Sunday, November 27, 2011

Berlin: "Even monkeys know this!"

Early Tuesday morning we caught the Orlybus, right outside our hotel, to Paris-Orly airport for our Air Berlin flight to Tegel. It couldn't have gone smoother: the bus ride was less than half an hour, our packs fit perfectly in the overhead compartments, and we got these delicious fresh pretzels filled with butter as a snack on the short flight.

The cab ride to our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, in former East Berlin, was one of the most entertaining of our lives: every taboo associated with the country's history had come up before we were even off the airport property, and it just went from there. A Berliner of Moroccan decent, he was nine when the wall came down. When asked what it was like, he said that the former East Berliners "just went crazy." Suddenly the world was available to them, and they wanted it in a single bite. "Bananas... They went crazy for them. But they didn't know how to open them. We had to teach them! Even monkeys know this!" While he was definitely hamming it up for us, a picture of the time emerged from the hyperbole.

What sticks with me now is how adrift he seemed: unable to fit in in the city of his birth because of the colour of his skin, his hair -- he told stories about a professor who was excited to supervise his work until they met face-to-face, fares now saying how good his German is and asking when he will be going home, the constant searches every time he travels -- and unable to fit in in Morocco (where his parents have now retired) because he doesn't speak Arabic. He repeated many times how he would leave Berlin after university; go anywhere else in Europe.

In some very small way, I could sympathize with his plight: as friendly as the Brits have been to us these last two years, those constant questions about how long we've been here, when we're going home, etc., ensure that this never truly feels like home. I am more thankful than ever that I do have a place to call home; where everyone sounds like me and... Well, I could go on and on about how much I've come to appreciate Canada, but let's get back to Berlin.

The main purpose of this leg of the trip was to see a few of the 50-odd Christmas markets and 80-odd pubs -- with Around Berlin in 80 Beers as our guide -- the city has to offer. I'll highlight a few of each, quickly comment on the others we visited, and then finish with the other sights we took in in between, during our five days in the German capital.

Note: all the places I'll mention were easily reachable from our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, including what is considered the more remote borough of Spandau; cheaply as well: the passes we used for the whole trip, purchased at a convenience store near our apartment, gave us passage on any train (U- and S-Bahn) or tram, all for little more than €30 each.

Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas Markets)

Topping our list is the WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt, nestling between the French and German Cathedrals. We first happened upon it as the early sunset drew the afternoon fog to evening. It was almost magical, with the festive lights, smells and music, and the bigger city left in the mists. We enjoyed it so much that we stopped by the next day, enjoying delicious fried potato medallions, sausages and mulled wine before making our way to Checkpoint Charlie.

Next up would have to be the market at Charlotteburg Palace. Approaching it at night, walking up Schloss (Palace) Strasse, was a treat; it really was beautifully lit. With a good mix of outdoor stalls and heated indoor shopping, it was easy to spend some time there as well. Some local celebrities seemed to be on hand the night we visited: we turned a corner to find the avenue of stalls lit bright white, cameras following these two wide-smiling folks slowly making their way along, chatting with 'locals' in a clearly staged manner.

Other Christmas markets we visited included:
  • Alexanderplatz: a frequent stop, as it was closest to our apartment. Dominated by an enormous, beautifully-lit replica of a Christmas Pyramid, all in the shadow of Television Tower.
  • Der Grosse Berliner: like a fair or ex, with big rides and shooting galleries amongst the usual stalls and tasty fare.
  • Nostalgischer Weihnachtsmarkt: a nice market in Berlin's historic centre. Chips in a paper cone was a rare (and tasty!) treat there.
  • Potsdamer Platz: surrounded by skyscrapers, including the beautiful Sony Center (more on that later), we learned about the Hungarian origins of trdelnik (a Tea favourite) and bombed down a man-made icy slope in an inner tube!
  • City Weihnachtsmarkt: a bustling market in the shadow of the unique Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
  • Spandau Weihnachtsmarkt: about twenty minutes west of the famous Friedrichstrasse station by commuter train, this was well worth the trip. It had a small town feel and great community spirit. Plus the stalls serving Baileys in cocoa were a big hit. (And there was a great brewpub out there as well; more on that shortly.)
  • Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt in Kulturbrauerei: the last one we visited, with a medieval feel. There was some sort of reading going on in a nearby warehouse; the place had an awesome vibe. I saw German translations of Craig Thompson and Guy Delisle favourites on sale.

Stephen at Weihnachtsmarkt Alexanderplatz

Pubs and Brewpubs

Tea gave me a copy of Around Berlin in 80 Beers by Peter Sutcliffe a few days before we left, and, for me, it made the trip. There are just so many choices in Berlin -- well, in Germany in general, from what I've seen -- that you need a plan going in. This was reinforced right from the outset, as our first pick, Brauhaus Mitte, was amazing, and my #1 of those we visited. Everything Sutcliffe says is bang-on: you'd never know you're in a mall -- great atmosphere, really -- and while all four of their beers (brewed on-site) in the sampler were tasty, their Hefeweisse Hell was the star. And to top it all off, the meal was excellent as well.

