Berlin – April

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The Quadriga and Victoria atop the Brandenburg Gate.

A week in Berlin. Only my second visit to Germany. The first was a disastrous week to Cologne; it was bitterly cold, rained incessantly and I had the ‘flu. We went on a train ride up the Rhine to Rüdesheim, which seemed to be having a day’s holiday and absolutely everywhere was closed. Even the siren at the Lorelei looked as though she had had better days! I will return one day

So, with more than a little trepidation of being twice disappointed, I booked flights to Berlin and accommodation via Airbnb. I need not have been so worried. It was a lovely break and one to share with you all.

Staying in East Berlin brings with it different connotations for someone who grew up amidst the wranglings of the Cold War and the subsequent unification of Germany. In truth, there was a greater choice of accommodation in the East. We stayed on Am Friedrichshain, a two-minute walk from the tram stop on Greifwalder Strasse. It was a top-floor, two-bedroomed, penthouse apartment with a fantastic view from the balcony over the VolksPark and  out towards the Leonardo Hotel. In the mornings, it was a two minute walk to the backerei on the corner for fresh croissants and rolls  and thirty seconds away from incredibly good pasta at the San Angelo Italian restaurant. I’m not sure it could have been any more ideal.

To the north east lies the rather trendy area of Friedrichshain with its pavement cafes and upmarket restaurants. In the summer, it blossoms into the world of cafe culture and attracts not only tourists but also the eclectic Berlin crowd of artists, writers and university students.Go west and further into  East Berlin and you start to see and feel the grey of the utilitarian apartment blocks that are the legacy of Russian domination for so many years.

We caught a tram further out into the suburbs, mainly to see the prospekts but there was little to hold us there. Most of our time was spent between Friedrichshain and the main centre of Berlin. For this, we relied on the typically-efficient tram service. It was never late. It was never early. It was always there; clean, modern and very busy. Purchase one of the Berlin Welcome five-day passes and, for a little more than 30 euros a head for the week, we had unlimited travel.

The Volkspark

The Volkspark is the oldest park in Berlin. It’s not as large as the Tiergarten, but you don’t feel the presence of major routes cutting through it as you do off the Unter der Linden. It dates back to 1840 and provides a 52 hectare patch of green for local families to walk dogs, run, cycle and generally enjoy some quiet time. The Marchenbrunnen, the Fairy Tale Fountain, has been restored and is surrounded by 106 statues of characters from Germanic fairy tales. It was a ‘park of choice’ for most mornings, just to take the air and prepare for a heavy day’s sightseeing.

Unter der Linden / The Brandenburg Gate / The Victory Column.

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The Victory Column

However you get there, it seems eminently sensible to start at the far end of the Unter der Linden and walk down the Brandenburg gate and then down the Strasse des 17th Juin to the Seigessaule, the Victory Column. The Unter der Linden cuts through the Tiergarten, so this route can be a whole day’s outing.

It’s a good opportunity to stretch the legs and cover your daily 10,000 paces. We started at Alexanderplatz and walked west.

Unter der Linden – under the Linden trees. It’s Berlin’s answer to The Mall, or to the Champs Elysee. It’s a street that evokes memories from black and white films; of carriage rides and of romantic couples slowly making their way through a Berlin spring afternoon.

In reality, never mind a bad day, we’d picked a bad year! Whatever they were doing in the middle of the road, it involved hoardings, barriers, pile drivers, lorries and scaffolding. The entire length of the Unter der Linden was a building site. Apparently, it’s not a five-minute job, either. Contributors to Tripadviser paint a bleak picture of roadworks continuing until 2025.

However, don’t let this put you off. Walk up the right-hand side and you’ll still be able to enjoy fine architecture and a substantial number of interesting stores and buildings: the Crown Prince’s Palace, the Neue Wache war memorial, the Berlin State Opera the Humboldt University, the Hotel Adlon, the Russian and Hungarian Embassies and the Mercedes dealership. Apart from the quality and cost of what is displayed in its front window, the back of the showroom houses a fascinating free museum on the history of the Mercedes-Benz automobile.

Eventually you reach the Brandenburg gate. It’s 18th century and one of the best-known landmarks in Germany. It’s actually the start of the Unter der Linden if you’re walking it east to west. Never one to conform, there’s a clear advantage in walking it in reverse. This way you can go on to the Siegessaule, the Victory Tower.

