Category Archives: berlin

Berlin: Day 5, Alternative Berlin Tour

My last day in Berlin, I decided to see another side of the city with a tour from Alternative Berlin. I’d spent much of my trip visiting museums and all the major monuments, so I thought it would be interesting to see some “alternative” sites. It turned out to be fantastic and I recommend it for anyone coming to Berlin. The tour was lead by a woman from Berlin (whose name I forget) who had a comprehensive knowledge of the city’s street artists. The tour group was pretty international and I ended up meeting a very cool girl from Australia with whom I spent the rest of the day.

After being introduced to the major Berlin street artists, including Alias and El Bocho, we went to Mauerpark where there is a wall on which anyone can spray paint. The city set it up as an attempt to reduce tagging, but of course it’s mainly used for practice before people spray paint illegally. There are a surprising number of parks, greenspaces, and trees in Berlin. Even in the more touristy areas there are full-size soccer fields or even lots that are still empty since the destruction of World War II and after. It’s hard to imagine a huge empty lot in the middle of Paris or Manhattan. There are parts of Berlin that have an ambiance similar to that of the East Village in New York, but the streets are twice as large and are lined by shady trees. I can see how people fall in love with Berlin.

One of the things I liked about the tour is we went places I would have been to scared to go myself, like graffiti covered empty warehouses complete with a squatter. I might be wrong, but I believe Berlin has a lower crime rate than Oklahoma City, so I guess I really shouldn’t have been scared in the first place. But exploring abandoned buildings is always more fun with a group, right?

Another Alternative Berlin stop was the West Coast Customs Europe shop in East Berlin. Yes, this is a branch from the same West Coast Customs in California that was on Pimp My Ride. They have their own show on the Discovery Channel now and according to the guy from the show at the store in Berlin (I would get more specific if I could), it should be broadcasting soon. Their shop in Berlin was renovated out of an abandoned train depot and we were able to look inside and check out some of their completed cars.

How often do you see a tricked out Smart car? There was also an old Chevrolet cop car that they’d worked on for a Berlin fashion show.

We had a delicious falafel lunch before visiting the Cassiopeia Indoor Skatepark, where boys under the age of 13 were doing skate tricks I will never learn in my lifetime. I have skateboarded before, but I’ve always been awful at it. Cassiopeia is a complex of awesome things in addition to the skatepark, including a music venue and biergarten. We only had time to see the skatepark. I have so many reasons to go back!

Our group visited an amazing thrift store and then a totally weird absinthe/camping/head shop that was run by a human incarnation of the Chesire Cat. The second place was the kind of store where I could see somehow loosing track of time and wandering out the following week. It was dimly lit and half of it was devoted to camping gear, the other half to legal drugs. I did indulge in a shot of absinthe, but skipped the hallucinogens.

The tour ended at the amazing Tacheles, a shopping center that was abandoned and later taken over by squatting artists. How many times have I used the word abandoned in this post? Ah, Berlin. Anyway, Tacheles has been around for about 20 years and is now an official arts collective where the artists who live and work in the building pay rent.

The artists’ lease has recently ended, so no one is sure what’s going to happen to Tacheles. There’s a large mural on one of the building’s sides that asks: “How long is now?” I hope it stays around. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered anything like it. There are bars, cafes, artist studios, shops, and galleries in Tacheles and it turns into a nightclub in the evening. I’ve also never seen a functioning building with so much graffiti on it. It was literally covered, from the stairs to the ceilings to the floors to the walls. Every inch had spray paint or stencils or stickers or posters. I really want to come back in the summer when the courtyard is full of people.

I bought a messenger bag from Dutch artist Tim Roelofs’ store, who recently got some notoriety when his art decorated skirts in a Versace collection. After the tour was officially over and people scattered throughout Tacheles, I had a beer with the cool Australian from the tour in a bar that had a flame shooting metal dragon.

Later that night, we got green curry (finally!!) and went to a Berlinale film festival party. I’m not really sure how we got in, except that one of the Australian’s roommates had some sort of reason to be there. It was a little odd, as people asked me what film I was with. There was free wine and olives and the people watching was awesome. After, we went to a really awful dance club, but the night ended well at a Budapest themed bar with cocktails and candles on the tables. I think I got back to my hostel at about 6 am and woke up at 8:30 am to get to the airport and fly back to Paris. The trip back to Valence was fairly uneventful, just lots of standing in line and feeling tired. It was a bit of a downer to be back in slow Valence after a frenetic week in Berlin, although delicious pastries and seeing my friends has made me feel better about it. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to do more traveling.

Berlin: Day 4

East Side Gallery.

East Side Gallery.

I started my day at the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin wall that is covered in about 106 paintings by international artists. As a memorial for freedom, it’s as much an art gallery as it is a historical monument. It’s .81 miles (1.3 kilometers) long and is preserved where the original East wall stood. Unfortunately, as you can see from these pictures, it suffers from a lot of tagging over the paintings. But I guess if it was a completely sterile art installation it wouldn’t have the same effect.

