It all started in the spring of 2013, when we flew Air Berlin as a low-cost option to Scandinavia (recommended, btw). This meant changing plans at Tegel, not a big deal, except that the plane was late arriving and we missed our connection. Air Berlin put us on another flight, but it did make me check to see how often this happened, and if we might run into problems on the way back that could necessitate an overnight in Berlin. So, just in case, we sat down to write a quick list of things we wanted to see in Berlin. By the time we were done, we realized that we needed to go to Berlin some day. (Some context: I did visit the city for a few days back in the Fall of 1989. More later.)
Berlin is beautiful, cosmopolitan, fascinating, and easy to get around in. We bought the 7-day transit pass and more than got our money’s worth out of it, taking the Ubahn, buses and streetcars absolutely everywhere. Berlin is also an eminently walkable city; we averaged about 8 miles a day, according to the Health app on my iPhone. People wore black, walked quickly, and yelled at morons who dawdled on the subway platform. I felt right at home, despite speaking pretty much zero German (the SO does speak excellent German and while it was handy, it was also not necessary, as most people answered him in perfect English; I also defaulted to French a few times and that worked well).
In terms of what to do in Berlin, you could spend an entire trip just going to museums and still likely not have sufficient time. The same could be said about WW II or other historical sites, there is fantastic shopping, a third-wave coffee movement, and a food truck scene. Our trip was planned around two U2 concerts, so everything had to fit around that. Eventually we realized that we were going to table the museums unless the weather was awful, and picked a couple of self-guided walking tours for a dose of history. (Honestly, the entire city is a dose of history, as you navigate around and over and next to where the Wall used to be.) We wanted to walk, to be able to see and feel and understand the city. We are New Yorkers; walking a city is how we figure things out.
Tegel (TXL) is an awful, cramped, antiquated airport, built before modern security needs; the line to clear immigrations is at each gate, so you are crammed into a tiny hallway waiting your turn. Baggage claim is similarly compact. It’s not expensive to take a taxi into Berlin from the airport, but it’s also completely unnecessary. There’s a dedicated bus that runs through the entire city, as well as other buses that connect to the Ubahn. We opted for the latter, and aside from a broken escalator, it was an economical, quick and pleasant way into town. The Ubahn stop was literally steps from our hotel.
The hotel was a Westin 10 minutes’ from Branderburg Gate. (Before that impresses you, I will note that it was obtained via hotel points.) Prior to unification, this hotel was a prestigious property used to house Eastern Bloc muckety-mucks when they came to Berlin on official business. Now it’s on the main shopping drag and overlooks the opera. We could see the flags of the Russian, Polish, UK and US embassies out our window. The only downside to the hotel is that the area around it was business and commercial and shut up tight in the early evening, so that aside from the hotel itself, there really wasn’t anywhere to get a drink or a snack. But the location was phenomenal.
We were walking to Potsdamer Platz 90 minutes after checking in. While this was chosen as an initial destination because it fit with everything else we wanted to get done today, it is actually a great place to start your first trip to Berlin. It’s going to seem kind of underwhelming at first, when you arrive and realize it looks just like Herald Square or Oxford Street. But then you remember that it started out as a major city square, before being bombed to hell during WW II, and then became a desolate no-man’s land during the Cold War. Yeah, I’d put my biggest temples to capitalism in that exact same place too as soon as I got a chance.
We navigated the Ubahn and then transferred to a bus that would take us to the Victory Column. While waiting, I almost got myself run over wanting to run out in traffic to get a photograph of a sign reading ‘Neukolln’ (a Bowie reference, and one which the SO promptly informed me I had been mispronouncing since the dawn of time). You know the Victory Column if you’ve seen Faraway, So Close or the video for “Stay.” It is a gorgeous, iconic monument, with stunning, classic views over the city. It is also a 250-stair walk to the top. Now, if you’ve been to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, that’s a 248-stair walk, which was why I thought this would be a piece of cake. The walk up was not as bad as the way down, nor was it as bad as my now-screaming-quad hobble down Unter der Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, which we could not access due to a political rally by health care workers. It wouldn’t be a trip to Europe unless some major monument was inaccessible in some fashion.
