Though both Sarah and I had been to Germany a number of times before neither of us had ever visited the country’s capital. Of all the places we’d been on this trip, Berlin was the one we were most confident about our accomodation situation, with an old friend of Sarah’s and multiple friends of her brother all living in the city. As it turned out, problems with a landlord, an out of town holiday, a sister’s 30th brithday party and a lack of even the most basic furniture meant that none of our prospective hosts could manage to put us up. No matter.we found a good deal on a hotel just outside the city’s ring metro line and were comfortably ensconced there by mid afternoon.
Berlin put on a bit of a show for us on the occasion of our first visit, with a big snowstorm on the first day.
The weather made us a little reluctant to leave our hotel, but by early evening it had calmed and we made plans to meet Bernhard, a friend we’d met some years before at Michael and Carmen’s wedding.
We met at the Alexanderplatz Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market) for some Gluhwein. As it turned out Bernhard was well prepared for our visit, and had picked our meeting place specially to allow him to present us with a Christmas gift from Sarah’s mom: a trip up to the viewing platform of the Fernsehturm, the tallest building in Germany. So it was that we spent out first Berlin Night in style, sipping at beers some 203m above street level with the lights of the city spread out below us.
The view from the top
In addition to our visit with Bernhard we also managed to spend quite a bit of time with Sarah’s mate Amanda while we were in Berlin.
Berlin had an odd feel to it. It seemed an interesting city, modern yet historical, lively and multicultural. But at the same time it felt like the city didn’t really know what to do with itself. It lacked a focus, and seemed to have neither a historical city centre like, say, Istanbul has, or a modern, built up business district like in Toronto. This impression was accentuated by the fact that the cold weather had us taking the metro between places rather than walking as we usually do. Perhaps the fact that the city was ravaged in WW2, then split in half for fifty years afterwards has something to do with this impression.
It was interesting to see how the rend in the city had healed so quickly. While we’d heard that in the years following the fall of the wall there was still a night and day difference between the east and west of the city, this had all but vanished. At street level, new street signs and lighting had been installed on both sides of the former divide. New businesses had opened up in the east, bringing new shopfronts with them. And since a Starbucks or an H&M (or, indeed, a trendy independent coffee shop) looks more or less the same anywhere in the world, the streets of East and West Berlin were all but indistinguishable to an untrained, foreign eye. That said, once you got up above the daily hum on the streets for a broader view (e.g. on the top of the Reichstag), the divide was still evident: there was no missing the architectural divide with half of the city covered by grey monolithic apartment blocks that screamed “eastern European communist!”
Of course none of this is to say that I didn’t like Berlin. Indeed, it was a fabulous place to visit. We saw the classic sights: the Brandenburg gate, the new Reichstag (or Bundestag… there seems to be some confusion or at least disagreement about what the proper and/or PC name for the German house of parliament) dome, the public double decker bus “tour” of the central city, the remains of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Museum Island (including, of course, the spectacular Pergamon Museum), the Christmas markets… We really did cram tons into our four day visit.
Sarah with a remnant of the Berlin wall. Most of the wall has been removed but a few small sections remain. This one’s about 1km long, and several hundred metres of that have been turned into the “east side gallery,” featuring art painted on the wall itself.
Perhaps the most famous of the works on this section of the wall is this one, “Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben,” or “My God, help me survive this deadly love.” The two men pictured are Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the East German communist party
Across the city from the gallery was Checkpoint Charlie, the border crossing used by US and other allied personnel to cross into the eastern zones of the city
Though the wall is now all but gone and the formerly desolate areas bordering it redeveloped, a small reminder remains: a strip of stone running flush with the ground through the city marking the former location of the wall.
It wouldn’t be a Berlin ‘blog entry without a photo of the Brandenberg gate
Winter’s day in the huge urban park called the Tiergarten
Modern architecture usually has a hard time impressing me, but this huge “tented” (pseudo) public space in the Sony Centre near Potsdamplatz was an exception. The area was in one of the “dead” zones of west Berlin as it was so close to the wall, but after reunification it became a prime central city development spot
A snowy day on the Museuminsel (museum island)
The incredible north facade of the Pergamon altar. The museum featured huge indoor reconstructions using mostly original elements, of ancient sites from across the world
Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, once again from the Pergamon Museum
Smaller, but even more ornate, the Aleppo room was moved from the Ottoman era home of a Jewish merchant in (unsurprisingly) Aleppo, Syria
The view from the Reichstag dome, which featured a sprialling ramp that visitors followed up to the top, then down again, while listening to an audioguide pointing out the highlights to be seen as they turned circles around the city.
We were rather surprised to learn that the dome wasn’t enclosed, so it was a bit chilly up there. The mirrors in the interior are rotated throughout the day to direct sunlight through a glass skylight down into the legislative chamber below
And in addition to the obvious stuff, we also managed to spend plenty of time with Sarah’s mate Amanda. While she wasn’t a local she was, at least a resident, which meant we got to see some cool un-touristy spots we were unlikely to have made it to on our own: a quiet local bar in a neighbourhood that reminded me of the gentrified parts of Parkdale in Toronto, a Vietnamese restaurant that gave me the fix of Pho that I’d been craving for months, or a bustle-cozy cafe on a beautiful, tree lined, snow covered avenue where we stuffed ourselves with cake as more snow fell outside.
