Monday, February 20, 2012

Biking and Drinking Beer in Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, the prettiest square in Berlin (photo: Visit Berlin)
The best way to see Berlin is by bicycle. For one thing, the city of 3.4 million people is huge – 9 times the size of Paris – and, like any capital city, there are long distances to be covered between monuments and historic buildings.
But the best reason to see Berlin by bicycle is because that’s how Berliners see it. This is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe and there are bicycles everywhere: riding side-by-side with cars and trolleys on the main thoroughfares, bouncing on the cobblestone backstreets of Mitte and zipping along on bike paths that line the Spree River – the heart and soul of Berlin.

Spree River
 Most of the “must see” attractions are on or near the Spree, which meanders and twists west to east the entire width of Berlin. Use the Spree as your bicycle highway, and you can easily pedal the flat city from the Scholss Chalottenburg to Checkpoint Charlie, with stops at beer gardens along the way.

There are great parks, wonderful tree-lined shopping boulevards, amazing architecture, and everywhere, history. This city is fixated on its history, and no wonder. The events that led to World War II in Europe all started in Berlin. By the time the war came back and ended in Berlin in April 1945, one seventh of the world had seen fighting, 60 million people were dead, 50 million injured, and 80,000 towns and cities had been destroyed.

Among the destroyed cities was Berlin. More bombs were dropped on Berlin than any other city in World War II. Some 612,000 homes and one fifth of all buildings were destroyed. An army of 900,000 Russian soldiers eventually took the city, but by that time, one million people had been killed in the Battle for Berlin, including 125,000 civilians. And the horror was not over a long shot. In the vast sea of rubble that had been a city, the conquering soldiers of the Russian army raped 110,000 Berlin women.

Russians capture Berlin
 Stare carefully at any pre-World War II stone building in Berlin and you’ll see scars from machine gun bullets, tank shells and bombs. Human scars are harder to find. But there’s no forgetting. Every tourist postcard rack is filled with images of Berlin as a destroyed city, Russian soldiers waving flags from the top of bombed out buildings.

With the war’s end, Berlin’s nightmare kept going. Ahead were occupation and the Berlin Wall, which for 28 years ran a twisting 96-miles through the center of the city, cutting apart families and friends. No city can match a history like this, and there are museums, historic markers, and old bits of the wall, books and posters everywhere to remind you.

But of course, that’s exactly what young Germans don’t want. They’ve had enough of the war, Nazis, and East and West Berlin, and they’ve built and inhabit a wonderfully new, hip and chic city of cafes, restaurants and fashion…and, of course beer. You could live comfortably for a long time on delicious street vendor sausages that sell for one Euro, washed down with 3 Euro half liters of beer. All of this makes Berlin one of the cheapest and most fascinating European cities to visit.

Orientation & Bike Rentals

One of the least expensive and easiest places to stay is by the Zoo and beautiful Tiergarten Park. The central train station used to be here, but a new station has made this area kind of a backwater – it’s still easy to get connections everywhere, but much cheaper to stay here. There is direct bus service or S-Bhan service from the airports for 2 Euros (booths at the airport with English speaking guides will sell you the tickets and tell you where to catch the bus or train).

Brandenburger Tor (gate)  credit:  Visit Berlin
 The Zoo station has all three public transportations: the U-Bhan (the underground subway system) the S-Bhan (the streetcars and light rail) and DB national railway. Buy a daily pass from an easy to use machine with English instructions and your ticket is good on all of them.

Lots of inexpensive hotels are in the Zoo area along Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm for short), which is one of Berlin’s main, tree-lined shopping boulevards. We booked the pleasant enough Hotel Boulevard am Kurfuerstendamm (with a rooftop bier garden) through Expedia for $65 Euros.

Fat Tire Bike Tours also has an outlet at the Zoo station (and at Alexanderplatz). They rent big, comfortable cruiser bikes, useful for hopping tram lines. You can take one of their organized bike tours of the city or just rent a bike and go off on your own for 12 Euros a day.

Around the Zoo: Walking Ku’damm

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
 It’s impossible to see all of Berlin, but in a couple of days of walking and biking around, here are some highlights. Kurfurstendamm was the main shopping street of West Berlin when the city was divided. Ironically, the shopping is now better in what was East Berlin, but Ku’damm is a still a great strolling avenue. Visit The KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe, which has more than 2,000 employees. The 7th floor is like the Harrod’s food stalls and is devoted to every imaginable delicacy that can be eaten, including 1,800 different cheeses and 1,400 breads. The displays of food alone are worth a visit, but there are counters where you can sit and dine on everything from seafood to specialty meats, although it’s not cheap.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church hovers over Ku’damm as a grim reminder of the War. The tower was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, but the ruins were left standing as a memorial. Photos in the museum show the sheer, utter destruction of Berlin, making it all the more unbelievable when you exit on to the same street now and see it filled with cafes and handsome people busy shopping and living well.

Biking Berlin from the Zoo
Hop on a bike at the zoo station and it’s a pleasant three-mile ride along the Spree to Schloss Charlottenburg. Built in 1695, this is one of the major palaces of Europe and a one-time home of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a name that will pop up all over Berlin. It was this Frederick who made the city one of the grandest on the Continent. There are better palaces in nearby Potsdam, but the grounds, gardens and lakes here are lovely to bike around.

