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Travels: The Silver Coast of Portugal (Costa de Prata) from Lisbon to Porto

Travels: The Silver Coast of Portugal (Costa de Prata) from Lisbon to Porto

I have only been to Portugal once before and that was to Vilamoura on the Algarve. It’s a golfing resort and neither my boyfriend at the time nor I played or had any interest in golf. The memories I have of that holiday are flies, incinerated sardines and a huge portrait of Sir Ian ”Beefy’ Botham, OBE that loomed creepily over our bed. Said ex was a cricket fan, I wasn’t, I’m not sure the bedroom was the appropriate place for Beefy or Vilamoura the place for me.

A close friend had however, gained a much better first impression of Portugal on a juicing retreat in Vale do Serrão. She wanted to see more and so decided to take a weeks holiday and drive along the Portuguese Silver Coast (Costa de Prata) from Lisbon to Porto. I jumped at the opportunity of being her travel companion. I had heard so many wonderful things about Portugal and the Portuguese, I wanted to put my previous experience down to a bad choice (of destination not boyfriend).  Also, what’s not to love about a girls road trip?! What fun, we could be Thelma and Louise?! FYI we had a Fiat 500 not a Ford Thunderbird.

We landed into Lisbon three hours later than expected, our plan to drive straight from the airport to our first night’s accommodation. We accidentally took the wrong exit off the airport roundabout and had an unexpected 18 mile roundtrip across the Ponte Vasco da Gama suspension bridge. I love a bridge and this impressive example stretches across the mighty Tagus river. The view even in the dark looked amazing, but it was late, we were late and going the wrong way. Needless to say my friend, the driver, didn’t share my enthusiasm for the bridge.

We arrived at our first destination Baleal Beach in the dark, and when we woke up it was damp and foggy. After a coffee at the über cool Surfers Lodge and the first of many Portuguese custard tarts the cloud burnt off and the sun started to shine. It was a perfect beach day for the surfers but not for us sun worshippers. Baleal Beach and its neighbour Peniche are two of the most popular surfing resorts in Europe. The beaches are wild and beautiful. Miles and miles of clean sand, cliff edges and rocky outcrops. But it is windy, the Atlantic provides the popular waves and the conditions are more conducive to a wet suit and a long board than a bikini and a book.

Peniche is just 4kms down the road, home to the much sought after Supertubos waves, but it’s not all about surfing. The old town is a beautiful port, lots of lovely seafood restaurants and two impressive forts. One on the mainland and the other a short boat ride away on Berlangas Island. Once a political prison during the fascist regime and now a beautiful nature reserve.

When we tired of looking at big waves and big surfboards, we went inland to the spectacular Medieval village of Obidos. This magical little place is a maze of picturesque cobbled streets and an incredibly well preserved castle inside the citadel wall. It’s hard to escape the local brew Ginja. A potent liqueur made from sour cherries and traditionally served as a shot in a dark chocolate cup. Cherries and dark chocolate are a match made in heaven, and the edible cup means no washing up #genius. We walked away with two bottles.

But it wasn’t just an alcoholic taste sensation that Obidos granted us, oh no, how about a bakers that still used a wood fired oven to cook their spiced sweet potato buns – not far off a hot crossed bun – and the incredibly moreish baked mounds of coconut, almonds and orange. All the sweet goodies came served in a paper cone, which for some reason I found quite a novelty. If I ever return to Obidos, I will spend the night. I imagine it is magical of an evening. Considering its size there were plenty of restaurants and bars, we happened to stop for refreshment in a converted Medieval torture chamber, not really my thing. But there were many other more appealing establishments, where you could easily sit and while away an evening soaking up the gothic atmosphere.

On the way home we stopped at Obidos Lagoon, Portugals largest fresh water lagoon and home to a variety of edible species including eels, the only creature on earth along with snakes that make my skin crawl. A beautiful spot and a great place to paddle board and picnic, if you don’t mind eels.

I have always dreamt of staying on a vineyard and when we rocked up at Casa Periquita in Vale de Coto, a twenty minute drive inland from the coast, it didn’t disappoint. We were greeted by 3 Siamese kittens, a flock of chickens, a breathtaking view across the valley and miles and miles of grape vines. We based ourselves here for two nights to get a feel for ‘country life’ and it didn’t disappoint. Our charismatic Swedish hosts plied us with their organic wine and invited us to help ourselves to the plentiful supply of fruit off the pear, apple and fig trees. The kittens moved in for the duration of our stay, and the chicken’s kindly laid eggs for our breakfast. It was idyllic.

