First stop – Caffe Einstein. I’d read about this in my guidebook (I always do my research like a good little geek…), so we were pleased to find it on the way to walking down to the Brandenburg Gate for the start of our tour. I tucked into a gorgeous creamy hot chocolate, and we shared some classic German beetroot soup which had some yummy horseradish dumplings. We were feeling really smug at not only locating the cafe and eating German food; when we realised it’s actually a chain of cafes the next day, we continued to pretend we’d experienced some authentic cuisine and left it at that.
Brandenburg Gate! It was really impressive, and we were so lucky with the weather. It might look a bit grey (I blame my crappy iPhone photos) but it was actually quite bright and the previous few weeks had been drizzly and horrid. So hurray for bright greyness!!! Like a lot of Berlin, the Gate was badly damaged in the war, but you can’t tell unless you properly look. To the left is the American embassy, and to the right the French, which had lots of candles and flowers laid in front for Charlie Hebdo. And just along from the American embassy is Hotel Adlon. The name might not mean anything to you (me neither!), but apparently it’s where Michael Jackson dangled Blanket out of the window. Remember? I guess I sort of recognised the windows (not really) so I haven’t bored you with a photo.
Gate Selfie #2. In the background you can sort of see the Tiergarten, which is the biggest park, and a sort of tent thing to the right of that which was the start of Berlin Fashion Week. Which we missed. Gah!
This was at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews. It’s a stone’s throw from the Gate, and by this point, we’d hopped on to our free walking tour which was led by a great German girl called Francesca. At first, her English was so good that Mr T was put out because he thought we had an English guide, but she soon ‘came out’ as a local girl. Anyway, she led us through the Gate, littering the walk to the Memorial with plenty of interesting tidbits.
The Memorial was only opened a few years ago, and it’s been pretty controversial. Why? Because it’s very modern for a start. Six million jews were murdered and there are only 2000 and something concrete blocks, but you couldn’t possibly have a real amount; in fact, you couldn’t even fit all the names on the blocks (we only know about four million of them anyway). We were told it was ok to sit on the blocks, but not ok to walk or stand on them (we saw people doing both) as well as lying down to pose. I was not a fan of that.
I think it’s a really beautiful memorial if I’m honest. There are lots of theories about the way it looks, but no conclusive one. Francesca explained a few: no single block is the same as another so they represent everyone; a whole tour group can disappear in the blocks in a matter of seconds so it shows how easy it is to extinguish many of us; it’s not easy to walk side by side so we all walk alone. Whatever you think, it’s interesting. Below the Memorial is a museum but we didn’t have time so we earmarked it for the next day.
This is Hitler’s Bunker. Sort of. It’s actually my feet (getting tired already!) standing on the spot above his bunker, except the bunker was destroyed by the government and now there’s a car park. I absolutely understood the reasoning for destroying the bunker (as the site of Hitler’s suicide, they didn’t want to create a rallying point for Neo-Nazis) but, at the same time, I also wish it still existed as it would have been fascinating.
Don’t judge me, but when Francesca confirmed that Hitler had definitely died there it surprised me. I still had in my head that there was a chance that his remains hadn’t been conclusively identified, and then I love a good conspiracy theory even if it does involve Nazis living in South America. I said don’t judge! Anyway, apparently it is conclusive. So there. She mentioned the movie Downfall as a great insight into his last days, so Mr T and I added it to our list of movies to watch when we got back.
These are some of the flats overlooking the bunker, and are apparently very Eastern European! The next spot on our tour was a very big, very grey, very severe looking building that was classic Nazis architecture. Very few Nazis buildings were left after the war; either they were destroyed during or after, but the Stazi were big fans of the whole Nazis aesthetic so they kept this one. Again, no photo as it wasn’t really very spectacular, or, more to the point, it was rather grim but if you really want to see it, check out Valkyrie!
I was curious that there weren’t any swastikas around (again, please don’t judge my ignorance) but there’s a severe penalty for showing the sign anywhere in Germany, and another case where they don’t want to encourage fanatics.
And now, The Topography of Terror (another fun name, I know), which is a museum about the Nazis and the SS, built over the former site of their main interrogation building. It also has a big strip of the Berlin Wall running alongside it. It was quite exciting to see this in situ, and I was torn between thinking it was smaller than I thought (I had something Gaza Strip-esque in my mind) and also being a lot taller when you stand right next to it and look up.