Amanda also kept us company on some of our visits to the second tier (but usually still first rate) attractions of Berlin.
The one of these that most excited me was probably the Natural History Museum. My interest in visiting came from the fact that amongst its collection are some of the most famous dinosaur (and close relative) fossils in the world. But if we came for the dinosaurs, we stayed for the interpretive displays: the museum team had done a stupendously good job, both at making the displays visibly engaging and, more importantly, at using the specimens on display to explain and illustrate scientific principles (e.g. using the Quagga [an extinct relative of the zebra that only had stripes on the front half of its body]) to make a point about natural selection.
Sarah and Amanda in front of a Schneeballen (snowball) stand. Traditional Weinachtsmarkt food, schneeballen are made up of something like pie pastry formed into a ball shape, baked and dipped in coatings like chocolate or powdered sugar.
African American blues singers at another weinachtsmarkt. Odd, but apparently very popular. This same market featured a santa “flew” over the crowd in a sleigh suspended from a cable and powered by a lawn mower engine.
When I was young my dad gave me a book titled “the Dinosaur Heresies,” at one point it talked about competing views on how sauropods (the large, long necked, long tailed dinosaurs) walked. One side of the argument was upheld by a group of German paleontologists who displayed their big sauropods in accordance with their view. This led the author to call theirs “the Teutonic Diplodocus.” The fossilized skeleton in this photo is THE Teutonic Diplodocus, its legs long since rearranged
Even better than the Teutonic Diplodocus: perhaps the most famous fossil in the world. The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx (the first ever bird) is perhaps the best preserved of the mere 11 full or partial fossils of the creature that have been discovered
A large portion of the museum’s collection of soft specimens preserved in formaldehyde filled jars was on display in a glass room visible to visitors as they walked around its exterior. One of the coolest museum exhibits ever!
A hammerhead shark in a jar!
Another interesting spot we visited was the monument to the murdered Jews of Europe. The monument itself is visually striking, occupying a whole block of the city near the Brandenburg gate. And the museum beneath is even more striking. Even for one who had a fairly good idea of the history of the Nazi persecution of Jews and others, the documentation of it was at once chilling and terribly sad. It’s interesting to compare the German treatment of the holocaust to the views of government sanctioned persecution and murder in some of the other places we’d visited (e.g. Japan, China, Turkey) some were radically different, some were similar, but I don’t think any displayed the same degree of official recognition as in Berlin, where there were monuments all around the city to the different groups who were the victims of the Nazis.
The memorial from outside
And Sarah inside. Though the tops of the pillars (or stelae as they called them) show only small variations in level, the ground underneath them undulates as well, meaning that some are much taller than others (some over 3m high.)
On a happier, more lighthearted note, on our final evening in Berlin we also made a visit to the Carl Zeiss Grosseplanetarium. It was probably the largest planetarium either of us had ever visited (which is more than a trivial distinction, as we make a point of visiting planteria whenever we can.) Appropriate, given the fact that most of the projectors we’d seen at other planetaria were made by the German company, Carl Zeiss (intriguingly, the company, which had offices and factories in both the east and the west, was split in two after partition, only to be merged again following reunification.)
Sarah with the planetarium dome
And of course in addition to all the sightseeing and visiting, we did find time to have a bit of beer. A visit to the Lowenbrau bierhalle with Amanda (because apparently we hadn’t got enough of Bavaria when we were actually there) and much more importantly, some Berliner Weisse.
Berliner Weisse is a pale, hazy, low alcohol (2.5-3.5% ABV) wheat beer. It has a tart, almost sour flavour that comes from the fact that much of its fermentation is done by lactobacillus bacteria instead of yeast. Historically it was drunk straight as a refreshing beverage, and was called “the champagne of the north” by Napoleon. But tastes change, and today it’s almost universally drunk with a shot of green (woodruff or “waldmeister”) or red (raspberry or “himbeer”) syrup to sweeten it and cut the tartness. So much so that when we went to pubs or restaurants and I explicitly ordered a Berliner Weisse without syrup it often elicited funny looks from the wait staff.
A Berliner Weisse in the traditional, curiously shaped, glass
If beer came second to sightseeing in Berlin, it was the other way around in D Saccharomyces pastorianususseldorf. Our primary reason for visiting was to have a try of a style known as Altbier in its home town. We got off to a good start in this, heading to the grocery store and picking up a mixed selection on our first night there to go along with the curry we’d made to share with our Couchsurfing hosts Arjen and Anjika.
The next day we ended up walking into town from their home in a multicultural suburb of the city (an area that seemed lovely to us, but that they said was not particularly popular with most Dusseldorfers… too many foreigners aparently!)