Foz do Arhello was a twenty minute drive from Vale de Coto. A lovely town with a beautiful beach and surprisingly undeveloped. There are many ‘Foz’s’ along the coast, it is the Portuguese word for mouth and describes the calm inlets from the sea which create beautiful, safe, shallow beaches. A stark and welcome contrast to the wild surf which is never far away.

The beach at Foz do Arhello is possibly one of the calmest beaches I have ever visited. Although out of season there were still families and tourists, mainly Portuguese, and everyone just chilled. The beach bars and restaurants were lively, but no loud music or raucous behaviour, just filled with lovely people having a lovely time. We lucked out when we chose, unbeknown to us, local hot spot Tavola for lunch. After overindulging on plates of spicy prawns and bowls of garlicky clams washed down with vinho verde all we could do was plant ourselves horizontally on a couple of sun beds. As we gazed out at the wondrous view of the ‘foz’ ahead of us, like two old Nanas we had a most welcome snooze. We are at this most point, most definitely not, channelling the behaviour of Thelma and Louise.

Ten minutes inland from Coto de Vale is Caldas de Rainha a market town with an obsession for the penis. Yes, I did write the word penis and I’m going to write it a few more times. I could kind of understand the ‘hilarity’ behind the comedy penis shaped pottery items but slightly more disturbing were the edible goods. Penises crafted out of marzipan or meringue, and as is the case in real life, they came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Obviously, we had to make a very touristy purchase if only for the photo opportunities. The taste and texture were disappointing to say the least, I’d have a custard tart over a marzipan penis any day.

The morning we were due to check out of our idyllic vineyard, I took the opportunity to take my morning cuppa and the kittens and go for a stroll. Soaking up the tranquillity was a perfect way to start the day. When I returned home, my poor friend who suffers from chronic arachnophobia was locked in her room. She had gotten up, opened the door to her bedroom and instead of being greeted by a kitten, was greeted by a spider, and apparently, it was enormous (?). Terrified, she was waiting for me to return, dispose of the spider and set her free. When I eventually came to her rescue, the pesky thing was nowhere to be seen. If the shoe happened to be on the other foot, I would have been as traumatised had I encountered an eel outside my bedroom door instead of a kitten.

After a calming cup of tea and a freshly laid egg, normal service was resumed. We bade a fond farewell to the Swedes, the kittens and the chickens and headed north along the Silver coast to Nazaré and Costa Nova.

I’m not sure I have ever visited an area of a country that is filled with so many beautiful, historic settlements in such close proximity. As we drove into Nazaré, we were once again stunned by its beauty. The town has two obvious parts, the old village down at the beach and two villages atop a cliff which are connected by a funicular railway. It was market day, the day we rode into town, and as it was coffee and custard tart time (again), we decided to pick a spot in the sun and people watch.

Nazaré is a fishing village and has become a hugely popular tourist destination, but miraculously (see below) it still maintains its charm. It claims to have the best beaches along the Silver Coast and is home to the biggest wave ever surfed (100ft in 2013). Back in the day, legend has it that Nazaré, meaning Nazareth, was the resting place of a small statue of the Virgin Mary, brought by a monk from the Holy Land in the 4th century. It is also rumoured that in the 11th century the Virgin Mary miraculously intervened and saved the life of a Portuguese Knight Templar whilst he was out hunting. And if that wasn’t enough referencing of the Virgin Mary, 45 minutes inland from Nazaré you come to the even more venerated town of Fatima. In 1917 The Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children on three separate occasions and gifted them the wisdom to spread peace and love throughout the world. Well that didn’t go to plan, did it?

As well as the religious history of Nazaré, its roots as a fishing village are still obvious. As we munched our way through crisp and creamy custard tarts, the sweetness mellowed by a thick black coffee, we were stunned to see some very, very old ladies doing their market shop in the traditional dress of the fishing community. A predominately black head dress, wooden clogs and a voluminous skirt made up of seven layers of material to represent the seven days of the week. On a practical level, the layers kept the women warm as they sat on the beach in all weathers, and waited for their men to return, or not, with the days catch.

We also noticed the amount of gold and silver filigree, images of elephants on jewellery and furnishings and the presence of coriander and cumin in the food. Eventually the penny dropped. Many years ago my friend and I had travelled together to Goa which had been occupied by the Portuguese for 450 years. We had marvelled then at the European look of the Goan’s with their green eyes, the Catholic community and Mediterranean twist on the food. And now some years later here we were, together again, in awe of the subtle reverse influence that India has had on this part of Portugal.

