Hello to Berlin

Autumn in Berlin. Pic: Scholvien
Autumn in Berlin. Pic: Scholvien
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STAY away from the main tourist haunts and the authentic heart 
of the city shines through

Hours after arriving in Berlin I was belting out a Marlene Dietrich song: “Falling in love again/Never wanted to/What am I to do?/Can’t help it.” Oh! My! Goodness! Where has Berlin been all my life? Or more pertinently, why didn’t I visit sooner?

With just two days to spare, I decided the best way to enjoy Berlin was via immersion – make like a native. I started with accommodation, sourced through Housetrip.com, an online site offering thousands of short term-lets around the world. I secured a pristine one-bedroom flat in the heart of Schoneberg, five minutes’ walk from the Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn underground line.

My plan was not to have one, and to give all the historical tourist sites a miss. Instead, clad in sturdy shoes and armed with a four-day U-Bahn pass and a map, I let curiosity guide me. Luckily Berlin is easy to navigate. It’s also clean, friendly, and chock-a-block with interesting corners worth exploring.

As a passionate “Fumehead”, I wanted to visit Frau Tonis Parfum, near Checkpoint Charlie (Zimmerstrasse 13, www.frau-tonis-parfum.com). It’s a pristine white box full of exquisite smells, including Reines Veilchen, said to have been Dietrich’s favourite. I spent ages sniffing and testing, and came away with several scents. Feeling mischievous, I headed across town to Harry Lehmann (Kantstrasse 106, Charlottenburg; www.parfum-individual.de). Research told me that they supply some of Frau Tonis’s fragrances, selling them at lower mark-ups. The shop was bizarrely old fashioned, and run by a grumpy guts, but the prices were low.

Before flying out, when friends asked what I hoped to find in Berlin, I joked about running into Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles. So it was thrilling discovering that “my” hood, Schoneberg, with its wealth of boutiques, cafés and markets, has long been the gay centre of town. Then my prayers were answered by Brendan, the ex-pat Englishman behind Cabaret Berlin, who offers an Isherwood’s Neighbourhood Walking Tour (Euros 10; to book email brenday@10777tours.com).

His one-hour tour doesn’t cover a lot of miles, but Brendan’s depth of knowledge transported us back to Berlin’s louche past, when Anita Berber (actress, dancer, drug addict) walked the streets wearing a fur coat, a brooch packed with cocaine – and little else. He gave us a thorough grounding in Isherwood’s early history. I thank him for pointing out the poignant brass Stolpersteine – that is, stumbling blocks – set into pavements all over Berlin to commemorate buildings where Jews murdered during the Holocaust once lived.

The Germans really understand organic food, and food generally. I had amazing organic schnitzel at Austria (Bermanstrasse 30, Kreuzberg); cheap, cheerful and delicious Middle Eastern food at Habibi (Golzstrasse 24, at Winterfeldplatz), and found shelter and a perfect cappuccino at Golightly Coffee Bar (Friesenstrasse 22, Kreuzberg). My guiltiest pleasure was a visit to Fassender & Rausch (Charlottenstrasse 60, at Gendarenmarkt). Upstairs is a café selling hot chocolate by its cocoa percentage (try 70 per cent, with ginger).

Like so many big, lively cities, Berlin is a cluster of neighbourhoods, and two days wasn’t long enough to do more than scratch the surface. But if Mitte, Schoneberg, and Kreuzberg, with their laidback vibe, wealth of architecturally exciting buildings and terrific independent shops are indicative of the whole, then I am sold. Now, if only I could find a Berlin flat as sweet and centrally located as the one I rented through House Trip.

THE FACTS There are currently no direct flights between Edinburgh and Berlin, but all major airlines offer services that make stops on the Continent. Passengers departing from Glasgow can fly direct to Schoneberg Airport via easyJet, with prices starting at around £200 return. HouseTrip.com, www.housetrip.com Prices vary. Lee’s one-bedroom flat, sleeping two, cost from £75 per night. www.visitberlin.de