Bussing it to Berlin

Sat, Dec 12, 2009, 00:00

With the cold war long since thawed and a new front against global warming hotting up, what better way to combine two epoch-defining events than by travelling to Berlin the eco-friendly way - on a bus. KEVIN CASEYhops aboard

I WAS 17 WHEN the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989. I'm no longer a teenager, and now I'm bringing mine and her friend on a 500km school-break bus trip from Copenhagen to Berlin, on our first visit to the place where history happened.

Twenty years after communism choked, capitalism isn't doing so hot, either, so needs must. For the sake of a few hours on a bus we can be standing in the centre of Berlin for less than the cost of two suitcases on Audacious Airways, which is demanding we pay even for the privilege of paying it nowadays.

It's worth noting that taking the bus generates only a fifth or so of the carbon dioxide of flying. In my day all we had to worry about was the cold war and nuclear winter, with the focus on divided Berlin. Nowadays it's all about global warming and climate change. Neither scenario is very forgiving, whichever way you look at it. As we board our low-CO2 mode of transport from the Danish capital, host to this week's crucial global climate conference, I can't help thinking that this bus represents the future of travel.

The ferry to Rostock breaks up our journey nicely. The coach is comfortable, and the youngsters are happy until the final hour, when they get ants in their pants and someone inevitably says they're bored. I hit back with a snooty rebuke - "Intelligent people are never bored!" - trying to sting them into retracting the remark and carrying on regardless. The riposte is swift and sharp: "You must be bored a lot then." Touche.

Nevertheless, we're in Berlin by lunchtime, with 72 hours of unlimited access to public transport and 50 per cent off entry fees to certain attractions, thanks to the Berlin Welcome cards we're holding.

Our one-bed holiday apartment, which sleeps four comfortably for €60 a night, is sparsely furnished but clean, modern and warm. After checking in we hit out on a sightseeing excursion. Our first port of call is Brandenburg Gate. It's good to touch base with the elegant symbolic heart of the city - and poignant to encounter a modest memorial of white crosses dedicated to people who died attempting to escape through the Berlin Wall. Nearby is the hulking mass of the Reichstag, the seat of German political power, which is open to the public, admission free.

You might doubt, as you queue for an hour in the bitter weather, why you're bothering, but when finally you behold the Reichstag dome and the view of Berlin you soon forget the wait. A magnificent set piece by the original starchitect, Norman Foster, the dome symbolises the reunification of East and West Germany, and the impression it creates helps to seal the fractured history of Berlin and opens up the brilliant future.

At the epicentre of Berlin's recent history is Checkpoint Charlie. This could be better known as Circus Charlie, such are the waves of tourists and hawkers descending on the cold-war hot spot. The problem is that for contemporary teenagers the whole Berlin Wall thing is ancient history. Yet with exhibits such as home-built microlight aircraft, scuba gear made out of scrap and secret compartments in cars, the Checkpoint Charlie museum celebrates the heroic struggle for freedom at the heart of the Berlin Wall story, and they totally connect with it.

Our historical odyssey takes us from the happy ending of the past two decades through the 50-year schism and to the scourge of the Nazi era. If evil had an HQ it was the SS headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse, now razed. Simple text and photographic displays form the Topography of Terror museum on the site.

Apart from the photographs of the preening Himmler and bug-eyed Hitler, pictures from the time capture the strained faces of the real people we only know as "victims", who were usually kept unawares of the SS's plans for them.

An adjacent building is peppered with pockmarks from the battle to crush the Nazis, and a rude remnant of the Berlin Wall stands on one side of the site. The Topography of Terror is raw Berlin history uncovered, and it ain't pretty.

From a museum with no walls we come to arguably the most spectacular museum building in town, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. Every single interactive exhibit here immerses the curious teens.

It's interesting that there are no 90-degree angles in Libeskind's oblique design, but it wasn't until later that night, when at rest, that the profound impact of a few minutes in the so-called Holocaust Tower came back to haunt us.

