Thursday, 10 October 2013

Berlin Diaries II: Exposed brickwork, flea markets and country houses

Day 4 in Berlin, we woke early and packed up our things, already concerned by how we were going to compress all the luggage into the mandatory single piece of hand-luggage. We boarded The Ring train, noticing only on our last day that direction was represented in the ring icon as well as the locations listed…oh well.

We were headed for Dascha, another of Luke's recommendations; as the lady wasn't prompt in opening up and time was of the essence we found breakfast down the road in this kooky venue, all exposed brickwork and second-hand furniture. Mercifully this morning was wasp-free and wifi-enabled!

(Kooky breakfast)

From breakfast we headed to a flea market in the north of the city. We arrived promptly at 10:30 but the park was already packed, the stands rammed full of potential customers. The majority of stands featured standard content; scarves, records, vintage clothes, jewellery; one particular stand stood out, it sold watches and jewellery but was manned by an eccentric gentleman in a top-hat. Sometimes display really is everything…

(Flea Market)

From the hectic flea market we boarded The Ring in the opposite direction, towards Potsdam. Like Oranienburg, Potsdam is about 1 hour's travel from Berlin city centre. Potsdam is a town of great consequence. Kaiser Wilhelm built a country house, Schloss Cecilienhof. Hitler claimed to be his heir by marching through the city. Churchill and the allies met here to decide the division of Germany at the Potsdam Conference, and the Red Army also had a presence here. 

Schloss Cecilienhof
I headed for Schloss Cecilienhof, boarding a local bus and praying I'd be reunited with my ally before we boarded our flight home. I was merrily minding my own business when I was ambushed by a troop of some 20 exhausted English tourists and their tour guide, quite possibly a Miranda Hart voice-double on the weekends, promising they 'will never need to run again'.

(Miranda tour-guide)

The house itself was like a little slice of England, built by Kaiser Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria for his wife Cecilia. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon in a park full of peace, and flowers, gold leaf and lovely boats. I really would recommend a visit in the afternoon in good weather. Entry to each museum building charged separately, main house 6€ - I just walked round the gardens, for free.

Park Sans Souci
After a brief nerve-wracking moment my friend and I were reunited and we headed for Park Sans Souci, Frederick the Great's pleasure palace and gardens, created in the 18th century. Comparisons could reasonably be made with Versailles or Hampton Court, the gardens were all fountains and landscape gardening. We saw gods and goddesses, muses and even soldiers dressed up in full-Regency livery. We enjoyed our little moment of luxury, it seemed a world away from yesterday's experiences. I wouldn't have paid to go into any of the buildings, but maybe that's personal taste, I've never been that bothered by Regency history. We took some beautiful photos in the low-lying sun and met a charming, but shy young man (he was maybe 3?) at the railway station on the way to the airport.

Being in Berlin has, as always, been a pleasure. I've really enjoyed getting under the skin of this city, the veritable queen of reinvention. Needless to say I'll be back soon.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Berlin Diaries II: Harrowing

You might have noticed I've been in the habit of naming my blogs in threes; not today.

We set off to find breakfast at a leisurely pace, we were looking for Assel where, according to my Lonely Planet, 'both the seats and the toilets are kooky', the café had been long closed. Oh well, we resorted to the expensive, wasp-plagued but quite tasty, Oranium, unknowingly munching on melons in the heart of the prostitution area.

From here we jumped on the S1 to Oranienburg. The journey took about an hour, it was a sensationally sunny day. We watched the landscape becoming increasingly rural and the proliferation of summer houses for the enjoyment of all those urban Berliners. It felt like a great day to be alive and yet my mind was already conscious of where we were headed, and of the 20,000 people who had met premature deaths travelling this same route.


We were en route to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I’d never been to a concentration camp before, I was frightened of the unknown and didn't want to go alone. But with my trusty companion at my side and lots of head knowledge from my MA course I approached the site with trepidation.

