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…

 

 

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