Luckily, on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate was the Adlon Hotel. The Adlon is one of those great storied hotels that hosted movie stars and actual royalty. Marlene Dietrich used to stay there. It survived the war, only to be damaged later. It was torn down by the East German government, and rebuilt after Unification. This is all fascinating, but really, you know the Adlon Hotel for one of two reasons: one, Michael Jackson shook his baby off a balcony of this hotel, or two, U2 stay there. We promptly sat ourselves down in the lobby restaurant and ordered afternoon tea and pretended we weren’t looking for Bono to stroll through the lobby. We would find out later that the band were actually on the other side of town at the Waldorf, but the tea was absolutely wonderful.
Jet lag hit us when we got back to our own hotel, and we took a quick nap before putting together some dinner from the grocery store (always one of our favorite things to do in a foreign country). The Haribo section of this smallish train station supermarket was particularly impressive. We unpacked to dueling Berlin playlists and crashed hard.
Day two was sunny and warm, just like the day before. (We would have the exact same carbon-copy blue sky days for our entire time in Berlin.) We headed back out to the Ubahn up to Karl-Marx-Allee, a storied East German boulevard built by the GDR as a monument to socialism. It was previously named Stalinallee, and was used for various militaristic parades. You get the idea. But I will be honest that my motivation was to find this angle to try to recreate this shot:
You want to see the city that inspired the music you love, and try to find the roots of that inspiration. But, as I found out as I did hours and hours of research, the Berlin of Bowie and Iggy and even Achtung Baby doesn’t exist any more. You can’t complain about that any more than you can complain about New York City not being as ‘gritty’ as it was in the 70s and 80s. Now, Karl-Marx-Allee boasted a skateboard shop as well as a third-wave coffee place, just in one block. But just standing there in the history, you understand why it was in the video, as an example of the old being turned into the new.
Our next destination was East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Wall, was taken over by artists in the 90s. Conveniently, the East Side Gallery is located on the street across from the Mercedes Benz Arena, which is where U2 were playing. The East Side Gallery is well worth your time, despite the hordes of tourists and selfie sticks, despite the bad street musicians playing “Lithium” and “Times They Are A Changing.” (The latter guitarist seemed visibly irked we didn’t toss a couple of Euro into his hat, when I thought he should have lost money for being so trite.) There is good art and thoughtful art and terrible, facile art, and amidst all of that, there is art that had a direct connection to the music that would be happening across the street in a few hours. I knew it was from there, but didn’t anticipate the emotional jolt that would occur when the Wall artwork came up on the screen in Berlin, surrounded by people of all ages from the city, artwork that I’d seen just a couple of hours earlier, and after two days of already walking in and around the places that wall used to bisect. If you want to read about U2, you can do that here; if you don’t, all you need to know is that they played “Zoo Station” for the first time on this tour and I was stunned for hours afterwards.
Post-show, we hurried out of the venue and walked across a bridge guarded by two castle turrets lit by a full moon, before stopping to eat amazing hamburgers at a stand that we’d learn later was a former public toilet that now served what was widely regarded as the best hamburgers in Berlin. It was called “Meisterburger.” We went there because it was close to the venue, open late, and on the way back to the hotel. The intersection was hopping, concert-goers arrived at a steady clip, and we were not the only non-German speakers getting hamburgers post-show. We fit right in, sitting there wolfing down burgers and fries, sharing the communal bottle opener that was chained to the table.
Afterwards, we picked up some local beers at a corner store and headed back to the hotel. The Ubahn was still full; I never got used to how clean it was, how the elevators managed to magically not smell like urine, and how people drank open alcohol with impunity. Also, there is no fare control in the Ubahn, which never stopped being weird (although we did see someone get busted for ’schwartzfaren,’ or riding without a ticket). The lack of fare control leads to much lighter stations from an architectural standpoint, and it also leads to these lengthy transfers between lines. The one at Hallesches Tor became the bane of my existence, and we did it at least once a day our entire stay (twice on show days). It involved either going down a long staircase to an under-bridge transfer point, then down a series of long corridors; you reversed it the other way. It made me vow to never complain about the transfer from the L train to the 7th Avenue IRT ever again. I am not sure how I would have felt walking those long corridors by myself, although I did appreciate that there were always people around, and the train arrival clocks were not just placed on the platforms, but also in the corridors before the transfer points so you knew whether you had to run or if you could walk at a leisurely pace.