Unlit, unheated, the tower is Libeskind's "voided void". The angular walls seem at once to be closing in on and moving away from you. The trick is to imagine for a moment you are in a rail car being deported to a concentration camp. You can feel the marrow being sucked out of your bones. The sliver of light leaking in at the top is the only sign of hope. This vault is nothing but pure architecture, yet unexpectedly it manages to extend to us an insight into the desolation of the Holocaust.

On a purely practical level I am really enjoying the holiday from high prices. We sit down in a charming Italian restaurant and order delicious home-made pizzas for €4.50 each. I'm giggling because we'd paid €12 each for something similar in an Irish pizza parlour during the summer. Uptown, the price tags along the Ku'damm shopping strip are a sight for sore eyes, with designer labels at affordable prices. Overall, Berlin is not an expensive city to tour, eat or shop in, and if you play your cards right you'll be like a kid in a candy store.

The Pergamon is my pick of the five choices on Museum Island, so I drag everyone along. The main exhibition here is the Pergamon Altar, which with its marble reliefs by Greek sculptors is like walking straight into chapter one of the art- history book. The other great exhibit is the grandiose Ishtar Gate at Babylon, dating from 600 BC, a time when they really did empire well. The youngsters are not as engaged with the more traditional Pergamon, understandably perhaps, so we give up on museums and go sightseeing. There is a three-hour wait after buying tickets for the iconic Alexanderplatz TV tower, so we shoot off on the U-Bahn and return later. The experience is more like being up in an airship, I'd imagine, than in a skyscraper, because you can see down as well as out on the metropolis that unfurls as far as the horizon.

The bus journey out of Berlin seems a little longer, and I wouldn't want to do it every day, but frugality pay dividends, and it is worth it to visit the superb city of Berlin.

Where to stay

Europe Apartments. Brüsseler Strasse 40. 00-49-30-47089580, europeapartments.eu. Comfortable, convenient and economical. From €50pps.

Heart of Gold Hostel. Johannisstrasse 11, 00-49-3029003300, heartofgold-hostel.de. Has a reputation as the best-value city hostel in Europe. From €10.

Circus Hotel. Rosenthaler Strasse 1, 00-49-30-20003939, circus-berlin.de. Friendly staff, eco-friendly, decent location and fairly good value. From €67 per person sharing.

Where to eat

The Bird. Am Falkplatz 5, 00-49-30-51053283, thebirdinberlin.com. New York-style steakhouse, said to serve the best burger in Berlin. International atmosphere with a rock-music sound.

Marjellchen. Mommsen- strasse 9, 00-49-30-8832676, marjellchen-berlin.de. For an authentic German experience with generous portions.

Trattoria Valle dei Templi. Brüsseler Strasse 10, 00-49- 30-4543927, valle-dei-templi. de. Cheap and cosy Italian pizza and pasta joint.

Where to go

Checkpoint Charlie. History direct from the frontline; exhibits on how to dig, fly, jump, swim and smuggle your way to freedom.

Alexanderplatz TV tower. The iconic Berlin viewing platform. Buy your tickets three hours in advance and they'll text you when it's your turn.

Jewish Museum. Linsenstrasse 9-14, 00-49-30-25993300, jmberlin.de. State-of-the-art interactive exhibits and inspirational architecture make this huge museum a must-see. "I am really enjoying the holiday from high prices. We sit down in a charming Italian restaurant and order delicious home-made pizzas for 4.50 each

Off the beaten track; an insider's guide to the alternative Berlinby our correspondent in the city, DEREK SCALLY

NOW THAT everyone in Ireland, it seems, has been to Berlin at least once, the looming second visit is the time to get off the beaten track.

Twenty years after the fall of the wall many once-edgy East Berlin neighbourhoods have become New Stepford, with overly pretty streets and plastic people. So, second time around, consider using the old West Berlin as a base.