Custard tarts consumed and people watching over, we took the funicular railway up to the villages on the cliff tops. When we finished our ascent we were shocked at the drop in temperature. We were literally up in the clouds, it was magical. The view down was astonishing and standing on the cliff edges scarily compulsive. The village in the sky was beautiful but too chilly for us. So we headed back down to the beach for a lunch of traditional bread soup with prawns – a very tasty, and very filling fishy porridge which was a lot more appetising than it sounds – some more clams and yes, some more vinho verde.

It probably wasn’t the lightest of lunches to choose knowing we had a ninety minute drive along the motorway to our next destination. In an attempt to keep ourselves awake we decided to play ISpy, but on the motorway, there really isn’t that much to see.  So we decided to play a game that Thelma and Louise would never have played, ‘Name That Tune.’  We narrowed the scope down to ABBA songs, and we couldn’t have arrived at our next port of call, Costa Nova, soon enough.

Costa Nova is famous for its ‘haystacks’ which are traditional fisherman’s warehouses, and not in fact haystacks. Painted in colourful vertical stripes to welcome home the fisherman, they are now used as holiday homes in this picturesque town.

The wild sea and beautiful beaches of Costa Nova are flanked by miles and miles of sand dunes. The sand was pristine, we could have been in the Caribbean. We were the only customers starved enough of sun to brave the wind and make the most of the late summer sun. We nestled into the comfy beach chairs at the Ibiza-esque Costa Nova Beach Club, where we enjoyed a glass of wine and a portion of crisps which were served not in a bowl, but in a very large bucket. Needless to say we scoffed them all and then headed 100 yards down the beach to Bronze, a highly acclaimed beach bar and restaurant. They made the most splendid Piña Colada, the perfect accompaniment to the sunset, followed by a much needed, perfectly cooked steak for dinner.

Next day we headed an hour’s drive away to another Foz, Figueira da Foz. The Vegas of Portugal, it is home to the country’s largest casino, and that I think has influenced the modern skyline and the vibe of the town. It was the largest place we had visited to date and so far removed from the gorgeous medieval villages and fishing towns that we had previously loved so much. But Figueira’s saving grace was another incredible, deserted beach.

We splashed out €5 on a windbreaker and to be honest, I wish we hadn’t bothered. Our attempt to erect a such a simple structure was beyond embarrassing. So pathetic and public was our endeavour, a total stranger took pity and came to our aid. So thankful were we for his help, it made the situation even more excruciating. We settled down to relax and very soon realised that even with the protection of the windbreak we were both being pebble dashed to within an inch of our lives. We decided to abandon the beach and the windbreak and go for lunch. There are many highlights of eating along this coast and one of them is that as soon as you sit down to eat the waiter brings you a basket of delicious bread, a bowl of black olives and a plate of fresh goats cheese – no wonder I put on 2kgs in eight days.

Next stop Aveiro, the Venice of Portugal, ANOTHER beautiful Portuguese town. Next to an estuary, the little channels meander their way through the town centre. The local speciality is a sweet treat ‘Ovos Moles.’ a mix of egg yolks and sugar in a wafer thin case. This looked far too dainty for me, so as we happened to be in Aveiro at coffee time (again), I ditched my usual custard tart and went for a croissant filled with ovos moles. I had no regrets. In fact, I have no regrets about anything I ate, the food on this trip was fabulous.

So we said a fond farewell to the windy beaches of the Silver Coast and jumped in our little Fiat 500 for the last time. We drove one hour north to our final destination the stunning City of Porto. A UNESCO world heritage site, home of the famous tipple Port and the inspiration for JK Rowlings Harry Potter stories.

The Douro river with its impressive bridges runs through the city which it divides. On one side you have the Ribeira district, the historic centre with its narrow vertiginous streets winding up from the lively eating and drinking scene on the river bank. We stayed on the southern side, Vila Nova de Gaia where the banks of the Douro are lined with the famous Port houses and their respective bars and restaurants. If you like sitting in the sun eating delicious food and sipping on fabulous wine, Porto is the place for you. Sadly we only had half a day in this vibrant city, but we still managed to squeeze in a suckling pig sandwich and glass of pink fizz, a couple of glasses of white port, and a dinner of octopus and potatoes. It was a fitting farewell to our wonderful eight days of eating, drinking and exploring.

My comfy travelling trousers were definitely not as comfy as they were when we started our trip. But as we sat and reminisced about our fabulous trip at the airport the next morning, there was still room for one more custard tart to go with my coffee. We were touched by the warmth of the Portuguese people, blown away by the natural beauty and continually impressed with the amazing food and the much under rated vinho verde. We mused on the ease of driving. The roads are empty and you eventually get used to going right on the many roundabouts. We laughed at our desperate attempts to sunbathe on pretty much every beach we came across despite the wind. I was congratulated on my heroic consumption of eleven custard tarts in eight days and reminded of the (at times quite violent) cleansing qualities of eating too many fresh figs.

