I got back last night from Berlin, where C and I spent four days, three of them rainy. All of them cold. But every day was packed with good food, Christmas cheer and learning about the history of all that transpired in this fascinating, multifaceted city.
I’ve had two German roommates, whom I lived with in total for six years, so I’ve eaten a lot of German chocolate and heard a lot about Christmas traditions. Christmas season makes me automatically happy with how it radiates warmth despite the cold, and I really wanted to come and see the Christmas markets. I would want to visit Berlin anyway because I’ve heard loads about how interesting and cool of a city it is, but the Christmas markets are the only reason I would go in the rainy, windy, dreary winter.
Of course, there is so much more to Berlin than just bratwurst and gluhwein, and every day that C and I were there, it felt like we were unraveling yet another layer of the city’s history, culture and cuisine. The city really grew on me, and by the last day I was looking forward to coming “home” to London, yet also sad to leave.
Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
C and I arrived at the Ostbahnhof station in East Berlin and walked to where we were staying in Kreuzberg on a quiet Sunday morning. And by quiet, I mean borderline desolate. The neighborhood looked industrial, with broken windows and graffiti and an unsightly riverfront, and there was no one out on the street. But then we dropped off our luggage and took our host’s recommendation to go to brunch at Morgenland–and it turns out, the streets are empty because everyone is at brunch! Brunch is the thing to do in Berlin on a Sunday–a cozy, candlelit buffet lunch.
In our neighborhood, we also loved this little cafe just down the street called Gouter. Delicious cafe au lait and pastries, warm ambience, good music. In all restaurants and cafes we went to, there was something very cozy about it, as though you were sitting in someone’s living room having coffee and a chat. The facade of the building might be a graffitied concrete block, but it doesn’t stifle the vibrance and warmth that happens just on the other side.
Frohe Weihnachten! (Merry Christmas!)
In all, I went to four Christmas markets–at Gendarmenmarkt, Schloss Charlottenburg and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, and at Potsdam. Gendarmenmarkt was the most crowded and touristy, but something about the bustle of crowds makes it feel more exciting in that Christmas-is-coming way. Charlottenburg was beautiful and felt more artisan and local, while the market at the Kaiser Wilhelm felt the most commercial. Potsdam was magical and charming.
Berlin is the fulcrum of much of modern history, especially the 20th century. There’s so much to take in, not least of all the realization of how deeply impactful and how recent it all was. For example, the fact that undetonated American bombs slow down construction and rebuilding in Berlin because drilling too fast can be deadly, or that Pariser Platz could only be rebuilt after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989. We looked through a book of photographs of Berlin from 1945-1955, and it was incredible to think that the places we had been traversing were so badly ruined, then left so long in ruins because of the Cold War.
Every day after walking around and visiting places like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Hitler’s bunker, Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall Memorial, we’d be left with a list of historical things to look up. The presentation of these historical memorials, apart from the grandiose plazas and parks, is very understated, yet still very moving. There’s so much footage, too, of the Cold War–people’s desperate attempts to flee to the West, the demolition of the Church of Reconciliation–that makes the mark of history indelible.
Bernauer Strasse and the Berlin Wall Memorial
Museums and Sights
I went to four of Berlin’s museums: the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie Memorial/Museum, Bauhaus Museum and the Pergamon Museum. (This partly explains why I still haven’t been to any of London’s museums–I go to too many in other cities!)
The Jewish Museum was very beautifully and thoughtfully designed, and it was mostly educational and interactive, as a sort of anti-anti-Semitic discourse. I already know a good bit about Jewish customs and history, so I was mostly interested in the sections from 1933-present, and rushed through the first several centuries.
Checkpoint Charlie was the opposite in terms of layout and content; where the Jewish Museum was impeccably curated but lighter on content, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum was a trove of information thrown haphazardly together. There was so much I wanted to know, but I couldn’t find it. Who are the American and Soviet soldiers in the photos above Checkpoint Charlie? How and when exactly did the wall come down–by public uprising, explicit order, or implicit consent? The museum was fascinating, impassioned, overwhelming. I didn’t have enough time to take it all in.
But the Pergamon was my favorite. There are painstaking recreations of ancient temples and grand city entrances from Turkey, Greece, Rome, Babylon. The entire room’s walls are reconstructions of those columns, porticoes and gates; you really feel like you’re there.
I was especially entranced with the Babylonian section, because it was straight out of the book of Daniel; I half expected to see “The writing on the wall.” There is, in fact, on one wall an inscription beginning, “I, Nebuchadnezzar.” It reminded me of the chapter in Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar writes his letter after he recovers from his temporary madness. The inscription shown above went something along the lines of, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, built this gate, and luxuriously painted it with lions, etc….” Love it.
Having arrived on Sunday morning, we also attended a church service at the Berlin Cathedral in the evening (the moon is shining through the cathedral dome in the distance). We didn’t understand a word (well, C caught a few French phrases), but it was lovely, and I just enjoyed the worshipful atmosphere and took some time to pray.
*A tip, in case you’re planning a trip to Berlin–going up the cupola of the Reichstag is free, but you have to sign up online at least 3-4 days prior. C and I didn’t get to go because we didn’t realize this far enough in advance. Looking at it from the outside, the cupola didn’t seem as impressive as it actually is–but after looking up some images later that evening, I definitely felt a pang of regret! So don’t miss out on this if you do go, and send me some pictures! :)
There were two Korean restaurants on our block, one called Angry Chicken (SO SO ANGRY)–the picnic table outside the restaurant even hurls profanities at you while you eat! Just down the block is Kimchi Princess (김치공주). We had dinner at Kimchi Princess, and the food was so good and authentically Korean that I temporarily forgot I was in Berlin. Come on, London! What’s up with the crappy Korean food and pay-to-eat banchan dishes?
Schlepping Round the Schloss
On our daytrip to Potsdam, we also visited the Schloss Sanssouci and toured inside. It was the most lavish rococo I’ve ever seen. Really beautiful. I love that when you’re king, you can say, “Hey, I really like ruins. Let’s build some fake ruins on the hilltop exactly in my line of sight, and shear down the rest of the mountain, so I can see fake ruins from the courtyard of my summer home.”
And voila! Fake ruins on a distant hilltop! We got silly, because the courtyard reminded us of the rotunda from the Sound of Music. Hehe. This was just too cute (hope C doesn’t mind).
Schloss, by the way, is my new favorite word. When I move back to the States and get settled in, stay tuned for an invite to my schlosswarming party. :D
And that’s a wrap!