The first thing I noticed was they don’t charge an entry fee. This is not entertainment for tourists, this is education and no one is to be barred due to cost. Secondly you could opt to buy an audio guide; they fascinate me, the way they mediate your experience of historical sites, shaping the narrative and indeed my own experiences. I think the audio-guide helped to distance me from the very immediate emotions of being in such a place of death; audio-guides are usually reserved for country houses and battlefields long since disappeared.

The site itself is mainly levelled to the ground – with concrete demarcations of huts and other buildings. Some elements have been reconstructed such as a domestic hut so you can get a sense of scale and representative watch-towers. It is always difficult to know how to make monuments of these contested spaces; do you let them crumble or do you preserve them for posterity? I found the truck depot and mass-grave complex the most harrowing – all life and vitality had been totally quenched here in some very cruel ways.

Did you know that when the Russian liberators arrived they continued to use the camp to intern prisoners? They uncovered a mass grave of prisoners’ bodies in the 1990s.

Humans can be hideous.

Schloss Oranienburg
We headed for Schloss Oranienburg led on by the sounds of medieval instruments. It was a bit pricey to get in to the festival but we noted Oranienburg  had a pretty river, castle, gardens and a strange Russian shop. Our return journey was rather quiet.

(Schloss Oranienburg)

(Russian shop)

Mexikanische Essen

For dinner we returned to Warschauer Strasse (where I stayed last year) on the u-bahn; trying not to meet the eyes of those begging ‘change for joints’.We navigated our way through the stoned hipsters to Simon-Dach Strasse, a street lined with restaurants and came across this Mexican restaurant where we maxed out on burritos and cocktails. Great value, epic portions and tasty cocktails, A+.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Berlin Diaries II: Panorama, the Stasi, and wine

Day 2 saw a much prompter start because we’d booked tickets to see Berlin from above. There are lots of ways to do this including the Reichstag Tour, the Berliner Dom tour and even a hot air balloon (click here for what I thought). But this time we chose the famous Berlin TV-tower (fernsehturm), an alien spike that dominates the skyline with a viewing platform some 200 metres high. I’m glad we booked tickets online with VIP queue jumping tickets as the queues at the venue were mad!

It takes just 2 mins to cover the 200 metre climb in a space-age lift. The views from the platform were astounding, although thoroughly dependent on the weather. We could see for miles, roof gardens, apartments, road networks, the river, and the S-bahn looking like a train-set below us. The only slight frustration with this experience was the info panels ran in the opposite direction to the viewing route meaning I only discovered the significance of ‘that odd looking building’ after I’d viewed it.

3/5 quite pricey for what it was, and significantly dated, but amazing views.

(the viewing platform is in the centre of the grey blob)

(Alexanderplatz from above)

Stasi Museum
We continued our DDR-Berlin day by visiting the Stasi museum. It’s a long way east but worth the visit. After yesterday’s experiences I had high expectations for another of Berlin’s museums which were perhaps misplaced.

The Stasi Museum is set in the old offices of the Stasi – stepping over the threshold the weight of historical resonance falls firmly the on the shoulders. That said most of the exhibits are traditional ‘stuff in cases’ or rooms laid out as they would have been used during the Stasi regime. One part of the museum focussed on prisoners of the regime and put you in a seat opposite the ‘prisoner’ depicted by a biography panel. There were subtle layers of undertone here, of interrogator and interrogated, created through something so simple as two chairs and a bit of cardboard.

3/5 Hard going if you don’t like reading, but some fascinating objects.

(Meet the prisoners)

East Side Gallery
After the Stasi museum we proceeded to the East Side Gallery. This artistic monument fascinates me; it started life as original protest art whilst the wall was in use, then official artists were brought in to represent constituent voices, when most of the wall was demolished. Today it’s a tourist trap where people take photos of themselves and occasionally tag a wall. It’s a piece of history and yet it’s also a place to voice complaint on current affairs – the veiled role of exhibition curation as political response is so much more evident here. The walls address themes from state sovereignty, war and peace, to sexuality, national culture and freedom in a way that is perhaps more democratic than an official museum or speech? This famous painting of Brezhnev and Honecker has been significantly tagged since I was last here, in part in reaction to the current homophobic crisis in Russia. It’s interesting that this particular tag and many others have not been removed by state authorities.

