The best place in the world
There are certain questions that most people ask when they find out you're a travel writer. Namely: How did you get your job? Can I have your job? Do you ever get sick of travelling? And what's your favourite place in the world?
In my case, these are the answers. One: with lots of hard work, and far more luck. Two: no. Three: sometimes, usually when I'm in an airport security queue or a taxi driver is trying to swindle me. And four: well ...
I've never had a good answer for No. 4. It's hard choosing your favourite place in the world. It's like picking your favourite child - assuming you have 200-odd children, each with their own amazing, unique characteristics.
So for years I've fobbed people off with vague answers of favourite places. I throw South America out there. I'll mention India. San Sebastian will probably get a run, as will Tokyo, and the savannah of Zimbabwe, or the coast of Morocco.
And the list will go on.
But you know what? I'm done with all that. I'm ready to choose. I'm ready to lay it all down and make a definitive call.
Because here I am on my fourth visit and I'm happy to tell you: my favourite place in the world is Berlin.
It's miles ahead. There's daylight second and then maybe Buenos Aires or San Sebastian third. Or Tokyo. But anyway: Berlin is the greatest place on Earth.
Maybe I'm just a little over-excited at being back here. Maybe I'm just so happy to find the city still is the way I'd pictured it, that time and memory haven't embellished its greatness.
I'd been here an hour before it was confirmed. I'd checked into a hotel in the central suburb of Mitte. I'd dumped my bags and wandered down on to the street, taken a right turn, a left turn, another right and found myself almost immediately away from the touristy scramble on a quiet, cobbled street lined with cafes and bars, the tables out on the footpath to exploit the spring sun.
I'd sat down at a table. I'd ordered a beer. I'd ordered soup from the seasonal "asparagus menu". I'd ordered bratwurst with potatoes. I'd dined on them on the street among neighbours and their friends, surrounded by old buildings, basking in the sun.
And I'd thought: oh yes. This is the best place in the world.
I get a buzz from being in Berlin. I want to climb up on a rooftop and shout, "Ich bin ein Berliner!", even though I know that means "I am a jam doughnut" and would make me look pretty dumb.
Berlin is everything I love. It has everything I love. It's unpretentious and grungy. It's friendly and cosmopolitan. It's a place of daggy little pubs down shabby lanes, or incredibly cool art galleries and clothing boutiques, also down shabby lanes. And none of these places take themselves too seriously.
It feels as if Berlin can be all things to all people. Whatever you're into, you can find a club or bar or restaurant or museum or gallery you'll like in Berlin. It's modern art to Michelin stars, fetish clubs to football stadiums, hipsters to hippies, and it's all happily co-existing in this sometimes crumbling network of buildings and roads.
Berlin isn't perfect. The city is flat broke. It's dirty in places, ugly in others. It has a dark history to it, a story so fresh you can trick yourself into thinking you can see it in the eyes of the people walking by. It doesn't run from this history, however, or try to hide its imperfections, but rather owns them and attempts to build something exciting from them.
For a place so big Berlin feels less like a city and more like a group of villages, each with its own identity, its own character. There's fancy-pants Charlottenburg with its luxury boutiques. There's central Mitte with its blend of old east and new west. There's hipster Kreuzberg, arty Friedrichshain, historic Spandau, trendy Prenzlauer Berg and edgy Neukolln.
Travellers love this city for practical reasons. It's cheap, by European standards, and is criss-crossed by a very affordable, user-friendly public transport system. It has great food. Its residents are friendly - ask nicely, and most speak English.
But that's not what makes the German capital the best place in the world. It's more than that. It's something intangible.
You get the feeling Berlin isn't owned by a government or managed by a corporation. It's not stifled by rules or held back by power. It's a living city, a creative city, a constantly evolving city.
From the buildings covered in street art to the crumbling remnants of the infamous Wall, from the artists' squats to the friendly neighbourhood streets, from the protests to the parades, the concerts to the exhibitions, Berlin is great because it belongs to its people.
What is your favourite place in the world? Post your comments below.