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Why Kreuzberg is still Berlin's best neighbourhood

This punchy district on the edge of the former West Berlin shows no sign of slowing down

Cathy Adams
Monday 10 December 2018 16:44 GMT
Kreuzberg (Orania.Berlin)

There are fractures in the glass windows of Orania.Berlin, a chi-chi new boutique hotel in Kreuzberg. Somebody’s thrown things, and it’s shattered. At first, I thought it was part of the hotel’s aesthetic: the delicate spindles of glass actually look quite chic.

This neighbourhood in Berlin doesn’t much like gentrification. When Google unveiled plans for a new campus here, there was vociferous opposition with the outcry “Google go home”. It did but even now there are white signs in shop windows with Google’s logo hidden behind a red no-entry cross. The majority of the businesses in Kreuzberg are independent, and its residents want it to stay that way.

I’m only in the neighbourhood for a couple of days, but it’s immediately apparent that Kreuzberg also known as “Little Istanbul” because of the high proportion of Turkish residents – isn’t afraid to speak its mind. During a freezing wander on a Saturday afternoon, I run into a protest about another new hotel in the neighbourhood. It’s cold, and therefore the protest is probably not as enthusiastic as it could be, but all the same: I feel awkward admitting I’m... staying in a hotel in Kreuzberg.

Which probably explains the smashed glass at Orania.

And at first, this lovely boutique hotel, housed in a five-storey corner building on the corner of Kreuzberg’s Oranienstrasse and Oranienplatz, wasn’t exactly welcomed, the general manager Jennifer Vogel admits. Orania was the first major hotel in Kreuzberg, she says, which took some warming up to. Eighteen months later, it seems to have bedded in well enough: Orania is now thriving thanks to a cosy lounge area, an excellent restaurant with a perky young head chef and a rotating set of local musicians working their way through classical, jazz, avant garde… you name it. They’re on every night, both downstairs and in the gorgeously private salon on the fifth floor.

The downstairs bar at Orania
The downstairs bar at Orania (Orania.Berlin)

At least this building is embedded in local history. It’s been through various incarnations since it was built in 1912, including a jazz cafe, a club called Trash, even a C&A department store. Elephant motifs decorate almost every soft surface here (rendered mainly in leathery colours of red, brown and green), but not because Orania’s founder has some special affinity with them, but rather because, as a former IT worker, he spent a lot of time in India and just liked them. I find this unfussiness rather nice.

It’s winter, so rather than a picnic at vast Tempelhof Park, named for the now-shuttered 1920s airport just south of Kreuzberg, I’m stomping along the moody Landwehr Canal that weaves through the district. It reveals sophisticated six-storey townhouses in a range of gelato colours: baby pink, yellow and green, some with childlike murals and graffiti daubed on the side. Signs of protest saying what I don’t know, if only my German were better hang from some balconies, but that hasn’t stopped cafes such as Be Coffee My Friend, all bare brick and swinging Edison bulbs, from throwing open their doors on the banks of the canal.

In Kreuzberg, you’re never far from the rattle of the orange-yellow trains, on metro line U1, that glide above your head. The city’s oldest metro line was built above ground here because this neighbourhood didn’t have enough cash to bury it underground (as they did in Mitte, Berlin’s swaggering heart, and elsewhere in the city). Crossing underneath it from the canal brings you back to Oranienstrasse, one of Kreuzberg’s most happening streets, where I duck into empty Daad Gallery. It’s currently showing Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled Unwalled, an audiovisual performance that features the artist standing behind a microphone giving a lecture about the significance of walls. Ten minutes’ walk round the corner is gallery Soy Capitan, while further still is the brutalist Konig Gallerie in the former St Agnes church, all open spaces and block concrete. For a weekend, that’s the briefest of sniffs at the formal art scene in Kreuzberg.

A mix of stencils, murals and bombs in Kreuzberg
A mix of stencils, murals and bombs in Kreuzberg (Orania.Berlin)

The informal is more accessible: look at the side of any exposed building in Kreuzberg and you’ll see tall astronaut murals, ugly graffiti “bombs” or intricate stencils. Some of the most impressive – if just for height – are the red and blue letters daubed in a vertical line up the brick, by local gang Berlin Kidz. Once you know where to look, you’ll be spying edgier things like a mural of a girl, a house and a ferret, with hastily painted slogans like “my home might be no palace, but we can share it if we like”.

Kreuzberg has always been a neighbourhood on the edge. During the years of the Berlin Wall, it was the easternmost district in West Berlin, with some houses jutting right up against the concrete. Nobody wanted to live here. In fact, it was a “cheap and neglected part of Berlin”, according to tour guide Sabine Müller.

What it certainly hasn’t neglected is its zippy atmosphere that becomes incandescent after dark. Oranienstrasse is packed with late-late-night bars called things like Molotov Cocktail, iconic clubs like SO36 and boutiques selling handmade stuff (a brush in the shape of the Brandenberg Gate, anyone?). At the weekend, expect it to be empty until at least 11am – but at night, pushing through the concrete slab of bar-lounge Cafe Luzia, trying to order a €3 (£2.70) glass of riesling, I feel like I’m never going to sleep again.

The beginning of Berlin’s East Side Gallery
The beginning of Berlin’s East Side Gallery (iStock)

And where better to soothe the hangover than one of Kreuzberg’s many Turkish restaurants? Leave outsized Hasir, a guidebook favourite, for smaller Doyum underneath the Kottbusser Tor subway. This blue-and-white tiled low-key joint serves the best lahmacun I’ve ever had the joy of rolling up and swallowing, and the gloopy ayran yoghurt drink comes, satisfyingly, from a counter-side vat.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which, significantly, has now been down for longer than it was ever up. There are still bits of it left to see, mainly at the 1.5km River Spree-side East Side Gallery in the former East Berlin, where the 1990 mural of Leonid Brezhnev kissing Erich Honecker (the “socialist fraternal kiss”) by Moscow artist Dmitri Vrubel is easily the most snapped. Müller, who grew up in West Berlin, says that travelling from West to East was like “coming from a colour movie to a black and white movie”, but on a grey, wintry 2018 Berlin day you barely notice the difference when crossing the Spree from Kreuzberg to neighbouring Friedrichshain.

Berlin sunset (C Sult)
Berlin sunset (C Sult) (C. Sult)

I walk across the river on Sunday afternoon, headed to Heissa Holzmarkt, a Christmas market that’s as far apart from the flatpacked wooden chalets that are thrown up in other European cities as it’s possible to get. There are bins licking with open flames, little huts selling clay penises to hang on the tree, and others with a heavy line for käsespätzle, a not very German take on what is essentially mac and cheese. Next door, people are queueing for the techno club Kater Blau (it’s 2pm and 2C); straight on, across to Kreuzberg, is the remains of an abandoned ice factory. Right here, with a festive mulled wine, we’re trying to soak up as much of Berlin’s louche cool as possible.

Berlin was once described as “poor but sexy” by former mayor Klaus Wowereit. Almost three decades later, the sentiment is still true.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Ryanair flies to Berlin from the UK from £24 return.

Staying there

An Orania.25 room at Orania.Berlin is available from €230, room only; breakfast €25.

More information

The fall of the wall is a key focus of the fun Nineties Berlin exhibition, currently taking place at the former Berlin mint. There are panoramic video clips covering local life in the years when the wall came down, as well as soundbites from musicians, artists and activists before and after 1989. The best bit is a mirrored room with a DJ deck, playing the tunes from the Love Parade, a landmark electronic dance music festival that started just before the wall came down and at its peak attracted 1.6 million visitors.

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