City Travel Review Writing Course: Berlin

Monday, September 01, 2014

In September 2013, I took part in one of City Travel Review's travel writing courses in Berlin. At the time, I was pretty apprehensive as I couldn't find much written online about the courses, which, in today's world of information on everything you could possibly want, is pretty unusual. Normally, after a quick Google of something you can be absolutely sure you're not signing your soul (and hard earned money) away for nothing. This time? No idea. But I was desperate to go back to Berlin after my trip there in February so I took the plunge and paid the deposit. Woo! Off to Berlin again.

September was a good time to arrive in Berlin, missing the scorching heat of August and enjoying the last drops of the summer sunshine. The perfect weather for a Weissbeer in Cafe am Neuen See beer garden. I was going to enjoy this, I knew straight away.

Berlin is an incredible place to do something like this; there's shed loads to see and do, tonnes of history and plenty of cheap places to eat at and explore. The average age of people doing the course is around 21 - most people were straight out of university and I felt like a wizened old lady in the ripe old age of 23. It is a mix though, with some project members not too shy of 30 and others as young as 17. Not everyone is English, though the course is delivered in English, so you can meet people from all over the world.

So how is the course structured?

The reason this course in particular appealed to me is that it also offered the opportunity to learn German, something I have tried and failed to do on many, many occasions. So every morning, save Wednesday, we had 2 and a half hours of German lessons (amounting to 40 hours over the month) in smallish groups of around 10 people. Depending on the number of participants and their level, there are 2 or 3 levels. In September, with less participants, there were 2 groups: People who had had no exposure to German at all and then...the rest of us. I learned German at school for 2 years and had since done a short refresher course but my German left a lot to be desired, shall we say. I was in a group of people who had mainly done at least GCSE German so I had to brush up quickly, and try and banish French and Spanish from my mind, which seemed to come out in moments of panic, unbidden. I did my best, and definitely saw progression, but would have preferred to be in a more intermediate group.

After German, there's half an hour to grab some lunch nearby (usually from the Turkish takeaway around the corner which, despite appearances, served delicious salads, kebabs and Turkish breads) before you start getting going on the guide book, which makes up the main part of the course.

For the guide, the group is split into equal project groups of around 10 writers, who are then elected for additional roles on top of this. Three team members take care of the design and layout of the guide while another four members handle the editing of the reviews. The remaining team members write the additional elements to the guide: the history, transport and additional info sections as well as extra reviews. I was lucky enough to be given an editor role and an embarrassing profile to go with it...

There's no messing around with the project, you get cracking from day one. With 10 people co-ordinating a 70 page guide covering 80 reviews (writing, photographing, editing and designing it from start to finish) and just 30 days to get it finished, it's important to plan effectively and get started early. On day one, you're given the project details and a list of great recommendations for places to review, although you are encouraged to find your own places to review as well. We allocated our reviews for the week and sections we were particularly interested in reviewing for (Eats and Sweets for me of course) and off we went to write our first review for a critique session the following Thursday.

Yep, critique session. Eek! Reading one review a week aloud to the group and a top journalist and Berlin native to be deconstructed and reworked (at worst) or to have its praises sung (at best). Marcus, our teacher, told us from the start that even if he thought our review was incredible, he would give feedback on ways to improve it anyway because it's still useful, so no one in the group (I hope) ever felt like a failure.

We were lucky enough to have a great team who got their reviews (just about!) in on time.

So your afternoons are devoted to group meetings, critique sessions and a writing class once a week. Classes are tailored to review writing in particular and in the groups we were exposed to a number of different review styles and authors from a variety of different publications. We were also given a masterclass on editing and proofreading our own writing and on the behalf of others.

After meetings/class, which usually take around 2-3 hours you are freeeeee. Kind of. Because you still need to go out and check out the places you're reviewing! With 3 reviews a week to write, photo editing and editing of the other reviews to fit around this schedule, some people spent a few late nights in our favourite bar with internet, St Oberholz. I was smart in choosing the food places to review because a gal's gotta eat, right?