I can’t compare this stunning part of Portugal to my previous lack lustre experience on the Algarve. Not an incinerated sardine, plague of flies or English cricketer to be seen. I never tired of the beautiful architecture and houses covered with stunning, colourful tiles. I never tired of learning about the fascinating history of the Knights Templar and the intrepid Portuguese explorers. And I never tired of the company of my chauffeur and top chum for the week Ms Claire Marshall. As Thelma said to Louise “Louise, no matter what happens, I’m glad I came with you.” Back at ya, Marsh and thanks for not driving us over the edge of a cliff…. Douro Valley next?


Life: Rudeness, Nudity and Brazilians

Life: Rudeness, Nudity and Brazilians

Summer is, without doubt, my favourite season.  Of all of the words I would usually use to describe this beloved time of year, ‘rude’ generally isn’t one of them. But this year summer left without saying goodbye and in my opinion, that is beyond rude. It was as if I’d invited summer to my party, it arrived early, drank all the Rosé, ate all the wasabi peas, flirted like crazy, fell over on the dance floor, and then sneaked out. Summer then texted autumn and told it all about the great party that was going on and autumn took the liberty of gatecrashing when it was most definitely not invited. Too metaphorical? But you get what I mean? Have you ever known a Summer end so quickly? One day I was getting a bikini wax and the next I was digging out my Ugg boots.

I think I am so upset with Summer because I am at my happiest on the beach, it is officially my happy place. As luck would have it, Hove beach is at the bottom of my road. I have my preferred spot, a little patch of shingle beneath the wall, opposite beach hut #35. I have been known to get a bit miffed should someone pitch themselves there ahead of me, I’m a creature of habit.

This summer I shared my happy place with a lively bunch of Brazilians. Every Sunday they would accumulate en masse and fire up a BBQ. Not exactly Ipanema beach, but hey, Hove beach still has its charm. The Brazilians just ate meat. There were no bags of salad, tubs of coleslaw or baguettes, they just ate meat. They didn’t bother with cutlery or plates, the searing hot flesh went straight from the BBQ into their mouths. A few disapproving looks from myself and the other bathers were thrown their way. The amount of smoke and noise they were generating was however soon forgotten, as we were quickly seduced by the unctuous smells and the summer soundtrack. Their party vibe was infectious, they were proof that you can take the boys out of Brazil but you can’t take Brazil out of the boys. No doubt they will sensibly migrate for the winter, but hopefully they will find their way back next summer, to sizzle up Hove’s Sundays once again.

I love being on the beach for many reasons, I can waste many hours just looking out to sea and pondering, snoozing and reading. But I think the real reason I love the beach so much is that I’m at my most comfortable barefoot and in a bikini. I hate covering up, not because I’m an exhibitionist, I just love the freedom of wearing as little as is decently possible. Albeit, Brighton has a nudist beach it has never appealed to me to strip off in my hometown for a number of obvious reasons. I have, however, happily stripped off on nudist beaches in warmer climes.

They are a curious place, nudist beaches. Everyone seemingly totally relaxed and happy in their own skin, but at the same time, you know that behind the sunglasses – the only acceptable item of clothing – everyone is checking each other out. It may not be the done thing, but it’s human nature is it not? I remember one such beach in Ibiza which was a hive of sporting activity and as such presented me with a burning question for the gents amongst you. If you are stark naked on a sandy beach and decide to stand up and play frisbee why bother putting your socks and sandals on? You’ve got it all on show, yet rather than put your swimmers on (for support?), you choose to cover up your feet? Socks but not pants? WHY??! Answers on the back of a postcard.

My ambivalence to nudity definitely stems from my childhood. Family nudity was never an issue when I was growing up. My Catholic mother was SO strict about so many things, I won’t even start to list them, but walking around stark naked at home was more than acceptable. My mother also had a very liberal attitude to swearing, which again seems very odd, considering I wasn’t allowed to watch Grange Hill or listen to The Smiths. The rationale behind it is quite baffling.

If only she had loosened up enough to allow me to indulge in some of the teenage pleasures I so craved, I might have some better life skills under my belt. But maybe she thought that giving me the confidence to swear whilst walking around naked would be enough to bag me a good Catholic boy. Thankfully not, who wants a good Catholic boy?

As I write this, I feel a tad hypocritical and a little bit mean about casting aspersions on summer as it would appear we are now experiencing a heatwave. But as luck would have it, it has just started to rain heavily. Thankfully I am now totally justified in being so judgemental about summer’s tardy behaviour. I can also justify to myself the time spent this afternoon writing this instead of heading down the beach with a kilo of meat, and not much else, to hang out with The Brazilians.


