Berlin – A City of Culture and History

Before I go off into my narrative of my experiences in Berlin, I want to highlight a couple of differences to this post that have been absent in my other travel journals on this blog site.  Firstly, this is the first holiday post to include my girlfriend, and its the first time in ages where I’ve gone away with someone that wasn’t just a friend.  This means that a lot of the choices we made, we made together with the exception of one… the destination.  That is the second unique difference, I had no idea where I was going until I arrived at the airport.

As an early Birthday present, my lovely girlfriend surprised me at the airport with tickets to Berlin.  As regular readers will attest, I’m a stickler for organisation and order when going abroad on holiday, and as much as this was a grand gesture of love on her part, it was equally one of trust on mine.  However, as trust is the cornerstone of every relationship, it was only fair that I let her make the preparations and take me away on a mystery weekend break without any complaint.  The only clues I had was that I’d need Euros and I had to be at the airport at 2 pm on Friday afternoon, with a carry-on bag full of clothes for a similar climate to the UK, (she also gave me detailed instructions on size and weight of carry-on baggage, as she knew I’d be fussing over such minutiae), and so my mind began running wild trying to figure out the puzzle of where we would be going.

My first thought was Paris.  It’s a romantic place, after all.  No.  She’s never mentioned France at all, then came the suggestion of lots of walking and things to do, and then ‘Jagerbombs’…  So then, I thought we might be going to Dublin.  She knew my family on my Father’s side was from Ireland, and I thought she might be taking me there instead.  Other possibilities included, Barcelona, Reykjavik, Prague and Krakow, but I was totally blindsided by result of my girlfriend’s meticulous planning.  As I opened a gift she gave me at the airport, she said, “This might give you a clue to where we’re going?” It was a lonely planet guide book… to Berlin.

I’d been to Essen only last October, and that was my first taste of Germany, so I was happy it was somewhere new, and yet familiar in a way too.

bookcover_9781786572332

She looked at me and said, “I’ll trust you to have a look for some cool places for us to visit.”  Well, usually, I like a few weeks to plan ahead, especially as some attractions may require an advance booking during busy periods, but I rose to the challenge.  After nearly missing our flight we arrived in Berlin close to 7pm, and to my surprise, she’d also organised an airport transfer to our hotel in Potsdammer Platz, which I was shocked to find was a brand new executive class black Mercedes coupe, not some dusty old VW people carrier as I would have booked. 😛

After checking in to our hotel, a Scandinavian boutique-style hotel, we decided to venture out for dinner.  Scanning the guide, I found a quiet low-key fillipino restaurant just around the corner, alas when we got there it was just closing for the evening.  We found a close-by Italian though, which was nice enough.  This was not to be the only time the Lonely Planet guide would let us down for a decent restaurant, though.  We should have checked Trip Advisor as well, although sometimes winging-it can be fun too.  As we had both had a long day we had a quiet drink in the hotel bar and got an early night to prepare for our first day’s exploring in the morning.

The next day after a massive breakfast at the hotel, where we studied the map that came with the guidebook, we ventured out onto the streets of Berlin, where it became immediately apparent, that my jacket wasn’t warm enough for cold winds that swept through Germany’s capital city.  We saw tourists taking photos at pieces of the Berlin Wall near the centre of Potsdammer Platz, and thought we’d come back later to get a photo.  Onward we walked up past the Holocaust Memorial up to the Reichstag and the Brandenberg Gate.  We saw the three large buses that stand nose-down outside the gate and negotiated our way across and through the gate to the other side.  After taking a few photos we continued eastward until we got to the German Historical Museum.

Brandenburg Gate 2
We spent a good couple of hours making our way around the exhibits, which were nicely displayed and signage was in both German and English which was helpful.  Each period of history, handily separated with a brief description of the events of the time, with a range of art and antiquities from the period on display.  The Cold War era was of particular interest, given Berlin’s history there especially and I was not disappointed by the range of exhibits.  Given that the rooms were quite dry, my other half and I decided to get a coffee somewhere and continue southbound towards Checkpoint Charlie.

