My Perfect Berlin Easter Weekend

My Perfect Berlin Easter Weekend

The Exberliner’, the hip monthly magazine for the English-speaking community in Berlin (currently estimated at 50,000), has been going since 2002. Apart from cultural listings, reviews, journalistic articles, opinion columns and a large classified section, there is a regular feature called, ‘My Perfect Berlin Weekend’, where an artist, musician or writer lists their favourite Berlin haunts from Friday to Sunday night. It always makes interesting reading and has led me to think of what my own choices might me. So, here’s a plan for this Easter weekend – given that the weather is going to be cool and cloudy. I have stretched it to Easter Monday, as it is a ‘Feiertag’ (Public Holiday). Just click on the names in bold for links to further information.

FRIDAY

20.00   Konzert zum Karfreitag (Good Friday Concert) at the Konzerthaus on Gendarmenmarkt. Hector Berlioz, ‘Grande Messe des Morts’.

21.45   Dinner at Grill Royal overlooking the River Spree on Friedrichstrasse. It’s not cheap, but hard to beat this place for both food and location. And it’s got to be fish on Good Friday.

Cool fish at the Grill Royal 

SATURDAY

11:00 Brunch at Sowohl als Auch or Anna Blume in Prenzlauer Berg. Both places are perfect.

12:30 Browse through Saturday’s Wochenmarkt am Kollwitzplatz and the surrounding small shops.

14:00 A wander through the spacious galleries of the Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum, with its fabulous collection of paintings from 13th to 18th Century. The special exhibition is currently ‘The Charm of the Small; Studies of Nature in Holland’s Golden Age’ (until end of June).

Botticellis in the Gemāldegalerie

16.00 Coffee and cake at Café Einstein Stammhaus in Kurfürstenstrasse. Where else.

19.30 ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Komische Oper. The interior of this opera house on Behrenstrasee, just off Unter den Linden, is exquisite and the productions are usually quite avant-garde and fun. Everything is sung in German,with English sur-titles. No prizes for guessing which My Fair Lady hit these lines come from: ‘Es grünt, so grün, wenn Spaniens Blüten blühen.’

Inside the Komische Oper

23.00 Post-show discussion, cocktail and snack at the Schwarzes Café, Kantstrasse. Always a good late-night atmosphere, slightly mad décor and friendly service.

SUNDAY

11:00 Time for some fresh air, even if it’s not so warm. So, breakfast at the Café zum Neuen See in the Tiergarten and a wander around the park. Or maybe even hire a boat on the lake.

Sunny day at the Café zum Neuen See

12:30 Stroll through the Tiergarten to the Trödelmarkt (Flea Market) and search for pretty 1920s glassware which is getting harder to find these days.

14:00 S-Bahn from Tiergarten to Ostbahnhof where there is another Antikmarkt and I might have more luck.

15.30 Walk across to the Radialsystem V, a former pump station on the River Spree, now a meeting place and arts venue. Coffee and cake in the café, hopefully outside on the riverside terrace.

17.00 Chamber music concert in Radialsystem V, featuring works by Oliver Messiaen.

Radialsystem V on the Spree

20.00 Dinner at the Ganymed on Schiffbauerdamm. I can never resist this place, for old times’ sake. Once frequented by Bertolt Brecht, we used to go there often in GDR days  when many of the staff apparently worked for the Stasi….

The elegant Ganymed

MONDAY

11.00 A day out at a Berlin cherry blossom festival. There’s a choice between the Britzer Baumblüte in Gutspark Britz or the one in the Gärten der Welt in Marzahn which features interesting insights into Japanese, Korean and Chinese culture.

Cherry blossom time in Marzahn

19.45 or 20.30 An evening at the cinema, at either the UCI Cinema or the Lichtblick Kino, to see ‘The Young Karl Marx’, a film I missed at the Berlinale in February and which had good reviews. The Guardian review, by Peter Bradshaw, gave the film four out of five stars and stated ‘It shouldn’t work, but it does, due to the intelligence of the acting and the stamina and concentration of the writing and directing.‘ ‘Handsome, well-acted and sincerely-intentioned’, said BBC Culture. It’s not due for international release until June. Karl Marx studied at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin.

 

 

Historic Crossing Point

Historic Crossing Point

Berlin is best known for its 20th Century history and any mention of the word ‘crossing point’ summons up visions of Checkpoint Charlie, the Glienicke Bridge or the Soviets crossing the Elbe in World War II, prior to the Battle for Berlin. But there is a more significant crossing point in the history of Berlin, dating back almost 800 years when there was a settlement on each side of the River Spree – Berlin and Cölln.

Model of Berlin-Cölln in the Märkisches Museum

The first documented reference to these settlements was made in 1237 and it was around this time that the Margraves (military governors) of Brandenburg used Berlin and Cölln to secure the crossing point of the Spree at Mühlendamm (Mill Dam). Towards the end of the 13th Century, the twin towns Berlin-Cölln had outstripped the older towns of Köpenick and Spandau in importance and in 1280 the first Parliament of the Margravate of Brandenburg was established there.

