So much has happened in Berlin. Once the epicentre of an ill-fated empire and of the reprehensible ideology that soon superseded it; then a Cold War flashpoint where two systems eyed each other warily through razor wire.
You could lose yourself in its history, in its fine museums. Instead, I pedalled past them, and past the Holocaust Memorial and the Bundestag and the prestigious Humboldt University and through the imperious Brandenburg Gate, over the line that marks where the wall that divided the city for 28 years once stood.
Perhaps I’ll come back to view that mighty Babylonian relic, the Ishtar Gate, in the Pergamon, but on this, my first visit to Berlin, I felt inclined to remain immersed in the present. It was hot and sunny, the days long. I stayed outside as much as I could, relishing the city’s abundant green public space.
My wheels spun puffs of dust under the soaring plane trees in the sprawling Tiergarten. I dangled my legs in the delicious eddies of the fake waterfall in Viktoria Park. I dozed in thick shade by the fat blue River Spree in Treptower Park. I drank a beer the colour of sunset on a rickety bench in the community gardens on vast Tempelhof, once an airport. The aircraft have long gone: its breezy runways now host joggers, bicycle polo (yes, that’s a thing) and windsurfing. Another golden sunset, another beer from the corner shop, this time by the canal in Kreuzberg — Berlin’s version of Brooklyn or Shoreditch. Barges and boats trundled past. Behind us, there was the click-click of hipsters playing boules on gravel.
Of course you can never escape the past completely. At one of the last remnants of the Wall, I stopped and dismounted. Saw the murals: two politicians kissing; hopes for world peace. The optimism of another age —remember the ’90s?
One day we cycled far out west, along wide, characterless boulevards. The city suddenly melted away as we entered the dense trees of Grunewald. We climbed, panting, to Teufelberg (Devil’s Mountain). An abandoned radar station — at once decaying and eerily modern — now a ramshackle open-air gallery and a warren of studio spaces: a canvas of concrete and metal covered by forthright, insistent spray paint. As bouncy techno assaulted my ears, I revived myself with a bottle of Club-Mate (cold, caffeinated and a little disgusting). We cycled downhill to the nearby lake. My friend and I were among the few not to enter the water naked (my Speedo seemed indecent enough).
I lost track of how many other lakes I visited. They were all surprisingly warm — but still refreshing after a sweaty cycle. Also out west, fringed by trees, was the Schlachtensee. We found a shady spot, ate nectarines, talked and lazed, then struck out into the gleaming water. Another day — the Plötzensee in the north. You have to pay to use the artificial beach, so I went to the other side, which involved a bit of a scramble and hopping over a low fence to get to the water.
Some mornings, I’d cycle along the canal’s early hush to the Sommerbad Kreuzberg, which has three outdoor chlorinated pools. The official training one was crammed with grim-faced goggle-eyed professionals, so I swam in the huge (and almost empty) kids’ one instead. Badeschiff, a 30m pool floating over the River Spree, was more of a hangout spot than a training ground: laps amid the preening demigods lolling at its edges were impossible but the setting was worth it nonetheless.
I was consistently impressed by Berlin’s food — it hit the spot in terms of variety, affordability and tastiness. The best pizza that I’ve ever had, I ate at W Pizza: crispy and chewy the Neapolitan way, covered in stringy stracciatella cheese and picante salami. The croissants — whether almond or plain — were simply brilliant at Croissanterie. The flat whites at the Aussie-owned Five Elephant were silky perfection; the roastery also serves a mean cheesecake.
Then there was a lively red chicken curry at Hamy, a bustling Vietnamese eatery, a juicy cheese and bacon burger at Berlin Burger International, and scrumptious Middle Eastern fare — fresh hummus and shwarmas at the unpretentious Al Andalos and a flavour-bursting shakshuka at the Israeli-inspired Cafe Mugrabi. We dined under the trees at Prinzessinnengarten, a lush food garden which serves up just one special lunch dish a day, made with ingredients grown there. For a city that can sizzle in the summer, there are tons of ice cream stores, thankfully. My favourite eismanufaktur, Vanilla & Marille had intriguing flavours such as Sicilian pistachio and white chocolate with orange and ginger.
Although Berlin’s supermarket chains tend to be dreary and disorganised, the city has organic stores aplenty and a thriving independent retail scene — from retro fashion at Lena’s Lovely Vintage Boutique, to a gorgeous range of nature-themed books at Zabriskie. The canal-side Turkish market in Neukölln on Tuesdays and Fridays has everything from fresh fish to pretzels, spices and veg.
The possibilities when visiting Berlin are almost endless — from fetish parties and drug-fuelled dancing to avant-garde artworks and ancient treasures. I was content with skipping all that, though: sometimes nothing beats savouring life’s simpler pleasures instead. Sun, water, shade. Food and drink. And the dizzying freedom of going (almost) everywhere by bike.
This article first published in Business Day’s 20 February 2019 edition.