Berlin - It’s a bit like internet dating. Step one: logistics. Which date are you available? Daytime or night-time? Half an hour or half a day? Next: characteristics – “Easy-going, artistic, explorer” or “bold, Bavarian, hipster”?
Except this isn’t an internet dating site. Plus One Berlin is a new city-break company run by British-born Clare Freeman. The idea germinated when she worked as a PR for a hotel marketing company, travelling frequently on business trips that left her with little time to get under a city’s skin. “I often wished I could get a local’s perspective, to discover their favourite places, instead of only visiting the main tourist sites.”
And that’s exactly what Plus One Berlin promises to deliver, by hooking you up with one of Clare’s network of “locals” for a coffee, a walking tour, even an all-nighter in Berlin’s legendary clubbing scene.
My base is the small but sleek Plus One Apartment, neatly fitted with salvaged-timber cupboards and bed, and hotel-style amenities in the hipster district of Kreuzkölln, a “kiez” or sub-neighbourhood that has found new identity at the juncture of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.
A couple of days before my arrival, I log on to the Plus One website to browse the “locals”. Bingo – Marija, a 30-year-old Serbian astrophysicist, with a bubbly personality and the inside track on the Kreuzberg/Neukölln neighbourhoods, is free for the day.
We meet at Yorckstrasse U-bahn station and set off on our exploration of what was one of the poorest parts of West Berlin but is now a thriving cultural centre in the unified capital. First up, an overview, so we walk east along Yorckstrasse and take a right at Katzbachstrasse to reach Viktoriapark, which sits on a plateau overlooking the city centre.
We wind up tree-shaded trails to reach the 1821 national monument to the Liberation Wars against France, at the park’s highest point. The 20m cast-iron cross looks down over the district which it inspired – Kreuzberg roughly translates as “cross on the hill”.
From here, we drift back down to Bergmanstrasse, Kreuzberg’s main avenue, lined with trees, bicycle shops and cafés. A right turn up Nostitzstrasse brings us to Chamissoplatz, where locals are browsing the organic food stalls of a Saturday morning food market around the leafy square. Continuing round it, we turn left on to Willibald Alexis Strasse, where Marija points out four elegant apartment blocks with pretty wrought-iron balconies that are bursting with flowers and plants. Back at street level, neatly tended rose bushes flourish on the pavements next to a dingy “eckkneipe”, or corner pub.
“I love how these things co-exist in Berlin,” she says.
Back on Bergmanstrasse, we duck into the Marheineke Market Hall (meine-markthalle.de), which specialises in fresh, regional and organic produce. I sample salamis cured with figs and fennel and buy a fresh orange and mango juice for E2.30 (about R25) before exiting onto Zossenerstrasse. Here, cafés such as meine-markthalle.de (cuccuma.de) highlight how much this part of Berlin has changed since the fall of the Wall.
Similarly, as we turn right down Fürbringerstrasse we come across a tranquil park; a pair of old roll-top baths used as flower beds.
So far, so genteel, but as we cross Urbanstrasse and head up Tempelherrenstrasse towards the canal, the tempo picks up.
Suddenly we’re surrounded by joggers and cyclists, with swans and dinghies on the water and a throng of coffee-drinkers soaking up the caffeine and sunshine outside A Horn Café, which serves brunch until the evening.
We get on to Dieffenbachstrasse, a leafy avenue populated with art galleries, homeware boutiques and idiosyncratic eateries such as Ron Telesky Canadian Pizza (ron-telesky.de).
Things get more specialised still around the corner on Graefestrasse at Kado ( kado.de), an old-fashioned shop selling liquorice in various guises, from classic sweets to potent liqueurs.
We’re nearly back at the apartment and as I walk back via Sanderstrasse and Friedelstrasse, I pass a clutch of bohemian vintage shops-cum-cafés, such as vegan Sing Blackbird (singblackbird.com). The kiez feels cultured, but curiously quiet. “Wait until this evening,” Marija advises.
She’s right; as I hit the streets of Kreuzkölln at night, what looked like apartments and empty shops during the day are little unnamed bars identified only by the gentle hubbub of drinkers and flickering candlelight. A man walks past barefoot, singing and playing the banjo. With no itinerary, I continue my walk unguided and feel – almost – like a local.
Sophie was a guest of Plus One Berlin, Reuterstrasse 28, Kreuzkölln (00 49 173 264 1372; plusoneberlin.com). Rates start at E120 (R1 260) per night for up to three people and one “local experience”.
More info at visitberlin.de/en - Weekend Argus