Visit: 8th March 2014
Visiting Berlin this month was the idea of my uni friend Bhumi, who suggested going there with a group of friends for her birthday. It sounded good to me, so I booked a flight from Bristol and met the others at Schönefeld airport on Friday night. This is one of the two airports of Berlin that were meant to have been closed in 2010 and replaced by a new airport named Berlin Brandenburg. For various reasons that are unclear to me, it is still not open, and is not expected before about 2016. Anyone who tells you that the Germans are efficient needs to update their stereotypes! Using the S-Bahn from the airport was a nightmare too! No signs on any of the 12 or so platforms at Schönefeld, and no station staff to give advice. I’ve seen Paddington tube station packed full of confused tourists enough times, but that station takes the biscuit!
We stayed in a hostel on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, north of the River Spree and not far from the famous Fernsehterm (TV tower). Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you can see it from pretty much anywhere (and as with the Eiffel Tower, the only place you can’t see it is from the top of it).
We had a pretty good night out on the Friday at a local rock n roll bar, then after a brief nap we headed out sightseeing on Saturday morning.
The Museum Island in Berlin was built between 1824 and 1930 on a natural island in the river. It consists of five museums, which UNESCO commends for their consistency of design despite being constructed over the course of a century. Unfortunately I only managed to visit one of them, the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), which features plenty of works by German Romantic painters as well as some of the French Impressionists and even a few Constables. I quite liked the German landscape painter Paul Baum, particularly his pointillist pieces.
The museums are all pretty stunning architecturally. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed in WWII, but a restoration programme has given the island back its grandeur. I will certainly be revisiting Berlin to see the other museums, as they house some of the most significant artifacts you can see anywhere in the world. In the Pergamon Museum, for example, you can see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the façade of the throne hall of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon.
Time was tight on this quick weekend trip, so we had to move on from the island and see some of the other famous sights of the city. At the end of a long straight road is the Brandenburg Gate, built in 1791 but a symbol during the Cold War of the desire for reunification. The gate itself was marooned just inside East Berlin, but was within earshot of the West, and it was with the gate as a backdrop that we got the presidential chestnuts “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “tear down this wall!“
After the gate we headed across town to Ostbahnhof to see the Berlin Wall. The place Bhumi took us to was the 1.3km stretch known as the East Side Gallery. This iconic portion of the wall was covered in graffiti, both political and non-political, that the West Berliners used to paint as a symbol of defiance to the GDR next door. One of the paintings is of the famous socialist fraternal kiss between Soviet and GDR leaders Brezhnev and Honecker. Truth be told, I had always assumed this was a satirical painting, but just found out it was based on a real photograph and a real custom! You can see what I’m talking about here.
Our crew for the trip: Taurai, Manisha, Jas, me, Bhumi, Natalie, Phil and Debbie.
By this time it was getting late-ish, so we went and got some decidedly “meh” food (and orange juice grown to order) and then went to a cafe where I had a strudel – as I always do in Germany thanks to that menacingly memorable scene in Inglorious Basterds – and some Riesling, while the others had smashed up ice creams and flavoured brandy. As it was fast approaching Bhumi’s actual birthday, we made sure it was an appropriately awesome night out on Saturday, and some local friends she knew from travelling came along and took us to a cool place in the Kreuzberg district.
And then it was Sunday, and a beautiful day all over Europe. Berlin felt like summer, despite it being early March. We went for lunch in one of the many, many excellent Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin – a place called Monsieur Vuong. They don’t have a large menu – just six or so mains plus a few specials, but that is often a good sign – if a restaurant offers you a small choice it often does it well. I can confirm that this was the case here in Monsieur Vuong’s, and I certainly recommend stopping in. Except if you are like poor Manisha, who doesn’t like ginger or chili (pretty key ingredients in Vietnam!).
We then walked for a while over to the Mauerpark, where a bohemian market sells food and nick nacks. The park was full of people having barbecues, doing acrobatics and playing with their perfectly-bred dogs. It was a real first day of summer feel. We stopped for a while in a Biergarten nearby for a drink, where I stumbled upon Weihenstephaner wheat beer, which apparently is brewed in the oldest brewery in the world. It has been serving the good stuff since something like AD 768. Quite amazing to think that people were drinking this beer back when the Vikings roamed England and the world’s oldest tree was only 3,817.