"Tastes like chicken!"
My second choice is a bit tougher. In the end, I'll go with another brewpub, Lindenbrau, for a few reasons: we could see the roof of the beautiful Sony Center from where we were sitting; the one beer they brew, their Hofbrau-Wei├če, was excellent; and, most importantly, when Tea asked the waiter to surprise her with a meal, not only did he fail to hesitate, he brought the winning meal in our minds: this beautiful cooked breast of duck. Great spot!

Other pubs we visited included:
  • zum Paddenwirt: a quiet, cosy pub; we'd popped in for a snack, and their soups hit the spot.
  • Mommsen-Eck (Haus der 100 Biere): yeah, that's a hundred beers, all right. Sutcliffe's recommendation was perfect: a rauchbier or smoked lager. The best bit? When I ordered it, the waiter got this big ole smile on his face, "Tastes like chicken!" He wasn't wrong.
  • Berliner Republik: great li'l' irreverent pub. Inspired by Tea's success at Lindenbrau, we all got fowl -- duck, duck, goose as she kept saying all night. Great food, I enjoyed my krug (two?) of Zwick'l, and we stuck around to see the stock ticker of beer prices start up: prices fluctuate based on volumes ordered!
  • Brauhaus in Spandau: as stated earlier, this is a bit out from the centre, but well worth the trip. As Sutcliffe says, their property is almost a neighbourhood, and there's a really warm, welcoming atmosphere. We tried their strong, deceptively smooth Weihnachtsbier (or seasonal specialty) and lighter Havelbrau, as well as enjoying a great supper.
  • Zillemarkt: the 'house beer' Zillebrau (technically, brewed off-site, but specifically for them) was excellent, as were our meals: my cabbage roll was epic! The works of Heinrich Zille are also on display throughout, and well worth a peek.
  • Alois S.: last, but not least, it's more of a restaurant (specializing in tapas, actually) than a pub. Unfortunately, they no longer have the Augustiner Edelstoff on tap, but the brewery's Hell is still very good. We tested it as a late night dessert spot, and, wow, did it blow our socks off. A great end to the trip.
The 'stock ticker' in Berliner Republik

Note: a comment or two about two misses:
  1. Eschenbrau: doesn't open 'til later. I have no excuse, as Sutcliffe lists all the hours for every entry, but as it's a bit out of the way (in Wedding) and I was very disappointed to find it closed, I just thought I'd highlight it.
  2. Willy Bresch: probably because it was so close to our apartment, I took this one for granted. Don't. Set aside a weeknight for it if you can, as it's really small, and, when busy, as it was the Friday we tried to go, incredibly smoky. (And I'm not normally overly bothered by that sort of thing.) A shame, as it's Sutcliffe's favourite pub in Berlin.


Visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial was a humbling experience. Across the street from the remaining section, the view on high really drives home how much more it was than a wall. Historical accounts, both there and at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, were so immersive: they even had some of the modes of escape on display in the latter. Finally, the Window of Remembrance (also at the memorial) seemed to dampen all ambient sound: as I stared at the portraits of all those who died trying to escape, it seemed that nature itself mirrored the solemn moment.

The first victim shot trying to escape after the wall went up in '61

The nearby Chapel of Reconciliation provides a segue for the lasting impression the city left on me: that of a creative hub, still working to reinvent itself. The architecture on display -- the chapel, the Sony Center, and the Reichstag Dome all being excellent examples -- really made a big impression on me. It truly is a beautiful city.

Inside the Chapel of Reconciliation

Speaking of the Reichstag, you have to book tours of the Dome in advance. Luckily we found this out early enough in the trip to book a slot in the morning of our last full day in Berlin. What an impressive structure! That, the view, and the excellent audio guide made for an entertaining and educational hour or so -- from detailing the skyline, to discussion of how the cone reflects light down to the parliament floor and reclaims water, to describing the functions of the government itself. Certainly a highlight of the trip!

Although I was a bit too young (and immature) to appreciate the significance of those views of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989, no one can approach it today, particularly at night along Unter den Linden, free from the weight of history. That evening we then cut across the immense Tiergarten parkland to Potsdamer Platz, the leaves crunching underfoot in the near black adding to the solemnity of the occasion.

Finally, we spent a few hours in the Berlin Zoo as well. Highlights included the hippopotamuses -- one of the young ones stole the show -- the condors -- the whoop, whoop of their wings as they flew from perch to perch was truly awesome -- and the lions at feeding time: nearly wet my pants during the latter, if I'm honest; that cage looked like tinfoil by the time they all finally had their huge chunks o' meat.

Up next: the trip movie!

PS: Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

1 comment:

  1. I wondered why the name Peter Sutcliffe rang a very loud bell. Now I know and it's not for writing. How often has his name come into question with the general public; I wonder.