This article appeared in the HuffPost and the Brighton & Hove Independent 


Life: Street Party, Piña Coladas & Love Island

Life: Street Party, Piña Coladas & Love Island

How do I know that summer is here? I’m wearing a big cardigan, looking out the window at the pouring rain and just about to switch on my electric blanket. How do I know I’m in England and experiencing an English summer? Because last weekend my neighbours and I did what we as good British citizens do best, we didn’t postpone our annual street party because of the weather, oh no, we carried on regardless.

We knew torrential winds and rain were forecast it was, after all, coming towards the end of July, so only to be expected. But we still hung up the bunting, moved all the cars and closed the road. We erected trestle tables that buckled under the weight of cakes and other items that could be loosely put into the category of home-baked goods. We bravely donned on our waterproofs and ceremoniously lit the communal BBQs.

My lovely neighbour refused to let the forecast stop her organising the annual tombola. She stoically stood guard over the table of prizes sipping on an endless supply of ready-mixed M&S piña coladas. If you were lucky enough to have a winning ticket you could take your pick of a wide selection of donated prizes, including a beef and tomato Pot Noodle, a box of mint Matchmakers or a Star Wars album.

It started to drizzle. Oh well, what’s a bit of drizzle? Then came the wind. The first gust tore down the bunting but we stood defiant. When the second gust blew away a small child, we decided that it was probably time to call it a day. The baked goods were hurriedly taken inside, the tombola dismantled and the unclaimed prizes gifted over to the rival raffle. There was no need to put out the BBQs, the torrential rain kindly did that for us.

Within minutes the road went from ‘quaint street party’ to ‘post apocalyptic party.’ Discarded toys and remnants of soggy bunting brought an eerie feel to the community celebrations. As we decamped to the comfort of a neighbours sofa, we sat looking out of the window at what could have been. We ploughed through enough cake to warrant each of us having an un-prescribed shot of insulin and then unanimously decided to do what the majority of self-respecting Brits do when they are bored and it’s raining, we went to the pub.

Another reason that I know it’s summer is because the wondrous reality TV genius that is Love Island has just finished. This programme has proven to be more a contentious subject amongst my friends than Brexit or the general election. Such vitriol has been thrown my way publicly on social media by the haters that I do believe, I have been trolled. I am not ashamed to admit that I have vicariously lived the first half of my summer through the lives of others. As much as I love hanging out on my local beach with friends having a BBQ, drinking warm beer and double dipping into a tub of humous,  I would quite happily hotfoot it to a luxury villa in Majorca. I wouldn’t give it a second thought if I was asked to flitter away seven weeks of my life lying around an infinity pool snogging hot boys and working on my tan. Application for the 2018 series submitted, but until I get the call, would you mind passing the humous….?

This article also appeared in the HuffPost and the Brighton & Hove Independent


Life: Narcissism, Hope and Football

Life: Narcissism, Hope and Football

May, my favourite month of the year is over and I am as usual a tad bereft. It kicked off with a Bank Holiday which was swiftly followed by my birthday. This inspired me to spend the first week of the month singing my own version of Slade’s Christmas anthem “Oh I wish it could be my birthday every day,’’ see what I did there?

And I really do wish it could be my birthday every day. I love the attention, I love the presents, I love the cards, I love the celebrations with family and friends. I love the Facebook messages, I love the texts. I love to tell everyone it’s my birthday, it makes strangers smile and say nice things to you and some people give you free stuff when they know it’s your birthday. It’s all about me and my inner narcissist. What is there not to love?

I also LOVE that my birthday happens to be International Star Wars Day, “May The Fourth Be With You.” Even if I say so myself it is quite possibly the coolest day of the year to have a birthday, so much so that my heavily pregnant friend texted me excitedly on May 3rd to announce that I could possibly expect to have another Star Wars twin. Her little baby girl was on her way.

Baby Hope, who by name alone is so deserving of a Star Wars birthday, the title of the first ever Star Wars film in 1977 was Episode IV A New Hope, (it is also her mum’s maiden name, the real reason she is called Hope, but we’ll gloss over that) sadly didn’t have Chewie and Han at the controls to boot up the light speed of her mums’ contractions or clear a bed in the maternity ward at Shepherds Bush hospital. This meant she arrived on the 5th of May at 0256 in the morning. Temporarily forgetting my Jedi roots I briefly channelled the Dark Side (my inner narcissist?) and suggested that perhaps for Hope’s benefit the date and time of her arrival could be ‘tweeked’ when she is officially registered. Or even better still, don’t bother to register her and set her free to zip around the galaxy without the constraints of being in the system. Neither idea went down too well with Mr and Mrs Hope and it’s back to Jedi school for me to learn about the importance of integrity.

