A Weekend in Berlin
2019 so far has been a bit brutal for me as I’ve been dealing with a trapped nerve since New Year’s Day. Although it is much improved it’s still not right, I’m still stuffing myself with drugs and still can’t do much other than swim; sometimes even walking too much sets it off (trainers on at all times).
The countdown is on to finishing work, however the pressure of finding a good replacement is quite stressful and with only 6 weeks to go, going away last weekend was just what I needed.
As a history buff I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin, I’ve read a lot about the history of the Great War and World War II, and of course the Holocaust. We finally got to go last weekend after Ian surprised me with a trip there for Christmas.
Arriving early evening on the Friday, we decided to make the most of our time and go out for a few hours straight away. Our hotel, The Hilton, was right on the Gendarmenmarkt and only a short stroll from The Brandenburg Gate, so we explored both of those in the dark that evening. The Gendarmenmarkt is home to the Berlin Concert Hall and the French Cathedral, both an introduction to the beautiful architecture you can see around Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate was, in Ian’s words “a lot smaller than he thought”. It was still striking though, especially at night.
On our first full day, we decided to rely on that old faithful, the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tour. We walked down to Check Point Charlie from our hotel. We had been warned in advance that it was just a tourist trap, and indeed it is. It’s not even the original hut (that’s in a museum elsewhere) and there is no wall left standing there either, just some actors dressed as guards, with whom you can have your photo taken. There is a line of cobblestones where the wall once stood. It’s this, rather than the imitation hut and stalls selling inappropriate fake military items, that makes you realise what we all know Check Point Charlie for.
The bus takes you back past the Gendarmenmrkt and then down through the city, to the Alexanderplatz and back across Museum Island, down to Brandenburg Gate, where we got off to see the Reichstag Building (German Parliament Building) I was expecting a great big glass building, from the photos I’d seen, however, this exists only inside the beautiful stone exterior. It’s possible to go inside the Reichstag building and inside the dome itself, but the lovely weather had brought everyone out, and the queues were looooong. However venturing round the back of the main building we found some fab photographic fodder…
As the weather was so good, after an alfresco coffee and Twix (well, we’d indulged at the breakfast buffet that morning), we opted to walk through the Tiergarten. This is Berlin’s largest park, and rivals New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park. We re-joined the bus tour at the Victory Column (this commemorates the Prussian-Danish war) and finished the circular route a few stops from where we started, at Potsdamer Platz.
Potsdamer is a perfect example of the regeneration that Berlin has experienced since the wall came down. Its history as an important junction goes way back, but it was virtually flattened during WWII. Once the wall went up it was the widest point in Berlin’s death strip, a massive wasteland. It stayed that was until 1990, when shortly after the wall opened, the former no man’s land between Potsdamer and Pariser Platz witnessed what was then the largest rock concert in history. Amid the ruins of the wall, head of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters and his band played the legendary concert “The Wall”. Potsdamer is now a busy hub of shopping, eating and entertainment, but its history is still evident.
From Potsdamer we moved on to our final stop for the day, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The Memorial is the German Holocaust Memorial honouring and remembering the up to six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the Field of Stelae stand above a subterranean Information Centre which documents the persecution and extermination of European Jewry as well as the historic sites of the crimes.
When we went to the 9/11 memorial in the US I was struck by how it seemed to be something that people just went to to tick off the list, and I found the 9/11 museum to be much more moving.
This didn’t feel like that, even though some people were sitting on it - a cause of much discussion about respect on Trip Advisor and Google. Sitting on it peacefully, in the sun, seemed somehow fitting, it’s not like people were climbing on it. It is disturbingly beautiful, and very disorienting when you walk through it - it is supposed to create the feeling of loneliness and confusion. The one thing that did jar was the handful of students taking smiley selfies in front of it. The queue for the information centre was long here too, so we decided not to visit in the end.
We ended our day with a reflective walk back to the hotel and a quiet few hours (and a few appletinis) in the bar before dinner.
