WALKING AND TALKING IN BERLIN
When two of my closest friends from distant European postcodes decided that it was time for our long overdue reunion, Berlin ticked all the boxes for a weekend of girlie fun. The requirements were simple: it had to be within easy reach for all three of us (tick), it had to be a place none of us had visited previously (tick) and it had to offer us not only plenty of history and art but also a drinking and eating culture (tick).
Five minutes after our Skype chat, my ticket is booked. Without even contemplating any other options, I select my favourite airline. Ryanair offers three flights per day between London Stansted and Berlin Schönefeld for a very reasonable fee. Determined to squeeze out the last available minute of the three days I opt for the earliest flight out on Saturday morning (6:25am) and the latest flight back on Monday night (departing Berlin 21:55). The flight itself comes to £80 pounds (including a 15-kilo check-in suitcase), but as I was leaving home in the middle of the night I booked a minicab (another £35) and on the way back I took the penultimate train from Stansted (£21). Of course I could not believe that the train from Schönefeld to Prenzlauer Allee costs only €3.20!?
With the administrative side of the trip sorted, it’s time to get in the right frame of mind for Berlin. First there is Lou Reed… And as his words
In Berlin, by the wall
You were five foot, ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice…
fill the room I can feel anticipation growing.
One of my first literary encounters with Berlin was through the book “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” by Christiane F. I read it in my teens and for a naïve little-village-girl it was nothing short of goose-pimple-inducing hard-core. It stayed with me as one of those books you can’t quite determine your feelings towards. On one side there is the fascination with the honesty of the experience described and on the other the disgust with the experience itself.
Then there is one of the most poetic movies I’ve ever seen – “Der Himmel über Berlin” by Wim Wenders (released in English as “The Wings of Desire”). And after watching it again, with equal fascination and feeling – I am definitely ready for Berlin.
Our accommodation is sorted by our German host in Prenzlauer Berg. She books us in a Gästewohnung in one of the most amazing complex of contemporary urban designs I’ve ever seen. The Zelterstrasse (http://thisispaper.com/zanderroth-architekten-BIGyard-Zelterstrase-5) is an urban residential estate designed as a cluster of town houses, apartments and penthouses with the enclosed internal courtyard turned into a large playground (including a sandpit and tree house). The place is a heaven for pre-school children who roam around freely and play with their mates, as well as for the parents who can either oversee them directly from their patio or join other parents for a chat and coffee. And family and friends can be accommodated in one of the Gästewohnungen. Vielen Dank, Sara.
By the time I reach the place, my two friends – who flew in a day earlier – have just got up and are recovering from a night of dancing and drinking until 5 in the morning. After repeated hugs, loud kisses and high-pitched excitement on the level of school kids breaking up for summer, we decide to take it easy and start with a brunch and a coffee in the first decent place we spot.
Leaving bus number 100 in Unter den Linden we spot Jedermann’s (http://jedermanns.berlin/). After a quick glance at its interior of dark wooden tables, large map of Berlin on the wall and promising menu we nod at each other. It will do. A burger, a club sandwich and sausages with sauerkraut, 4 coffees and large bottle of mineral water, comes to just over €40. OK – it isn’t the most amazing food or the most amazing place, but it is satisfying enough and the schwarzer Kaffee ohne Milch gives us the much needed caffeine kick. Plus – with our friendship going back almost two decades, the most important thing is that the three of us are finally together and have lots of catching up to do.
The Brandenburger Tor is a short walk from the restaurant and once we reach it we get engulfed in a large river of loud protesters. The atmosphere is noisy, overcrowded and overpowering. Tourists mix with protesters and take photos. With our tourist-level German we figure that they are protesting against nuclear power and for a greener future and are doing it with an incredible passion. We walk under the impressive neoclassical construction that witnessed many of the important events in this city, squeeze through the scores of fervent protesters and in no time reach the German Parliament Building – the Reichstag.
