We’d been very comfortable and happy in Birmingham, UK for a few days, spending quality time with family and soaking up some good times in familiar pubs and restaurants. We were excited for the next leg of the trip though and our first ever visit to Berlin. An easy flight there and everything was beautifully simple and well organised. When we got off the plane, immigration and the luggage carousel were right there in front of us! Marie bought us 4 day travel passes at an airport kiosk, good for the underground (metro), buses, everything. You only have to swipe the pass once at the beginning, and that’s it. The metro stations turned out not to have any swipe barriers; all you have to do is make sure to have the pass on you if it’s ever checked by an inspector (which it never was). And with the pass you get discounts on most attractions. It was still light and sunny as we boarded a bus to the centre, and changed on a metro train to get to our hotel. Our local station was Spittelberg.
The Hotel Grimm was very nice, and quiet. It has a vague Brothers Grimm theme but needs a bit more fleshing out if you could really call it a proper theme hotel. It was about 9.30-10pm now. We had enough steam in us to look around for a bar or cafe but we couldn’t find much apart from a very low-fi Turkish sports bar. We were feeling disoriented a little, and Marie was wondering why we’d left Birmingham to come to a place that felt alien right now. We’d just kip down in the hotel though, get a good rest and explore tomorrow when everything was likely to be very different.
Day 1 –
And it was! By the end of today, we both loved Berlin and we’re very settled into having a blast over the next few days!
We’re sometimes inspired by watching travel programmes at home, often travel-food programmes. In Delicious Destinations with Andrew Zimmern, we’d written down some tips from the Berlin episode. This morning for breakfast we sought out Bakerie Siebert for a Berliner (famous jam doughnut; see JFK’s oft-quoted speech “I am a Berliner” when he more or less accidentally admits to being a jam doughnut) and coffee breakfast. It was a metro ride and a walk through beautiful streets in dappled sunlight, with local families doing their everyday thing. Not in touristy areas at all. We found the little bakery-cafe. One of the friendly women serving only spoke German or Spanish so I used my Spanish to order us up a plum and a cherry jam Berliner, and two cappuccinos. Very nice and light start, as we sat inside the charming and historic cafe.
We always like to go to a supermarket in new countries, and bought a couple of things (water and something like angel delight, an instant packet British pudding) at one.
We then got the metro to the touristy, central square of Alexanderplatz where we bought day tickets for one of the hop-on-hop-off tourist buses.
The tour bus took us down the main avenue, Unter Den Linten, which went by many of the impressive historical buildings, past big swish designer shops and to the Brandenberg Gate at the entrance to the Tierpark.
We got off in the area Charlottenberg where the Schloss Palace lies within tranquil grounds, and we had a coffee and apple cake. We simply enjoyed the grounds around the palace…
Then on the metro to one of the main Turkish areas (there are a lot of Turks in Berlin) and to try another place we had seen on the Zimmern show, Tadim, for donor kebabs. A tiny, basic place with outdoor seats in a busy area, the veal kebab wrap was absolutely delicious. Comparable and up there with the best schwarma we’d eaten too, just with different spices. We then walked down a long street to the Turkish market. Weather was hot and quite humid. We had some fresh, great baklava and just browsed and I took photos. The river (Spree) flanks the market, and people were also taking it easy and swan-watching. Randomly, there was an old sofa on the river bank which one couple decided to use.
We took a long walk back to the hotel, and refreshed. On the walk, a young girl with her family on the balcony of some apartments a couple of storeys up dropped her packet of handkerchiefs, so we made about three attempts to throw the tissues back up to them as they laughed and tried to catch them. Success on about the fourth attempt. Little things are fun to remember on a holiday!
Then back out to the oldest beer garden in Berlin, Prater. We’d bought bottled water but you can’t take your own liquids in so we had to give it up at the entrance but the nice staff said we could get it on the way out. We noticed some took their own picnics in though!
There’s also the Prater restaurant in the garden, for more formal eating. We were happy with informal tonight. It was a wonderful night, and we enjoyed bratwurst and pretzels and beers (which you buy at stalls). I was writing notes by this time. I’m not exactly sure when it started, but I developed a really sore throat about now and my voice was getting very gravelly towards the end of each day. I got a cold too, but no fever at all so it was just a case of resting my voice. A lot of the time, I would be writing little notes to Marie so it was a bit weird but it worked!
A Jack Russell, with a couple at a table next to us, stared wishfully at our food but at the end of the night the couple finally fed him his own bratwurst meal (he left the saurkraut!).
Day 2 –
We went out at about 10am and found a little cafe for breakfast that I saw online a few weeks ago, Cafe 1900. It was small and very quaint. We went for a typical Northern European cold meats, cheeses and fruit platter.
We thought we were near our next chosen destination, Tiergarten, which is a park/gardens with a zoo. We were quite a distance away, but as always Marie did some brilliant navigating to get us there on the metro.
Tiergarten turned out to be the most amazing zoo we’ve ever been to in many ways! We love the New York zoos – including the Bronx, of course – but they’re always crowded and you vie with many punters (especially kids) to look at the animals. At Tiergarten it was so easy-going, with very few people around and even most of those just there to relax in the park.
We started by watching a porcupine climb endearingly and awkwardly down a tree, and addled on over to us. He kept going around in circles and dipping his paw uncertainly in the little pool, almost looking for attention from us. The fence was very low and we could observe him from only a few feet away, the only other person around was a young woman on a lounger typing something on her laptop.
Many of the animals today almost seemed to be performing!
At the bears enclosure, the cub climbed up a tree and the mother seemed to be shouting and having a fight with the father for letting the baby get up there. A real family drama.
