Notes from an author: Adrian Duncan on Berlin

Fast-paced and frenetic, the German capital is often associated with hustle and bustle. Dig deeper, however, to discover secluded pockets of peace, and a whole new side to the city reveals itself. Wednesday, 18 March 2020

My first visit to Berlin was a weekend trip in November 2006. The place was covered in snow and I found the city, in the mist and cold, to be spectral, angular, haunting. I visited again for a week-long summer break a few years later. People were sitting outdoors, drinking, smoking, talking, and the city’s trees — poplars, lindens, oaks, horse chestnuts — were all in full bloom. The broad, rectilinear streets shimmered in leaf-shadows as cyclists whizzed past. Berlin, I discovered, was suddenly very different.

In November 2013, I moved here with my girlfriend and we’ve lived ever since in an apartment on the first floor of an old Altbau building towards the northern end of the city, on the edge of the lesser-known Pankow district. After I arrived, I began to study German, and it soon became clear to me that knowledge of the language helps greatly when trying to make sense of a new place. This experience had a great influence on my novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site, which is about a young Irish engineer called Paul who works on a multinational construction site in Berlin. He struggles each day with the problems that arise from various miscommunications with other workers on site, and I too found that while writing this book, it was also important to relay the satisfying sense of connection one feels when being understood by another person, in a language that is at first unfamiliar. Berlin, these days, is pierced through with dozens of building sites — particularly around Alexanderplatz and in many of the other central parts of town I first found so empty and ghost-like back in 2006. I imagine in most of these building sites there are other people not dissimilar to Paul struggling to be understood.

Like those impressions I first had of Berlin, the city’s various neighbourhoods that radiate outward from the centre vary in atmosphere and style. Neukölln and Kreuzberg, for example, are far more chaotic and lively than most parts of Prenzlauer Berg or Pankow. But there are pockets of peace in this frenetic metropolis. Sometimes I venture to pubs and small clubs in the southeastern part of the city to soak up the energy, but yet, I’m always drawn back to one spot.

Tucked away in the northern end of Mitte, Macke Prinz is a handsome old bar with timber-panelled walls that’s always gently lit with small lamps and candles. In the winter, it fills with people of all ages and nationalities talking to each other, and the place hazes over in cigarette smoke. In summer, the path outside is packed out with fold-up tables and chairs as people sip a coffee and look out over Zionskirchplatz, a beautiful square with a neogothic church rising up in the middle. Some sit there for hours reading or simply taking in the scene. Across the square is another excellent bar, called Lombardo, and at the front of that, on warm days, more people gather, clinking glasses of weissbier or chilled orange bulbs of Aperol spritz. From here, the streets descend towards Rosenthaler Platz and Torstrasse, where everything feels an increment or two more hectic as you edge closer to the thrum of central Mitte.

The Zionskirche church is another favourite. Through a dark brick-and-stone spiral-staircase within, one can reach the top of its steeple-topped tower and admire the view over central and southern Berlin. The Fernsehturm (the city’s iconic TV tower) in the near distance seems somehow less tall from this vantage point, and on clear days the glass facets on the ball at the top seem to glint and wink at you across the city.

Years after that grey, wintry first impression of 2006, I’ve discovered what I like most about Berlin. Amid all the noise, bustle and activity, it’s still possible to find many quiet places. These spaces, whether they be in a church, an empty cafe on an uneventful mid-week afternoon in my apartment, are the ones I’ve grown to value most.

Adrian’s tip: Across from the Zionskirche is a small crêperie called La Bigoudène. It’s an inconspicuous place — a set of narrow steps leads you down into a welcoming, Breton-style cellar. The crêpes, galettes and cider are well worth seeking out.

Adrian Duncan is the author of Love Notes from a German Building Site, published by Head of Zeus (RRP: £16.99)

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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