The dome designed by Sir Norman Foster is just about visible from where we are standing, and the inscription “Dem Deutschen Volke” (To the German People”) dominates the façade. The Reichstag is another reminder of the challenging, drastic and painful periods of German history – from the Weimar Republic (which was declared from this very building) to the first meeting of the Bundestag of the reunified Germany in 1990.
Just around the corner there is the Holocaust Denkmal, the memorial for all the Jews killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The monument is a field of concrete slabs with an information centre underneath. The labyrinth of blocks of different heights on an uneven ground is a remarkable piece of art and design; it produces various shapes of shadows and walking patches and offers a place for contemplation, insight and remembrance.
With a slow and relaxed pace we reach the Museum Island mid-afternoon. As we have just about enough time and energy for one place, among the five internationally renowned institutions, we decide to visit the Pergamonmuseum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pergamon_Museum) and its collection of classical antiquities, works from the Ancient Near East and Islamic Art. The queue is long but we persist. And it is worth it. The Pergamon Altar leaves us breathless; it’s enormous, overpowering yet calming and celestial. My personal favourites are the Market Gate from Miletus (c. 120 AD) – which at 16 meters has to be the tallest antique exhibit residing in a western museum – and the colourful Ishtar Gate from Babylon.
My friend B. walks around the room taking in the unfinished frieze of the Pergamon Altar long 113 meters (and depicting the fights between the gods and the giants) and then bursts out into laughter.
“I’m sure the person who put this together was mad about puzzles! Where else do you find the patience and the determination?”
As we walk by the river, the sky over Berlin turns greyish and heavy clouds gather above us projecting large and sharp drops of rain. After a superficial look at the façade of the cathedral, the Berliner Dom – there was a service going on and it was closed for tourist visits – we find a refuge in the Balzac café (http://www.balzaccoffee.com/).
Don’t ask me how we end up in a Thai restaurant on our first night in Berlin, but it is an excellent choice. Mao Thai (http://maothai.de/ is close to our accommodation and it offers relaxed atmosphere and excellent food. We indulge in two courses of amazingly tasty specialities, wash it down with a bottle of smooth German white wine and chat till gone 11. And all that added up to a reasonable €90.
Our German host – who joins us for dinner – tells us about the fascinating history of her family (who mostly lived on the East Side of the divide) as well as the fashion, family and other choices of young (well our generation) Germans. We also try to figure out the line of the Berlin wall on our map. But apart from a few obvious spots it’s difficult even for our German host to draw a line through the town on a piece of paper. On the way back we talk about contemporary German movies: The Lives of Others, Barbara and Run, Lola, Run.
Back in the famous Zelterstrasse urban complex, S. gives us a comprehensive tour of the compound, starting from the underground garages to the grass terraced roofs. A few meters away, on the penthouse rooftop there is a group of people having a cigarette under the threatening night sky. A few seconds later – enough time for a “hello” and introductions – we are walking through the conifer trees that separate the private and the communal roofs and following them down the fire stairs to the private party in the penthouse. And for the next couple of hours we are sipping obscure-absinthe-looking-extra-strong-mouthwash-tasting cocktails and talking to other party guests. For the most of that time we are engrossed in a conversation with a neurologist with a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy. He explains to us the challenges of his research job and the difference between neurology and psychiatry (something along the lines of the difference between software and hardware). He is also a semi professional basketball player, wears navy blue nail polish and – before I forget – he is no older than 25…
The night and the rain grow thicker and instead of climbing over the roof we take the more conventional way out; through the door, down the corridor and into “our” lift. It looks like wherever we take the lift from – as soon we insert the key - we always end up in our doorless room/Gästewohnung. The magic of modern German design…
Prenzlauer Berg is the southern part of the Berlin’s borough of Pankow and a very funky and modern urban zone. Since German reunification it has become the centre of bohemian youth; who have by now turned into equally bohemian middle-aged men and women. It’s characterised by charming old buildings, the majority erected before 1940. Apart from the ultra-modern complex we are staying in, this area is architecturally pretty uniform. And according to our guide, the mostly five-storey blocks are inhabited by intellectuals, students and artists.