Anyone channeling the Weimar Republic should consider Hotel-Pension Funk (hotel-pensionfunk.de), in a town house on Fasanenstrasse that once belonged to the silent-film star Asta Nielsen. The rooms still have a 1920s feel, as do the prices: €34 for a basic room without bathroom up to €113 for a double with bathroom.

On the same street is Literaturhaus, the classiest cafe in the neighbourhood. Housed in a grand villa, the place oozes charm and invites long, people-watching stays.

Just beside it is one of Berlin's most striking galleries, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum (kollwitz.de), filled with affecting works by one of Germany's great women of art.

Back on Ku'damm, a visit to the ruined Kaiser Wilhelm church is a must. Though it looks dusty and dull from the outside, don't overlook the adjacent modern church. Designed by Egon Eiermann, it has a spectacular interior, with blue glass windows creating an incredibly peaceful underwater atmosphere.

After an obligatory visit to KaDeWe, the mother of all department stores, warm up in nearby Cafe Einstein, on Kurfürstenstrasse, another villa cafe with great Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel to die for.

From there it's a short walk to Potsdamer Platz and, beside the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, the Kulturforum. What looks like a 1980s university campus from outside is, in fact, a collection of museums and masterpiece-filled galleries that most visitors and even many Berliners never realise is there.

For history nuts, there is satisfaction enough walking past city-centre buildings playing spot the bullet hole. Anyone looking for an extra dose of the past should contact Berlin Underworld (berliner-unterwelten.de). The organisation offers fascinating tours of wartime bunkers, forgotten train lines and more.

The city is not short of eateries, but finding good quality to go with the low prices can be a challenge. The Mitte neighbourhood wins here. Try Toca Rouge, on Torstrasse, a stylish eatery with intelligent, tasty and cheeky Chinese dishes - Deepthroat Mango, anyone? - with no monosodium glutamate and prices of €6 or €7.

For traditional schnitzel in a working man's pub, go around the corner to Bötzow Privat, on Linienstrasse. If it's full, try the Schwarzwaldstuben across the street and make sure you try the German pasta-like dish Spätzleand a Tannenzäpfle beer, a delightful drop from the heart of the Black Forest.

Mitte offers no shortage of late-night drinks with a difference. One option is to head north to Zionskirchplatz and ask around for one of the many pay-what-you-can wineries ( Weinerei) in the neighbourhood. Or head south to the infamous Tacheles, on Oranienburgerstrasse. The rough-and-ready building was once a department store, was then a squat and is now an arts centre. On the top floor the Offenbar pub is a slightly down-at-heel speakeasy with cheap beer and great views.

Sunday mornings are made for brunching, but many cafes in Berlin rip off their customers with overpriced filler food. For a different experience, slip into Freischwimmer, a riverside cafe hidden behind a blue petrol station on Schlesische Strasse, in Kreuzberg.

Afterwards, visit the flea market at the Arena across the river, open seven days but best at weekends. Behind the Arena is the Badeschiff, a fun swimming pool, floating in the River Spree, that in winter is turned into a covered sauna.

For real water babies, a fun place to end an evening in Berlin is the Liquidrom. Hidden

under the circus tent-like Tempodrom concert hall, the Liquidrom is a thermal bath with a difference. Besides a Finnish sauna and Roman steam bath, the highlight is the lukewarm saltwater pool where visitors can float their troubles away.

One final piece of advice: the simplest way to get around Berlin is on foot or on the excellent public transport. To get your bearings hop on the 100 bus that runs from Alexanderplatz, in the east, to Zoologischer Garten, in the west, and back. Even better, hop on a bike. The city is flat and full of cycle lanes, so even rusty cyclists will survive.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Berlin from Dublin and Cork. Ryanair (ryanair) flies to Berlin from Dublin. SAS (flysas.com) and Norwegian (norwegian.com) fly from Dublin to Copenhagen. Eurolines (eurolines.com) operates coaches to Berlin.