By Matt Mitchell
Berlin is effortlessly cool.
The formerly fractured German capital, once known primarily for its infamous wall and its soaring Soviet-era sky prick, is now the European mecca for designers, artists, musicians and ironically-moustached hipsters from around the planet.
And it’s easy to understand why.
With ridiculously cheap rent (roughly $500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a good neighbourhood), even cheaper beer (90 cents for a 500ml bottle from a bottle shop) and a relaxed liberal outlook (you can even drink that same beer along the footpath, in a museum or on a blow-up dinghy on a canal without rebuke), Berlin is the Melbourne of Europe, without the price tag.
Berlin is no aesthetic wonder like Paris, so don’t go with this expectation.
Berlin is, however, blessed with abundant parkland, lakes and canals.
The city’s famous, and huge, Tiergarten is a must.
And, when faced with a decommissioned airport, the good burghers of Berlin turned their back on big developer euros and, instead, opted to create another expansive park – runways and all – from one of the world’s first commercial airports, the former Templehof flughafen.
But it’s art and design that are the lifeblood of this city and they course through every artery.
Where Paris is light, colour and Impressionism; Berlin is edgy, graffiti and stencils.
What other city in the world would turn the remains of its most famed, and hated, structure – the Wall – into the kilometre-long open-air East Side Gallery; an explosion of colour and expression daubed over its dour concrete bulk.
Just over the Spree River from the Wall are the former West Berlin boroughs of Kreutzberg and Neukölln; once rough and ready neighbourhoods that are now the vanguard of a bold, new Berlin pulsating with creativity.
Germany’s Reichstag building is the epitome of just how far Berlin has come since its years of war, isolation and fascists.
After being torched by the Nazis in 1933 and left abandoned for decades, the building was reconstructed in 1999, resplendently crowned with a glass dome; the interior of which can be scaled with ease by tourists for one of the best views over the metropolis.
The famed Hans Haacke garden in one of the building’s inner courtyards is a stunning testament to the guilt experienced by the German people for the horrors of the Second World War.
What appears to be a random medley of plants that would make a landscape architect heave is actually a clever receptacle where each German member of parliament brings 50 kilograms of dirt from their electorate.
From this action springs an amass of weeds, flowers, grasses and shrubs around the words Der Bevolkerüng, (”the population”) as distinct from the emblazoned Dem Deutschen Volke
Haacke’s intent was to use a benign term to replace the ”volk” so savagely used as a war cry by the militantly xenophobic Nazis.
The result is a melange of life from across the republic which, like the city itself, is less about visage and more about meaning.
Few flights from Australia fly direct into Berlin, so be prepared to pick a connecting flight from the gateway city of Frankfurt or take an ICE high-speed train through the German countryside and arrive three and half hours later.
And never underestimate German efficiency: everything is on time. Always.