Berlin’s weather is unpredictable; one minute it is warm and sunny and the next the thick and unforgiving rain comes down. Morning is slowly turning into midday by the time we reach Café Liebing (http://www.cafe-liebling.de/). The place is overcrowded with professionals staring into their large laptops (the so-called digital bohemians), families and loved-up or arguing couples. The only available seats are at the bar, which doesn’t bother us as long as we get our strong black coffee and sweet pastries. And now we are ready for yet another day of walking and talking. But as soon as we put our coats on and turn towards the door the rain comes down in torrents.
As soon as the sky clears we head towards one of the famous flea markets of Berlin - the Flohmarkt am Mauerpark . The Mauerpark, which translates as Wall Park, is located at the border of Prenzlauer Berg and the district of Gesundbrunnen that used to be in West Berlin. There are not many things you could not find here: from handmade arty tote bags, memorabilia from the Cold War era, plenty of old knick-knacks (and some stylish antique ornaments), to souvenirs and vintage and new fashions. Not my kind of thing though; the place is too muddy and too overcrowded.
From here we follow the path of the Berlin Wall. The brown metal pipes – which are erected along the line of the old wall – stretch like nasty and poisonous snakes. In Bernauer Strasse (famous for escape attempts by jumping from windows of the apartment blocks in the East to the road on the West) we stop at the Berlin Wall Memorial and climb on the nearby viewing platform overlooking the Death Strip. The history of this place is scary – during the wall’s existence over five thousand people escaped to the West but also almost two hundred people were killed.
We take the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Square and grab a hot drink in the inside courtyard of the Sony building. This construction is another piece of amazing modern urban architecture and one of the central locations for the Berlinale (held annually in February). The high glass dome protects the courtyard from the rain but at the same time lets the daylight in. The place is filled with bars, cafés, restaurants, museums, cinemas and even a hotel, but lacks warmth. Then again, isn’t this exactly how futuristic designs are supposed to feel like?
We have one thing on our list for the afternoon before visiting my friend F. – Checkpoint Charlie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkpoint_Charlie). Even if the remnants of the Cold War and the West-East divide are evident all over Berlin, none of them is such a strong symbol of that separation as this place. During the crisis in 1961 the American and Soviet tanks faced each other on this very spot. The place is packed with tourists, regular traffic, cars etc. and we squeeze through to take a look at the mast that displays a Soviet soldier on one side and US soldier on the other.
My friend F. – who one year ago replaced her London address with Berlin’s – lives in a high-ceiling specious apartment in the leafy Schöneberg area. She serves us a selection of creamy cakes from a bakery at some other flea market she visited earlier and a cocktail that she has invented for the occasion. She mixes Prosecco with a few drops of thick and sweet rose syrup inventing a deliciously tasty and moreish drink. Forget Bellini, Francini is so much better!
In the late afternoon she takes us to the Oberbaumbrücke, the bridge over the river Spree in Kreuzberg. With its red bricks and neo-Gothic arcade, the exotic looking bridge designed by Otto Stahn was constructed between 1894 and 1896 and featured in the movie “Run, Lola, Run”. We walk over it and reach the East Side Gallery. The one mile section of the wall along Mühlenstraße has been turned into an open-air gallery with colourful, insightful and creative graffiti by 118 artists from 21 countries. We pose in front of them, take photos, comment, laugh and talk to scores of other visitors, against the background of a cold evening with threatening rain.
After half an hour of purposeless wandering around the area looking for a nice eatery we find the canteen Kohlmann (www.kantine-kohlmann.de). It is on the slightly pricier range of the scale for such an establishment but by now we are starved and frozen and its dimmed interior is warm and welcoming. There are only three main dishes on the menu and between us we order all 3 of them – vegetarian pasta pockets, Wiener Schnitzel and Kohlmann’s Tafelspitz (twice). The Tafelspitz is a large chunk of slowly cooked beef in thick gravy with potato purée and mixed roasted vegetables on the side. And it all came to just over - €90. And yes – it was absolutely delicious!