Day three and we headed to the heart of East Berlin and Alexanderplatz. Although I am one of those people that can navigate a place after being there once, I didn’t expect that to happen in Berlin because it was all obviously so different; we were also based in the former East so aside from a vague shimmer in the recesses of my memory when I walked down Unter der Linden, it just wasn’t going to be a thing. That was until we got off the train at Alexanderplatz. The former Eastern Bloc architectural rigidity is preserved; it’s still not a people-friendly space despite the presence of a carousel or even when set up for Oktoberfest, as it would be a few days later. The radio tower (“fernsehturm,” which just sounds like the name of a villain in a bad Cold War movie) looms over it all, feeling both anachronistic and futuristic at the same time. But it was the first place in Berlin (besides the Victory Column) where I stood there and thought, “Yeah. This, I remember.”
We strolled past the tower and down towards Museum Island, so-called because there are five “internationally significant” museums located there. However, we were not going to the museums; we were looking for former Achtung Baby sites. The Palasthotel, the brown monstrosity of Communist architecture that U2 complained about is long gone. It was enormous—600 rooms!—and by all visual records of the place, a candidate for the ‘best of’ category in Brutalist architecture. It was uncomfortable and unfriendly, and when they booked in to record the album, hotel staff allegedly had to remove any listening devices in the room when they arrived. The band’s physical and emotional discomfort is one of the factors that I believe led to the album being their best records (and one of my personal at least top 20 of all time by anyone, if not top 10) so finding the location of the hotel was an important thing for me to work out. It was located on the bank of the Spree River, across from the Berliner Dom (the cathedral). Today, there’s a Radisson and a fancy office building, but if you’ve seen any of the imagery from the record or from From The Sky Down, you want to stand on that corner and look at Berlin for a while. (At least I did.)
On the other side of the bridge on Bodestrasse from the former hotel site is Museum Island, specifically the Alte Nationalgalerie. And in front of the Alte Nationalgallery is a gallery bordered by pillars that were cemented in at one time. This Anton Corbijn photograph was taken there; there’s also a shot in Wim Wenders’ “Faraway, So Close” that travels by there. There was a studious 20 minutes or so of attempting to align the shot correctly, which involved standing in the middle of an intersection to frame the shot, only to realize that in order to place myself in the shot would require a second, sympathetic photographer as well as someone who could spot for tourists and cars. One of my best friends was arriving the next day and so we vowed to return on the weekend. The last photo site was a washout due to construction–again, it’s Europe, something is always under construction somewhere.
Post-show food was supposed to be at a place called “White Trash Fast Food,” except that when we arrived there was a 5 Euro cover charge because it was karaoke night, quite possibly my biggest post-concert nightmare in any city. We headed back to the Ubahn in search of Turkish food, and Doyum was amazing and delicious and open late. When we travel, it is a regular bane of our existence to find decent food that is open late after concerts, that isn’t expensive, and that we can get to easily/via public transportation/isn’t at the ends of the earth. You would be shocked how hard this can be, even in large cities. We usually don’t get to eat beforehand due to the necessity of lining up for general admission; even in the US, you need to be at the venue and ready to stay by 4pm. So we need to find food after the show, and that’s more difficult than you would think.
(Paris, for example, had nothing that was easy to get to without a taxi. Montreal closed minutes after we got there. St. Louis was a wasteland and we were going to eat out of a vending machine, except for randomly running into a “New York style” pizza place that wasn’t garbage. In Stockholm and Finland, we had to resort to the local McDonald’s [and *you* try to work out a fast-food menu in Finnish, which bears no resemblance to any language short of Hungarian])
Day four had me reuniting with my BFF Sharon from Tel Aviv, and her friend Yael, and the four of us heading down Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, where we turned right and headed for an establishment called “Trabi-Safari.” At Trabi-Safari, you can rent a Trabant and drive it around Berlin as part of a guided tour. (If you already know why we are driving a Trabant, you can skip this part.) The Trabant (officially rated as “One of the Worst Cars of All Time”) was an East German car with a two-stroke engine where the body was, essentially, made of cardboard with a heavy shellac. It could take as long as 12 years to get your Trabant from the time you ordered it. Detractors refer to it as “a lunch box on wheels.” When Reunification came, people in the East drove their Trabants to the West; many had to abandon them at the borders in some countries. It became a symbol of unification, and as the Hungarian women we queued with for U2 explained, it was now a fond reminder of their childhoods. U2 became obsessed with the Trabant while making Achtung Baby and so the little car featured in the imagery as well as in the stage set for ZooTV, where they used them as lighting rigs. (They only weigh about 1000 pounds with the engine.)
