I arrive late on Thursday night – Ange has already arrived after fifty hours of flights and trains from the other side of the world, and so is already checked in and waiting. I grab a cab from the airport and am surprised at the speed and cost – €27 instead of the €35-45 I’m expecting. The cab pulls up outside the Derag Livinghotel Berlin-Mitte.
The next day we breakfast on food bought from the organic store around the corner and then head out to drop off our bags at NH Collection – Berlin Mitte Friedrichstrasse. We’re actually able to check in, so head up to the room straight away.
Ange has pre-booked a ticket to the Reichstag Dome and so we head off along the Spree river in that direction. We reach the airport-style security bang on time and I smirk as the metal detecting wand that the guard uses continually decides that Angela is somehow metallic and regales us with a steady barrage of high pitched beeps and squirls.
We join a group of fellow tourists waiting at the door to leave the security hut. After a while a teenager leads us up to the Reichstag building and we wait again as another group comes down the lift and leaves. We’re then able to ascend to the roof level. There’s a roof garden restaurant and we have a reservation, so there’s just enough time to climb the spiral to the top of the dome, have a look around, and then descend again.
Kafer Dachgarten Restaurant
We are a little worried – we only have 45 mins for lunch before our free walking tour begins. We enquire as to whether that will be enough time and are assured it will be – the Brandenberg Gate is just around the corner.
Ange elects to try the local delicacy – Berliner Weisser – a wheat beer with raspberry cordial added. Apparently in the 17th C when Loius XIV kicked the French Protestants out of France, 5000 of them descended onto Berlin, increasing the population by 25% and bringing with them a sweet tooth. They were more wine drinkers than beer quaffers and decided that the local wheat beer was uninspired and started adding either raspberry cordial to make it red and sweet or woodruff to make it green and hallucinogenic. The modern green Berliner Weisse just has woodruff flavouring and all of the hallucinogenic stuff removed.
We have the veal meatballs, mainly because they seem to be the best value for money on the menu – the starters go for €14 and the expensive main for €25 making the €16 meatballs look pretty good. And we are rewarded with some pretty awesome meatballs. The complex flavours of the leek in the potato salad is the perfect foil for the veal and we’re both full and pleasantly surprised by the quality. The service is fast too, and with the open kitchen you can watch the chefs prepare the complete meal.
After paying for the meal we head down to the Starbucks beside the Brandenburg Gate and wait for our free walking tour of Berlin to begin.
Palace of Tears
After our walking tour we head back towards our hotel and take advantage of the locality to visit the Palace of Tears. It’s a museum on the spot where people visiting East Berlin returned to the West and was so named because of the tearful farewells which happened here. It’s not very well signposted or marked so we actually end up walking around it before finding the doorway and it wasn’t until we actually entered that I was sure we were in the right place.
After the Palace of Tears we head back to our hotel for the night which is literally a five minute walk away. You can almost see the Palace from the hotel room.
We’d very kindly been given VisitBerlin passes which included transportation on all Berlin transport, so getting around was a breeze. The next day we change hotels from the NH Collection to Hotel Otto and then head back to the Topography of Terror to learn about the SS and to see the remnants of the wall. While a lot of the museums in Berlin are free, there are a huge number of discounts available with the VisitBerlin card, and the booklet listing them all is satisfyingly thick. It also comes with a free pull out map which serves us well.
Topography of Terror
The museum is interesting (and free!). It shows both sides of the SS: the unspeakable atrocities that they committed, as well as the human side that exists in any other organisation – workmates having a drink or a break from the daily grind. The tragedy of course: the daily grind is the extermination of millions of innocent people.
Remains of the SS Building
Just outside the Topography Museum are the exposed remains of the SS building’s foundations. After the war these were the only remains of the hated headquarters and the decision was made not to rebuild on the site because it was so evil. Even the Topography of Terror Museum is off to one side of the original location.
Berlin Wall Segment
The section of the wall outside the museum is small and there is limited information about it – we flesh out context when we visit other museums.
We’re about to go back to the cafe where we got the berliner the day before but a tour happens to arrive at that second and descend upon the cafe, so instead we walk towards the Dali museum, past the old Luftwaffe HQ building and site of the quelling of the uprising in 1953, and hunt down a cafe nearby instead.
A few steps before the Dali Museum is a cafe called Eleven. We head inside and I have currywurst and a radler (lemonade and beer), and Angela has the apple juice and gerillter bunter – roast veg salad with feta and pickled artichokes which she assures me is delicious.
And then it’s on to the Dali Exhibition! Our VisitBerlin cards come in handy with a discount of 25%. The downstairs is small – we’ve booked into a guided tour, so I’m hoping the upstairs portion is more substantial. We wait for the tour to begin by watching some surreal movies in the little theatre on the ground floor. When the tour begins we are guided through the downstairs section and then up the stairs where a suitably large section awaits. Special mention must be made of the guide who is both knowledgeable as well as having an infectious enthusiasm.
