We meet travel writer, guidebook author, and Slow Travel Berlin founding editor Paul Sullivan at Café Wohnzimmer where we chat about Slow Travel Berlin, slow travelling, and Berlin, over a few gluhweins.
Q. What’s Slow Travel Berlin all about?
A. It’s about exploring the city at a more considered pace and exploring the city beyond the usual stereotypical tourist zones. We give people advice on local parks, shops, small museums, etc. We encourage people to visit the small places that often get overlooked.
Q. What does ‘slow travel’ mean to you?
A. Taking your time around a city, not rushing, resisting the urge to follow itineraries, and interacting with local people and local culture, using local businesses, and using public transport and bicycles. Dropping in to a place and just doing your own thing, or knowing the ‘rules’ and breaking them.
Q. You’d like to see ‘slow travel’ become a revolutionary global movement in the way ‘slow food’ has. Why?
A. For the same reasons that the slow food movement has been beneficial – local businesses get a better deal because they’re supported more. I think it’s naturally happening anyway and there’s already a revolution underway. Travellers in general are exploring places more independently.
Q. You say Berlin was the ideal place for your slow travel experiment. Why?
A. Berlin is the greenest city in Europe. There’s a lot of green space, and space in general. At certain times of the day, you can be walking down a particular street and you might be alone, which is rare in a big city. This makes people calmer. There’s very little advertising around the streets as there is in some cities, there are still squats, there’s a resistance to capitalism, a leftover of the legacy of communism perhaps. People dress down rather than up – there’s a casual, scruffy kind of street fashion. There are honesty bars, bars where you pay one euro for the glass and then pay what you think the drink was worth. There are independently run club that are focused on quality; there’s very little one-upmanship. It’s all very relaxed and laidback.
Q. How does a visitor travel ‘the slow way’ in Berlin?
A. Walk, walk and walk. Berlin is very flat so you can cross it reasonably quickly. Also cycle and use public transport.
Q. On Slow Travel Berlin, you have a ‘Meet the Locals’ series – what’s the relationship between ‘slow travel’ and connecting with locals? Do you think Berliners are more open to engaging with foreigners than say Londoners or New Yorkers?
A. The ideal slow traveller is the person who gets their experiences from locals and local culture as opposed to guidebooks, and that’s easier to do in Berlin than many other cities. There are many different types of Berliners, but generally they’re very easygoing, and many work in the international creative industries and are used to speaking English and are open to foreigners. Of course there are also a handful of anarchists who hate tourists… Some Berliners can seem cold and miserable; people won’t rush over to serve you, but when they do, it’s more authentic.
Q. Some tips for meeting locals in Berlin?
A. Join the Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing – even if you don’t stay with people, you can still meet people on those sites. Go to cafés like Al Hamra Café and St Gaudy Café where they have meet-ups, and advertise language courses and people looking to practice their English or German; go to the independent cafés and bars, not the big chains, where people are more relaxed and approachable.
Q. Has the Slow Food movement caught on in Berlin?
A. There is a German Slow Food movement and there are slow food restaurants that focus on farm reared local produce, like Cookies Cream, which is vegetarian, where the chef is dedicated to slow travel and slow food, seasonal produce, and good food, and it’s casual, young, trendy.
Q. Some local ‘slow travel’ tips?
A. Go to Mauerpark flea market on Sunday; in summer there’s also karaoke. Head to a café like Wohnzimmer, which is very laidback – people come here to read a book or work on their laptop – and it’s a nice place to hang out. For cocktails, I like Becketts Kopf where the staff will interact with you to find the cocktail you want; the cocktail list is in a Samuel Beckett book.
Q. The quintessential slow travel souvenir from Berlin?
A. Something from Not a Wooden Spoon, a shop that sells furniture and wooden objects made from locally sourced recycled materials.