This is why, when I discovered Trabi-Safari, I could not make a reservation fast enough.
I loved the Trabants. I saw ZooTV at Wembley on Zooropa, a show that without qualification absolutely changed the course of the rest of my life. And out of the too much money I spent on merchandise at that show was the pin set with the baby, the U2 logo, the star and the Trabant. I wore the latter on my leather jacket, it became kind of my trademark (I even started signing it as my name as though I was a graffiti artist). But I constantly had people coming up to me and saying, “Cute car.” This drove Sharon nuts: “How can they NOT know what it is?” That pin went bye-bye thousands of miles of moves ago, but I recently re-acquired one from U2 fans raising funds by selling off parts of their super-duper-deluxe Achtung Baby reissue box sets. Yes, I was wearing it today, and yes, we spent a lot of time saying “Cute car” to each other.
At Trabi-Safari, we chose our polka-dotted enclosed Trabant (the other people on the tour with us, all Germans, went with convertibles. After about 10 minutes of having the engine run, we realized they were smart.) There were six cars on the tour, and we drove around West Berlin and East Berlin — the tour should have just been in the West, but due to marathon preparations, we couldn’t drive around the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate. Instead, though, we got to go into the East, and drive down Karl-Marx-Allee where part of the “One” video was filmed, and along the East Side Gallery.
The cars were not easy to drive—shifting in ours was tricky—and the SO was not particularly pleased with the integrity of the brakes. But it was an absolute blast driving around in our little Trabant convoy. It was amazing how many Germans stopped and pulled out their cameras and phones (and there were a lot of actual German tourists in town due to the Berlin Marathon). People laughed and smiled and waved and came over to talk to drivers about the cars. It was a gorgeous day for a drive, and it was a lot of fun to see the city on wheels.
The cars are connected via one-way radio, so the tour guide can direct you; ours had a very dry sense of humor, but was surprisingly informative. They stopped regularly to wait for the rest of the convoy to catch up when stopped at lights, were happy to take our photos in the car multiple times, and offered a pit-stop so that you could switch drivers. Despite really wanting to drive the car so I could turn on the headlights while playing “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” once I saw how hard it was to actually shift—the shifter was on the steering column—I was happy to remain a passenger and play “One” while filming the SO.
I have no idea how all four members of U2 fit into a car for any period of time, let alone long enough to film various videos. There is not a lot of space there. (And Adam was in the back seat! I understand why Larry drove. Okay, I’ll stop now.)
After returning, posing for more photos, and buying various Trabant-related souvenirs, we headed for Checkpoint Charlie. Which, on a sunny Saturday just before the marathon, was like any major tourist attraction anywhere at a peak period, meaning hordes of school groups, guided tours not remembering they are walking through the world other people are in, screaming children, and loud tourists of every nationality. I remember going through here in 1989 when I went to visit the East; it was grim and it was real and it was, even to a jaded traveler like myself, a little scary. Now, there are guys who dress up in military clothing to pose with tourists for tips, and there’s a McDonalds right on the other side. We were going to go visit the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie, but it was 12.50 Euro and a mob scene, so we decided to skip it. (Personally I think that you are far better off spending your time going to the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is extensive, free, is more comprehensive, and large enough that hordes of tourists won’t have an impact—more on this later.)