Delicious apple crumble cake from Soluna Brot and Ol
Wednesdays are the exception to the week, set aside for optional excursions with the CTR team. There's a walking tour around the trendy Kreuzberg district, culminating in a trip to the Berlin Wall, as well as a guided tour of the Exberliner magazine, Berlin's top English speaking magazine.

Most well attended though, was the group trip to the Charlottenburg palace, on the outskirts of Berlin.

All the trips are optional but are included in your project fee, so it's worth going if you can spare the time.

Speaking of which, what is included in the project fee?

Last year (this may have since changed so for up to date costs, request an info pack), the project fee was £900 per month, half of which was required in one payment for the deposit. This included:

  • Shared accommodation - and when I say shared I mean ROOM sharing. 2-3 people stay per one bed apartment so if you're not prepared to share a room with two strangers you may wish to rethink. My roommates were lovely, as it goes! These flats are probably the worst element of the project though; the flats are in blocks in a rather bland part of Berlin half an hour from the offices and they're fairly standard council style flats, bit old fashioned but have everything you need except....Wifi!!! And when you're trying to co-ordinate a 10 person project, communication is fairly important...not to mention researching places to review. To make things even more difficult, you're only provided with two keys per flat (and copies snap) so things get a little interesting.
  • Pick up at the airport - you provide your arrival time and one of the CTR team will come and meet you. Useful if you're a bit nervous, but they only guide you to the accommodation on public transport, don't expect a car!
  • Language classes - of a pretty good standard too.
  • Writing workshops twice a week
  • Project visits i.e. to the exBerliner mag and Charlottenberg Palace.
  • Use of the project rooms - Basically just some tables and Wifi, you still need to bring your own laptop.
Things that are not included:
  • Flights - Book early and return flights with bags shouldn't be much more than £80-£100.
  • Metro ticket - This is essential and is not too expensive at ~78€ but is worth factoring into your budget before you go.
  • Food - There is a "welcome breakfast" provided at the flat, but this is basically just some cornflakes, milk, bread and jam. It keeps you going for a while but between three, you can't live on it! There are cooking facilities and a cheap supermarket nearby so it really varies how much you will spend on food. A good estimate is 35-50€ as most project members eat out a lot (although food is cheap!)
Delicious Mustafa's kebab (best kebab in Berlin!) for 4€
  • Cost of entry into any of the places you're reviewing - Lots of Berlin's main museums are free but all of the galleries on Museum Island charge a fee. If you're really interested in art, it may be worth getting a ticket to all of them (50€) but, if you're on a budget, stick to the free historical museums, parks and monuments to avoid spending too much money. Below are some cheap reviews I undertook...
Fraulein Frost - review here

Two scoops of ice cream on a hot day - that's an investment really.

Fraulein Frost ice cream parlour
Mauerpark Flea Market - Review here

Free window shopping...

Winterfeldplatz Farmers Market - Review Here

A gorgeous food, flower and artisan product market I highly recommend you visit.

Schlactensee Lake

I think I pulled the long straw here - free, beautiful and relaxing.

So would I recommend it?

Yes....I think so. Particularly if you're straight out of school/uni and want to experience living abroad without too much scary independence. 

Personally, as someone who had done the whole live abroad thing before a couple of times on my own and survived just fine on a wing and a prayer, this was a startlingly "hand-holdy" experience for me. Being picked up from the airport and marched to the accommodation by one of the team, who later turned out to be lovely (though crazy) was slightly bizarre and patronizing for me, and I remember rolling my eyes a fair few times all the way there. I think if I hadn't had those experiences before though, I'd have probably been very happy to see him, and grateful for the "handy" tips he continued to offer. 

They definitely need to improve the accommodation situation but I was really happy with the writing courses and the language classes; I definitely felt like I made progression in both and that the experience overall was beneficial. 

Best of all, I made a couple of great friends for life and got to visit Berlin like a local. I also had some friends to stay (though due to the living situation they had to get a cheap hostel) and enjoyed some relaxing days away from the laptop. We even managed a visit to neighboring Poland!

Have you been on the CTR course in Berlin or elsewhere? What did you think?

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