It was in reality more of a large, beautiful park that just happened to have animals that in most instances people weren’t paying much attention to.
Marie suggested we see the lemurs soon, and added that it’s supposed to be interactive. We were amazed that on entering it’s just you and the lemurs!! No perspex wall, no fences, just the lemurs chilling in trees above your head! We’d brought leftovers from breakfast, and we sat on a bench nearby to eat them. Suddenly three or four lemurs surrounded us, obviously wanting our food. They let us pet them, with expressions that clearly stated “okay, you can pet us I guess but we really wanted food”. We couldn’t believe we were petting lemurs, something they only allowed John Cleese to do because he’s a celebrity and was making a special tv programme!
Later, the same thing with the kangaroos! We didn’t pet the kangaroos but there was nothing separating you and them.
We ate a toblerone ice cream, watched many more animals and wandered down to the palatial summer retreat also in the gardens.
Next, to the East Side Gallery, the almost one mile stretch of remains of the Berlin Wall, and now decorated in murals. This was fascinating too.
The sun was beating down, and we needed a welcome break and vanilla shake at a McDonalds next.
For our evening meal, we went to the Federal District where amongst bland formal buildings there was a Parisian-style cafe we’d looked up, called Cafe No! A wine bar and cosy, historic looking place, we started at a “high top” table, on stools, and we were still sweating. We moved to a small and cooler, low table and really enjoyed a sour cream flatbread pizza and veal sausage and a mint tinted ice-wine I think! We liked the place very much, though Berlin could sometimes do with better air-conditioning!
Day 3 –
Today we would be doing the concentration camp tour. The only one near Berlin is Sachsausen, a 30-40 minute train ride away. We met our group in the centre, lead by a friendly and tall late 20’s Canadian called Julian, whose grandmother had been from Berlin. He’s been living in Berlin for 6 years.
We set off for the train station and then followed Julian on foot for the mile or so walk from Orangienberg train station to the camp.
Julian gave us a good history on the the first and second world wars, on economic turmoil in Germany in the early 30s and the rise of Hitler.
It was now cold and rainy, after several days of heat, and a lot of people were under-dressed in t-shirts etc! Marie and I had layers, and umbrellas.
The tour in total – including getting there and back – was about 7 hours! It was quite tough going (and personally I was still writing notes to Marie and not talking), but for a tour like this it should be tough-going really.
What can we say about Sachsausen?! We were shocked that most prisoners were not Jewish, but included any social outcasts of any sort: of course opponents to Hitler but also homosexuals, even unemployed who weren’t contributing to the state!
The treatment, conditions, level of inhumanity and cruelty was much worse than you could imagine. For a start, prisoners were given clogs to wear but deliberately the wrong size or two same feet so that the feet would bleed, and oversized uniform so that the prisoner would feel demeaned. Routinely, bones would be broken, shoulders dislocated and prisoners worked to death or walked to death testing for new rubber boots for the army. And much worse than that, whilst the town itself outside the camp was kept like a garden community so few residents thought of what went on inside.
Today, children in Germany from the age of 7 are taught the history when young, and reminded to learn from mistakes made against humanity. They even spend a night at the camp.
It was important to have done the tour, but we were ready for brighter things as soon as it was over. On the train back to the centre, Marie asked Julian for eating and drinking suggestions for us this evening. He recommended Leibhaftig to dine, and also a bakery cafe called Anna Blume for dessert.
We got the appropriate metro, and again thanks to Marie’s fine navigation found the restaurant. This area of West Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, is beautiful with a lot of tree-lined, chilled-out streets and plenty of things going on. We loved the little restaurant, which is also a brewery – Wanke Brau – and specialises in Bavarian tapas. There were just a couple of other tables taken, both American groups (there was a hotel nearby). We had a variety of delicious dumplings, including pretzel dumplings which Marie loved. Ideal, small-ish portions in Germany too considering Marie’s small appetite. And I finally had the traditional giant, litre glass beer!
After we left, a couple of streets down bands were playing on stage at a beer garden. Entirely free, we watched a couple of songs from an indie, we think American band who were pretty good.
A walk to Anna Blume next, that didn’t disappoint either. We ate gateaux, drank coffee and along with others watched Argentina v Croatia (football/soccer) on a giant screen. The locals roared in approval as the Croatian goals went in!
Day 4 –
Breakfast at the corner cafe near our hotel, then we thought we’d do more touristy stuff today on our last full day in Berlin. We certainly did, as we took photos around the Brandenberg Gate in the rain, then shopped at the big Ritter shop (you know, those little square chocolate bars). They had about fifty varieties, and a colourful and fun selection of souvenirs. We bought about 7 or 8 bars with flavours we hadn’t seen back home.
Then at last we tried the famous currywurst. This is simply hot dogs with a special ketchup and sprinkled with mild curry powder. It doesn’t sound that great but it was very tasty. We got them in a cardboard box with chips at Curry 36 and ate them sat on a stone bench in a busy area. By the way, there’s even a currywurst museum! German food was very good at places we’d been to, and more subtle than you’d think, but it’s not the most wildly imaginative cuisine at times so a little difference like currywurst is greatly celebrated.
Before going back to the hotel, we popped into Das Meisterstuck restaurant to reserve a table for the evening. Elegant and different, it has two or three dining rooms, an open grill in which the grill master flips sausages, and a big beer patio. It looked great. Oh, and also a wall covered in working cuckoo clocks! Sat at a nice table later, we enjoyed a trio of wursts (one with cheese), myself a craft beer (I know Chris hates that phrase!) and a chocolate-chocolate dessert. And also enjoyed the tweeness of the cuckoos going off every few minutes!
A few days in London would be next, but we would be hard-pressed to enjoy a better time than we had in Berlin…