View northwards from the Mühlendamm Bridge today

There are very few genuine traces of the original settlements of 13th Century Berlin. The ‘Nikolaiviertel’ occupies the area where Berlin was first founded and before it was devastated in the war, it contained some of the oldest buildings in the city centre. After the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, this district became part of East Berlin, but it wasn’t until 1979, in the run-up to the 750th Anniversary of the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel started.

Aerial view of the Nikolaiviertel

During the eight-year project, the GDR authorities made an attempt to recreate this historic quarter, but since almost none of the buildings are located on their original sites, and many of them were built with prefabricated concrete slabs (a style referred to in German as ‘Plattenbau’), the Nikolaiviertel was often scornfully referred to as ‘Honecker’s Disneyland’. Yet despite its lack of authenticity, the Nikolaiviertel’s narrow, pedestrianised streets are popular with tourists and its cafés and restaurants alongside the Spree are particularly inviting in the summer months.

The Spree terraces in the Nikolaiviertel

In the heart of the Nikolaiviertel is the oldest church in Berlin, the Nikolaikirche, which gave the quarter its name. It was probably built shortly after Berlin was granted town privileges, but the building has undergone a great deal of reconstruction over the centuries. A presbytery was built in 1402 and the two towers were added in 1877. The Nikolaikirche was destroyed in 1945 by bombing and completely rebuilt in 1987.

The reconstructed Nikolaikirche

The Nikolaikirche is no longer a church, but now forms part of the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) with a permanent exhibition called ‘From the Base of the City to the Double Spire’, although only the stone floors date back to the 13th Century. From 1st April until 28th May 2017 there is also a special exhibition, ‘Saint Luther’, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

Inside the Nikolaikirche

In front of the church is a small square, Nikolaikirchplatz, with an octagonal fountain known as the Wappenbrunnen (coat-of-arms fountain), created in 1987, and based on a design from 1928. On each side of the fountain is a relief showing a coat-of-arms and in the centre is a column with a statue of a bear. The bear symbolizes the city of Berlin and the fountain commemorates the founding of the city and is therefore also known as the Gründungsbrunnen (foundation fountain). Set in the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche is another memorial to the birth of Berlin in the form of a two-metre wide copy of the original seal of the city.

The Wappenbrunnen and the Berlin city seal

The other building in the Nikolaiviertel which has links with the 13th Century, is the Gerichtslaube, a reconstruction of Berlin’s medieval courthouse. It was originally built in 1270 in Gothic style with arcades, and was integrated into Berlin’s medieval town hall. In 1871, the Gerichtslaube was demolished during the construction of the imposing Rotes Rathaus (the ‘Red Town Hall’). When the Nikolaiviertel was recreated in the 1980s, a replica of the Gerichtslaube was erected about 150 metres from its original location. It is now a restaurant serving traditional Brandenburg fare.

The Gerichtslaube – in 1860 and now

But you need to cross the main road of Grunerstraβe to find the most authentic witness to the medieval twin towns. On Littenstraβe, almost hidden between the Amtsgericht Mitte (district court of the borough of Mitte) and Berlin’s most historic restaurant, ‘Zur letzten Instanz’, is a small section of the ancient city wall, dating back to the 13th century.

The old city wall near Berlin’s oldest restaurant

Nearby are the ruins of the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche, a Franciscan monastery church dating back to 1250, devastated during allied bombing in 1945. The remnants of this ancient church are surrounded by trees and grass and make a picturesque setting for outdoor exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, with few tourists, and perfect for contemplating the vagaries of European history.

The monastery ruins

Just across the street is Klosterstraβe underground station, which has a nostalgic charm of its own. There is a historic train carriage at the end of the platform and beautiful ceramic tiling modelled on wall decorations in the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II in ancient Babylon. This station is usually very quiet and makes a good start and end point to a stroll through Berlin’s oldest streets – even if it is the modern vision of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) that greets you as you emerge up the stairs into the daylight. 

The palms of Babylon

Klosterstraße station

A Traditional Treat

A Traditional Treat

‘Kaffee und Kuchen’ is one of the best traditions in the German-speaking world. To translate it just as ‘coffee and cake’ is about as accurate as describing English ‘afternoon tea’ as a hot drink with a sandwich. Both ceremonies are social rituals. Starting at about 4pm, they involve taking a break from the day and relaxing with friends or colleagues, either at home or in the kind of café where time is not of the essence. Viennese-style coffee houses encapsulate this atmosphere. With their high ceilings and chandeliers, polished wooden tables, newspapers on wooden holders and waiting staff dressed in traditional black and white, they ooze slow living and fin de siècle charm. Ironically, Trotsky is said to have planned the Russian revolution from the Café Central in Vienna, a favourite haunt of bourgeois intellectuals. There’s a Café Central in Innsbruck too, where I captured the Kaffee und Kuchen scene last Sunday afternoon.