The Brandenburg Gate is incessantly busy. It always seems to be full of tourists who take an inordinate amount of time to take their selfies or have themselves photographed framed within its arch. In the old days of photographic film, chemists the world over must have been heartily sick of post-summer developing. Endless photographs of the same place with the only change being the nationality of the person in shot, if not necessarily in focus. There must be a Top 10 of these locations.

  1. Trying to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa
  2. Wearing the Eiffel Tower
  3. Pointing at Big Ben
  4. Holding Mont St, Michel on the palm of your hand
  5. Trying to do a ‘Princess Di’ outside the Taj Mahal
  6. Miming a chariot race around the Circus Maximus…

I’ll let you finish your own list. Sad to say, I’m definitely guilty of five of these. Haven’t been to India yet….but as Ace Roman Reporter, Borus Rigid, I had a great afternoon in Rome miming scenes from Ben Hur a la ‘Pythonesque knights with no horses’

Let’s all praise the arrival of digital cameras!

Anyway, back to the Brandenburg Gate. It is impressive, despite the crowds. The quadriga, the four horses that adorn the top of the gate and the figure of the goddess Eirene,  dated from 1793 and face east. Over time, parts have been damaged, lost or changed. The figure now is Victoria, complete with Prussian eagle and Iron Cross on her lance. Originally it was a gate for the sole use of the Royal Family and later came to be the symbol of power during Nazi Germany. It was badly damaged in World War 2 but restored during the Cold War.

On the 22nd December 1989, it was reopened to the whole of Berlin and became the symbol of freedom and unification that it is today, unless, of course, you are in a vehicle. Today, all traffic is banned and the whole platz that surrounds the arch is a traffic-free zone.  For the hordes of tourists that flock to it whatever the season, whatever the weather and whatever the time of day or night, it’s ideal.

Carrying on along the Strasse des 17 Juin, the other side of the Brandenburg gate takes you down a long, straight boulevard as far as the Victory Column.

Every country in the World seems to find it necessary, at some point or other in their history, to erect a Victory Column. From one of the earliest in Istanbul that dates back as far as 478BC to one of the most recent, the four columns of Barcelona, erected in 2010. Berlin’s Victory Column dates from 1873 and commemorates the Prussian victory against the Danes, the Austrians and the French in their three separate, but chronologically rather close, engagements.

The entire column is 220 feet tall and on top is a fine gilded statue of, once again,  Victoria. There is a viewing platform at the top which provides an excellent panoramic view of this part of the city. The statue stands on an island but fortunately, a series of underpasses provides pedestrian access. This was the work of Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer. Certainly a better idea than some of the others he had.

The figure on the top, known to liberating Soviet solders in 1945 as ‘the tall woman’, featured in U2’s music video ‘Stay‘ and in Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987) as the place where angels congregated.

The Olympic Stadium

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The Olympic Stadium

The Olympiastadion lies on the U2 or S5 transit routes near Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. Originally built for the 1936 Olympics, it stands as an iconic example of German architecture. You arrive at the site via the metro stop that has retained many of its original features and is quite an eerie place. The walk to the stadium takes you across a vast paved area and then you are greeted with Speer’s widely recognised and infamous celebration to the power of Fascist Germany. The Stadium has been renovated and extended but what remains still invokes the images of Jessie Owens and the 1936 games and the stand occupied by Hitler and his political associates.

Take time to walk round the site and sit in the stands. The atmosphere is almost palpable. The fallen Bell, which used to hang in a tower visible from  anywhere in Berlin, now rests on a plinth, cracked and silent for eternity. I call the youth of the world and ‘Olympic Games 1936′ sit inscribed between the Olympic rings and the swastika.

We visited in April and had the place entirely to ourselves.

Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall

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Checkpoint Charlie – oh, the disappointment

Although the Wall is down, I was surprised to find how many sections still stand as a monument to what was such a difficult and significant time in Germany’s political history. In total there is still about 2 kilometers of wall standing.

You can visit the wall in a number of localities around Berlin. We chose a few different spots.

The East Side Gallery is located at Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain Kreuzberg. This is a one kilometre stretch adorned with the work of modern artists from 1990 and again from 2009.

However, the most atmospheric stretch was by the Topography of Terror Museum, built on the site of the Gestapo headquarters on Niederkirchnerstraße. It’s silent and sinister and brings together these two dreadful chapters in Germany’s recent history.