Once in the old town at the centre of the city, stop number one was the Schlussel altbier brewpub. (Like the name of the city it’s in, Schlussel is supposed to have an umlaut over the u, but I can’t be bothered digging through special characters menus for it [I can, however, be bothered to write explanations of the fact and explanations of the explanations, taking considerably longer than it would have to get it right to begin with.])
Altbier is a very peculiar German brew. As discussed in the previous entry, just about every beer made in Germany is bottom fermenting or, “lager” as it’s commonly known. Only in this tiny corner of the country, in the cities of Dusseldorf and Koln (missing an umlaut there too…) are (non weizenbier) ales still made. You see lager brewing is a relatively new thing, having begun in the Czech Republic sometime in the mid 1800s (when the species of yeast used in fermenting lagers first appeared from [still somewhat] uncertain origins.) Before this time, all beers were top fermenting ales. This was, thus, the “old” kind of beer, which is precisely what Altbier means.
There are nine breweries in and around Dusseldorf that make altbier. We didn’t make it to all of them but managed a fairly solid six. This wasn’t nearly the liver splitting challenge it would have been in Bamberg as, unlike in Bavaria, each brewery makes one (or at the very most two) types of beer, and they’re served in 200 or 250m glasses instead of 500mls.
Me in the Schlussel brewpub looking quite pleased with my altbier
The beer itself was a joy. By a fair margin my favourite of the classic styles we’d tried in Germany, it was roughly copper coloured, had a nice hop aroma, a clearly noticeable, often slightly fruity yeast-derived richness, and a healthy big whack of hop bitterness that stuck around on your tongue. As far as the best altbier goes, it was actually no contest, the grandest and best known of the altbier breweries, Uerige, produced the tastiest and most bitter of the lot, and it was the clear favourite for both of us.
Despite the focus on beer, that wasn’t the only thing we did in Dusseldorf. The city is well known as a centre of art and culture in Germany, and galleries are everywhere. We eschewed the city’s main modern art gallery (would have taken too much time away from beer tasting) but hit a couple of smaller ones. The first held an exhibition of art by a 1950s American anti-artist. Kind of aligned with the dadaists, though not quite as outright weird, it seemed that his main goal was to irritate the consumers of his work (and those of visual art in general.)
The other was a great exhibition in a bit of underground “dead space” resulting from the construction of a riverside motorway tunnel. Weird ceramic action figures, fascinating video installations, and an almost scary life sized moving mannequin were the stars of the show. Everything in the gallery showed real technical skill, which is one of the keys to my enjoying “modern” art.
Public sculpture and ferris wheel on the edge of old Dusseldorf
Sunset over the river Dussel
More spectacular public art. Like a Dürer print come to life!
Sarah in the Kunst im Tunnel (culture in tunnel) gallery
Dusseldorf central station
After Dusseldorf we had one final short stop in Germany. We’d managed to arrange our train trip to Brussels so that we’d have four hours in Koln (or Cologne as it’s known in English) to visit its famed cathedral, take a stroll through its streets and try the OTHER Rhineland ale, Koln’s own Kolsch beer.
We only managed to hit one brewery in Koln, the well regarded Malzmuhle. The bierhalle was great. Fabulous cheerful atmosphere, classically rough around the edges but still humourous waiters. It really was right up there with my favourite places for a beer in Germany. Sadly, however, the beer didn’t live up to the promise of the environment. For ages Dusseldorf and Koln have had a strong rivalry with one another, most especially when it comes to their beer. I can now firmly come down on one side and say that, in the brewing stakes at least, Dusseldorf is the clear winner. Kolsch was fine, but unexciting. It’s been described as “the ale that wants to be a lager.” An apt description indeed and one that, to my tastebuds at least, means that it ends up doing neither particularly well.
That said, Koln was a lovely place to visit. Definitely livelier, more energetic and prettier than Dusseldorf, so (if anyone actually cared what I think) Koln can take some solace in that.
Koln Dom (cathedral) by day and night
One of the bishops entombed in the cathedral
Me in the Malzmuhle brewpub with my glass of Kolsch
A charming nativity scene (complete with buff!) in central Koln
Our time in Germany ended with something uncharacteristic to the point of being shocking: a delayed train. And not just five minutes or so. By the time the problems (whose nature I’m still not entirely clear on) had been sorted out, we ended up arriving in Brussels almost three hours late, giving us just enough time to figure out how to buy tickets in a world that seemed to take only huge volumes of coins or Belgian credit cards, and take the last suburban train of the night out to where we planned to meet our Brussels CS host.
The Ampelmännchen shop in Berlin. Ampelmännchen is the name for the stout little behatted man who graced east Germany’s pedestrian signals for many years. After reunification he began to be replaced with more standard, western designs, but public outcry from those who loved Ampelmännchen led to his reappearance in Berlin and some other eastern cities
Sarah with a rather manic looking me at the Lowenbrau beer hall in Berlin
Koln cathedral and Christmas market
Tags: Altbier, Berlin, Berliner Weisse, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Germany, Koln, Kolsch, Llew Bardecki, Travel