Schloss Charlottenburg
 Back on the bike path, you can follow the Spree all the way to the Reichstag. The most important building in the city, it was built in 1894, destroyed in 1933 (its arson was used by Hitler to seize power), and rebuilt in 1990s with an amazing new dome to become the official seat of the German parliament – the capitol of a reunified Germany. It’s about a 40-minute wait to get through security for a free tour, but well worth it. The outdoor view from the top of the Cupola takes in all of Berlin. Walking up and down the ramp inside the glass dome (you can look straight down into the parliament floor) is one of the top Berlin experiences.

Reichstag interior
 The area around the Reichstag is one of the great places to have a bike because you can zip between top attractions that would take days to walk. Within a short ride you can be at the famous Brandenburger Tor (gate), the great symbol of Berlin that was right in the middle of the BerlinWall. The tree-lined Unter den Linden starts here. This is the most beautiful boulevard in the city. Combined with cross street Friedrichstrabe, it’s the Fifth Ave. of Berlin. The beautiful trees that once lined it were cut down by Hitler and replaced with Nazi flags, but people objected (one of the rare times they stood up to him) so the trees you see here today were replanted by Hitler. There’s a bike lane (never bike on a sidewalk…Berliners will let you know that is verboten) and it’s possible to zip along past cafes, and impressive old buildings now filled with shops.

German History Museum

Along the way are the impressive gates to Humboldt University (Albert Einstein was educated here) and the fantastic German History Museum, a must stop for anyone interested in the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Berlin Wall. The museum covers all German history, so there are suits of armor and Napoleon’s hat (captured at one of one of the many Prussian battles with France) but the mesmerizing exhibits are on how the Nazis came to power. Not to be frivolous, but beer played a role. One of the great attractions of the big mass Nazi rallies was free beer and sausages. About a third of the exhibits have English translations, which is enough to follow the story.

Alte Museum on Museum Island

Mitte, Berlin’s old town with cobblestone streets and attractive squares (Gendarmenmarkt is the most beautiful) is just a few blocks south and fun to bike through (with less cars to compensate for the bumpy cobblestone ride). Unter den Linden also leads to Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important collections of museums on the planet, led by the Pergamonmuseum, with its great collection of ancient art. Even if you don’t have time for any of them, the layout of the island and the architecture of the museums are worth a journey. Just over the bridge on the other side of the island is Hackescher Markt, one of the most attractive squares for an outdoor cafĂ©, sausages and a half-liter of bier. We watched a film being made on the bridge of a nude couple dancing, then witnessed a bike do a 180-degree flip when a rider’s front tire got stuck in a tram rail. Watch those rails!

Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
 Heading back to the Zoo, the Tiergarten is one of the great parks of Europe with lakes, biergardens, miles of tree-covered bike trails, statues and monuments, …all making a nice end to the ride.

Berlin After Dark

Mitte outdoor cafe
 Berlin’s famed nightlife is hard to find. For one thing, it allegedly starts very late with clubs opening at midnight. Hip neighborhoods change constantly, and you could walk by clubs in the day and not recognize them. But there are no end to nice neighborhoods lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants: Kreuzberg is the Turkish center (Berlin would be the fourth largest Turkish city in the world) and has a real international flavor. Prenzlauer Berg is an old East German neighborhood with literally dozens and dozens of restaurants built into what had been a neighborhood of uniform, boring, and Communist cinderblock buildings. They are now alive with people, colorful awnings and umbrellas. Mitte has restaurants and galleries built into old buildings and Savigny-Plaz has outdoor cafes surrounding a nice square park. Young Berliners are hip and nicely dressed, and the cafes and bars are always full with people in animated conversations. But it’s quite tame, and if you’re looking for a scene like Amsterdam, well, we couldn’t find it..though we asked enough people.

Most people would see Berlin on a trip around Germany or on a triangle trip with Prague, Vienna or Budapest…all of which are easily accessible by train in a few hours. It certainly ranks with those cities in interest, especially if you’re fascinated by 20th Century history. Another option is to stop in Dresden, a mini-Prague-like city just two hours away, (halfway to Prague) that was also destroyed in World War II and has been rebuilt into amazing destination.

Berlin’s most popular day-trip is Potsdam (a half hour train trip: buy the A, B and C daily transit pass and you can travel there by train or slower tram). In the main station of Potsdam, exit towards the river, turn right and 200 yards down there is a bike rental shop. They’ll give you a map that guides you to one incredible 20 km bike ride past palaces, fountains, gardens and tree-lined lanes of Sanssouci. You’ll also bike to a wonderful pedestrian town of cafes and shops, on to the famous site where Truman, Stalin and Churchill decided the fate of Europe after WWII, over the “spy bridge” where East and West Germany often exchanged prisoners, and along a lakeshore to palaces turned into beirgardens.

A palace in the great park of Sanssouci
 Sanssouci (“Without worries”) is the Versailles of Germany – a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 700 acres filled with a dozen palaces, working windmill, and elaborate gardens and fountains, all with landscaped trees lining the roads. What a bike ride! No traffic, flat paths and something amazing around every corner. It was started as a summer resort by Frederick the Great in 1744. He is once again buried here (after being dug and exploited in a tomb by the Nazis) under a simple stone slab, that always has a fresh potato on it (Frederick introduced the potato to Germany).

Potsdam at twilight
 From the park, it’s an easy pedal to the quaint pedestrian streets of Potsdam. Walk your bike (or get stern glances from locals) past beautiful shops, flowers and cafes to the Dutch Quarter, a centuries old street with red tile roofs. The Allies chose Potsdam as the place to meet after the war, and it was here that Europe was divided into East and West. Fittingly, Potsdam was right on the line. The Glienicker Bridge was one of the most famous dividing lines, and a place glorified in Cold War novels where spies were often exchanged. Bike over this, and follow the lakeshore back to town.