East Side Gallery.

East Side Gallery.

I wish that the people who still want to build barriers would come to the East Side Gallery on a cold February day and think about the legacy of the Berlin Wall. Families were separated, people lost their jobs, many were killed trying to cross it. Yes, the East German economy was improved, but the overall impact was one of oppression. It shocks me that there is support for a wall between the United States and Mexico or in the West Bank. But I guess the story of humanity is one of repetition. I’m sure every mistake I’ve made in my life has already been made by hundreds of others. For some reason, we just can’t learn.

Oberbaumbrucke.

Oberbaumbrücke. (Another "Run Lola Run" site for those who are interested.)

While walking along the East Side Gallery I saw the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge over the Spree River. It connects two parts of town that were separated with the Berlin Wall and it sustained damage in World War II. It’s now is crossed by cars, pedestrians, and the U-Bahn and is a symbol of unification.

Kaiser William Memorial Church.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church).

One of the more tourist-heavy areas was surprisingly around the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), a church that was heavily bombed during World War II. Although a new church was built around it, the original church was left standing in its post-war condition as a war memorial. As you can see, the top of the spire is missing, many of the windows were shattered, and parts of the stone are blackened from fire. It was very haunting and let me imagine how the whole city must have looked after the war.

The Shalechet (Fall Leaves) installation in the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum).

The "Shalechet (Fall Leaves)" installation in the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum).

I’d heard good things about the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) and it more that surpassed my expectations. It’s fairly new, opened in 2001, and covers the history of Jews in Germany. The museum is shaped like a zigzag and is supposed to resemble a distorted Star of David. Three tunnels are at the beginning of the museum, with one leading to the Holocaust Tower, an empty, silent, dark room with a slit of light coming from a sliver of a window in the ceiling. Another tunnel leads to the Garden of Exile, which has pillars reminiscent of those at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The third goes to an impressive exhibit area that was very engaging and interactive in its presentation of the experience of Jews in Germany. Another feature of the museum are “voids,” which cut through parts of the building. Some of them are empty rooms and you can see them from windows in the gallery space. One, pictured above, is full of 10,000 iron faces. You can walk out on the faces, and the sound from your feet moving the steel echoes through the silence. I said that the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was haunting, but that would be understatement for the voids. I guess I would equate them with Cy Twombly paintings, where the empty space says as much as the splash of paint or burst of text. There are voids all over Berlin, most invisible, where people and places used to stand and where war and tyranny erased them.

Berlinale posters at Potsdamer-Platz.

Berlinale posters at Potsdamer-Platz.

That night, I saw “Für Miriam” at the Berlinale film festival. It’s a German movie about a teacher who kills one of her students in a car crash. Although it wasn’t her fault, it destroys her existence. After the film, I had some delicious strawberry ice cream before seeing a group of short films. They were very diverse, coming from Mexico, England, France, and Germany. For all of these films the cast or director was there to take questions after the screening.

One more day of Berlin adventure left to blog.

Berlin: Day 3

Oranienburger Tor U-Bahn entrance. This is what most of the U-Bahns in Berlin look like.

Oranienburger Tor U-Bahn entrance. This is what most of the U-Bahns in Berlin look like.

On every one of my hostel nights in Berlin, I was the last person to go to sleep and the first to wake up. I think Valence makes me tired because I’m never that active here. Anyway, my third day in Berlin started out at the city’s most famous museum.

Pergamon Altar at the Pergamonmuseum.

Pergamon Altar at the Pergamonmuseum.

The Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) is located on Museumsinsel, literally translated as Museum Island. Museum Island is located in the middle of the Spree River and contains several museums. The Germans like accurate names, apparently. Anyway, the Pergamonmuseum has several reconstructions, including the Pergamon Altar (above), the Market Gate of Miletus,  and Ishtar Gate. It also has a significant collection of classical antiquities and Islamic and Middle Eastern art. The Pergamon Altar is stunning. The original friezes are on the walls of the giant room where it is reconstructed, while copies of the originals are on the reconstruction. I took a lot of random class in college, Jazz Guitar and Bizarre Neuroscience among them, but one of the classes I find myself thinking about a lot is the Classical Archaeology course I took during my summer at Oxford. I can still remember some of the mythology and pick out the gods using their iconography. It was fun to guess who the frieze was of before checking the placard. The altar depicts the battle between the gods and the giants. The gods ended up winning and burying the giants in the earth, although their angry rumbling is what was said to cause earthquakes and volcanoes.

Berliner Dom on the Spree River.

Berliner Dom on the Spree River.

After spending the morning in the Pergamonmuseum, I went to the Berliner Dom. It is also on Museum Island and was completed in 1905.

Insider the Berliner Dom.