From here we walked to Kothenerstrasse 38, home of Hansa Tonstudios. Heroes was recorded here; The Idiot was recorded here; Achtung Baby was recorded here. I had an invitation to visit when I came in 1989, but I ended up arriving on a weekend and in the days before we all walked around with phones in our pocket, just couldn’t make it happen. Today, the only way in is to take a guided tour, but the guided tour also included other things we did not care about seeing, and was also very pricey. Access to the studio was also taken up by a U2 fan party later that night, featuring a U2 cover band. This was a genius idea, given that there was a two-day break between the four Berlin shows, but it sold out immediately and was also not really my kind of thing. I just wanted to get into the room—the Meistersaal, the “big hall by the wall”—but had to suffice with a photo in the lobby, and placing my hand on the building for a moment or two, willing a little magic out of the foundation and into my bones. There is new construction everywhere—the studio is steps from Potsdamer Platz—and it is hard to try to place it mentally as it was back when those records were being made. I stood across the street listening to “Heroes” on my phone for 30 seconds while the guys in the U2 tribute band loaded their equipment into the studio. Next time.
As we headed to our next destination on the Ubahn, I had to explain that no, I didn’t know why there was a Ramones museum in Berlin; I just knew that since there was one, that I had to go there. Imagine if your best friend was a huge Ramones fan, and that she had a reasonable-sized house with her entire collection hanging on the wall, or showcased in cases and bookcases. That’s what it’s like to visit the Ramones Museum. It’s a homey, astonishingly extensive exhibit of Ramones memorabilia. Some of it, like pages of Rock Scene articles, or Roberta Bayley and Danny Fields photographs, you’ve seen.
The rest of it—like the promotional mini-baseball bat (with ‘Beat On The Brat’ engraved on it) used to promote their first album, or Dee Dee’s Chemical Bank ATM card, or one of the 15 promotional shirts made for “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”—you haven’t seen. There are contracts and tour riders and ticket stubs and set lists; videos play in the background. It costs 3.50 Euro for a “lifetime membership,” which is a badge with Arturo Vega’s eagle logo and RAMONES MUSEUM BERLIN on it. The front of the cafe has a mock version of the CBGB’s awning. And why Berlin? Because the guy whose collection it was lives in Berlin, and ran out of room. It was warm and comfortable and if this is your music, you will feel right at home. It was absolutely charming, and I’m glad there’s a Ramones museum somewhere.
I then dragged my friends back to Museum Island, a short walk away, where we managed to get the shot set up despite cars and tour buses and tourists and bicycles.
[This is the shot that inspired it.]
When I arrived in Berlin in 1989, I hitchhiked in (there’s a longer version of this story in my October newsletter), and I asked to be dropped off at Zoo Station because “my friends” told me to go there and call them. I had no friends waiting for me, it was just backstory, and I knew the station was central enough that I could get where I was going and make a call safely, despite arriving at night. Of course this was the Zoo Station of Christiane F. (okay maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it certainly wasn’t that good, reminding me more of Port Authority at 2am than Penn Station after a Knicks game). Tonight, coming into Bahnhof Zoologisher Station on the way to dinner, the biggest annoyance was the hipster in a Prince Valiant haircut and fur coat who was blocking the staircase by carrying his fixie sideways so as not to get grease on his coat. Despite scaffolding, I was able to find the shot I wanted (although it entailed dragging the group across two intersections), but it was worth it. This looks like the image the song would put in my head, or could.
Dinner tonight was at Paris Bar. I will, with zero abashment, fully cop to the entire reason this restaurant was selected: David and Iggy used to hang out here back in the day. Now, to be fair, they also offer what is generally regarded as the best steak frite in Berlin; if the food was crap I would have gone here for one drink before moving on. But even the concierge at the hotel nodded approvingly when we asked for help in making the reservation. It’s a lively, funky little joint, full of attitude and aura; it reminded me of the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea, back when it was still the Hotel Chelsea, with the disparate artwork on the walls, stacked from floor to ceiling. It was warm and crowded; we ordered in three languages; we drank champagne and said “Bowie” under our breath so no one would hear us and think we were uncool. We ate onion soup and steak frite and steak au poivre and mussels moulinere, and while the area around Paris Bar has changed a lot in 30+ years, I could imagine what it was like back when David was throwing Iggy out of his apartment at Hauptstrauss 155 for eating all the food in the refrigerator. We didn’t go to SO 36, the club they frequented, because there was a band playing, and the former bar they hung out in no longer exists (or trust me we would have been there).
