Germany is a place that neither of us have spent much time in – surprising really, given it’s nearby location and how easy it is to get there. So having been very kindly loaned the use of Mister Milford’s BA flight concessions for six months, we decided to try Berlin for the weekend of my birthday.
We were lucky to get the last two seats on the plane and, despite a slight delay, arrived at our hotel in pretty good time. We dropped our bags at our apartment in Charlottenburg and within minutes, we were drinking German lager and consuming knackwurst and frankfurters in a local pub.
We’d arrived in the early evening so, once we’d had a short lesson in the oddities of the German language (26 is, in fact, “6 and 20” – madness) from the pub waiter, it was straight on to dinner in Kreutzberg in the former East Berlin.
Berlin, and the East in particular, may have changed a great deal since reunification 20 or so years ago but one thing seems to have remained the same – the food. OK, so we deliberately chose a traditional German restaurant but how we were expected to consume the sheer volume of goulash, smoked pork chops, sauerkraut and “dumpling noodles” that we were presented with, I’ll never know. Good stuff it was, but waistlines – and seemingly other body parts, like feet, bizarrely – had definitely expanded. Exhausted by it all, we both slept like very full logs.
As we came down the stairs of the hotel the next morning, we were greeted by a somewhat surprising sight. The large TV in reception was showing stock film of Adolf Hitler goose-stepping around with his mates, circa 1943. And there was us thinking that we weren’t even supposed to mention the war.
We headed straight for Scheunenviertel, the Jewish district, to continue our war-themed day. After wandering past the huge, impressive Synagogue which somehow still remains in this area, we realised that an army of tourists such as ourselves marches on its stomach so we went straight into lunch – an absolutely delicious sandwich of mountains of pastrami on rye bread with pickles, washed down with a pint of Pilsener, followed by a slice of New York cheesecake. Wunderbar. The cafe was in an old Jewish girls school which also housed a posh restaurant so we made a booking for that evening and moved back to the war.
We walked along a stretch of where the Berlin Wall once stood, reading testimonies of life at the time, escape attempts and terrible stories of families divided overnight when soldiers from the East suddenly erected barbed wire fences, later replaced by the wall, obstacles, guard posts and death which would remain for 30 years.
A short U-bahn ride and an increasingly rainy walk led us into the DDR museum, a hands-on experience which tells of life in the former East Berlin.
Next up was the Brandenburg Gate, which became symbolic of the division of the city when it found itself on the East side of the wall. Ticking off as much as we could in the short time we had here, we took in the exterior of the Reichstag – the German parliament – and the sombre Holocaust Memorial before conceding to the rain and returning to the restaurant for incredible ox steak, superb German wine and absorbing debate on political systems and humanity. It’s interesting that visiting places like this – whose history appears on the face of it to be something we, as Brits, know so much about – causes you to really think about what happened, how it happened and it’s impact in a way which you would never have done just by reading a book or watching a film.
Suitably fed and watered, we decided to investigate the famed Berlin nightlife. We had eaten in an area which promised a multitude of trendy bars and clubs so we couldn’t fail to be wowed. Or could we?
We walked. And we walked. And we walked.
A bar! No, too quiet…
A bar! Too smoky…
A bar! Closed…
A bar! Oh god, look at all the young people…
We began to laugh at our impossibly specific requirements.
At long last, we found a suitable establishment. Not too hot, not too cold. But just right. We downed a couple of beers and relaxed, enjoying the lovely atmosphere. The lovely atmosphere which, within a few inexplicable and confusing seconds, turned into a confusing and disorienting chorus of coughing and spluttering.
I first noticed it when I felt a slight tickle in my throat. Not pleasant but not that bad. Then Annika began to cough. As she did so, she looked up and saw everyone in the bar, hands to mouths, choking, whilst swiftly evacuating the room. As I left, one girl was coughing so much she actually collapsed onto the floor.
The barman, somehow unaware of the acrid smoke and confused by the max exodus, appeared at the front door to urge us to return to the bar, lest we were to upset the neighbours. Seeing (and hearing) the coughing customers he ducked back in to investigate, returning seconds later to enquire “OK, who’s the joker with the pepper spray?”.
We began the day with Hitler and had ended it being gassed. These Germans have taken the war tourism just that one step too far.
We decided not to return to the now-fumigated bar and returned home to reflect on an interesting, thought-provoking, confusing and ultimately peppery day.
Our last day featured a brief and pointless wander around a rubbish market and a slap up lunch of Alsatian pizza, schnitzel and chocolate mousse, washed down with yet more German lager.
We also spent some time in the former offices of the Stasi, learning about the lengths that the secret police went to to ensure that none of the citizens dared to dream of another life. The collection of buildings that housed them grew steadily throughout the time of Communist rule, eventually employing more than 90,000 people to spy on, interrogate and ultimately, in the words of one excerpt, “terminate, physically” some of the unfortunate people to find themselves on the wrong side of the wall.
We’ve tried to see cities like this in a hurry before – Rome was a particularly difficult place to cram in in such a short period of time. Berlin has a lot to see and a lot to do but it’s easy to get around and surprisingly quiet. The Brandenburg Gate and the DDR museum (due to the rain, I suspect) were the only busy places we encountered. But despite this, it’s really hard to come away after two days feeling like you’ve seen it all. Inevitably, many of the sights are based on or connected to the war and this makes it quite emotionally draining to do one after the other after the other. As with Cambodia and Vietnam, we felt that you needed regular breaks in order to stop yourself from feeling exhausted by the horror of it all.
As a result, I’m sure we’ve missed some great stuff and I’m sure we’ll be back one day.