One photo makes me laugh, Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your flaming giraffe!
After Dali we head across town to the Story of Berlin – which includes a visit to an underground Nuclear Bunker.
Story of Berlin
We get to use our Visit Berlin cards again for a discount to the Story of Berlin museum, and I’m impressed with the scale of the museum – there’s a lot to take in and it’s split across multiple floors. I like how it’s well signposted and flows well. There’s enough to justify paying for entry, but the real reason for coming here is the bunker!
Deep under a carpark building (ok, maybe 3 flights of stairs), we find ourselves at the beginning of the bunker. The door has stenciled “trepped” on it which I read as “trapped” until I realise “treppe” is German for “stairway” and that there are likely to be multiple entrances into the bunker. The story of the bunker is in equal parts sad and comical – and well delivered by the tour guide. The lighting seems perfectly created for atmospheric photography – the blues and greens highlighting the alienness of the environment.
We get off the train and to Ange’s surprise I have agreed to hiring bikes and riding around the town. We eventually find the hire shop which feels further away than then 200m it’s advertised as and we get the bikes. Again we get value from our VisitBerlin cards with a small discount.
We weigh up getting helmets too but on the walk over we noticed nobody seems to have been wearing them so we don’t bother. The guy at the shop doesn’t speak much English and looks visibly annoyed when we say that’s what we speak. He keeps us waiting for a while and then shows us the map of the area and rattles off an impossible to remember list of navigation instructions which may have been better replaced by “follow someone else who looks like they know where they’re going, you can’t ride here and here. There’s a nice restaurant here”. When he goes to get us the bikes he looks me up and down and says “120kg” (264lbs) to himself. Mock offended I correct him – “115!” (253lbs).
And then off we go! While the sun is out, it has been chilly recently which we suspect is keeping people closer to home which is good for us – fewer people on the streets!
We head first of all to Sans Souci which is a UNESCO palace on a hill nestled in a lovely forest with avenues crisscrossing thru it. We have to park our bikes at the bottom of the hill and climb up by foot, but the views make it worth it. Sans Souci backs on to a main road so we could have cycled up the main road and parked up the top, but the stroll is delightful in the strong sun.
After we’ve enjoyed the view from the top, we head back down the hill and swing right to take in the Chinese Tea House. We stumble across a group of locals dressed up in high court costume and take some photos of them. We eventually find the Chinese Tea house – it doesn’t seem that the ticket booth is open so we cant go inside – it looks very small but it is well decorated with gold leaf frescoes and ornate cornices.
Back to the bikes and back on to the main road. The buses are respectful of the…somewhat less confident…riders and we make it without major incident to the beginning of the park area surrounding the lake. OMG: gorgeous!!
We end up at the restaurant that the guy at the bike hire shop had told us about and it’s delightful: a beer garden and restaurant right on the lake front in the sunshine, what could be better? Well apparently every man and his dog had the same idea and the place was packed. The bike parking area was full to overloading, spilling padlocked bikes both ways along the side of the paths for a good number of metres.
We go in, try to get served and see the frazzled looks on the waitstaff’s faces and realise that a) we’d be looking at an extensive wait and b) riding back after a stein or two and a full belly probably wouldn’t be the safest, so we head off back along the lakefront, expecting to find a restaurant on the way back.
We’re both getting a little hungry when we hit a residential area and decide instead of heading to where our hire shop guy had mentioned something about Tom Hanks, we’d take a bit of a shortcut back to town. Again our route is well served for bicycles with a dedicated bike lane and suitably respectful co-travellers and before long we find ourselves at a likely looking restaurant. We make inquiries inside but it seems that even with out the difficulties of language, that they are not serving food anymore.
Muttering darkly to myself we head back on to the road, pausing briefly at a service station for something to get us through to our next meal. We then head back sedately to the bike hire shop and drop off the bikes, quite happy about how our little jaunt went.
After a quick train ride back to Berlin, we head back to the 25hours Bikini Hotel in time to watch the sunset from the restaurant on the rooftop.
In the morning we check out and then head to the central train station. Ange is heading to Warsaw for the next leg in the trip while I’m heading to the airport for a few days work in London.
Would I Go Back?
The history of Berlin in the 20th Century is the history of the world in that same period. No other city has been the focus of so many momentous occasions in the 20th century – WWI, WWII, the Cold War. But we’d only just scratched the surface. There are so many museums it’s hard to know which cover which material and which of the myriad of museums covering the same subject you should visit. So I’m quite happy with our effort – we looked at a selection of museums and learnt a lot, without repeating ourselves or feeling that we were wasting our time.
Having said that, there were aspects we couldn’t get to: the Stasi (secret police during the Cold War) was one area I wouldn’t have minded learning more about for example. Next time!