By the time we leave the canteen, the weather has materialised its earlier threat and we find ourselves wrapped in a dark cloak of damp, gusts of wind and unexpectedly low temperatures. We thank F. and kiss her goodbye and sprint through the sharp and persistent rain (Run, Lola, Run!!!) to the nearest U/S-Bahn. After two wrong directions and two changes we reach our Gästewohnung just gone midnight.
By the time the remaining two of us wake up, B., who took the earliest flight out, is already in her office. No words spoken, D. and I head to our favourite café for our morning dose of coffee and calories. Café Liebling is just slightly less busy than the day before and we even recognise some people. This time we get a table in the corner, order our coffees and pastries and relax. The minimalist interior, simple offers on the menu and laid-back creative and intellectual clientèle make this place very alluring and we find it hard to get going. We could easily have spent the remaining time of our Berlin weekend on that sofa but there are still a few places on our list waiting for a tick.
Sharp and unforgiving rain paired with umbrella-breaking wind comes down on us as soon as we leave the café and more or less follows us for most of the day.
After three wrong turns down Straßen not mentioned on our map, we finally find Schloss Charlottenburg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlottenburg_Palace). The largest palace in Berlin and the only surviving royal residence is highly recommended by our guidebook. As soon we enter the gardens, the rain turns into a solid and cold shower. After a few hastily taken photos of landscaped flowerbeds, we find a shelter under a leaking awning across the road with our map literally disintegrating in our hands. The rain continues to tease us; as soon as we think it’s going to clear, it comes down with a vengeance. Eventually our shoes give in and the damp pushes through the exhausted soles. Our weekend in Berlin is reaching its anti-climax; it’s always like that when a good thing is approaching its imminent end.
D. and I walk down the Kurfürstendamm, a large boulevard with the reputation of being Berlin’s Champs-Elysées, lined with upmarket cafés, hotels and expensive designer shops. We take a short detour into the shoe shop: Budapester Schuhe. Far too expensive for our pockets! Instead of shoes we buy a few postcards and stamps (yes – we are old-fashioned and still send postcards!).
After a mishmash lunch of chicken, pork, gnocchi and potatoes in the self-service restaurant in the luxurious shopping store KaDeWe (€40) we have just enough time left to buy souvenirs (mostly wine, beer and chocolates) in the Galleria shopping centre on Alexanderplatz (with the prices within our range of affordability).
By now the rain has retired and sun takes over. Three days gone in a puff – walking and talking down streets with a remarkable history and hope for the future.
There is so much to see and to do in Berlin and three days are not enough; they are just a taster, and a teaser. Berlin has a unique vibe, plenty of history as well as modern architecture and arts that make it an attractive place for a short visit. It also seems to be great place to live (all three-year-olds get a free full time place in the kindergarten) and meeting and talking to our two resident Berliners was definitely the best part of our visit. Through them we found out how the place really breathes. Berlin is definitely not one of those cities you visit once and tick it off your list never to return, instead it is one of those that lures you back, for yet another portion of its inspiration, relaxation and optimism…
Dear Berlin friends S. & F. - we will be back soon(ish)!
SOUNDTRACK FOR BERLIN:
1. Lou Reed: Berlin
2. Iggy Pop: Lust for life
3. Alphaville: Summer in Berlin
4. Leonard Cohen: First we take Manhattan
5. U2: Zoo Station
6. Pink Floyd: A great day for freedom
7. The Ramones: Born to die in Berlin
8. Robbie Williams: Berliner Star
9. Rufus Wainwright: Tiergarten
10. David Bowie: Where are we now
BONUS: Bajaga i Instruktori: Berlin
TOP 3 BERLIN MOVIES:
1. The Wings of desire
2. Goodbye, Lenin
3. Run, Lola, Run