History and high tension: a long weekend in Berlin

Berlin TV tower

This month Alex and I took a long weekend break in Berlin. Alex had been a couple of times before, but I’d never visited.

Berlin has been on my bucket list for a while. So the trip was a sort of birthday treat for me (I hit the big three-oh this month).

Luckily for us, a lot of the places I wanted to go were things that Alex hadn’t done on her previous two trips. So we both enjoyed it equally and Alex didn’t repeat too much of what she already knew.

Remains of Anhalter BanhofRemains of the original Anhalter Banhof railway station

Our hotel — the Mövenpick — was located near Anhalter Banhof. The amazing thing was that the elevator from the platform to ground level brought us almost directly across the road from the hotel.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Our first trip was to view the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a massive, striking memorial consisting of thousands of increasingly large concrete pillars. As you walk through it, it’s almost as if you are gradually drowning yourself in a sea of concrete.

However, it was clear to me that many people visiting the memorial found it fun and playful. People chased each other through the wavy corridors. They posed for pictures with a cheesy grin. Kids even jumped from pillar to pillar.

And of course, people use them for their Grindr profile pics.

How much the memorial makes people think about murdered Jews seems questionable. Reading up on it, the design of the memorial has indeed been a controversial matter.

But it is nonetheless a beautiful and impressive memorial.

Berlin Wall

Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin Wall exhibit at Checkpoint Charlie

I had been prewarned that Checkpoint Charlie is a bit of a tourist trap. Sure enough, there was a crew of people dressed up as American soldiers, and rowdy stag groups singing with them. Beyond that, a McDonald’s and a Starbucks make their presence felt.

However, the adjacent exhibition was surprisingly good given the tacky backdrop.

Topography of Terror

Topography of Terror

Nearby, the Topography of Terror outdoor exhibition has an extraordinarily long preserved section of the Berlin Wall at the location of the Gestapo and the SS headquarters.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

The famous East Side Gallery was a little disappointing, although mainly that is down to the challenges of preserving such an open air exhibition. It was restored in 2009, but still much of it was covered in unwelcome graffiti.

It was nevertheless incredible to see this famous art standing there, thwarting this symbol of division, as defiant as can be.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Preserved section of the Berlin Wall

Most impressive of all was the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße. This one mile long area is very tasteful and impressively designed. Large sections of wall remain in tact. Where the wall no longer remains, corten steel beams delineate its location.

Berlin Wall Memorial

Berlin Wall Memorial

Particularly impressive was the minimalist sculpture signifying the location of a watchtower.

Preserved section of the Berlin Wall

Nearby, an actual watchtower remains present at a small section of the wall that has been fully preserved. This can be viewed from a platform across the road, providing a small glimpse of what the wall must have been like.

Chapel of Reconciliation

Chapel of Reconciliation

Included in the grounds of the memorial is the stunning Chapel of Reconciliation. It stands in the same location as the Church of Reconciliation, which was on the border until it was ripped down in 1985. The new building is magnificent.

Chapel of Reconciliation

Berlin Wall Memorial building

Inside the Berlin Wall Memorial building itself is a very informative and in-depth exhibition about the wall. I particularly enjoyed learning about how East Berliners found ways to watch West German TV.

DDR Museum

Green man, East Berlin

Another place to learn about life in East Germany was the DDR Museum.

Entry was an incredibly cheap €7, making it fantastic value for money. However, the result was that the museum was rather crowded. It was simply too full.

However, I thought it was a good sign that a lot of the visitors appeared to be Germans. This isn’t just a cheesy tourist trap. Many of the visitors were evidently enjoying reminiscing about elements of East German life.

Of particular note was a replica East Berlin living room complete with a TV showing clips of East German programmes, to the apparent amusement of the German visitors.

The DDR Museum reminded me a lot of the Museum of Brands in London. Both largely contain everyday items that would have meant little to most people at the time, but now tell their own deep and fascinating social history.

Driving a Trabant at the DDR Museum

My personal favourite exhibit was a Trabant that was kitted out as a simulator, allowing you to pootle around a virtual East Berlin. Great fun!

Trabi Safari

Elsewhere in Berlin it is possible to hire a Trabant and pootle around Berlin for real! Maybe the next time I go to Berlin I will do that.

Berlin TV tower

TV tower, Berlin

For someone like me, with an interest in socialist mid-20th century architecture, a trip to see the TV tower was an absolute must.

It is impossible not to see it. It crops up way above the Berlin skyline wherever you go. But getting up close is essential if you are to understand the true scale and detail of the building.

TV tower, Berlin

The bottom is actually incredibly ordinary, apart from the impressive canopy. The building is rather like a humdrum 1960s shopping centre.

We didn’t go to the top because we had read some mixed reviews. However, a friend later told us that it is an absolute must. Maybe next time.

TV tower in the sun

An amusing story we learned in the DDR Museum is that — much to the planners’ annoyance — the design of the sphere created a religious symbol when the sun shone on it. Whoops!

Reichstag

Reichstag

While we didn’t get up the TV tower for a view, we still got a fantastic vantage of Berlin from the top of the Reichstag. However, getting there was far from easy.