Once I had stopped pretending I was Princess Leia and reluctantly put away my gold bikini I went, as I do every May, decidedly high brow and flung myself with gay abandon into the wonderful world of the Brighton Festival. A total of twelve events this year ranging from musicality and ghosts at the Theatre Royal to a circus in a cemetery, and the most wonderful Adam Buxton paying homage to David Bowie. I tweeted Mr Buxton and told him I loved him, he didn’t respond, but I bet he would have done if I’d have told him it was my birthday.

May was also a massive month for my beloved hometown as our awesome football team Brighton
and Hove Albion, aka the Seagulls, flew their way into the mighty Premier League. The town united, the sun shone and we celebrated their glory with a huge parade along the seafront. As proud as I was to be part of the celebrations, my real happiness was for so many of my dear friends who have supported the Seagulls since we were kids. They have memories and emotions tied up with every match of every season. They have supported their home team through more downs than ups, and at last, they could relish in the glory of their blue and white heroes. And on that day I left my inner narcissist at home, it was their day, their triumph, their team and it was all about them, not me.


In loving memory of Enrique Martin-González, who would celebrated his 85th birthday on the day of the parade. He was, I’m sure, there in spirit.


Travels: Berlin – “Everyday is a School Day”

Travels: Berlin – “Everyday is a School Day”

By my own admission I tend to fall in love pretty quickly, but even by my standards, the lightning speed by which I fell in love with Berlin was a record.

Maintaining this long distance affair shouldn’t prove to be too hard, Berlin is less than two hours away from London by air and a 30 min bus transfer from Tegel Airport to the largest ‘platz’ in Germany, Alexanderplatz. As newbies to the city, this was the perfect place to stay. Like most of Berlin, it’s not aesthetically pleasing, but its central location is perfect for transport links and getting your bearings. NB Berlin is that big it has its own forest.

Alexanderplatz is in the former East Berlin, its location visible all around the city by the iconic space age “Alex” TV tower built by the GDR in 1969.  We stayed on the 26th floor of the Park Inn by Radisson. What our room lacked in space it made up for with the view. I’m a view geek, and so high up were we I could have happily laid in bed all day looking out at the low clouds that swept across the city but I’m so glad I didn’t, Berlin is fascinating and in three days we only scratched the surface.

Discovering the remarkable history….

My top tip is to take a bike tour, we did ours with Fat Tire and it was an excellent decision.  Had we just hired bikes and not joined the tour we would have seen the city but we certainly wouldn’t have learnt so much. The six hours spent with the incredibly knowledgeable Claudia was the equivalent of doing a GCSE in German history.

Berlin is many things, and one thing it is is eerie. There were many times during the course of my stay that I felt unnerved, and as my knowledge of Berlin unfolded I realised that the sensation was a feeling of fear.  Many people in the past had been terrified, so intense was this fear that it still vibrates in parts of the city to this day and it will probably never dissipate.

The first stop on our bikes was Babel Platz and the Humbolt University (alumni include Einstein, Marx and the Brothers Grimm) where the charming Head of Nazi propaganda Dr Joseph Geobbles held his burning of the books on the 10th May 1933.  My skin crawled upon the realisation that I was standing and walking on the same ground as Goebbels and Hitler, there was no getting away from the feeling that terror and evil had been overly present in this square.

The tour took us to all the main sites in the city and as we cycled round my fascination grew. Berlin was the centre of European nightlife in the 1920s, known for its ‘cabaret and cocaine’. When the recession hit in the 1930s Berlin fell into poverty. The despondent mood and dis-empowered population gave Hitler the chance to work his way up the political food chain. He promised the people what they wanted, change, and he eventually seized power in 1933 giving himself the humble title of Führer and it all went downhill from there.  As Voltaire so wisely said ‘History never repeats itself. Man always does.” A warning to us all in 2017.

We paid our respects at the open-air Holocaust Memorial.  2711 tomb-like slabs of stone in equal size but at varying heights, no explanation is given for the design, it is open to interpretation. But one thing I can say is that although on the main road, once you walk into the memorial and wind your way through the slabs you hear nothing.

