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Berlin for beginners

German capital hides guilty secrets and pleasures

Berlin is the San Francisco of Germany: a mecca for artists and musicians, writers and filmmakers, free-thinkers and vagabonds, all of whom have found a haven here in much the same way the beatniks and hippies found their space in Frisco in the 1950s and ’60s.

The city’s demeanor is clearly reflected in its openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who can often be spotted along with his longtime partner mingling with guests at any number of parties and celebrity gatherings around town.

Berlin’s nightlife and party culture have been seducing visitors and locals alike since the early 20th century, and despite the dynamic changes the city has gone through since German unification 15 years ago, it still offers an urban garden of earthly delights. From the roaring ’20s, when Berlin was one of the few cities in the world with bars and clubs catering to gay and lesbian patrons, through the turbulent revolutionary 1960s and anti-establishment excesses of the 1970s and 1980s, it remained a sanctuary for the avant-garde.

While the shadow of the Third Reich enveloped Berlin for 12 years, the city’s tolerance and a near obliviousness to authority quickly put Berlin back on the map as a wonderfully wild and unconstrained town where anything goes.

While there will be plenty of Berlinale-related events and soirees taking place throughout the course of the fest, for those able and willing to escape Potsdamer Platz for a night on the town, Berlin has a whole other dimension to offer.

Berlin’s culinary offerings may not top those of other major European cities, but the sheer number and diversity of drinking establishments is mind-boggling and unprecedented.

The city’s liveliest districts are Kreuzberg, Schoeneberg and Prenzlauer Berg, where bars don’t close until the last patron has left, and where cafes serve breakfast until 5 p.m.

Most recently popularized in Leander Haussmann’s 2003 film “Berlin Blues,” Kreuzberg became the essence of the Berlin lifestyle before the fall of the Wall: squatted buildings, communal living, free love, drugs, general anarchy all around. It was in Kreuzberg where David Bowie and Iggy Pop found a home in the mid-1970s to charge their creative juices, and where Bowie wrote “Heroes.”

Although it is now more gentrified and upscale than before German unification, Kreuzberg remains Berlin’s most ethnically diverse district with a distinctly Turkish flavor enhanced with Bohemian flair.

The neighboring district of Schoeneberg, once home to Christopher Isherwood and Billy Wilder, has become more mature over the past decade but remains the west side’s gay and lesbian hub, which is mostly centered on Nollendorfplatz and along Motzstrasse. It was here that gay clubs such as the El Dorado attracted the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Roehm, who later became head of Adolf Hitler’s storm trooper division, and Isherwood, whose time in Berlin became the basis for “Cabaret.”

On the east side, Prenzlauer Berg, like Kreuzberg, is undergoing a radical facelift as gentrification paves the way for yuppie families while displacing the district’s grungier and less fortunate denizens.

Originally a working-class neighborhood built in the 19th century, Prenzlauer Berg attracted artists and political activists in East Germany and even became the focal point for the dissident movement of the 1980s that helped topple East German leader Erich Honecker in 1989.

The district, centered on the Schoenhauser Allee and Eberswalder Strasse U-Bahn stations, now has more bars per square meter than any other neighborhood in Germany. Catering to a very mixed crowd of young parents, a burgeoning gay and lesbian community and older locals who have always lived here, Prenzlauer Berg offers corner pubs, gay cruise bars, trendy restaurants and cafes, hip boutiques and one funky soup kitchen.

Berlin has always had a reputation for the extreme, but reunification has somewhat dulled the city’s edge: In recent years, a slew of squatted clubs and bars have been forced out of business while shiny new upmarket venues such as the Adagio at Potsdamer Platz are spreading, although it’s too early to call it a night.

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