The river view
The river view

It has been less than two years since my last visit to Berlin.
And this time – it is very much a family affair. My (almost) six-year-old, my other half and myself are visiting my sister who now lives in the German capital. A few years back, my friend and former badminton partner-in-crime Francy, also moved here. With the two of them now happily residing in Berlin, a visit to this city feels like coming back to a place of special importance in my heart.
The Berlinale – the world-famous film festival which was a dream to visit in the early days of my former life as a journalist – has also coincided with our dates and makes me even more exited (there will be some free childcare available…yoohoo). In summary; we are an extra-excited family visiting an extra-exciting city!
We land at Schönefeld Airport late on Saturday night and guided by my already-experienced-resident sister reach our Berlin address in just over an hour. First a short bus ride to Rudow and then U7 to Eisenhacher Strasse, a twenty-or-so minute walk from the apartment. Thrilled to be reunited with her favourite auntie (“teta” in Croatian), our youngest family member does not complain about the longish walk and the extreme sub-zero temperature that is freezing our eyes and lips.
The two-bedroom apartment (booked over ) is spacious, light and conveniently located just outside Nollendorfplatz station, with the surrounding streets lined with stylish cafés, restaurants galore, late-night bars and other attractive establishments. It’s also not more than a five-minute walk from my sister’s language school and fifteen minutes from Francy’s apartment (we are talking six-year-old-child-pace minutes).
With our (almost) six year old and her favourite “teta” catching up on their time apart, the two of us feel left out and opt for a quick walk around the neighbourhood. Well, our stroll takes us just fifty or so metres down the road, to the Eckstein Café Restaurant. A few seconds inside and this dark, laid-back and relaxed place becomes our favourite local! OK, OK; maybe it took slightly longer, up until we take the first sip of our beverages; Berlin Pils (served in a 1l glass) and a Bailey’s Piña Colada (in pretty much the same size glass). The cocktail is rich in taste and density and after the initial kick of Bailey’s fades away, the classic taste of Piña Colada emerges. Stronger than it tastes, it quickly spreads to my ears and eyelids and in next to no time I cannot imagine anything better than a late drink in this bar in Berlin, on a cold February night…
Modern buildings at Potsdamer Platz
Modern buildings at Potsdamer Platz

DAY 2: Foggy day on the East Side
Next morning we are back to the Eckstein Café Restaurant! It’s Valentine’s Day and the place is packed with romantic couples (of any gender) enjoying glasses of champagne, strawberries etc. The breakfast menu is equally as amazing as the cocktails one. Out of a variety of internationally inspired meals (Brussels breakfast with waffles, London with sausages…), we opt for the Paris option with croissants, jams and fruit and the Schöneberg one with hams, cheeses and bread rolls. Coffee is also delicious; with the right thickness and a pleasingly lingering aroma. The day is grey and misty, hostile gusts of wind are coming out of nowhere and the temperature is going downhill. We could easily spend the day in this café…but we have places to see and there are people outside waiting for a table…
First stop – 66. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin! There are long queues at the ticket selling points at the Potsdamer Platz but – I do not mind waiting. No way am I spending a few days in Berlin during the festival and not going to a show. A couple of tickets for the Bosnian movie “Death in Sarajevo” later (and a few souvenirs both for myself and my patient child) and I happily sit in Wien Café in the extremely busy and crowded Arkaden shopping centre sipping yet another strong coffee and munching a calorific cheese cake.
The afternoon is reserved for The East Side Gallery. These remains of the wall, painted over by international artists, are my favourite spot in Berlin. The colourful and playful images are also a fantastic homage to the history of this city. Since my last visit, a wall panel has been removed in order to give access to a newly-built flash apartment block on the river bank. An eyesore to its surroundings, this building is also a premonition for the future of this unique town – a future of expensive apartments that might not care so much for the heritage, culture and history…
The day is turning into murky dusk bringing along drops of cold rain and scores of smiling visitors are slowly walking off, in search of a warm refuge and a large drink… So do we. Our choice is the down-to-earth, loud and relaxed Italian eatery La Vespa opposite the Hackescher Markt station where we remain for the best part of the evening. A mix of Italian meaty and vegetarian antipasti, pastas for 4 adults and a child, glasses of wine and beers added up to slightly less than 70 Euros…
The famous kiss
The famous kiss