Insider the Berliner Dom.

The Berliner Dom is the most ornate Lutheran church I’ve ever seen. It was built to be a Protestant version of St. Peter’s Basilica and the opulence is definitely there. Unfortunately, due to ice and snow, the dome itself was not open. It was pretty cold and snowy for most of my Berlin trip. The Berliner Dom was bombed heavily in World War II, but has been restored. That’s the story of a lot of Berlin monuments. The Allies and the Soviets were perfect at destroying cultural, religious, civilian, and artistic centers and managed to miss targets like the giant Luftwaffe Headquarters. Some buildings that survived the war, like the Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), were destroyed by the Soviets for being against the current ideology and symbols of the Prussian imperialists. It’s amazing that the Berliner Dom exists at all.

Crypt of the Berliner Dom.

Crypt of the Berliner Dom.

My favorite part of the Berliner Dom was the crypt, where there are around 90 sarcophagi from the Prussian royal family. You can see from this photo that you got to keep your crown in death as part of your casket. Well, not your real crown, just a facsimile. I bet that the real crown was given to someone else. I know barely anything about Prussian history, so I couldn’t tell you who I saw in the crypt, but it was interesting to see so many sarcophagi built in gray and black colors. One was even covered in black velvet.

The only people who know how cool I am are the secret police.

"The only people who know how cool I am are the secret police." Seen along the Spree River.

After the Berliner Dom I got a sandwich and walked along the river. I enjoyed the above graffiti.

Queen Nefertiti at the Altesmuseum.

Queen Nefertiti at the Altes Museum.

The next stop on Museum Island (I love that name so much, it sounds like my kind of theme park) was the Altes Museum, or the Old Museum. On the front of the Altes Museum is a red neon sign that states: “All art has been contemporary.” It has a classical antiquities collection and is currently exhibiting Egyptian art that will later be displayed at the Neues Museum (New Museum). The highlight was this famous stunning bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Lego Giraffe.

Lego Giraffe.

The next museum on my list was the Gemäldegalerie, but I first walked through Potsdamer-Platz where the Berlinale film festival was centered. I hadn’t seen the area in daylight and enjoyed this giant Lego giraffe. I’m not sure if he is wearing a helmet or a hat.

Balloon Flower by Jeff Koons.

"Balloon Flower" by Jeff Koons.

I was surprised to find this blue “Balloon Flower” by Jeff Koons. I’d seen a yellow “Balloon Flower” at the Jeff Koons exhibit at Versailles and it was exciting to see another. According to my internet research, there are five balloon flowers, each in a different color. I still need to find magenta, red, and orange.

Gemaldegalerie.

Gemäldegalerie.

I was interested in the Gemäldegalerie because I’d seen “Rothko/Giotti” advertised. This turned out to be one Mark Rothko abstract expressionist painting in a room with two by 13th century Italian painter Giotto di Bondone. I guess I was expecting more, but I am not an art historian and probably missed the great significance. I understand that Rothko was influenced by Giotti and was interested in religious art as I’ve been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The Gemäldegalerie is a beautiful museum and has a very scientific approach to the way they hang art, but I found the 13th-18th century European painting to be a little boring. After seeing quite a few Madonnas and gold haloed saints, I went to an even more tedious museum in the same complex. It had awful carpeting and contained way more gold cabinets and 70s home furnishings than I ever wanted to see.

Pontiki at the Brandenburg Gate.

Pontiki at the Brandenburg Gate.

I went back to the Brandenburg Gate so that Pontiki, my world traveling friend, could get his picture taken. He’s traveled extensively in France and England, but this was his first visit to Germany.

Reichstag at night.

Reichstag at night.

It was very cold, so Pontiki did not want to stay out too long. Its free to go up in the dome on the Reichstag, so I figured it would be worth it to check it out. The security was a little insane, but I made it through.

Reichstag dome.

Reichstag dome.

The dome was designed by Norman Foster and replaces the one destroyed in the 1933 fire and later war bombings and fighting. It is right above the parliament debate chamber and offers a beautiful view of Berlin. Unfortunately, it had ice on it during my visit so the view wasn’t very clear, but it was worth it to see the city lights at night.

Red carpet even for Notorious at the Berlinale film festival.

Red carpet even for "Notorious" at the Berlinale film festival.

I decided to see what was happening at the Berlinale and discovered a large crowd outside one of the theaters when I got there. I wasn’t sure what was going on and people were screaming “ANGELA!!! ANGELA!!! ANGELA!!!” It turns out a movie has been made based on the life of the Notorious B.I.G. and the cast was there for its opening at the Berlinale. A lot of people had signs that said “We miss you Notorious!” and there were people with letters spelling out N-O-T-O-R-I-O-U-S-B-I-G. Angela Bassett was the only person in the cast that I recognized and seemed to be the crowd favorite.

Berlin adventures will continue with Day 4!