Sunday morning once again dawned with that amazing clear blue sky. Today was a history day, and an odds and ends day. We headed north to the Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer, the Berlin Wall Memorial. This is an area of the former wall that hasn’t been developed and has been preserved and memorialized in different forms. Whether you just see a tiny corner of it, or walk a majority of it, it does a phenomenal job of conveying the reality of the Wall on the people who lived there. This is a location that was most famous due to its proximity to an actual neighborhood; when the first barrier went up, people were able to escape just by jumping out a window. But slowly, over time, the barrier expanded, and the memorial shows you how. It commemorates the people who died because of the Wall, whether escaping, or guarding the wall. It educates you to the mechanics of the wall construction, including the “death strip,” the center space between the actually wall bordering East and West. The wall went through a neighborhood; it went through a cemetery, and the East Germans just ordered the relocation of the graves. A church landed in the middle of the death strip; eventually, they just demolished it.
The memorial explains the tunnels people built to escape by laying markers in the ground, showing the tunnel’s route from East to West. And in the middle of the memorial, between two steel walls, is a perfectly preserved/recreated section of the Wall just as it was, an empty watchtower standing guard over the patrol road and the sand meant to capture footsteps and the signal fence meant to trigger the alarm. There’s a museum with a viewing platform across the street, and you can sit there with Germans and other foreign tourists and watch news footage of the wall going up, and then as the wall came down. And you can keep walking the wall area into the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, which felt like I was back in Brooklyn, beards and hipsters galore, all heading to the weekend flea market at the Mauer Park.
We had headed for lunch at an imbiss, or street food stand, only to find it closed on a Sunday. So we headed for another place nearby, which, to be fair, was plenty hipster: they served pizza-like creations with an Indian flavor on bread cooked in a tandoor. I had something called “Jewish Naan,” which was creme fraishe, caviar, red onion and smoked salmon. It was about as amazing as it sounded and I didn’t care how hipster the neighborhood was.
Then we went on the most blatant stalking element of this trip, which was down to a neighborhood called Schoneberg, and to Hauptstrasse 155, where David Bowie used to live. Honestly, this was at the bottom of the list, because it’s been decades, and the city has changed so much. But we ate a late lunch, and had time to kill before dinner, and thought this would show us another part of the city. It’s a building, and the apartment is now a dentist’s office, who has regularly professed that they do not understand why people keep turning up and wanting to see the place. I did not bother the dentist, but the courtyard was open, and took my photographs, and felt both abashed and amused at this sighting, all these decades later.
We had dinner in a restaurant which was described to me as “a place JFK ate”; to be fair, the SO was tired at the time. Henne is known for its chicken, and only serves chicken, potato salad, sauerkraut, and beer. There is more beer than there are food items. You are supposed to reserve days in advance, which we did not, but figured that if we turned up early enough and spoke in German that we’d get a seat. We waited downstairs long enough to see the letter from JFK hanging over the bar, but we did get the end of a table which we shared with a German family who arrived a little bit later. The presence of actual Germans in the restaurant in addition to the loud skinny English speakers all wearing their marathon medals (hey, I’d do it too) was comforting. The chicken was delicious, the atmosphere very German, and when we came out of the restaurant I realized that at this point I was oriented enough to know that this was a formerly divided neighborhood, with just one block across having been in East Germany.
Monday morning we got up at the ungodly hour of 6:45am because we had booked entrance to the Reichstag for 8:30am. The Reichstag is the German Parliament building, and they have an unique architectural dome feature on the roof which one can view by applying for entrance. You get to see an interesting German tourist sight and get a great view of Berlin, and it’s free. In our case, however, due to the marathon, it was tough to get an entrance slot, which is why we were doing it at 8:30 in the morning on the day we were leaving the country. But, being up so early got us to Brandenburg Gate in perfect light and no tourists. They were doing construction on the other side, so I couldn’t recreate this photo from 1989:
[The Flickr photo set is here.]
[This month’s newsletter talks a little bit about my 1989 trip to Berlin.]
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