1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Scene in Berlin

December 2, 2011

Berlin's a great city, but it's commonly advised that you avoid it between the months of November and February. Deutsche Welle's Stuart Braun, however, isn't going anywhere.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

I'm going to say something unthinkable. I love winter in Berlin.

Is he serious, they will snigger. Winter in Berlin is hell, they will scoff. These are the naysayers now fleeing the capital, heading south, all the way to Australia if they can. "Get out, run for your lives," they scream. "Winter is coming!"

My strongest and most idyllic memories of Berlin are of snow and ice. I arrived in the city at the onset of the legendary winter of 2009/10, the coldest in more than 40 years. The snow started falling in early November and didn't stop until February. Scary. It was one of the best times of my life.

For me, a beautiful peace comes to Berlin in winter. Amid the unhurried, unpretentious winter languor, one builds a special intimacy with the city - and ultimately with oneself.

In the summer, by contrast, the city is full of distractions, a crush of transients and tourists. All that al fresco frivolity, the pizza and café on the terraces, just doesn't seem right. I like Berlin when it's grim.

Victoria Park in Berlin
'Berlin is a skeleton that aches in the cold,' wrote Christoph Isherwood in the 1930sImage: Stuart Braun

Pleasure and pain

Dragging boots through the relentless snow, sliding home on ice at minus 15, my first winter in Berlin was a rollercoaster of horror and glee, of ferocity and exhilaration, an essential time that bonded me to the city. When spring finally came, it was like emerging from a rite of passage; I felt like I belonged.

Writer Christopher Isherwood set the final chapter of his "Berlin Stories" in the winter of 1932/33, the cold a metaphor for the gloom of the imminent Nazi takeover. "In the cold the town seems actually to contract, to dwindle to a small black dot. (…) Berlin is a skeleton that aches in the cold," Isherwood wrote.

The permafrost that settles heavy on Berlin, drifting in unopposed from the tundra-like Spree plain, is rightly feared. But it is part of the city that Isherwood also loved, an expression of its excesses - sexual, ideological, and climactic.

In the dark months, Berlin is somehow free to be itself. The hype is over. There's no expectation to attend all those festivals, those unremitting celebrations of Berlin culture. And while no one is visiting the city, no one is visiting me. There is no sightseeing, no compunction to explore. In winter, it's ok to just hang out, to find simple sanctuary at your local bar. Yes, I will say it: to chill.

And then the snow comes. Even better. Berlin reveals another side at this time, a beauty you might never have imagined.

The city is suddenly soft, insulated … silent. It loses its hard lines. The roads are empty. New spaces open up. Intrepid Berliners colonize frozen canals as the city becomes a playground, children dragging sleighs to the closest hillsides, screaming as they fly down embankments few knew existed.

Ok, I'm romanticizing winter in Berlin. You're right; it can be dark, gray, pitiful. But that's the best time to go out.

Landwehr Kanal in Berlin, at dusk in the winter
Sometimes the dark is betterImage: Stuart Braun

The underworld

The Greek goddess Demeter foisted winter on the world when her daughter Persesphone, a symbol of spring, was forced into the underworld with Hades. Fittingly, Berlin's own infamous underworld is at its best in the dark times.

During the long nights when ice grips the streets, Berlin's labyrinthine bars, clubs and subterranean spaces are true to form, people emerging from the cold and isolation of the day to share a special solidarity, a friendly intimacy. It's as if the locals can now retake Berlin from the hoards of strangers that colonize it in the warmer months.

My best experience in the infamous queue at the Berghain nightclub was in the snow, people warming each other by passing bottles of schnapps and vodka. It was tough out there, but spirits were high. It just doesn't feel right coming home - or going out - in the Berlin summer under the glare of the sun.

I should mention that I come from a world where seasons barely exist. In Sydney there is homogeneity, a tepid comfort that reigns throughout the year; it is as if winter has been banned. But I've always believed that extremes inspire.

"It was miserable," said the artist James Drinkwater of that mythological big freeze two years ago. Like me, he had just arrived from Australia. "But within that misery I find I can work," he continued, describing his prolific output that winter. I also tapped some new inspiration; I have been wedded to the city ever since.

In a couple of weeks, the solstice will pass and the days will begin to lengthen. Soon enough it will no longer be just me and Berlin, and the few who stuck it out, who revel as much in the city's darkness as its light. I'll actually miss it.

Author: Stuart Braun

Editor: Kate Bowen