Again, Francesca hit us up with some facts – the initial wall went up overnight – literally. So one day you could live in East Berlin and visit your parents in the West, and the next day, you couldn’t. People were left stranded, and in some cases, had to make one of the toughest decisions of their lives. There wasn’t one single wall, but several inner and one outer, and in between the East and West there was the ‘death strip’. Not an official name, but at places there were strips of sand raked every evening so that all the footprints could be checked for escape attempts, and it was all booby trapped with some really disgusting things. It was sickening to hear about really, and I had had no idea.
I think I preferred this stretch of the wall – plain and mostly unadulterated – to the painted sections of the East Side Gallery (which you’ll see later). I understand wanting to take ownership of the wall, hence the art work, but it wasn’t a pretty construction (physically or politically) and sometimes it pays to be reminded of that.
This is the Ampelmann. I didn’t know about his popularity before our trip. I’m still not entirely sure what it’s all about, but there were shops everywhere selling the little green and red men!
Mr T was absolutely thrilled to tuck into his first slice of apfel kuchen (apple cake). Everywhere we went you could see great slabs of it, and it was always amazing.
Where the Wall was taken down, these stepping stones were put in place. You’d think they’d make a somewhat nice walk, but the entirety of the Berlin Wall covers several hundred kilometres so maybe not!
This was a really remarkable memorial set in the square, outside the main university, where the Nazis book burnings took place. Thousands of books were burned, and this white room with empty shelves would hold exactly the number of burned books. It was very impressive to look at, and chilled me as I remembered a quote along the lines of, ‘once people start burning books, people themselves will follow shortly’. I was just telling Mr T about this when Francesca pointed out the plaque below, which was a little to the side, which is that quote. That definitely gave me a chill.
I’ll give you all a second to change the pace – the tour has finished, and Mr T and I decided to get some drinks from one of the bars nearby that the guidebook had mentioned. We were headed for Bar Newton in particular, so named for the giant photos taken by Helmut Newton displayed inside; the same Helmut Newton who is known for his nudes…
Trust me, that is Mr T’s awkward face!
This is at Fassbender and Rausch, which is a famous chocolate shop with its flagship shop on the edge of The Gendarmenmarkt (meant to be the most beautiful square in all of Berlin). We drooled over the cakes and vowed to come back later (we had bookings at another restaurant for dinner…)
And this is a solid chocolate Brandenburg Gate; although Francesca did warn us it had been there for as long as she had been in Berlin (at least more than a decade!) so maybe not that tempting after all.
And now for our evening meal. We have the lovely Collins to thank for this. When I was asking about recommendations, she suggested Cantina at Bar Tausend. Like the organised person I was, I checked out the meal online, thought it looked good and made a reservation. The food, said the website, was a fusion of Fine Asian and Ibero-American (niche), but hey, Mr T and I both love tapas and sushi so we were in!
We were lucky that we spotted a group of people waiting outside this iron door under the main railway bridge, otherwise we’d have been two confused puppies. The door swung open, and lo and behold, inside was Tausend. A gentleman with circular framed glasses checked us in, and we were led to our table. We were in the first sitting of the evening, and had a lovely female maitre d’ who talked us through the menu.
I have to admit, I gulped a bit at the prices but hey, we were on holiday. First of all I went for an Eden cocktail which was a thing of beauty and deliciousness – a sort of cucumber vodka, elderflower and apple concoction – and Mr T went for ‘the sweetest cocktail in the world’ (his words), but he seemed to devour it fast enough! It was quite dark inside so you’ll have to excuse the grainy pics!
First of all we shared the tenderest chicken skewers, and then for the mains we had black cod with garlic rice and a platter of sashimi. The food was immense. Honest to god, immense. I’ve never had black cod before, but I gather it’s a bit of a delicacy and it didn’t disappoint. And while the squid sashimi slid down in a less than pleasant way (bleurgh), the rest was very tasty! A few more cocktails, and then the creme catalan for me and some chocolate and pineapple fancy thing for Mr T and we were done. Yes, it’s not cheap, but it was a fabulous experience and I definitely recommend it.
And so ended our first day in Berlin. Watch this space for days two and three!