(East Side Gallery)

We progressed quickly from the East Side Gallery to Starbucks via Checkpoint Charlie. We decided against the extortionate passport stamping ruse, get all 6 for just 5€. Er, no ta! And caught sunset at the Brandenburg Gate. Then I spent an extortionate amount on a handbag made from old lorries and seatbelts.

Weinerei Forum

Finally we ended up at the Weinerei Forum, one of the destinations recommended by Luke. We were not disappointed, we found warmth, cheap home-made food, free wifi, plentiful affordable wine, and surprisingly the good Lord who was hanging up on the wall, overseeing every glass. On Fridays the Forum offer wine tasting for just 2€, fill your glass with whatever you fancy! It was just what we needed after a long day!

(Weinerei Wine)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Berlin Diaries II: Trabis, Bunkers and the DDR

I have returned to one of my favourite places in Europe for a long weekend, we’re jam-packing the experience so expect lots of reviews!

Arriving late last night we allowed ourselves a lie in and the clouds a chance to disappear. We left our apartment in Schöneburg on a bright and sunny morning in Berlin. After a brief caffeine stop we headed for Charlottenburg in search of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial. When I visited last summer the memorial was closed and undergoing renovation. And surprisingly, it was still closed this time.

Determined not to be disheartened there were many things to discover out west including a smart and elegant department store with a very elegant name, Douglas. Down the road we stumbled across an interactive museum housed inside a shopping centre.

This large museum is an interactive and bilingual experience aimed at getting you familiar with Berlin’s 800 year history. There are more than 10 topic rooms coming off a central corridor of time. The city’s rich history is explored through fashion, music, short films, photographs and artefacts. I learned lots of new things about Berlin, particularly in the regency period. 

The ticket price includes a tour of their onsite nuclear bunker, built in 1970 to house 3,600 Berliners for just 2 weeks. The airlock and bunker are all still operational but my friend and I were pretty clear that the bunker represented delayed death rather than any real hope of survival.

The Story of Berlin costs €10 and fits neatly into the current trend of museums as experiences of the past.

4/5 Bit expensive but high quality

We travelled back to the centre on the U-bahn – the livery of said vehicle is sunshine yellow, such a merry, optimistic shade, more underground systems should be yellow! We were taking a route towards Museumsinsel but made an important stop off at the Ritter Sport Chocolate shop. Like Mary Poppin’s hand-bag its bigger on the inside and allows you to make your own chocolate, buy their chocolate bars and learn about chocolate production – several bars later we crossed the centre of town, passing the beautiful Gendarmenplatz and the Berlin Dom on our way to Museumsinsel. My Lonely Planet claimed you could visit on a Thursday night for free; but as it turned out that information was out of date, a frequent theme on this trip.

Instead we found the excellent DDR Museum on the banks of the Spree. It’s a total steal at just €4. We arrived 1 hour before closing time so were quite tight for time, but could easily have spent more time there.

The DDR museum provides an interactive experience of life in East Berlin from the 1950’s – 90’s. The museum is set up thematically considering topics such as the home, education, fashion, and music. There are lots of games to play in this museum, our favourite being the opportunity to ‘drive’ a trabi car – experiencing first-hand the frustrations and joys of the vehicle, it was a lot of fun!

Passing under the mist of bureaucracy – a physical wall of mist – visitors enter the second section of the museum looking at conflict, law and order and the military. Again the curators have thought very creatively about using the space, with light-show games, and spaces set up as interrogation suites so visitors get a real sense of what it was like. One of my favourite installations was in the interrogation room. In order to hear the response of the defendant one had to put one’s elbows on these desk pads and cup your hands over your ears – inspired!

5/5 amazing value and high quality exhibit.

At the end of day 1 I know so much more about life in Berlin after WWII; tired but ready for day 2.