Thursday, December 1, 2016

48 Hours in Berlin

There are some cities where you need only a few days to get a good sense of the place. Berlin is not one of them. I spent about 48 hours wandering Germany's capital city (fewer than that, if I factor in sleeping), and I maybe covered an eighth of it? I imagine it would take at least a week to properly experience Berlin--but I had a wonderful time taking in as much as I could.

Our plane touched down at Schönefeld midday on Sunday, and our immediate thought was this: where can we get sausage? The answer, according to the internet, was Gasthaus Krombach, a traditional German restaurant that--aside from the plastic menus--appears to be stuck in the 1800's. It was somewhat touristy, but by no means a tourist trap--the prices were reasonable and the food was delicious. Erin and I each had a cup of soup, we split the three-sausage platter, and we washed it all down with some local beer.

Despite our culinary good fortune--or perhaps because of it--I made a strategic error: I did not eat enough of the sauerkraut. My stomach was not the same for the rest of the trip. I bravely soldiered on, eating all the German specialties I could manage, because I'm committed to tourism. Nevertheless, I must implore you: eat your sauerkraut, lest indigestion get the better of you.

Berlin church
Before we left Amsterdam, Erin and I read a few of those "two days in Berlin" articles to figure out what we couldn't miss. Funnily enough, we did several of them by accident within our first few hours. While trying to find our hotel, we ended up cutting through Bikini Berlin, a concept shopping mall that features local designers. We passed one of many Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) at the base of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a gorgeous gothic structure that suffered significant structural damage during World War II; no longer in use, its still-jagged steeple is said to resemble a broken tooth.

Later we tried to see the city lights from the top of a building in Potsdamer Platz (where there was another Christmas market), only to discover we had misread the closing time. Instead, we meandered over to Niederkirchnerstraße to see the some remains of the Berlin Wall. Its concrete slabs, still covered in faded graffiti, loomed out of the darkness beneath the yellow street lights.
Berlin Wall

To its great credit, Berlin doesn't shy away from the ugly events of its past. Remnants of the wall are scattered throughout the city, and there are several different memorials to those who died during the Holocaust. Behind the part of the wall we saw was the Topographie des Terrors, a museum dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Nazi regime, built on the very piece of land that once supported the SS headquarters. We browsed the somber exhibits in silence for a while; we decided that we couldn't stomach the special exhibition on mass shootings.

Through the cold night, we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps the most famous landmark in Berlin. Naturally, a cousin selfie was required.
Brandenburg Gate

We finished our evening by seeking out the Eschenbräu Brewery, which turned into quite an adventure. What we didn't realize was that the brewery is located in the basement of a nondescript apartment complex in the farther-flung neighborhood of Wedding. To find it, we had to walk down a dark side street, cut through a small garden, zig-zag through a courtyard, and go down a flight of stairs. We made it to the cozy space eventually, and we both enjoyed our gigantic, malty beers, as well as a flammkuchen, which is essentially a pizza.

A word of warning: it is apparently impossible to order a small beer in Germany. Regardless of price, it will be served to you in a huge glass. And yes, they will laugh at you if you can't finish it.
Eschenbrau Brewery

Erin had to meet with clients on Monday, so I was on my own. Fortunately, I received many tips about places to visit from my friends (thanks, friends!), and I tried to see as many of them as I could.

Berlin is not a beautiful city--at least not in the classical sense. All the wrought iron and carved stone medieval glamor of most major European cities was bombed away by the Allies during WWII, and it was replaced largely with concrete, Soviet-esque monoliths. That said, Berlin is not lacking in character. I loved exploring the different neighborhoods, buildings scrawled over in colorful street art, crosswalks dutifully monitored by the red-and-green flashing Ampelmännchen, oddly cheerful souvenirs of the once-divided city. Berlin's public transit system is also excellent; the stubby yellow carriages of the U-Bahn whisked me everywhere I needed to go.