A nondescript car park and another deeply unpleasant feeling, we were standing on Hitler’s bunker. By projecting the idea that he was ‘married to Germany’ Hitler conveniently avoided marrying his girlfriend of 16 years Eva Braun but as the Russian army advanced into Berlin, he realised he was losing the war, blamed the German people and divorced them. He then put Eva out her misery, literally, as less than 24 hours after they were married in the romantic setting of the Füherbunker, they committed suicide. I am pretty certain that had Eva had any input into the wedding plans, dropping a cyanide capsule on a sofa would not have been her honeymoon of choice.

On a lighter note, I am sure you will be as pleased as me to know that there is now a Jewish bakery and a gay sauna adjacent to the bunker.

Following the war, the Allies were concerned that after successfully starting WWI and WWII Germany would make it a hat trick and start a third WW, so they decided to stay. Germany was divided into four occupied zones as was the city of Berlin itself. The successful introduction of the Deutschmark to boost the economy in the occupied western zones and the continual defection and brain drain from the Eastern block prompted the Soviet Union and the GDR to close the once easily accessible border between East and West.  On the morning of Sunday 13th August 1961 the East German army rolled out miles of barbed wire dividing Berlin, on the 17th of August the first concrete blocks were erected and within a few days, the Wall had been built. On the 8th of November 1989, the border was opened once again, but the physical demolition of the wall didn’t start until the following year.

There are remains of the wall still standing, and again I got that chilling feeling. Guards were ordered to shoot to kill anyone who attempted to cross. The Death Strip was filled with landmines, dogs and nail beds.  If you ever visit Berlin, look down and if you see a double cobbled line that is where the wall once stood, a permanent reminder of the horrendous partition of a city.

Checkpoint Charlie, once the only safe place to cross the border from West to East, is now a tourist attraction in the middle of a busy road. The traffic avoids the tourists surrounding the little replica hut and for €3 you can have your photo taken with a pseudo-East German border guard – somehow that just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.

It wasn’t all learning and creepy sensations on the cycle tour, we did meander through the beautiful Tiergarten park, home to the German President – who has no political influence – a zoo, a boating lake and a number of embassies. It also has a fabulous restaurant and we stopped here for a most welcome 1.5L vat of Alsterwasser, shandy to you and I, and a delicious lunch.

From here we straddled our trusty steeds once more and headed to the Reichstag, the seat of the German government. During its turbulent history it’s been bombed and set on fire and now proudly has a glass dome symbolising transparency. The dome is open to everyone but you must book in advance – regrettably, we didn’t. Angela Merkel’s glass offices are just across the lawn and the two are apparently linked by a tunnel so she doesn’t have to trip her way through all the tourists and their bikes to get to work.

Out last stop was the Brandenburg Gate. This iconic arch has witnessed the best and the worst of Berlin’s history.  The military parades of the Third Reich took place here and when the Wall went up it found itself on the eastern side.  It later became a symbol of freedom and unification when the collapse of the Berlin Wall was televised from here around the world.

Berlin has 175 museums and we picked two because we had a rainy day. They probably weren’t the most lighthearted of choices, but they were definitely worth it.

The Topogrophie des Terror has been deliberately built on the site of the former headquarters of the SS and the Third Reich. This permanent exhibition is to tell the world about the rise of the Third Reich and the forced labour camps, the crimes of the SS and the horror of the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. It’s tough going, but I have total respect to the Germans for owning what happened and not denying it or playing it down. Instead, they have humbly put it on display, not to shock or disturb but to apologise in the only way they know how for 12 years of terror driven Nazi rule.

The Jewish Museum is shaped as a deconstructed Star of David and explores a thousand years of German-Jewish history. It’s tough but fascinating.

Despite its dark and compelling history, modern-day Berlin has moved on. It’s too cool for school, but it’s not. The coolness isn’t contrived, it’s just there. The Berliners aren’t trying to be cool, they just are. There seems to be a general air of happiness and a really positive attitude. The people are chilled, kind and polite and have a great sense of humour. This might have something to do with the fact that beer is cheaper than water and readily available or it could just be that this massive concrete city is a fun, creative and vibrant place to live. Thankfully it seems to be harking back to the laid-back Berlin of the 20s and not the harsh realities of its formative years.

Discovering the food and drink…..and a bit of dancing

If I were to ask you which city in the world has more vegan restaurants than any other, would you answer Berlin? Probably not, but it has, it is the vegan capital of the world. It also has the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey and when I discovered these two facts I was delighted, I wasn’t going to be forced to live on bratwurst and currywurst for three days.

Sadly, we didn’t find any of the vegan restaurants that had been recommended and we naively rocked up at Industry Standard in the district of Neuköllon without a reservation. But we did get lucky at Al Andalos with a huge sharing plate of vegetarian Meze and a couple of bottles of fizzy rhubarb. It was buzzy, cheap and the heady smell of the Shisha pipes from the surrounding restaurants on Sonnenallee only added to the taste.

