bustle and heat of the city. We stumbled across Treptower Park and Insel der Jugend, which means Island of Youth and, as the name suggests, is a small island on the River Spree. We laid in the sun, fed the swans and watched groups of joyful people rent pedalos and jump into the water; just what we needed to tackle our hangovers. This peaceful day of relaxation completely juxtaposed the craziness of the night before – which brings me nicely onto another of Berlin’s many draws: the nightlife…
Ah, the nightlife. Probably some of the best in the world but notoriously difficult to get into. We were fairly lucky being a guy and a girl on our own, as the bouncers hate big groups and too many of the same sex in a group. They can also deny you entry if you’re too happy, wearing the wrong thing, or aren’t German. Yeah, it seems pretty prejudice, but they get away with it because they want a certain clientele in their venues. So a few tips: When you’re queuing, make sure you’re calm and serious (but not grumpy), wear black edgy clothing (extra points for vintage), and know how to answer the bouncers’ questions in German. DISCLAIMER: be prepared to be turned away for no reason. It sucks, but there’s nothing you can do. Have a back-up club at the ready.
We were only turned away from one club called Sisyphos, and I’m really not sure why. We made some friends at the hostel and all headed to the venue together. We split up into twos and threes to better our chances of getting in. When we were at the front of the queue, the bouncer asked how many there were of us, to which we replied in German. She told us to wait a moment, then lead us through one of two doors that stood side by side. We walked through a short passageway and then suddenly were back out on the street with no explanation. It seems the other door would’ve lead us inside the club. None of our party got in – either we were less discreet than we thought, or they simply did not like the look of us.
The other nights we went out we were successful, and we were able to enjoy the unique experiences of Tresor and Wilden Renate. Tresor is a legendary techno club housed in an abandoned power plant. You’ll find yourself amongst crowds of euphoric ravers, in a smoky, strobe illuminated maze that keeps the original industrial aesthetic. Set over three floors, including underground vaults which are accessed by a 30 metre long tunnel, this massive dance hall is set to a soundscape of wordless, pounding Electronic music by top DJs, that will penetrate to your core.
Wilden Renate had a completely different feel. A labyrinth of decorative rooms and small dancefloors, you will find yourself dancing through the interlocking rooms as the vibe, strangely but effortlessly, transitions with the music. Finding our way through what was once a multi-story apartment block, we passed an almost unnoticeable doorway that led to a sofa-filled room, perfect for those that are after a bit of refuge from the craziness. The aesthetic was theatrical, shabby, circus-themed. The outside area had a boat elevated by ropes in which you could sit. The music was feel-good disco-house. We met some fellow Brits who we chatted and partied with most of the night – I don’t remember their names, and barely their faces, but part of the experience is partying with people who you will probably never see again. It almost felt like we were at one huge, insane house party. Wilden Renate is like no other club I have ever been, but it is definitely somewhere you can let loose and be as weird and wacky as you desire.
You can try the notorious Berghain if you’re willing to take the risk of queuing for hours with no guarantee of entry, as it is known as the strictest, and wildest, of the lot. Parties that start on Saturday night will go on until Monday morning, and I’ve heard that the best time to go is a Sunday afternoon. Many sources advise on following the aforementioned rules to maximise your chances, but really only the infamous head bouncer, Sven, knows what it takes to get in. From what I’ve heard of what goes on inside though, you will definitely need to be open-minded. If you’re adamant on trying, you never know, you may be lucky. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Matrix, which is filled with tourists and plays more mainstream, feel-good tunes. I doubt you’ll have any problems getting in here, and if you’re looking for a general lively night out with Oceana-esque themed rooms (r&b, noughties etc.), this is it.
Of course, one of the best things about travelling is meeting people from all over the world. We met plenty of wonderful people, but we also met a few, shall we say, unusual types. This brings me to a story that is too funny not to share. I shall title this one:
Cornered by a Crazy, Naked Woman
A woman with a strangely muddled European accent, probably about 70 years old, would sit alone in the communal area of our hostel on her tablet, muttering to herself and attracting strange looks. One evening while eating dinner in the hostel kitchen, the woman sat down next to us and asked quite abruptly, “Do you know anything about the internet sittings?!”. Thinking she meant settings, we told her how to connect to the wifi, but she didn’t mean settings, and still to this day we do not know what on earth she meant. She rambled on to us about how she lived in France, but got kicked out of the country because of a money laundering scam. She claimed to be owed thousands of euros by Sarkozy – now I know he’s been accused of corruption and been involved in his fair share of financial controversy, but this woman seemed certain she had some sort of personal beef with the former French President. Her story was chaotic, and I swear at some point she said something about being on the run. We politely apologised that we couldn’t help her and left her to interrogate another group of travellers.
The next day I was off for a shower before we headed out for the night. When I entered the bathrooms, I was met by the woman, although this time she was STARK NAKED. When she saw me she backed me into a corner and frantically asked “Have you found out any information on the sittings?!”, as her saggy, wrinkly boobs swung way to close to me (sorry for the mental image, but at least you didn’t have to endure it). After what seemed like the longest five minutes of my life, I managed to convince her that I didn’t know anything about whatever it was she was talking about and escape into a shower cubicle. However, with only a shower curtain to separate us I was very wary that at any minute she could easily pull it back and start shouting at me again. I mean, she clearly didn’t have a clue about personal boundaries. It’s safe to say I showered with the speed of a cheetah… a cheetah on steroids… a cheetah on steroids wearing rocket shoes (laughing at that image – at least I make myself laugh). As I left, she was harassing another girl who had come into the bathrooms. I ran back to the refuge of our room where a bewildered James asked why I was half laughing, half shuddering with terror. But thankfully, as we were soon leaving to go to our next country, I never saw her again. So, to the crazy, naked, ‘internet sittings’ woman (as she will forever be known) – wherever you are, I hope you found what you were looking for. If not for your sake, then for the sake of all the other travellers who just want to shower in peace GODAMNIT.
Here’s what I’d rate Berlin on the following:
Culture – 5/5
Plenty of sights, museums, memorials, parks, shopping… You will not be bored!
Nightlife – 4/5
The only reason I’m not giving it top marks is because of the door policy on their clubs. When in a new city you want to experience the uniqueness, which includes nightlife, and it can be pretty challenging to do that in Berlin.
Cost – 3/5
As with many European capitals, prices can be high because of the tourism industry, and Berlin is no exception.
Travel – 5/5
Getting round the city is super easy. There are many overground and underground trains as well as buses that all span the entire city and beyond. Getting to and from the airport was fairly simple as well.
Overall – 17/20