Berlin was one of the cities on my ‘places-to-visit-before-I-leave-Europe’ list, mainly because of my bucket-list wish to see the iconic Berlin Wall.
My sister and I arrived in the evening. I had splurged on the hotel, booking at the Pullman next to the Berlin Zoologischer Garten. But after we dropped off our bags we set out to look for the nearest budget eats, armed with this list from the Guardian. The closest one was Curry 36. It serves currywurst — excellent naked sausages doused with curry sauce and accompanied by a mound of chips and a dollop of mayonnaise. Not the healthiest dish in the world, I admit. Another stall we tried on our stay was Witty’s, next to the strangely named KaDeWe department store.
The sausages in both stalls were pretty good, with just the right amount of resistance before the bite.
The Berlin Zoologischer Garten gate next to the hotel:
Berlin was bleaker than I imagined it to be. It contrasted with this modern image of Germany that I had in my head, given where the country is on European economies’ leader boards.
There are parts of the city that are vast and empty. The air is bitingly cold in the early mornings and evenings. There are a lot of damaged buildings — or gaps where buildings used to be before WWII — commemorated with a plaque or painstakingly preserved.
Take the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) in the middle of the Kurfürstendamm area, for example. The church was bombed during the war but the tower remains. Restoration was ongoing while we were there so it was all covered up, but from pictures online it looks incongruous against the glass and steel structures beside it.
Seeing the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) was amazing. I had seen photos of the gate from the 1800s and after the war before, when everything around it was reduced to rubble.
Now, the Brandenburger Tor holds its own amidst the modern embassies, banks, and even a Starbucks surrounding it in Pariser Platz. A testament to the resilience of buildings.
The day we went, a guy I’d like to think of as the Sandman was there. He was writing an English poem using white sand and what looked like an icing bag in nice, loopy writing. There were plenty of bystanders, tourists (including us), and cyclists who stopped and read, curious. The police came, but eventually left him alone.
A cafe inside the Palais am Pariser Platz, with a cool courtyard:
Afterwards we walked over to the world’s most-visited parliament, the Reichstag, but the tickets for the day had already sold out. We bought two for the next day. Tip to visitors: buy tickets early to avoid disappointment; they only let in a certain number of people for each time slot. It’s open from 8am to midnight (last admission at 11pm). You can buy a day in advance of your visit.
“Dem deutschen Volke” means “To the German people.” Is it just me or does everything in German sound intimidating?
We went up to the Reichstag dome. The view up top is fantastic — you can see the rest of the Bundestag (German parliament) buildings as well as Pariser Platz. They give you an audioguide for the dome. I remember my sister and I were clueless on how to switch it on. We eventually gave up, only to realize that the audioguide starts automatically once you start walking up the ramp. D’oh.
It was from the dome that I spotted the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenmann and built 2003-04. It looks eeriely like a cemetery from a distance. Once we wandered inside it felt like a labyrinth, with uneven slopes and blocks with mismatched heights.
My sister had a special request for this trip: that we pay a visit to the Buchwald Baumkuchen Pastry Shop along Bartningalee. Baumkuchen, or treecake, is a finely layered butter cake that’s been the specialty of the Buchwald Bakery for over 160 years. The founder, Gustav Buchwald, started the Baumkuchen tradition in present-day Germany. The shop is a straight walk from the Bellevue station on the S-Bahn, next to a bridge.
They sell the classic Baumkuchen ring, a cake, and a filled cake version with light strawberry cream and fruit between the layers. Apparently, my sister knows about it because it’s a popular snack in Japan. I remember our bag with baumkuchen rings passing through security when we entered the Reichstag. The guards grinned at us when they saw it.
Most of the stations in Berlin nowadays are efficient, sleek-looking spaces but then there are the ghost stations, dimly-lit spots patrolled by armed guards until 1989. West Berliners were not allowed to disembark because they were passing through East Berlin areas. East Berliners couldn’t use the stations at all because the entrances were boarded up. It sounded like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic film.
On a side note, I’ve seen many traffic lights on my trips abroad but none have so far come close to the uniqueness of Berlin’s Ampelmann. He’s stout and has a hat!
We had dinner at Hühnerhaus on Skalitzer Strasse, another budget recommendation on Guardian’s list. At €4.30 for half a chicken and huge sides of chips or salad, it’s excellent value for money. But it’s a little difficult to find and the area in general looked dodgy. We almost gave up on it until we chanced upon the stall by accident on our way back to the metro. (Train station: Görlitzer Bahnhof)
We also went to Berlin’s Walk of Fame (I didn’t recognize any of the names aside from Marlene Dietrich) and the Sony Center. I remember we found a Dunkin’ Donuts and bought a box of mini bavarians, which we ate with a cup of coffee on Postdamer Platz.
Other places had ongoing construction work at that time: Unter den Linden for the construction of a train line and Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, for a promenade connecting the individual museums. Museumsinsel is a fascinating place — seven museums cramped together in such a small space. We managed to go up the Berliner Dom, a Baroque-style Protestant cathedral facing the Lustgarten or “pleasure park.”
The view from the top of the Berliner Dom:
We were up early the next day to visit the East Side Gallery along Mühlenstrasse (Train station: Ostbahnof). It’s a 1.3km section of the old wall, next to the Spree River and a large empty field with O2 World smack in the middle. The East Side Gallery was painted by artists in 1990 to commemorate the fall of the wall. There are parts of it chipped off and graffiti over some of the more popular murals.
A cool mural on the wall of a hotel next to the East Side Gallery:
We took a train to the Berlin War Memorial on Bernauer Strasse after that. It’s the only section of the wall with preserved grounds behind it, thus it’s able to convey how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s.
There is a route along the wall which will take you to outdoor exhibitions, a visitors’ center, and other memorials of war.
Bernauer Strasse was very much a symbol of the division between East and West Berlin. The facades of the apartment buildings on the East Berlin side of the street formed the boundary between East and West. Families and friends were cut off from each other when the border was closed. Some risked their lives trying to cross from one side to the other until they couldn’t.
Maybe that’s what contributed to the heavy feeling I had while walking around Berlin. You get reminded of its haunting past wherever you go. It’s like the city never fully recovered from it.
Finally, a non sequitur: the snack on our Lufthansa flight back consisted of a pickle, potatoes, and a small sausage.