I arrived in Berlin last Thursday, after a very comfortable flight over on British Airways. Unlike the newly-cheap turkeys at our beloved American Airlines, BA are still willing to offer complimentary drinks on overseas flights, which is nice. What’s more, the food in “World Traveller Plus” (the front of economy, with a few extra inches of legroom) is off of the first class menu, which is very nice indeed. For future transatlantic flights, I’m a convert. After a quick and painless transfer in Heathrow and an hour’s flight, I landed at Berlin’s central Tegel Airport, only a few miles from the city center. Any other day I’d have had a 20-minute train or subway ride, but because I was lugging a giant suitcase with a broken handle — my own fault earlier — I took a cab to my new apartment.
I am staying in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, in eastern Berlin (which is to say, the former East Berlin). My apartment is on the second floor of a small building at Krossener Straße 26, just off the southeast corner of Boxhagener Platz, the central square of the neighborhood. I’d seen plenty of photos before agreeing to the lease, but I was still very pleasantly surprised at the apartment. It’s sunny and light, with new pine floors and a selection of IKEA furniture. That means the couch has about a quarter-inch of padding, but other than that, everything is clean and comfortable. I’ve got a north-facing balcony overlooking the street, which is very nice in the morning.
I spent the first few days just getting my feet on the ground, and getting over a cold that had me laying low for a while. I did manage a long walk, which served both to reorient me to the layout of a city I last visited in 2008 and to test my boot-free left foot. I started at the giant, gorgeous Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) — which is easily the most efficient train station I’ve ever come across — before continuing past the Reichstag, under the Brandenburg Gate, and all the way down Unter den Linden, the main drag in East Berlin. I did about three miles in total, and my foot felt fine while walking and the next morning, and I haven’t had any real trouble with it since. I haven’t started running again yet, but I think that will come later this week. I hate that I missed out on Kyoto and Tokyo, but I’m very glad I came home early to get treatment for whatever in hell I did to hurt myself.
I’ve done plenty of exploration of my neighborhood, too. It’s only gentrified recently, and it still has a bit of an edge to it in places. The streets around Boxhagener Platz, including Simon-Dach-Straße, are a bit less edgy, and remind me somewhat of the West Village, with lots of sidewalk cafes, hip design galleries, and organic markets, all interspersed with Döner kebab shops and convenience stores. It’s fun, as are the weekly farmers’ market (Saturdays) and flea market (Sundays) in the square. I’m sure in warmer weather the sidewalks are even busier, but as it is, Germans are very willing to sit outside in 45-degree weather sipping their beers. The cafes don’t do outdoor heaters, but they all provide blankets with each chair.
I will spend most of my three European months in Berlin, and I’m making a real effort to learn the language (through the excellent Duolingo app), but I also want to do some traveling. I’ve started making plans to get further afield, but for my first trip I took the super-fast Inter-City Express (ICE) train to Hamburg. I hadn’t been to Hamburg since 2001, when I did an easyJet trip from London while I was there studying law for a semester. I don’t remember much of that first visit. I’d flown into Amsterdam and taken the train to Hamburg, so my first experience with its airport was upon departure. To my surprise and disappointment, I learned as I arrived for my flight back to London that easyJet doesn’t serve Hamburg’s main airport, but rather what they (and only they) call Hamburg Lübeck Airport, which is in the very different city of Lübeck, some fifty miles away. That was an expensive lesson. The only other memory of that trip is that somewhere along the way, I bought what remains my very favorite coffee mug, a big blue and white ceramic job labeled Kapitänstasse, which shows all of the main knots a sailor (or a Kapitän, I guess) must know how to tie. I don’t really do souvenirs, but that little mug is one of my prized possessions.
Anyway. This time I spent two days and a night in Hamburg. It’s a pleasant city with a lot of public green space, but there really aren’t a lot of blockbuster sights other than the old town itself. I had a gander at the impressive Rathaus (City Hall) and a stroll through the very seedy Reeperbahn entertainment district, once home to the Star-Club where The Beatles got their start and developed their “Hamburg Sound,” and now where multi-story whorehouses (nothing explicit on the landing page, and it’s pretty interesting, but I wouldn’t click that link at work) sit side by each with theaters showing The Lion King and several other family-friendly productions. It’s an interesting place, but seemed a bit run down. I suspect, like Bourbon Street, it looks better at night. More interesting and a bit classier was the St. Georg district on the other side of town, where I stayed in the chic and literary Hotel Wedina and dined surprisingly well at the Portuguese Vasco da Gama restaurant on Lange Reihe, the main street through the area.
I’m now back in Berlin. I visited the Hackescher Markt and the new-to-me Topography of Terror exhibition/museum this weekend, but I’m trying to save most of the sightseeing until next week, when my friends Chris and Scott will be here for a few days. It’s their first time to Berlin, so we’re going to hit all the biggies, on which I will duly report back. Today I have managed to successfully mail a package to the states from a Deutsche Post office (I think), and purchase a SIM card for my iPad, so I’m pretty proud of myself. Tomorrow (Tuesday) I’m leaving for a three-night trip to Dresden (never been) and Prague (not since 2006), and I’m pretty excited for both. Must go pack.