Thursday 23 August 2012

Bumming Around Berlin

We had five days set aside for Germany, a sizeable country, so we had time for just one city on this trip. So we chose Berlin, a trendy and progressive international city built upon a youth culture of art, social activism, tolerance and having a party. Well, that's what I got from our time there.

We rode the Deutsche Bahn from Brussels to arrive at Berlin's Hauptbahnhof on a stunning summer Saturday afternoon. Although tempted by our first sighting of European rickshaws, we instead decided to walk the two kilometres to our hotel, dodging frisbees on the Reichstag building lawns and trying to figure out the actual trajectory of the 11-person-party-bicycles pedalling around the Brandenburger Tor.

The Quadriga sculpture on Brandenburger Tor, only surviving one of 18 Berlin city gates
We were curious about Berlin's fun-city reputation, so Saturday night on the touristy-but-happenin Oranienburger Straße went down well with a few beers to start off a week of sightseeing.

Drinkig Beer on Oranienburger Straße - Berlin
The Unter den Linden was under occupation by modern developers armed with big cranes and lots of fencing attempting to subvert Berlin’s grand historic boulevard to include another underground U-Bahn train line.

Cranes on the Unter den Linden - Berlin
At Potsdamer Platz, with its big-city-business structures that were ok, but didn't wow us much, we wondered if perhaps we shouldn't have booked so many nights in advance.

Potsdamer Platz Architecture - Berlin
However a stand of six concrete panels, thick with old spray paint and crusty chewing gum, made us realize we were standing on historic grounds. From busy intersection, to desolate Berlin Wall Death-Zone, to location of one of the first Wall "breaches" in 1989 - the intense rebuilding over the last 22 years to once again become a major hub of activity must be hailed as an achievement.

Inspiringly Icky. Berlin Wall panel covered in chewing gum and beer bottle caps
Berlin's dark history as the former capital of the Third Reich and headquarters of the Gestapo (Nazi Germany's secret police), is present in a tactful shade visible in just enough quantity to remind people that "Oh yeah, that stuff was uncool. Let's not do that again." The Holocaust Memorial occupied one of the city's squares, its stark lines providing an irresistible photography subject.

Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Lady in the Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Ladybird on the Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
Holocaust Memorial - Berlin
A lengthy perusal of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) gave us a matter-of-fact rundown of the long history of the country that, like most of Europe, had rather flexible borders over time. It was actually a surprisingly fascinating museum, featuring such artefacts as Napoleon Bonaparte's hat, seized from the battlefield of Waterloo, and a huge world globe taken from the former Nazi Foreign Office that featured telling damage from bullets over the area representing Germany.

World War II Anger Management Issues. In the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) - Berlin
We checked out the longest remaining section of the original Berlin wall, its one and a half kilometre length becoming a symbol of unity for this part of the world - the East Side Gallery. In spite of the heat of the sun, we spent a decent hour or so browsing this fascinating collection of street art.

East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
East Side Gallery - Berlin
Peace man …

East Side Gallery - Berlin
At our first attempt at traditional German foods, the quality was rather mediocre. Downing superb bowls of Vietnamese salad in Alexanderplatz and authentic Thai noodles in Hausvogteiplatz, it appeared that international cuisine was very much the forté of local chefs. The currywurst, Berlin's tribute to fusion fast-food, threatened to rupture arteries in its quest to overwhelm our tastebuds with the most intense amount of curried ketchup and mayonnaise ever consumed on one humble pork sausage.

Currywurst (steamed and then fried pork sausage doused with curry powdered ketchup, fries and mayonnaise) - Berlin
We had more than one alfresco morning breakfast in town. Although nothing quite compared to our favourites in Melbourne, some came close. A humble stall at the Winterfeldtmarkt, Schöneberg turned out amazing cappuccinos, while an eatery near our hotel flipped tasty omelettes.

Breakfast in Berlin
And we did finally find one heartily satisfying German dish - the ubiquitous giant joint of tender pickled pork knuckle - Ben had his roasted with crunchy crackling, while I enjoyed my Eisbein all boiled and blubbery in the Berlin-style - served simply with potatoes and sauerkraut. It was a case of not eating for several hours before or after this meal; the only required accompaniment - a small beer on the side.

Eisbein (Berlin-style boiled pickled pork knuckle) - Berlin
Having had enough of the blockbuster war memorial sights we decided to just enjoy the lifestyle Berlin had to offer. Crossing the forests of Tiergarten, we had fun with gadgets in the Siegessäule access tunnels …

Digitally Inverted Shadows in the Siegessäule (Victory Column) access tunnels - Berlin
… before tackling the spiral staircase of the Victory Column itself.

Siegessäule (Victory Column) Spiral Staircase - Berlin
Mass at the Berliner Dom was a highly ornate affair …

Berliner Dom - Berlin
Berliner Dom - Berlin
… and the cabaret duo, Carrington-Brown, put on a fantastic show at the Bar Jeder Vernunft tent. Although a lot of the show was in German, many of the quips were in English, and there was enough universally naughty humour to keep us in stitches of laughter.

Having a Beer at the Caberet - Berlin
Venturing just out of the capital was easy with a direct S-Bahn to Potsdam. Picking up a couple of bicycles on the station platform we navigated the streets to Potsdam’s amazing Park Sanssouci, a huge landscaped garden, interspersed with grand palaces from the eras of Frederick the Great and such. We umm-ed and ahh-ed over whether to join the long queues for sold-out palace entrance tickets, but decided to pedal away from the crowds and explore the long, hedged and tree-lined pathways instead.

Cycling Riverside in Potsdam
Our course led us along the Havel River, taking in random historical buildings, scenic pubs, and the occasional turret, before we decided to while away the rest of the sunny summer afternoon relaxing, reading, and watching a young family learning to fish on the riverbank.

Relaxing Riverside in Potsdam
I have to say we liked Berlin. Not only was it a city with great historical sights, it also had the combined elements of a pleasurable lifestyle incorporating international people and food, a great public art scene, accessible expanses of restorative green space, and an anything-goes night-life. I could see how many people would decide to put their backpacks down, and stay.

Leaving the Gates of Berlin - Brandenburger Tor

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