European flag at the Reichstag

As in some other parts of Europe, political tensions seem high in Berlin at the moment. On the morning of our arrival, there had been a bomb threat at the US embassy next to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. (It turned out to be a nutcase whose bag only contained clothes.)

A day after we left Berlin, a car bomb was detonated, murdering one person.

The following day we attempted to approach the Reichstag from the east. Alex had booked coffee and cake in the rooftop restaurant there. She had read in a guidebook that this is a great way of skipping the queue to get into the building.

But we found that all the surrounding streets were blocked by armed police. All routes were closed to pedestrians and vehicles.

Demonstration outside Brandenburg GateView of the demonstration from the top of the Reichstag

We tried to get through the Brandenburg Gate. No go. A policeman there told us that it was closed because there were two political demonstrations, and it was far too dangerous to keep the route open.

He advised us we could get to the Reichstag by going a back a few blocks, turning left and left again. But every street we tried there were more police halfway up turning people back.

Demonstration outside the Reichstag

We tried the next street. And the next street. There we found the actual demonstration, and it seemed like a bad idea to go near it.

Some friendly first aid workers were round the corner from the demonstration. When we told them what we were trying to do, they found it rather funny. “This is the wrong day to try to go to the Reichstag!”

These people were the first to tell us what the demonstration was actually about: “It’s a bunch of Nazis — you know, racists.” Ah.

They tried to advise us where to go. But when we told them what roads we already knew were closed they realised it was going to be even harder than they originally thought.

Our Reichstag booking was at 2.30pm and we were told we couldn’t be late. Alex was on the verge of giving up. But the first aider hit upon the idea of getting a taxi from the nearby taxi rank.

The first driver we asked refused to take us. He balked once we told him which roads were closed. Luckily, the second driver in the rank was up for the challenge.

After driving a very roundabout way, we eventually arrived at the Reichstag around 15 minutes late. It was just as well Alex’s trick to skip the queue worked. Despite the difficulties of travelling, the queue to enter was rather large. Yet with our restaurant booking we were able to get straight in.

Coffee and cake at the Reichstag

The rooftop restaurant was very nice, affording wonderful views of Berlin from its high vantage point. Despite my dairy intolerance, I opted to have a black forest cake. It was much better than the type you got in Britain in the 1990s. Best of all, I suffered no real ill effects!

The staff in the Reichstag seemed quite oblivious to the bedlam that was going outside. But later a few of them congregated on the rooftop to take a look.

One person we spoke to was quite weary about it all. “Not again,” she sighed. “This happens around every two weeks now.”

Berlin (March 2016)

Afterwards we took an audio tour up the remarkable Norman Foster designed dome. I can highly recommend this. You get great views of Berlin and the audio guide is very interesting and informative.

View from the Reichstag

Berlin (March 2016)

Neues Museum

Neues Museum

Sadly we didn’t have very much time to visit many museums. But on our last day we did drop in on the Neues Museum before zipping off to the airport.

The building is incredible, having been restored very creatively yet sympathetically by David Chipperfield.

Horns at the Neues Museum

My favourite exhibit was of these old horns — complete with sound effects.

Food and drink

Food at Max und Moritz

I can’t finish writing about Berlin without mentioning some of the amazing places we went to eat and drink.

Max und Mortiz was a charming old fashioned place that sold great beer. As for the food, the portion sizes were enormous! I was well and truly defeated by my plate.

Our favourite breakfast place was Cafe Hermann Eicke near the Berlin Wall Memorial. Even by Berlin standards, it seemed like a super hipster place (and therefore, of course, right up our street).

They had the best coffee we’d tasted in Berlin by a country mile. Berlin doesn’t seem to be a great place for coffee, so if you get a serious craving make a beeline for this place.

Their breakfast food options were also excellent. I opted for a pot based on quinoa and made with soya milk. It was like a cross between cold porridge and bircher muesli. That was perfect for my dairy intolerance.

(As a sidenote, I noticed it was much easier to find alternatives to cow’s milk than it is in the UK. Even the hotel breakfast had equal proportions of cow’s milk, soya milk and lactose-free milk on offer.)

Berlin (March 2016)

But the best place to eat overall was without a doubt Shiso Burger.

This was a bustling place that reminded me of a couple of the trendier places in Edinburgh (think of El Cartel and you won’t be far off). We waited around half an hour for a table, and we were encouraged to be in and out quickly. I f you can handle that, it is worth it all.

The food — burgers based on Asian food — was incredible. Alex had a shrimp burger and I had tuna. We got edamame and twisted potatoes as sides. It was some of the most unique and tastiest food I have ever had. It’s a great concept, and I would love it if a similar restaurant opened up in Edinburgh.

Schneeweiß was the smartest restaurant we ate in. The service was very friendly and the food was great. I had a mountainous Wiener schnitzel that was worth the effort.

The nearby Hops and Barley was a busy bar that sold their own tasty beer.

A metre of beer

Elsewhere, at a bar in Potsdamer Platz we shared this — a metre of beer!

Bier!

Speaking of beer, I had plenty of it. Alex delighted in taking a photo of me each time I had a beer. This photo looks worse than it is. These were not all taken on the same day. I only took one jumper with me to Berlin, so this composite was made over the course of a few days… honest.

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