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Berlin's tourist trap

December 30, 2011

Thinking of visiting Berlin? That's great. Or maybe not. Many Berliners feel the crush of tourists is destroying what made the city worth experiencing. Fortunately, DW's Jefferson Chase has tips to reduce the tension.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

When the editor of this austere column proposed that I write the year's end wrap-up, two words immediately sprang to mind. I was curious to know how representative my perspective was, so I asked four writers, two barkeepers at my local watering hole, an architect, and a computer programmer what occurred to them on the topic "Berlin in 2011."

Astonishingly, for a city whose main mode of discourse is contentiousness, all of them answered with the same pair of words I had thought of:

"God-awful tourists."

2011, it seems, was the year when we Berliners, by choice or by birth, got hoisted by our own petard. For years, we've been part of the coolest city on earth, "poor but sexy," as our mayor never ceases to crow, a Shangri-La of round-the-clock shenanigans unencumbered by dress codes, guest lists or closing hours. We attracted visitors in ever increasing, self-multiplying hordes until, at some point, the attractions became harder and harder to find, and only the visitors remained.

"The other day I saw two busloads of tourists taking photos of one another," Thoralf, the architect, told me. He lives in Mitte, the district which is to true Berlin fans what The Forbidden Zone is to the orangutans in "Planet of the Apes."

"I can get a double latte and macrobiotic ciabatta with truffle and wild boar spread at 20 places around my apartment," he added with a sigh. "But if I want a loaf of bread, I have to take public transport."

A hostel in Berlin
Some Berliners are feeling hostile toward hostelsImage: Lara Brekenfeld

It's no secret that on weekends such tourist hotspots as Oranienburger Strasse or Rosenthaler Platz have all the appeal of a Breughel inferno populated by the twisted figures of Otto Dix. Every metropolis cedes some of its territory to voracious visitors and their pockets of hard cash. But in Berlin, marauders are beginning to claim even normal neighborhoods like the one I live in.

No more bongos, please

I discovered that to my dismay one day earlier this year, when I sat down to listen to Radiohead's "King of Limbs" and engage in some melancholic staring into space - arguably, any true Berliner's second-favorite pastime. I was thwarted by a gaggle of hippies with bongos, bouzoukis and banjos who decamped outside my building for a six-hour jam session.

"We hope that you choke on it," I thought, citing Thom Yorke, as I suffered through multiple renditions of "Volare," "Bambalaya" and "La Bamba." I fled to my local bar. It was packed to the rafters. Sebastien, the barkeep that evening, could only roll his eyes and shrug.

Who are these people? Without access to Easyjet and Ryanair passenger lists, I have no clue.

Carsten, the owner of the bar, has developed a set of working procedures aimed at combating the menace. He summarizes them as: "All guests are welcome - some are welcome to come in, others are welcome to leave."

Thus far, that approach proved a partial success, but clocks don't run backwards, so there's little we Berliners can do about the fact that others insist on coming here. As one temporary resident of our city famously sang, "Time may change me, but I can't change time."

Everyone's an epigone

Fans watching Union Berlin
Crowds are always welcome at football matchesImage: Lara Brekenfeld

More and more residents of the city are complaining that they can't find affordable places to live because so many people have bought apartments to rent out to short-term visitors. A few local vigilantes have attacked hostels and chi-chi cafes with paint bombs, and if you come here, don't be surprised to see people wearing "Berlin loves you" t-shirts and buttons with the heart crossed out.

That attire is part and parcel of Berliners' third-favorite pastime: complaining that those who arrived later in the city than they did ruined it.

People who moved here at the turn of the millennium will bemoan the fact that "Lonely Planet" and "Let's Go" have turned Berghain, formerly the Friedrichshain district's foremost temple of club fraternity and casual fornication, into the European equivalent of a NASCAR tailgate party. People like me who showed up in the mid-90s will scoff at that, regaling and no doubt boring them with tales of illegal nightspots in derelict buildings and construction sites where a beer cost one deutschmark and the lavatories often consisted of a metal bucket.

Legendary clubs like Eimer or Elektro have gone the way of the telegraph, and while Berlin's contemporary reputation is largely based on that historically unique, let's-reshuffle-the-deck epoch, it's over. Passé. Finito. Passado. You missed it.

But I would say that, wouldn't I? To get a bit more perspective, I asked Phil, a writer who was born and raised in West Berlin, what he thought when he looked back on the days when Bowie and Iggy prowled the streets of an even more bizarre city than the one that I adopted, and that adopted me, in 1994.

"There's a saying we native Berliners have," he told me in his usual slow, considered fashion. "The day Knut died was the worst we've seen since the day the Wall came down."

Knut was a polar bear who lived at the zoo.

The best week of your life

A Berlin pub
Mampe is the traditional Berlin version of JägermeisterImage: Lara Brekenfeld

Enough of the past. Let's look to the future. My mate Magnus - a computer programmer who's normally a 100-percent reliable supplier for all my cynical remark needs - has a different take on Berlin's current über-popularity.

"You have to realize that all these young people who vomit in our doorways are going to remember the week they spent in Berlin as one of the best of their lives, and they're going to come back some day when they've calmed down a bit and have some real money in their pockets," Magnus said, to my amazement. “Assuming, of course, that they remember anything at all.”

I have to admit he has a point. Berlin survived World War II and five decades of often dubious döner kebabs. Why shouldn't the city be able to digest the medium-sized army of tourists we pull in annually?

In that spirit, here are some tips for how to enjoy our city without unduly disturbing the local fauna:

1. Split into smallish groups and find a small club or music venue that's not recommended in any guide book. Berlin has scores of great DJs and musicians. They'll be glad for your support.

2. Visit Berlin's other zoo, the Tierpark in the Lichtenberg district. It's lovely, spacious and far more humane than the average animal park, plus it's chronically underfunded.

3. Go to a football match and root for the home side. From first-division Hertha all the way down to sixth-division Tennis Borussia, tickets are usually available and cheap, and the clubs could use the cash. In summer, go the Hoppegarten race track. It's in the middle of a forest, always teetering on the edge of insolvency and is like stepping back to the 19th century.

4. Spend a morning in the Gemäldegalerie, the undiscovered gem of Berlin's museums, with its excellent collection of old masters. Then grab a bike for the afternoon and seek out street art. Graffiti artists love Berlin, and the city is unusually supportive of spray-painting its walls with fantastic images.

5. Have a sit-down meal at a simple, family-style Turkish restaurant. The ones off the beaten tracks are often the best, and if you treat the proprietors like human beings, you'll probably make some new friends.

6. Finally, if you feel you must go on a Berlin bender, try what's known as Ringbahnsaufen. Buy a day ticket for public transport and board the train that circles the periphery of the inner city (Ringbahn). Get off at each stop, find a bar and drink a beer, then proceed to the next stop. Warning: drink small beers and take your time. The Ringbahn has 27 stops!

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Kate Bowen

Jefferson Chase has been inflicting himself on Berlin for 17 years. If you think he would ever reveal the name or address of his favorite bar, you are seriously mistaken.

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