If you want to go ‘German’ for an evening, I can highly recommend Hackendahl on Friedrichstaße in the Mitte area of the city.  They specialise in whisky and gin, but we didn’t want to conform so we had a glass of sparkling Sekt, it’s delicious. We also had the German interpretation of tapas, an enormous meatball and a side of potato salad. It was very cool, very shabby but also very chic and full of after work Berliners. We could have stayed all night but we needed more than a meatball to eat.

The barman recommended that we head further into Mitte along Oranienburger Straße and here we stumbled on Schwarzwaldstuben, a restaurant devoted to the slow food movement. I couldn’t resist a schnitzel with seasonal white asparagus – why do we not eat them in the UK? – new potatoes, lashings of hollandaise sauce and a cold glass of Riesling, I don’t think I could have gotten more Bavarian unless I’d worn Lederhosen and plaited my hair. It was delicious.

We headed out again into Mitte on our last night, wandering down Torstrasse we had a lethal cocktail* in Brut and some much needed, amazing Vietnamese food at the appropriately named Good Morning Vietnam. As we wandered around post dinner we noticed the following:

  • How quiet and dark the streets are, they are very dimly lit.
  • People sit down in bars, if all the chairs/stools are taken no one stands up, they move on.
  • If a bar sells food, much to our delight the patrons can’t smoke.

Two free stools at the bar, the quirky paper models in the window and the serving of food tempted us into the smoke-free Altes Europa for a post dinner drink and planning session. It was make or break, we went dancing or went home. It was a Saturday night, we’d had a high brow day looking around disturbing museums, it was time to dance, we headed to the magical world of Clärchens Ballhaus.

Tucked away from the road in the dimly lit Augustraße this 100-year-old dance hall was saved from demolition in 2005. It is the popular hangout for dancers of all ages, persuasions and abilities who don’t want to partake in the popular Berlin pastime of hardcore underground techno clubbing.

The night we went I can only liken it to a Strictly vs Eurovision mash up. The super cool DJ was playing S Club Seven – yes, she was – the dance floor was packed with an eclectic mix of dancers whirling each other round in a classic style. As she switched to Barbie girl – yes, she did – they deftly adapted their dancing style to fit the beat. The DJ was temporarily replaced, not because of her terrible but addictive taste in euro pop, but because this is Clärchens and next on the bill was a three piece, sexagenarian, rock and roll band banging out Johnny Cash covers. Once again, the dance floor moves mirrored the music.

My chum and I were in awe. It was a magical place, inclusive, fun and just a joyful place to be. We did some tragic school teacher type bobbing on the edge of the dance floor but mostly enjoyed being voyeurs soaking up the extraordinary venue and its punters. We wished that there was a venue like this back home, but in all honesty, Clärchens wouldn’t work anywhere else, it is Berlin at its quirkiest and its finest and the perfect lowbrow end to our highbrow day.

Things I’d love to see and do next time I visit Berlin 

Make a reservation in advance for dinner at Industry Standard

Have cocktails at Fairytale and the Monkey Bar at the Bikini Hotel

See the graffiti at the East Side Gallery

Stare at the amazing photos at the Helmut Newton Foundation

Cycle round Templhofer Feld

Stasi Museum

DDR Museum

Käthe Kolwitz Museum

Mooch around the districts of Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Charlottenburg

Go shopping at the KaDeWe department store, especially the gourmet food floor.

We made a very quick visit to the Mauerpark Flea Market but the freezing hail had us run for cover and enjoy the best coffee I had in Berlin at Café Bar Central. It would most definitely be worth going back to Mauerpark on a warm and sunny Sunday morning.

Getting around Berlin

Public transport is free in Berlin, well technically it’s not but until you get to grips with buying a ticket and validating it, it’s essentially free. There is the U-Bahn which is the underground, the S-Bahn the overground, the buses and the trams. They have covered all possible options. I found it all very confusing so my choice would be walking and cycling. The Berliners are very tolerant of cyclists, you can cycle on the pavement and they get out of the way for you,  they don’t shout or swear, it’s a cyclists mecca.

Like any love-struck soul, I have put the object of my desire on a pedestal.  I wasn’t in Berlin long enough to see its flaws and I accept that like any other city it might have a not so perfect side and if that is so,  I’m confident that  together we can work through any issues that arise in the hope that my love affair with this alluring Großstadt will last for many years to come.

*Word of Warning

When the barman apologises for mistakingly making your cocktail with champagne and not soda water you know your evening is only going to go one way, but that’s another story…