I began my day at KaDeWe, a famous department store where the sixth floor reportedly holds "two football fields" of food. European football, I presume? It was indeed impressive--basically an upscale grocery store with food from all over the world. The USA section featured squeezable cheese and barbecue sauce. They know us too well.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Next I headed to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2004, this grave reminder of the Holocaust consists of gray stone slabs that cover almost four acres of sloping land. When you stand on the edge, you can see above the blocks, but when you walk between the rows, they subsume you, diminishing the light.

On my way to the Reichstag building (or Bundestag, though it seems that Reichstag is still the more common name?), I passed the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, as well as the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Like I said earlier, reminders of the past are everywhere in Berlin.

Then, as I was taking a selfie with the giant German flag in front of the Bundestag, a woman tried to pickpocket me. She appeared from nowhere, kissed me on the cheek, and shoved a petition in my face. Shocked at the suddenness of it all, I clumsily refused and backed away. Later I saw the police flyers warning of that specific scam, and I thanked my lucky stars for zipper pockets. Ah, the perils of tourism.

I stopped for lunch at the ultra-hip Westberlin--white walls, white tables, white chairs, broken only by the art magazines on white shelves, the equipment behind the white bar, and the people sipping their coffee and tea. It's right by Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known crossing point between East and West Berlin when the wall was in place. The YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN/SOVIET SECTOR sign is still there--or maybe it's a replica.

One of the "two days in Berlin" articles had recommended Hard Wax Records, a staple of Berlin's electronic music scene. EDM's not my thing, and I didn't have room in my backpack to return with a record anyway, but as a music-lover I decided I should see it.

And so I encountered my second difficult-to-find location in Berlin. I wandered back and forth on the street where it was supposed to be for a few minutes, until I spotted a small plaque indicating that I needed to enter the courtyard of one of the apartment complexes. With some unease, I walked down an abandoned alley until I came to a doorway with a paper sign: HARD WAX RECORDS, THIRD FLOOR.

Hard Wax Records
There were no lights in the stairwell behind the door. The windows and walls were almost completely covered in stickers, and empty bottles were shattered on the floor. Oh good, I thought. I'm about to get murdered on my way to some random record store where I don't even plan on buying anything. Happily, there were no killers lurking in the shadows. I found the store--smaller than I expected, stark and industrial--and browsed records while loud bass bumped through the speakers above.

I hopped on the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz, a large public square in what was once the heart of East Berlin. I watched the sun set over the Fernsehturm, and I had an obligatory glühwein (mulled wine) at yet another Christmas market. I must say, having visited several authentic ones, the Chicago Christkindlmarket is remarkably accurate.
Alexanderplatz

After that I went north to Prenzlauer Berg, which is apparently where all the hip people move when they want to settle down and have kids. This part of town escaped the war architecturally unscathed--the buildings are much more quaint. I looked at some chic clothes I couldn't afford, and then, with my feet aching, my phone nearly dead, and the night growing ever colder, I grabbed a table in a cafe called Kapitalist. I picked it thanks to the cheeky humor of its name, and my instincts served me well. I suspect I'd be a regular there if I lived in Berlin--it's cozy, quiet, and dark, with a Bohemian edge. But not forced Bohemian--more like Bohemian because they'd rather not spend the money to make it nicer.

Erin finally met me there after her day was done, and we selected a restaurant for dinner using Open Table. That's how we ended up at Fabisch in Rosenthaler Platz. The food wasn't exactly mind-blowing, but then, you can't go wrong with cheese-and-mushroom-slathered schnitzel.

We stopped at a nearby microbrewery, The Circus Hostel Brewing Company, for a nightcap. "Microbrewery" is an overstatement. They brew precisely one beer. However, that one beer was just dandy--albeit giant. We couldn't finish them.

Now that I think about it, that last drink was the perfect metaphor for our entire trip. Like the glasses of beer, Berlin is enormous and flavorful--but like the capacity of our stomachs, our time in the city was far too limited. It certainly warrants another visit.

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