Berlin is, but don't tell everybody, really inexpensive, especially if you're traveling from within Europe and don't have to deal with air fares. Once you're past the airfare consideration, prices are in the range of those in Riga, Latvia, Sofia, Bulgaria, Kiev, Lisbon, and Istanbul . . . . now, Kiev and Istanbul are on the dangerous side, lately, and Lisbon, Riga and Sofia do not, for me, have the range of extraordinary attractions in the form of Western European history, art, culture, and architecture, nor the internationalism. Berlin feels to me like New York. Berlin is where you can get a bagel not only as good as, but better, than a New York bagel: Barcomi's is your best source for this delicacy, and believe me, having spent years being handed so-called bagels by well-meaning Germans and having to explain that no, this was an ordinary German Brötchen baked in the shape of a bagel, I was delighted to have the real thing. I was equally delighted with my hotel, at least it called itself a hotel, but really it was a time warp off the set of Das Leben Der Anderen ("The Lives of Others," the 2006 film about the ways in which the Stasi, East Germany's police force, electronically bugged, harassed, bribed, and drove to suicide ordinary citizens.)
The walk to my hotel, about a mile from Hauptbahnhof, (Berlin's main train station--and the city has a bunch of them) took me past the uglier form of DDR architecture, the cement-cell-block type looking like Lego leached of color, only bumpier, not the nicer wedding-cake style seen in other parts of the city. The hotel itself was easily spotted, the white sign and blue lettering standing out from a brown smear of a building on one side and a gated restaurant offering hamburgers and cocktails (Sex on the Beach, Long Island Ice Tea). I entered and found myself standing in front of a dark, worn stairwell, and wondering if I'd really have to lug my suitcase all the way up to the Erdgeschoss, the so-called "ground" floor. But no, an elevator the size of a large locker, with a door you had to pull open, appeared on my left, and then I noticed on wall above the stairs some soothingly elegant pink-and-white imitation Greek friezes. I'd walk down the stairs next chance I got, and look at them.
The elevator worked and took me to a narrow warren of hallways in faded green carpet--again, right off the set of The Lives of Others--leading to a desk, behind which sat a shy, sweet, Matrioshka lookalike, who asked me to fill out a form, and hesitantly inquired in heavily Russian-accented German, as I pulled out my credit card, whether I might pay in Bargeld? (Cash). I pulled out a fifty, and no, I didn't have to pay that much. The room cost thirty-five euros a night, plus a small city tax, plus an optional buffet breakfast for six euros at the gated restaurant next door offering hamburgers and those cocktails Don Draper's gal Friday might like. Total: slightly over forty-two euros. I paid--there was no Starbucks around--and breakfast the next morning proved spectacular: friendly, smiling, a waiter poured coffee and directed me to a buffet redolent of freshly-baked Brötchen, plus a vast spread of yoghurt, breakfast cereals, canned fruit, jams, butters, platters of salami, heated silver warming dishes of eggs, bacon, you name it. I wished I were hungrier.
was handed an actual set of keys on a bulbous red bakelite key chain
which I was very tempted to keep as a souvenir, but did turn over after
my stay, because it was the right thing to do, and because the lady was
so nice and helpful and made sure I found the correct train station from
which get to the event I was attending, and thank goodness for her--the
invitation left me clueless.
My room itself fulfilled every criteria I hold for a hotel room: it was very clean, and quiet as the tomb. The bed was reasonably hard and I like a hard bed. Plus, it was actually attractive, in a very sparing way: I liked the broad-boarded hardwood floor, the fluted glass Russian ceiling lights (in which it had always been so easy to conceal an electronic listening device back in DDR days). Was there soap? Certainly not in the bathroom, but atop the white towel on the white duvet I found tiny packets of soap and shampoo--plenty, for a one-night stay. Two very utilitarian bedside tables, devoid of Gideon bibles, stationary, or anything else, buttressed the comfortable double bed, and a curiously shaped line from floor to ceiling in one corner, thin as twine and right under the plaster, suggested a leftover coil of electronic wiring from DDR days. The place was filled with silent Chinese tourists and one or two European students, and I slept very well indeed. Hotels like this abound on Trip Advisor, and if you want even cheaper, signs in Hauptbahnhof advertise youth hostels "from 15 euros" per night.