I don’t like London at all as a place. I think it’s dirty, too expansive and expensive, but above all, like many cities, I find it stressful.
Stressful to move around, stressful in terms of ambient noise at night and, to me, in my twenties, thirty years ago, it felt dangerous.
Cities generally don’t appeal to me. They’re too crowded and dirty. Too full of people.
Until we went to Berlin this week.
I’ve only just arrived back and found the place as a sprawling capital stress-free.
Given its grim recent history of World War Two and the Cold War with the wounds openly on show everywhere, it is remarkably clean and laidback; friendly too.
We walked 8 to 9 miles every day visiting the squares famous for Nazi book burning, the Topography of Terror (a fascinating museum built on the former SS headquarters), Checkpoint Charlie, two Soviet war memorials, the Memorials to the Murdered Jews, Sinti and Roma races, the Dom de Berlin, the East Side wall gallery and the Museum of the Berlin Wall, and yet, travelling between these emotional landmarks, not once did I feel anxious or stressed.
The whole experience of spending half term there made me reflect on it as a city and other cities I’ve been to and I wondered why we, as a family, found it stress-free and others in the city seemed to have little angst.
I’m not entirely sure why Berlin does this to residents and visitors – but it did for us, at least, and I think I know why.
London, and many other cities I’ve been to, are frenetic – Berlin was pedestrian in pace.
It’s because, to my eye at least, the residents have jettisoned dependence on cars and rely wholly on public transport, which puts London’s travel network to shame.
Seven euros bought a day pass for Zones A, B, and C, covering the girth of the city and its suburbs and included unlimited rides on buses, above ground trains, trams, underground trains and ferries.
There was no stress because public transport there seemed to run like a Swiss clock: you missed a U or S train? No dramas. Another one is due in 3 minutes. The city’s stations were clean, safe and celebrated the heritage of the place in murals, photos and art work.
I found it disconcerting how relaxing a city could be.
But it was.
It is largely down to planning too.
If a city can make its visitors and residents so relaxed, then perhaps London and other places should look outward at Germany.
I felt zero stress in four days there in a place where there were potential language barriers, travel logistics and dietary dilemmas (me and my daughter are both coeliacs) – and Berlin I salute you.
We will be back too.