Prenzauerberg isn’t quite my favourite neighbourhood in Berlin, but after my beloved Schoenberg it’s pretty close behind. So what’s the allure? Well, let’s start with the astonishingly beautiful architecture (this quarter of the city more-or-less survived the heavy bombing of World War II), it’s somewhat Bohemian vibe (admittedly not like it used to be) and how urban it really is - the restaurants, small independent stores and weekend food markets. Throw in the Käthe Kollowitz plaztz, a beautiful Jewish cemetery (and a veritable “Who’s Who?” of the community at the turn of the 20th century), the Kulturebraurei and the Mauer Park and there’s enough to occupy even the most picky visitor for more than a couple of days.
Back in the early 90’s, all the most hip Berliners I knew were moving here. To move to ‘Prenz’ was still considered somewhat daring - after all, it was the East. Now, as is often the case, the title of ‘hipster central’ has been passed on Neukölln). Still, as I walk the streets today, I can’t help but notice the radical transformation the area has undergone. Where once lived squatters, artists and techno ravers, now I see media types and young couples pushing expensive prams, or sitting in cafes drinking flat whites. Gulp. How times change.
Alighting at Ebeswalder strasse, having taken U bahn 2, I’m first heading towards Käthe Kollwitz Platz, which fittingly houses a bronze statue of the artist herself in its centre.
Kollwitz, born in East Prussia, was a socialist and pacifist as well as one of the great women artists of the 20th century. I’d recommend a visit to the museum built in her name (housed in Charlottenburg), where on display are works of hers spanning decades - wood cuts, etchings and sculptures included. Sit and admire the beautifully renovated buildings all around and if you're here on Thursday don't miss the farmers market, where over 50 stalls sell only organic produce (pricey but very tasty).
Catch your breath then head on to Rykestrasse, home to Berlin’s best preserved and largest pre-war synagogue. Consecrated in 1904, and built in the style of a neo-Romanesque Basilica, it originally was able to seat more 2,000 congregants. Having escaped the fate of many other Jewish places or worship, the Nazis used it as a stable from 1940 until the war’s end. The building underwent an initial renovation in the 1950s but only after an ambitious project (involving architects Golan and Zareh, who worked with the Office of the Preservation of Historical Monuments) was it restored to its original design. Today, it is home to daily prayer services, and the grandeur is evident, the piece de resistance of which is a Yemenite Eternal Lamp - "Ner Tamid" in Hebrew - at its centre.
Opposite there's a restaurant named "Masel Topf (a clever little name (a pun on the Hebrew “Mazel Tov”) or, if you’re a fan of Dr Zhivago head to “Pasternak” around the corner, which is a charming bistro, full of warmth and character - it's like stepping back in time actually. I'd highly recommend the blinis but carnivores might want to tickle their taste buds with their famous goulash, suckling pig or herring. A little costly, I still say it's worth it, and if you don't want to eat then helpful waiters will be happy to fix you an aperitif or a glass of Russian tea...!
Finally, today, I decide to stroll onto Hotel Oderberger, which is a stylish and sophisticated lodging with a twist - its a renovated bathhouse! Inside it's a feat of modern-day engineering, and what I really like is how many of the old features have been retained, giving it a delightfully odd and and quirky feel. The swimming pool is operational but can be covered for functions, and all the rooms I'm told have bathhouse architecture themes (a nice touch!) Their comfortable lounge bar is a good place to sit with a drink and enjoy the unique decor of this place...on winter nights they have a roaring fireplace too. And when it's dark at 4.30 pm, and bitterly cold outside, what's not to like about that?
As I travel home, late in the evening, I think, ironically, of long ago, when Prenzlauerberg was the epicentre of working-class culture and then after ‘Die Wende’ (when the Wall came down) and I used to walk here on on chilly winter afternoons. Today, it's evident that there's no going back - apartment prices have gone through the roof and, as I said before, this neighbourhood is gentrification central. Yet I can’t help but love the area. In German, one says “ein gewisses etwas” - it has a ‘certain something' - and for me that perfectly describes Prenz.