Germany: Berlin is an all dancing, all singing, vibrant city, sadly with a turbulent history. Taking a few hours out and walking the Berlin Wall is 'living history' and well worth the effort
Three days in Berlin and our group of friends, including my partner and I, had enjoyed what most visitors to this great city had savored before us: numerous attractions, glorious nights out and great company. As for the Berlin Wall, well it was a case of, ‘if you have seen one piece, you have seen it all’. How wrong can one be!
Out & about
Our residence during the stay was boutique, superbly different, chic and comfortable. The room was very modern and delightfully large and catered for all our needs. The Suite Hotel Berlin (Anhalter Strasse, 2) also had the perfect location, very close to Potsdamer Platz, a mammoth modern piece of glass and steel architecture providing, bars, restaurants, cinemas, offices and shopping. Before that, it was waste ground festering between the East and the West. Facing the hotel is a derelict plot where SS and Gestapo headquarters once stood. It is now home to a subterranean outdoor museum, the Topography of Terror (Niederkirchnerstrasse 8). In its excavated cells, a photographic exhibition tells the graphic story of Nazi brutality. It is also here, that you will find the second longest stretch of the Berlin Wall.
The hotel was also only five minutes of leisurely stroll to Checkpoint Charlie (Friedrichstraase / Zimmersraase). Below the flags of the Soviet Union and the USA, we queued to have mandatory photos snapped. Amid laughter and conversation we drank coffee and consumed tasty omelettes and some mouth watering German pastries in the famous Café Adler (Friedrichstrasse 206; 030 2518965). Serving its endless stream of customers, this small café with a very pleasant and helpful service, is renowned for that defining moment on 9 November 1989 as its clientele scrambled out and up on to the wall, while the images were beamed across the globe; the Iron Curtain was collapsing.
As we were there for the anniversary of Germany's re-unification, we celebrated at the Brandenburg Tor along with the population of Berlin, drinking beer and Jägermeister and eating the German sausage (Strase des 17). Juni, the large public parkland facing Brandenburg, was the location of dozens of makeshift bars, cafés and eateries and thousands of jubilant revellers.
We danced and drank below large parasols outside huge promotion stands selling their famous schnapps. With great gusto, we sang or should I say, mimed, to German folk songs with arms crossed and hands held sitting at long tables decorated with huge two-litre beer das boot. The magnificent structure of the gate that defied world wars and tyranny stood proud, dignified and triumphant as the citizens went completely and absolutely into party mode.
Experiencing Oranienburger Strasse
Each night, we made our way into Mitte and the Hackescher Markt, a lively assortment of restaurants and bars that lie beneath railway arches; and Oranienburger Strasse, a mile long drag offering an absolute multitude of places to be wined, dined, entertained and propositioned. The women of the night are numerous but are delightfully unobtrusive. It has a beautiful veneer of seedy and sleaziness, with a captivating and endearing demeanor. The streets that run off Oranienburger are graced with delightful galleries, boutiques and cafés. Situated in the old east and originally the Jewish quarter before the deportation of its citizens during the last war, it offers an inexpensive night out in a part of Berlin that is an experience.
The district offers some Hotel Hackescher Markt (Große Präsidentenstr. 8). A four star boutique, that offers a fantastic location enabling you to walk to most of old East Berlin's attractions. Excellent restaurants and entertainment venues are on your doorstep. The rooms are just perfect and the public area offers a very nice bistro and bar.
My favourite restaurant was Brauhaus Lemke (Dircksenstraße 143; 030 2472-8728; www.brauhaus-lemke.com). Located beneath the railway arches at Hackescher Markt, this atmospheric eatery offers not only good hearty German food, but delicious, flavoursome beer that is brewed on the premises. Service is quick, but not in your face, the staff I have to say, are first class. The ambience is warm and welcoming, that makes you want to stay, converse, eat and drink more. Beef Goulash cooked in homemade beer and served with salty potatoes and salad will cost around 10 euros. Personally, I had a soft spot for the Krakaur Sausage, sauerkraut, fried potatoes with sweet mustard. A steal at 8 euros. A half litre of their toe-popping, lip-licking wheat beer cost around 3.50 euros.
For the best mojitos in Berlin and some quality Cuban sounds try QBA II (Oranienburger Strasse, 45; 030 28040505; www.qba-restaurant.de). You could be sitting in Havana, a truly authentic establishment with a much laid-back clientele. It also serves some very nice Latin American snacks with prices from 5/10 euros.
AM PM (S-Hackescher Markt, Zwirngraben 2; 030 24085301; www.amtopm.de) a 24-hour club serving food and drink all day with music beginning early in the evening and pulsating until the sun rises. Definitely for the more energetic among us, but we found it great fun with a mixed age group, fantastic cocktails, lively non-stop music and no cover charge. It does attract celebrities, so it can be sometimes difficult to gain admission; keep your groups small.
Three days and nights later, with bags packed and heavy heads, home beckoned us. Feeling that I had done Berlin an injustice by not retracing some of the wall, I decided to book my partner and I in for one more night, and re-arranged our flights. I was now determined to walk the wall without the constraints that travelling with a group of friends can sometimes create.
Walking the wall
The central and northern parts of the walks consist of more walls, watchtowers and museums, so we began our walk at Reichstagufer and strolled north along the River Spree. It took us through a small graveyard close to locations where young people were shot while trying to escape from the East. Modern low-level flats opened up, and in surreal fashion a large concrete watchtower sat amid its car parking at Kieler Strasse.
We were fortunate, the day was warm and sunny as we made our way along Gartenstrasse where the wall once travelled down the middle of the road, unusual looking streetlights; huge and alien in appearance lined its route, reminders of their purpose, as they illuminated the area with eye-piercing light.
Every so often plagues adorned walls and pavements containing information all too often about the fallen and the dead that tried to breach the walls. On turning left, we entered Bernauser Strasse, parallel walls run for several hundred metres around which the landscape and buildings have not altered. From this point to Eberswalder Strasse lay barren land, formally the ‘death strip’. It was here I felt the reality of the wall, with its intent, cruelty and outcome. A museum, information centre and viewing gallery, (www.berliner-mauer-dokumentationszentrum.de/eng/index_gedenk.html) over-looks this truly intimidating and living testimony to one man’s tyranny over another man’s weakness. We strolled another half kilometre before we ended our walk at Rosenhalter Strasse and headed into old East Berlin.
We entered a small café/bar hoping for a beer and coffee. From the outside it was grey, 1960s and uninviting, the interior was like an old woman’s parlour. China ornaments were neatly displayed and curtains draped the windows. The little bar counter had oddities like plastic flowers upon it. Small tables were dressed with flower-patterned plastic covers. But the people were very friendly and the price of two drinks was less than two euros. These tacky but quaint little bars are still part of the community spirit, and on nearby Oderberger Strasse they are still very popular.
Our extended stay in Berlin was an absolute success, allowing us to experience and learn more than we had in the previous three days put together. A few extra euros well spent.