Berlin

Tuesday, March 12, 2013




Recently awarded the prestigious moniker of 3rd most photographed city in Europe, Berlin is an intriguing mix of tradition and cosy hipster hangouts pasted on to a background of a troubled history. I was first  there in 1989 with my parents who were living in Germany at the time, at the tender age of 6 months old and within months of the Wall coming down. 23 years later I'm back, with only slightly less food down my front.
We arrived late on Thursday evening after having taken an evening flight from Madrid. Temperatures had dropped, but not spirits as we trampled through a layer of crisp white snow to take the overground train to the centre. I have a slight aversion to taking taxis from the airport, not just for the expense but because it’s really not an adventure that way. This time though, my enthusiasm was crushed by a harsh reality…the D Bahn was just too complicated for us. After an exciting little ride two stops away from the airport and two stops back we jumped into a taxi and regretfully handed over our 45€.

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(photo: Rachel Allen)
Arriving at the 2 bedroom apartment we had rented in the trendy Mitte district, we were impressed and intrigued by the variety of cosy looking independent restaurants and shops dotted around what was a relatively residential area. It was refreshing to see that eating and shopping in Berlin remains somewhat independent. The apartment itself was basically furnished but well equipped and most importantly of all had only cost the 5 of us 18€ a night each.
Refreshed, we headed out the next day on the free walking tour of Berlin. At 3.5 hours it’s a fair old slog but completely recommended. Our guide braved the cold to walk us around historical and culturally significant sights which were to be found mainly in the former Eastern side, from Check Point Charlie to the Berliner Dom - a beautiful green domed cathedral set next to the river. The average tip for these tours is between 5 and 10euros per person so it’s definitely value for money.
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Feeling peckish, our stomachs lead us in the direction of the Nikolaikirche area, a charming maze of slyly touristy side streets where we warmed up at a great little restaurant dubiously named Chicken Shop. Don't let the name put you off though, the food is delicious and the service was excellent! 
That afternoon, we headed back to the Topography of Terror which had been featured on the tour, to go inside the exhibit. Although touched upon frequently in the tour, this exhibit gives you a real, no holds barred view of the terrible side of Germany's history. Our guide had mentioned that since the 1960's, Germany has made a concerted effort to acknowledge it's terrible past and not to ignore it, in the hope that such a thing could never happen again, and this is no clearer than inside this free museum. Incidentally, all exhibits and museums related to Nazi past in Berlin are free to visitors. I forgot my glasses, which was a complete rookie error as the dimly lit room and boards upon boards of information provided me with somewhat of a challenge but I still found this to be one of the most thought provoking and interesting things I saw during the weekend. Definitely worth a squint at. 
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In the evening we had a spontaneous German beer tasting in the flat thanks to my friend who had stocked up on as many different varieties as he could find when we arrived. I know it's a cliché but German beer really is delicious and we all headed out a bit worse for wear and ended up stumbling across La Focacceria on Fehrbelliner Straße. With pasta and beautiful freshly made focacca bread for just 4.20euros, this place is an absolute gem. Piping hot home made pasta is good in any situation but after our beer tasting session we all thought we'd been transported to some kind of Italian heaven, aided and abetted by 1ltr of delicious wine for 9euros. If I go back to Berlin this is the first place my stomach will lead me. 
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The next day, we rallied (kind of) and made our way to the East Side Gallery - one of the only remaining fully preserved parts of the Wall which seperated East from West Berlin. When the Wall came down in 1989, this section was covered in politically motivated art work from various graffiti artists. Without seeing this part of the Wall, it's really difficult to imagine the scale of it and how awful it must have been to wake up one morning to find your city partitioned in two, particularly if you were on the East side, as it basically meant you were going to be spending the next 28 years of your life looking at that Wall with no escape. 
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On a lighter note, this weekend I was lucky enough to meet up with my old friend and housemate, Lena, who lives in Berlin and did a great job of showing us around! Being a huge fan of Elvis, she naturally took us to an American Diner called Sixties. We were all starving and still hungover so the huge burgers and milkshakes hit the spot. After, we continued the food theme and went to the RitterSport café which, as you can probably guess, is a café dedicated to everything RitterSport. RitterSport hot chocolate, cake, french toast...you name it. We opted for the Fondue which was amazing, and even more so because it was probably the only portion of fruit that passed my lips all weekend. 
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We had booked a tour of the Dome in the Bundestag building for 4:45 but ended up making a very unceremonious arrival half an hour late for our appointment. We were convinced, basing this purely on our stereotype of German efficiency, that there was no way they'd let us in so late. But they did! I don't know if it was the helpful addition of a native Berliner or if MAYBE stereotypes aren't always true (MAYBE) but we were feeling very lucky indeed as we proceeded up the elevator to the Dome. For me, though, this was probably the most disappointing element of the trip. It's a great idea in theory, and it's probably great in summer, but with the snow and haze we couldn't really see anything so think about the weather before you book a tour.So I don't have a handy picture for this part.
After a quick turn around we met up with another German friend for dinner at Schwarzwaldstuben an ambient, quirky little restaurant serving a modern take on German tapas. Everything we ate was cooked absolutely perfectly (except being English I was a bit of a snob about the mash potato 'tapas', i'm sorry but that doesn't fly with me), a personal highlight being the goats cheese with blackberry sauce. The suckling pig was also amazing and oooh the schnitzel. Like I said, perfect. The only problem was, as often happens with Tapas, we finished our meal and were still plotting a Currywurst for seconds to fill us up. So if you're looking for something cheap, not the best (and avoid the wine too, REALLY pricey). 
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Afterwards, we headed to what our German friend promised us was the REAL Berlin experience for a night out at the BallHaus. At first we were a little confused when we rocked up to what looked like a tacky wedding venue, with walls lined with hanging tinsel and rows of tables at the back filled with middle aged couples drunk on Gluhwein. But we persevered and continued with what was become a bit of a theme and purchased a litre of wine to get us in the mood. Soon, we forgot we were all in our early 20's and were dancing like the rest of them to the 50s style tribute band blaring out from the stage. When they took a break, they were replaced by every single tune from the 80s you could ever want to hear and more young people started to emerge from the woodwork. It was like being in a time machine, a very surreal time machine. But a great one!
On Sunday we reluctantly packed our bags and said goodbye to our homely little flat for the last time. Thankfully, we still had time for a quick food pitstop for what is possibly the best invented meal ever...BRUNCH. Luckily, Nola's Am Weinberg all you can eat brunch was just around the corner on Veteranenstrasse. It's a little difficult to find because it's set back from the road in a small park and looks kind of like the mobile buildings schools hold overflow classrooms in in the UK but I can promise you that the inside is beautifully decorated. It was busy when  we arrived (book ahead!) so we offered to sit outside. Bearing in mind that it was snowing at this point, you can maybe understand how desperate we were to get started on that buffet. They made us very comfortable outside with hot drinks and blankets and it was actually a great atmosphere, as the restaurant overlooks a park where children were sledging and building snowmen with their parents - a winter wonderland you might say. The food lived up to the hype and there was a great selection of hot and cold food without it being overwhelming or a stuff yourself until you burst kind of atmosphere. It was like being on a skiing holiday, tucked up inside a nice wooden chalet whilst it snows outside. Ahhh.
So this was the end of our magical weekend in Berlin. I can safely say that there hasn't been a city that I've visited recently with an atmosphere quite like the one there. We all wanted to stay and I'm surely we all came home and secretly researched how we might make our time in Berlin repeat itself. So watch this space...next year I might leave my adopted Spain and head for some more unfamiliar territory...or I'll end up in London. Probably.


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