One of the things I love about going away is researching restaurants beforehand, and this trip was no exception. Volt is housed in a modernised 1920s substation by the canal in Kreuzkölln. The setting is beautiful and the decor simple - exposed brick work and pipes - and yet it maintains a warm, intimate feeling that some modern restaurants don’t manage.
The menu is very small - there is 5 Course set taster menu (and a 5 course vegetarian menu) which you can choose or you can pick individual courses from that menu.
We opted for the taster menu with matching wine flight (you knew we would didn’t you?). It was fantastic.
Any restaurant that can make me eat kale (even if it was fried) and an entire dish made of cabbage deserves an award. All ingredients are locally sourced where possible but surprisingly not all the wines were German (not that I can remember what they were, as we forgot to take notes). The restaurant is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in Berlin.
Having worked out how compact Berlin is, and as the weather was so unseasonably warm, we decided on Sunday morning to walk to the East Side Gallery. After London, Berlin felt so quiet, even at 10am on a Sunday London is busy, but we barley saw another soul as we walked along the canal. The walk made us notice how much you can still tell the difference between the two halves of Berlin. The drab, communist-era, concrete buildings in the east of the city are still very much in evidence, and although there is a lot of regeneration happening which is great to see, many of the neighbourhoods have retained their pre-unification identities.
The East Side Gallery is the largest outdoor gallery in the world. One of Berlin’s best known landmarks,1.3km of the original wall was painted on the Eastern side in 1990 when the wall fell. It has been subjected to vandalism over the years, and in 2009 there was a controversial repaint in time for the 20th anniversary, however currently the paintings seem to be free of graffiti and erosion. The west side is covered in graffiti and the two are seemingly co-existing for now.
I hope that this part of the wall isn’t forgotten and left to crumble. As their website says,
“The Gallery is understood as a monument to the fall of the wall and the peaceful resolution of boundaries and conventions between companies and people. It is still the only authentic monument of reunification in over 20 years”.
After last night’s high brow culinary experience, it was time for Currywurst and beer. Ian (and many others) had been insistent that we must have this traditional feast, although I can’t say I was inspired by the description of Bratwurst covered in a “curry flavoured ketchup”. By the time we got to have it I was so hungry I would probably have eaten my own left arm covered in curry flavoured ketchup, but I have to say it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, although I didn’t have the beer, I left that to Ian.
Our final stop in Berlin was the Topography of Terror, a documentation centre on the site where once stood the office of the Gestapo, their “house prison” and the Reich Security from 1933 to 1945.
One of the most notorious locations of Nazi brutality, many of the buildings were destroyed in WWII. The site has been left completely flat with a new building housing the documentation centre. The cellar rooms of a former SS mess hut and the remains of a prison yard wall have been preserved, and the grounds contain two additional monuments: the foundation remains of the Gestapo headquarters’ “house prison” (which have not been excavated and which remain a surface monument marked by gravel) and the Berlin Wall Monument – approximately 200 meters of the Berlin Wall that have been preserved on Niederkirchnerstraße.
The centre focuses on the institutions of the SS and the police of the Third Reich and their crimes, which doesn’t make it a lighthearted place to visit, it is a very text heavy exhibition and there are photos which make it unsuitable for very young children, although once again there were many students there on tour.
The main thing I took from it was the feeling of how honest Berliners are about their past. There was no glossing over the history, no re-writing or justification. I wish that we had had more time to do the documentation centre justice. However much I have read about the subject, there is always more to learn; Berlin's twentieth century history is overwhelming, but sadly our time in Berlin had run out.
We will be back some day.
We stayed at The Hilton Berlin, which has a great location for all the things you will want to see. It’s right next to the Gendarmenmarkt, so especially good if you are going for the Christmas Market. We don’t usually stay in large chain hotels but this was perfect for what we needed, (and it had happy hour in the executive lounge between 6pm and 8pm!).
If you'd like to see more photos from our trip, click on the Photo Album link at the top of the page.