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Berlin, a beautiful mess: You would love to lose yourself here

Rooted in the mirage of modern history and a refreshing burst of street art and culture, Berlin is perhaps one of the most captivating and under-appreciated cities of Europe.

travel Updated: Feb 01, 2016 16:30 IST
Prerna Madan

“Paris is always Paris but Berlin is never Berlin!”

When former French cultural minister Jack Lang made this remark in early 21st century, he wouldn’t have thought it would hold true today. This quote pretty much sums up the ever-transient concoction that is this city.

Rooted in the mirage of modern history and a refreshing burst of street art and culture, the German capital is perhaps one of the most captivating and under-appreciated cities of Europe.

Finding an economical place to stay in Berlin is not too hard – the best option being Wombats Hostel -- can range between 11-30 Euros, the most expensive being a private room.

The wall-sized window in the room opens to a perfect view of the stellar TV tower and checks in just fine in cleanliness quotient and comfort level. You can also cash in your ‘Free Drink’ coupon in Wombat’s seventh floor roof-top bar where most of your stranger roomies might end up anyway.

The city’s public transportation network is vast and reeks of the German efficiency often cited. Travel in its diverse train network – S Bahn and U Bahn -- which are like ivy creeping along a wall, covering every nook and corner of the city. An attempt to memorise train routes will only be futile, so carrying a map is a must.

Experience Berlin with aimless train rides at night, to witness this metropolitan chaos in its entirety. One day tickets cost just over 6-7 Euros and are applicable to its tram and bus network as well, but remember, these are only valid till 3 am from the day of the purchase, so choose wisely.

Berlin was razed to rubble in the Second World War, yet it stands today, a testimony to its tumultuous history and a Pandora’s Box of elements new and old, ever reinventing its identity and always on the move.

Endless museums on World War 2, Nazism, Holocaust and the subsequent East-West divide will drive any geek crazy.

Then there are still-standing concrete structures like the former Luftwaffe (Nazi Germany’s air force) headquarters, also controlled by the Soviet Union once and currently an income tax office – along with the classical architecture of churches, the grandiose Humboldt University, a pantheon commemorating victims of the Holocaust and of course, the iconic Parliament Reichstag – the sheer variety a proof of Berlin’s complexity.

It’s mind-boggling to stand in a random parking lot a few blocks from the iconic Brandenburg Gate, only to be told by your ‘Free Tour’ guide that this was where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s bunker once existed. The {P} parking symbol nearby was even more baffling -- it was where the “Fuhrer” and his wife Eva Braun’s corpses were burnt.

Almost every concentration camp built by the Nazi regime used to have a sign saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”), a cruel irony of the Adolf Hitler-led anti-semitic government. (Picture courtesy: Mad Art Photography)

Think again if you believe you’ve reached the pinnacle. You haven’t even ventured to the East Side gallery and heard seemingly impossible -- but genius -- stories of attempted escapes during the German divide.

Top off your tour with a visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, an hour away from Berlin via train to the Oranienburg station. The setting may be overwhelming and eerie, and the weather tinted with grey, but the bitter taste is part and parcel of the city and an essential reminder of history.

Street art is also a significant movement in Berlin’s cultural extravaganza. The city’s walls and metro trains are enveloped with symbols and graffiti, even around the Olympic Stadium. Look around and chuckle at the “If you want tickets, contact ***” sign on the ground! Here’s hoping it was actually painted during the 1936 Summer Olympics (in all honestly, it was probably during the World Cup only!).

Berlin is also a foodie’s delight, including – wait for it – a vegetarian’s. Try one of the various food joints around the East Side gallery – especially the Lebanese falafel and noodle box that make up a sumptuous meal complete with a dish and a drink in just over five Euros per person.

A week, ten days, a year, or even a lifetime may be insufficient to fully grasp this city. It is in a continual state of metamorphosis, always evolving, spurting out the unexpected every time you think you’ve figured it out. Truly, Berlin is... never just Berlin.

If Berlin was the embodiment of modern history, how about hopping over to ancient Roman era?

Continue the series here:

From Vienna to Rome: Here’s how you backpack across Europe on a budget
Swoop in: Prague, the land of Czech beer and medieval bridges
Backpacking in Italy? When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do