DAY 3 – The Zoo and Merkel’s important visitor
The youngest member of our travelling team gets her day on Monday as it is exclusively booked for the Zoologischer Garten, the largest Zoo in the world with the greatest number of animal specimens, and the Aquarium. This is not only my daughter’s first visit to a Zoo – but it’s also mine! And while she is extra-excited, I am slightly apprehensive…
But first a quick breakfast at the Maxway café, just outside the Nollendorfplatz station. The croissants are in fact so tasty (and still slightly warm) that our six years old scoffs two without taking a break or a breath in between. Chocolate muffins with a soft cheese topping are equally delicious, the scone/muffin combo is not a big bakery success but the Kaffee is – natürlich – marvellously tasty.
There are no queues and no crowds at the Zoo and for the first hour it feels like we have the whole place for ourselves. As the weather stubbornly remains in its murky and icy mode, we zigzag through the Zoo by alternating outside spaces with the indoor rooms. The habitats are meticulously designed and each of the animal species truly looks at home in their area. My daughter is obsessed with felines and the carnivore house is her favourite place. Apart from a pacing and nervous lioness, all the other big cats are either sleeping or digesting their food. Luckily, the chimpanzees and other primates are in a more playful mood. My personal favourite is the polar bear – a solitary yet majestic figure slowly patrolling his territory.
The Nocturnal house and the Aquarium did not grab too much of our young tour guide's attention so we quickly absorb those and finish our tour with a visit to the Rhino house. Totally fascinated by the size of these animals we count the seconds to see how long they can stay under water (much longer than you think). Their life seems to pass in slow motion – they slowly dive, slowly swim or waddle across the swimming pool of quite dirty, mucky yellowy water, then poke out their noses and open their large jaws for a breath, a yawn or a hiccup.

The animal feeding routines will have to wait for some future occasion as we have already gone well into the afternoon and past our own feeding times. The terrace café at the top floor of the Bikini shopping centre that overlooks the chimpanzee area sounded like a perfect place for lunch; and hopefully we can also have another glimpse of the playful animals. Reaching it turns into a challenge. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in the nearby Waldorf Astoria and the area is blocked off with police in uniforms of various colours and ranks. Streets are lined back to back with green and blue police vans and police officers are re-directing us (and scores of other tourists) around the cordoned-off area; never losing their patience, kindness and smiles.
After seven streets and seven flights of escalators and internal and external staircases we finally reach the place. Instead of the drinks-only viewing terrace we are seated in the restaurant on the other side.
So, all of that and no chimpanzees after all…
We are handed the menus. Followed by more-or-less this conversation with the waitress:
“Do you have children’s options?”
“Would you be able to make a ciabatta (ciabatta sandwiches are on the menu) with some plain cheese (there is cheese burger, so surely they have some cheese!) for her?”
“Let me check in the kitchen…”
Five minutes later.
“I’m sorry but no, we cannot make it…”
“OK, I will give her some of our food… I don’t know maybe some bread and…”
“Sorry I forgot to mention…Today we do not have burgers, we do not have sandwiches, we do not have halloumi…”
Glancing through the menu we realised that that leaves us with a few obscure options; including quinoa salad, which I doubt my six year old would eat…
And no food either…
After profoundly and extensively apologising, we grab our coats, drag our extremely hungry child and walk out. From the organic nouvelle cuisine eatery we descend to the restaurant “Kartoffelkiste” in the Europacenter, an authentic local tavern offering “Berliner Spezialitäten”. Three Franconian sausages (with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes), mixed grill with chips and a children’s portion of schnitzel and chips and we are all full and happy again.
The same evening, Francy invites us for a dinner at hers; serving sausages and sauerkraut and mashed potatoes – well, you can never get enough of a good thing…

DAY 3 – The movie, the DDR and the good old Nivea

Our child still blissfully asleep in the other room with her favourite “teta”, we are off to the Friedrichstadt-Palast and the Danis Tanovi? movie “Death in Sarajevo”.
Despite it being extremely chilli and foggy, and very early (the show starts at 9.30am), both the queues for the entrance and at the last moment ticket kiosk are reaching triple figures over half an hour before the film. We don’t join them – we have tickets and do not have any preference where we sit – and instead grab a quick coffee and a waffle in a miniature café on the other side of the road.
I enjoy the movie, although I am not sure I like it. The cinematography is amazing and the plot is clever. I like the camera work; for most of the movie it simply follows the main characters from the back around a shady Hotel Europa. The story unfolding around them is the real thing; they are just mere observers, just like us in the comfortable seats of the modern auditorium. Close ups are used for the TV interviews about the historic importance (or versions thereof) of the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo that set off the first world war and altered the course of the last century. Here the camera zooms in to indicate characters’ anger, apprehensions, emotional cracks and doubts… And when the female news anchor and Gavrilo Princip (a Serbian with the same name as the original assassin) take their heated discussion to the TV cameras within the film, both the light and the movie camera stays the same – bright and face on; but are their views really so different that they are unable to find common ground? The dialogue between the two, although incredibly well acted, was in my opinion far too political. But then again – almost all movies coming from that part of the world (from “my” part of the world) are openly political; as if they still need to shout loud, to show the world what has been going on over there. Anyway – the Berlinale has never been shy to demonstrate its political engagement and opinion. And – not surprisingly – “Death in Sarajevo” won the Silver Lion!

