You’ve probably heard the common line about Berlin: a poor but sexy concrete Neverland, simmering with smoky bars and clubs that rage to the break of the next week’s dawn. While the racy capital’s hedonistic reputation definitely checks out, there’s a lot more to it than that. On a gloriously sunny, summer day we took a cycle ride from our HQ in the southern (and much more raucous) district of Neukolln, out west to Charlottenburg to absorb the buzzing west of yesteryear.
Granted, Berlin is no Paris or Rome, rarely name-dropped for its aesthetics or beauty. But over on the western edge of the verdant Tiergarten, far from the rumble of bass and halcyon festivity, you’ll find the leafy, historic neighbourhood of Charlottenburg. During various incarnations of Berlin’s cumbersome history, Charlottenburg was the centre of town: a vibrant, eclectic, and now very leafy neighbourhood, proof that there are more sides to the vibrant Deutsch capital than meets the headlines.
Berlin is a city for cycling, and getting from neighbourhood to neighbourhood makes for an easy mission on a two-wheel steed. We ride along the glistening waters of the Kreuzberg landwherkenal, where locals float by in budget rubber dinghies, up past the modern scrapers and expanse of Potsdamer Platz, then through the verdant, flourishing Tiergarten, which, this time of year, is one of the most beautiful spots in the city.
The neighborhood of Charlottenburg
Charlottenburg was actually considered an independent city up until 1920, at which point it was subsumed by Berlin’s rapidly growing sprawl. The following decade transformed the neighbourhood into the centre of nightlife and leisure in Berlin, the areas surrounding the busy Kurfurstendamm (Ku’Damm) strip – an affluent boulevard of cafes, shops, restaurants and racy nightspots – becoming the new ‘West’ of Berlin. Artists and writers flocked to the area: hub of dusk til dawn abandon, cabaret and burlesque, and everything it entailed, as Berlin fanned its burgeoning reputation as one of the ‘wickedest’ cities of Europe.
Like most neighbourhoods of Berlin, much of Charlottenburg and Ku’Damm was levelled during the war. Riding up the Ku’Damm, you can see the renewal since, once more an endless strip of high end boutiques, tourist spots and glam restaurants with street-facing wicker seats. So too, interspersed, the lingering and aching spaces where pre-war Berlin thrived. You’ll come across Bikini Berlin: a concept mall, pancaked with modern shops and stores; a block away from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, its half bombed spire a forever crystallized comment on grimmer times.
In the heat of the day, we take a short, and well-earned pitstop at the Monkey Bar high up on the terrace level of the Bikini Haus Hotel. It’s a fabulous spot to imbibe a cold pint and take in the view of the monkeys playing in the animal enclosure of the adjacent Berlin Zoo: a neat accompaniment to the soaring panorama of Charlottenburg and the greater sprawl.
Thirst quenched, we pedal north to explore the commanding Charlottenburg Schloss, former palatial residence of the Hohenzollern Kings of Prussia. The 17th century residence, replete in restored baroque and rococo exterior, stands regal and juxtaposed against Berlin’s greater concrete surrounds. The palace grounds are a treat to ride in: tracks and lush gardens with ponds and lakes with lily fronds; and deeper in the yard, graceful Belvedere: Kaiser Wilhelm II’s quaint, soft, blue teahouse. An hour or so drifts past with the clouds as we neck cold bottles of store-bought weissbier by the main lake overlooking the Schloss dome tower and column rows.
Afterwards, we ride into the backstreets and cobbled lanes of old Charlottenburg, beautifully marked by blue streetsigns with Gothic and Teutonic cursive, rows of turn of the century altbau tenements, still in tact, largely untouched by the war, holding each side with their iron balconies and ornate parapets.
Sun still high in the setting sky, we sidle back towards Ku’Damm, along Kantstrasse, for a decadent meal of bouillabaisse and entrecote at nearby Paris Bar: an old-world Parisian-style bistrot, for decades the cherished home of the local thespian, writer, artist communities. We drink red wine and bask in the glory of sparkling summertime Berlin. While winter might enhance the gloom here, the summer truly transforms this ever-transforming city, and in the tranquil, mellow surrounds of Charlottenburg, that appreciation goes a step further. The old west, once the heart of the action, is today a relaxing respite.
We embark on our steeds, stomachs full, skin glowing from the sun, souls nourished by the depth of this very different, and ultra pleasant, alternative to the bustle and night-time shake of modern, ever-on-the-move Berlin.
Written by and photos by (unless noted) Cam Hassard for EuropeUpClose.com