Along the way we saw the Concert Hall and a few other municipal buildings, until we came to Checkpoint Charlie and part of the Berlin Wall.  Checkpoint Charlie was the border crossing point between East and West Berlin that was manned by U.S. soldiers during the Cold War, and the crossing booth still exists for tourists to take photos.  There are also some remnants of the Berlin Wall here and a small museum.  The museum is a lot more focused on the Cold War and the part the Iron Curtain and partition of Berlin played in it all.  We had a quick bite to eat and headed back to the hotel for some rest.

American Quarter

In the evening, we decided to venture in a south-westerly way to what we thought was an interesting Jewish restaurant, but it turned out to be our second black mark against the Lonely Planet Guide, because it was closed (at 7:30pm on a Saturday as well).  After a lot of walking we settled on another place that wasn’t very inspiring, but we succumbed to our hunger more than anything.  The mixed grill I ordered was very tasty at least, and I was happier on a full stomach.  We decided to walk back and find the other place we’d highlighted in the guide, listed as a ‘former brothel’ and ‘famous for its wild and debauched all-nighters’, but we couldn’t find it.  Instead we headed back into Potsdammer Platz and found a nice cocktail lounge called Jamboree, on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt complex, and it served some great cocktails.  After much deliberation we settled on giving their Dark and Stormy a try, although the chilli popcorn that came with them was a little bit strong.

Dark and Stormys with Chilli Popcorn

We moved onto Que Pasa, a Mexican restaurant where I introduced my other half to Jagerbombs, (she was curious to try one), and here we noticed the smell of the food and decided that’s where we would end up dining the following night.  We finished up at a bar called Eleven and spotted the Spy Museum, marking that also for a visit the next day.

Sunday was a gloomy and cold day, and we started it off by visiting the Topography of Terror, the museum of the Reich Security Office, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo.  The museum, set in a gloomly cold-looking glass building, was compromised of exhibits consisting of mainly photos and official documents with brief descriptions of the horrific policies the offices carried out in the name of nationalism.  The public shaming leading onto imprisionment or exile and then finally internment in concentration camps.  Truly awful, but it also documented some of the war crime trails at Nuremberg and beyond.  We didn’t explore the grounds either, due to the rain, but to be honest we needed coffee and something sweet after what we’d read through.

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Next we had a more uplifting afternoon at the Spy Museum.  This was a much more ‘hands on’ experience with exhibits designed to show everything from encryption to espionage.  Mentions of spying throughout the ages were displayed on touchscreens after the initial walk through an x ray scanner, which lead up to exhibits of spies in World War 1 like Mata Hari and Lawrence of Arabia.  The museum lead on through World War 2 and onto the Cold War.  The information age now with inherent espionage dominates our world, and is ever popular in TV and Movies.  There was a special nod to the James Bond franchise, and a mission impossible style laser light room for children of all ages to try out.  It didn’t take us too long to get through it all, but we decided to go back to the hotel and rest before we went back out on the town for our final night.

We returned to both Que Pasa and Jamboree for our last night out as we had a very early start in the morning we also cancelled our breakfast in the morning, however we were left waiting around for an hour as the airport transfer car forgot to pick us up, and when they finally did, they dropped us off the opposite side of the departures terminal.  Reflecting on the holiday as a whole, that was the only bit of bad service we experienced.  Most of the people we spoke to spoke English very well, there was only one place where we had a bit of difficulty, as there was a little old German man on his own at one art gallery we went to visit who couldn’t understand us.  The only disappointment we had was in not being able to find a place where we could dance on a Saturday night.  I think if I was to go again, there are number of other places I’d like to visit, but all in all, a great city for history and culture, but wrap up a bit of you plan to go in November!

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