Friedrichstadt Palast
Friedrichstadt Palast

After the movie – still not midday – we head well into East Berlin and the Prenzlauer Berg for a quick coffee in my favourite place from the last visit – the Liebling Café. I am relieved that the café is still as charming as it was two years ago; welcoming all kinds of clientèle; the digital bohemians, new mothers with sleeping (or not) babies in prams, and occasional tourists.
In the Restaurant Winterfeld, just outside our apartment, we reunite with the other two members of our travelling ensemble. The lunch offer of any pizza or pasta for €6.50 is very attractive and we opt for ravioli filled with spinach in a vegetable sauce, a spicy pizza, chicken in mushroom sauce and creamy “bambino” spaghetti. And all of that, plus drinks and a crème brûlée for our youngest tourist (who did not enjoy the pasta as there were pieces of onions inside the sauce…) for a very reasonable €40.
A tourist attraction I did not visit when last in Berlin, but it has always been high on my list – even more so after watching the spy series Deutschland 83 – is the DDR museum. It also seems the right place to satisfy the diverse curiosities of our family members. My other half can read about the history and the political structure of a communist establishment, our (almost) six year old can browse through the items illustrating everyday life and myself – well, I can compare it to the life in the communist country of my youth…
A small museum but cleverly organised, DDR depicts various aspects of life in the former East Germany. The real-size, brown-toned living room with the retro armchairs and the kitchen featuring advanced appliances and cupboards aplenty did not look much different from a room of a better-off family across Western Europe in the seventies (according to my other half), while some of us from the poor parts of Eastern Europe could only have dreamt of a house like this. I enjoy browsing through the wardrobe containing ladies' clothes from those days – the psychedelic patterns and the vintage designs are not bad at all.
From the area dedicated to everyday life we move to the interrogation room and the jail, finishing the tour with the panels describing the history and the structure of the party and communist ideas. Yes – we have been there. No – it did not work. The weirdest thing I found was the wall dedicated to nudism; people living in the GDR liked getting rid of their clothes and discussing politics, the future and other matters of paramount importance… And the highlight for our youngest traveller was pretending to drive a Trabant with images of streets on the windscreen…
Driving the trabant
Driving the trabant

Further down Unter den Linden is the gigantic Nivea store. Until the age of 18 I never saw any other cream apart from the good-for-everything Nivea in the blue metal box and even these days my bathroom cupboards are full of various products by this brand! I buy a present for my mother-in-law (an eau de toilette) and a few other creams for the rest of us. At the till I get a special discount of 20%. The cashier scans through her store card a couple of times and my bill comes up much lower than I expected. Not sure why. Maybe because I did not complain about waiting or when a woman jumped the queue in front of me. Or maybe just because she wanted to make someone’s day… Whatever reason; a really nice touch from the Good old Nivea…
Our last stop of the day is the café Lebensart opposite the entrance to the U-Bahn at the Brandenburger Tor. And what a difference to our “local” cafés at Nollendorfplatz! The service is appalling (we cannot catch the waiter’s attention either to order or to pay) and the prices are astronomical – 1 cappuccino, 1 not-so-good espresso and an ice tea comes to €8. Later on (in fact when I was going through the notes for this piece) I looked at the bill and realised that something was not right. Even with my modest, “tourist” German I can understand that “Kuchen” charged at €3.60 is not the Icetee that my daughter drank… And I clearly remember what she ordered after a longish version of the “eeny meeny mo” between milk, orange juice and ice tea! In the rush to get a tired and grumpy child ready, pick up all our items of clothing, souvenirs and various other things I did not glance at the bill… Conclusion: the places close to tourist attractions are the same everywhere in the world; unfriendly, expensive and with a tendency to cheat you out of more cash. Ah well, this café will definitely not be on our future itineraries…

DAY 4 – Auf Wiedersehen on a snowy evening

With our flight late afternoon, we still have time for a morning stroll around this incredible city. The temperatures are unfailingly low but the fog has lifted and bright sunshine has taken over. We start at Potsdamer Platz and after a few wrong turns and a short detour into a surprisingly empty shopping centre (unseen in London) we reach the Jewish memorial, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag…

Profiteroles at Boccacelli
Profiteroles at Boccacelli

For lunch we return to “our” neighbourhood. The walls of the Italian restaurant “Boccacelli” are decorated with pictures of famous people who have dined here, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. The lunch deal offers any pizza or pasta, a glass of wine and an espresso for €8. Not surprisingly the place is filled with business people from surrounding offices… Gnocchi with chicken in a rich pesto sauce are a real discovery for me. I never thought of putting those three ingredients together but will definitely make it at home. At least for myself as the “green mass” on my plate does not attract too much enthusiasm from other members of my family. The generous portion of white and dark chocolate profiteroles satisfies the post-lunch sugar craving in all 4 of us.
By the time we’ve checked in our suitcase, bought our last souvenirs and are relaxing in the airport café, the weather takes a sudden turn and large snowflakes descend fast and thick. The visibility fells to zero and our flight gets delayed. But nothing can spoil our good mood…
There is something very welcoming and very addictive about this city. It has the charm, the art, it has the friendliness which – I have to admit – I have not encountered in any other of European capitals that I visited. And it doesn’t remind me of any other. It has that X factor that makes it unique on the map of Europe. I could never find an answer to the question: Is it the city that attracts certain kind of people or is it the people that make the city the way it is? Whatever the order; Berlin seemed to have found the right balance. It’s a happy city of happy people; fully aware of its history but not overpowered by it. Instead – it’s truly living in its vibrant present, aware that the future starts here…
Oh, I am already looking forward to my next visit…