Finally, the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre on  Bernauer Straße is unusual in that there is an elevated platform which allows you to appreciate the horrors of the ‘death strip’, the double fortifications in between which you would be shot if attempting to cross from east to west.

Checkpoint Charlie was the biggest disappointment of the whole visit. Brought up on a diet of John Le Carre and Harry Palmer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was still horribly disappointed. It stands in the middle of the street at the junctions between Friedrichstrasse, Zimmerstrasse and Mauerstrasse. The famous signage is there, informing you that you are leaving the American sector, but somehow, it doesn’t look authentic, which it isn’t. Irritation number 1.

In front of the checkpoint are two soldiers. Only they’re not. Irritation number 2. Tourists, mainly women and children (I’m not sure why this is), wait patiently to pose to have their photographs taken with the soldiers, who then point the way to the donation box.

And everywhere is McDonalds! Irritation number 3. The symbol of the golden arches sits like a veritable Colossus astride the point where east meets west. And west has dominated and won. The whole place feels tacky and commercialised.

I’m sorry, but if you had told me that it’s now part of the Disney empire, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

To one side, and almost hidden behind the swathes of tourists is a museum to the escapees who attempted or made the journey from east to west. . It was more than worth the visit to stand mesmerised at the photographic records and the stories of the escapees. Poignant images of all the young men and woman who sacrificed so much for a life in the west. Unsuccessful, it was a choice between their lives or liberty; successful, they left their families behind and out of contact for so many years. Some would have said goodbye and would never see loved ones alive again.

The Reichstag, Museum Island and the Television Tower

Three places to visit and all close by. The Reichstag building is notoriously busy all year and tickets need to be bought in advance if you wish to avoid the queues. Like any municipal bundling, the level of security is intense, so expect airport-style scanners and don;t bother taking even the smallest of bags with you. It’s the home of the German parliament since 1991, hence the need for such security. The view from the cupola is worth the visit. I’d imagine it’s even more spectacular at night.

The Reichstag sits at the entrance to Museum Island. in the middle of the River Spree. It’s an interesting idea, grouping major museums together on an island and, in itself, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Even if you can’t face endless hours looking at Nefertiti’s bust, walk around the islands, the architecture alone is worth the effort. The island is home to the Pergamon, Bode, Neues and Altes museums as well as the Alte Nationalgalerie. Anyone in their right mind will be ‘museum-ed out’ by the end of, what will definitely be, a long day.  Mind you, when it rains…….

The Fernsehturm, or Television Tower, is a grand landmark for tourists. It rises above the city streets to a heady 1207 feet and was constructed in the late 60s and is the fourth tallest freestanding structure in Europe. The three others are i Moscow, Riga and Kiev. The east certainly felt the need to build tall to keep an eye on the west. There is a revolving restaurant in the ‘bubble’, if you are the right side of being an acrophobic.

A visit to the butchers

Butchers’ shops in Berlin are not simply purveyors of raw meat. I’ve lost count of how many varieties of German sausage there are. It must stretch well into three figures. Butchers’ shops are also cafes…of sorts.

Now, Mrs Haye is not a great meat-eater. What meat she allows to pass over her taste-buds must be lean and have a clearly identifiable provenance. Outside of that, it’s a curl of the upper lip, a shudder and an involuntary gag. Brought up in a country family where a surfeit of rabbits had marked a war-time diet, it was meat that was recognisable and lean or no meat at all.

On the other hand, being brought up in Manchester of the early 50s meant that I was not far from the world of post-war rations. The UCP  (United Cattle Products)  tripe shop on Market Street provided tea for most Saturday evenings. In the 1950s, there were 146 tripe restaurants in the north of England alone. Honeycomb tripe boiled in milk and onion,  chitterlings, black elder, lung and brawn were all highly-prized for a Saturday evening menu. Offal was highly regarded and, for many, a staple dish. Chicken was astronomically expensive and beef or pork joints were reserved for Sunday lunch. Cheaper cuts: shin, blade or oxtail were eeked out using cows’ heel and marrow into a sticky and glutinous stew accompanied by suet dumplings. Lard, potted beef, spam and corned beef made up the interiors of sandwiches for school lunches, for high-days and for holidays.

You can imagine that Currywurst did not go down too well. Steamed then fried pork sausage (or ‘lymph and lung’ as she described it to me) is served with curry-flavoured tomato ketchup and with or without french fries from nearly every street stall throughout the city. It is delicious.

Popping into a butchers’ / cafe one lunchtime, I made the mistake of ordering Frankfurter Wurstchen for  two. Out came two polystyrene dishes in which were placed six rather pink and uniform in colour sausages, two squares of white bread, a little past their best and two wooden forks.

We sat at the counter that ran along the back wall of the shop, moving the daily papers to one side and wiping the remnants of mustard and tomato sauce off the Formica with a paper napkin,  I prepared to tuck in.

Like Lot’s wife, I should have resisted the temptation to glance sideways at my own better half. The lip was on maximum curl and the throat muscles were moving into the gag reflex position. In the same way as you never self-diagnose by searching the internet, so you should never Google Frankfurter Wurstchen before you are about to eat them. Better to wait until the same evening, or preferably a few hours later when the taste has subsided.

The Frankfurter Würstchen (little Frankfurter sausage) is a thin, boiled sausage of pure pork in a casing of sheep’s intestine. The special taste is acquired by a special method of smoking the pork. They are not normally cooked; they are traditionally heated in hot water for about eight minutes. Traditionally, they are served with bread, mustard, horseradish and / or potato salad. 

That was enough. Sliding adroitly off the stool, she made a bolt for the open door and the fresh air of the precinct leaving me to contemplate eating all six by myself.

I do like them, which is a good job considering,  although they do tend to repeat their rather smokey back taste for the next few hours or so. Frankfurter Wurstchen – the gift that kept on giving!

Bierkellers and eating out

I had a distinct perception of the function and purpose of beer in Berlin. I had also imagined that the city would have a Bierkeller on every corner. Actually, in Mitte, the rather upmarket central area, this isn’t the case, at all. By the station, there is a Bierkeller, the Hofbrau Munchen Berlin, that would seat an entire football crowd, compete with costumed waitresses, endless big screen televisions and wooden benches. Beyond that, Berlin seemed to be more interested in providing chic bars and nightlife clubbing.

Perhaps we were just unlucky? It was a little too early for cafe-culture, the weather was rather fresh. However, I was a tad disappointed that the Oompah bands failed to put in an appearance and I didn’t get to sing Eidelweiss with my arm around a corseted bosom.

This weekend, I’ve been conversing with an old friend about Rick Stein’s culinary travels to Bologna, a city in which my daughter spent a very happy year.  It struck me that I watch many food programmes delivered by cooks and chefs from all over the world, from motorcycling television presenters to irritating former White House staff members.

However, it’s clearly where they are that is important to me, not what they cook or what they eat. It struck me that this places me in an entirely different position to my old friend who relishes the subtleties of different wines and appreciates the gastronomy of the European continent.

This is probably why my memory of eating out in Berlin is somewhat limited. In particular two experiences stand out.

Having a prime position on Postsrasse with the motto ‘it’s all about the tubers’  is Kartoffelhaus No. 1. I fear it may be a chain, although their website only mentions Leipzig as home for a No. 2? It’s all things potato. A menu the thickness of a telephone directory offered anything and everything – as long as it was accompanied by potato. But not just any potato. This was potato done in so many ways it was impossible to decide. I eventually narrowed down my choice to two ingredients. One, of course had to be potato. The other was pork. Well, it was on the ‘P’ page and I’d lost the will to live by then.

Beer arrived promptly, as one would expect in Germany. Shortly afterwards, the waiters appeared behind plates so full the contents could have fed a regiment. I’m still wondering whether I should have said potato in the singular and whether it would have made any difference at all.

We waddled back to the apartment and struggled up the stairs, bloated and spud-ridden.

The second meal was at Las Malvinas. It’s an Argentinian steak restaurant in Barnimstrasse. I should have taken a moment to consider our current relationship with the archipelago and the significance of the name. Anyway, putting politics to one side, the promise of grass-fed steak was certainly a draw.

It was quiet for a Tuesday night. We were offered a table in the corner and ordered beer. After a while, we ordered another beer, and then another. After quite a while, a waitress came over and, rather apologetically, told us they had a power cut and they were not cooking that evening. Perhaps a notice on the door might have helped? Perhaps they might have mentioned it in passing when they brought the first, or the second, or the third beer? She seemed contrite and a little embarrassed, especially as we were tourists. Would we come back tomorrow? We would be guaranteed a warm welcome and the power would be one and they would be back in business.

It seemed churlish to refuse. The following evening we got ready and walked down to the restaurant. It was fairly full, but we could see that they had tables free. I’m not sure what had happened in the interim.Had they realised that we were British? Had the patron named the restaurant specifically because of his nationalist proclivities?

Either way, the food was dire. Everybody knows you need to rest steak after cooking. This steak had rested so long, it had retired. Just on the warm side of stone cold it sat unhappily on the plate alongside a jacket potato whose jacket was definitely last season’s. On top of everything was sour cream and organic sauerkraut. Lactose-fermented cabbage. However you dress it, they’re not my side dishes of choice.

And so, the cuisine of Berlin didn’t leave what might be termed as a ‘striking impression’. I’m sure that whether it were two hairy bikers, two fat ladies, one barefoot contessa or the delectable Nigella, they’d have made a far better job of it than me. As your roving Gastonomic Reporter, I’ll admit I’m an abject failure.

Time to move on…….

Wannsee

The Hauptbahnhof in Berlin is an engineering and architectural masterpiece. Sleek, spotlessly clean and uber-efficient.

We caught the train out to Wannsee. It’s an ancient place, dating back to 1219, although you’d be hard pushed to see. The two lakes stretch out and it’s obviously a holiday retreat as it has been for centuries.

Infamously, it was at the Wannsee Villa that Nazi chiefs met in 1942 to plan The Final Solution. The town itself is a straggling set of very private villas and a few shops that hug the lakeside or drift off into the nearby woods. We met a few dog walkers and saw a few delivery men but that was about it. It felt very much ‘out of season’.

Sanssouci and Cecilienhof

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Sanssouci
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Cecilienhof

Far more interesting for a day out is Sanssouci and Potsdam. Both are easily accessible by train from central Berlin.

Sanssouci is the former palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia and the inspiration for the Rufus Wainwright track of the same name. It’s a single storey villa with the most marvellous terraced gardens. Once again, we were a little too early in the season to see them at their best, but once the cordoned vines were in leaf, they would be magnificent and would superbly frame the long Rococo villa.

I think you visit Sanssouci for the gardens, the transquility and the adjacent park. The house itself is interesting, but that’s about all you can say about it.

The main reason for coming was to travel the short distance to Cecilienhof on the outskirts of Potsdam

Although referred to as a Palace, it’s feels as though its England abroad. Built between 1914 and 1917, it’s far larger than it first looks. It’s Neo-Classical, set amidst English-style gardens and was built as a residence for the last of the Hohenzollern dynasty, Wilhelm and Cecilie. It feels and looks like a Tudor mansion with its half-timbered walls and latticed windows.

More famously, it was the site for the signing of the Potsdam agreement when Stalin, Churchill and Truman met here just after VE Day in 1945. After the war it was used as a Soviet ‘clubhouse’, before being handed over to the state in 1952 as a memorial to the Potsdam Conference and the signing of the treaty.

Inside, you can visit the Conference room and see where the treaty was signed. Many of the images that we grew up with, of Churchill, Truman and Stalin sitting in cane chairs positing for photographs in July 1945 come to life as you walk the grounds and stand on the terrace.

It’s a special place.

Potsdam

We ended out visit with a day out in Potsdam. Although it’s part of the Berlin Metropolitan Borough, it’s also a capital in its own right. It’s the capital of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States. A scant hour out of Berlin by train, it feels totally different and has a charm of its own.

The town is compact but full of interesting shops and there is an area built in the Dutch style with distinctive designs reminiscent of Amsterdam. It happily occupied us for a day and it was straightforward enough to catch the late train back to Berlin and to start packing for home.

Berlin is easy to manage for a long weekend, a few days or a week. The transport system is more than efficient enough to use it as a stopping-off point for travelling longer and further.

However, now I need to plan a return trip to Cologne. I’ll leave it for when the sun is shining and I’m free of the bugs!

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The Wall
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The metro stop at the Olympic Stadium
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The monument to Russian Soldiers

 

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The Reichstag Building

“Thus it transpired that even Berlin could be mysterious. Within the linden’s bloom the streetlight winks. A dark and honeyed hush envelops us.” (Nabokov)

 

 

 

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