Traditional Coffee House scene

So what about Berlin? Probably the least bourgeois of German cities, the German capital is best known for its trendy coffee bars with edgy barristas and shabby-chic cafes with organic teas. But there are plenty of places where it is still possible to indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen in its purest form. Café Einstein Stammhaus in Kurfürstenstrasse is Berlin’s closest offering to a Viennese coffee house. Housed in a beautiful late 19th Century villa, it’s a great place to go for Kaffee und Kuchen. And with its Austrian links, the Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte are top choices for cake lovers.

Inside Café Einstein Stammhaus

It has an interesting history too. In the 1920s, the building was owned by Jewish private banker Georg Blumenfeld and later used as a secret gambling club for the high society of the Weimar Republic. When the National Socialists came to power in 1933, they closed the club. Blumenfeld and his wife were disowned and finally driven to committing suicide. The Nazis took over the villa and Goebbels supposedly gifted it to his secret mistress, Henny Porten, a famous actress at the time. After Henny moved out, it became an illegal SS officers’ casino. The villa miraculously survived the wartime bombing and opened as the original Café Einstein in 1978, at exactly one hundred years old. It proved a great hit with the  West Berlin literati and since then has spawned many other Einstein cafes all over Berlin. The only other Café Einstein with that stylish, historic feel perfect for a Kaffee und Kuchen experience is on Unter den Linden.

Related image

The grand villa building in Kurfürstenstrasse

But the most genuinely historic of all cafés in Berlin is Konditorei Buchwald, a traditional cake shop just by the Moabiter Brücke over the River Spree. The café interior is like a large living room, not as grand as a Viennese coffee house, but there is the same feeling of being in a time-warp. No typing on laptops, mobile phone tunes or background music to disturb the social intercourse here. In summer, the tables set outside in the garden have an equally peaceful setting, with only birdsong to compete with conversation.

Inside Konditorei Buchwald

Gustav Buchwald originally founded the cake company in 1852 in Cottbus, his son moved the business to Berlin at the turn of the century, and it has been run by members of the same family for five generations. The full story is fascinating, and German speakers can follow this link to a Tagesspiegel article which gives all the details. The most recent owner is Andrea Tönges who took over in May 2015. Her grandmother was in charge from 1935 and her mother from 1963. Both Andrea and her mother are ‘Konditormeister’ (master confectioners) and Andrea’s son has chosen the same career path.

Three generations of confectioners – with their famous Baumkuchen

Baumkuchen to take home

Buchwald’s speciality is the ‘Baumkuchen’ which translates literally as ‘tree cake’. The recipe is a secret, but certainly features plenty of sugar, spice and marzipan. The cake mixture is rolled onto a sort of spit (now metal, but originally made of wood) that slowly turns over an open flame, creating fine layers upon layers which look like the growth rings of a tree – hence the name. The cake is then sealed with a glaze or covered in chocolate. The result is so delicious that in 1883 the Buchwald bakery received a warrant of appointment to make Baumkuchen for the royal household. And even now, the Schloss Bellevue, once home to Frederick the Great’s youngest brother, Prince Ferdinand of Prussia, and now the official residence of the German President, is just a walk away in the north end of the Tiergarten.

Queuing outside Buchwald’s

As you enter the shop, the display counter is crammed with cakes (Kuchen) and gateaux (Torten), including several varieties of Baumkuchen. All around the walls and windows, shelves are piled high with more Baumkuchen, beautifully wrapped in all shapes and sizes, which you can buy to take home. When I was last there, a group of tourists came in just to buy the cake as souvenirs and to take photographs. But they missed out on the unique Kaffee und Kuchen ritual: first, the all-important selection of a slice of cake, then the settling into an hour or so of ‘Kaffeeklatsch’ – chatting over coffee.

Selecting a slice of cake

To be sure of a table at Café Einstein or Konditorei Buchwald, especially on a Sunday afternoon, you need to make a reservation. All the details are on their website links below. You can find other café suggestions in a previous Café Society blog, ‘The Great Berlin Cake Off’ (October 2014).

http://www.konditorei-buchwald.de/

http://www.cafeeinstein.com/en/

 

 

Museum Barberini – the new pride of Potsdam

Museum Barberini – the new pride of Potsdam

Potsdam is the capital and crown jewel of the Federal State of Brandenburg. Renowned for its exquisite baroque architecture, beautiful Prussian royal palaces and gardens, in 1990 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage City status. Wartime destruction and the lack of funds during the bleak GDR years left terrible scars on the city centre, but since reunification it has undergone a massive programme of reconstruction and now positively gleams in its new grandeur and glory.Only a 22-minute train journey from Berlin main railway station, Potsdam is not only a great lure for visitors, but has become one of the most sought-after residential addresses in Germany.

Panoramic view of Potsdam in 1871

In January, Potsdam gained yet another fabulous attraction – the Museum Barberini, a museum inside a palace. The ‘Palais Barberini’ was originally built by the Prussian King, Frederick the Great in 1771/1772 next to the Stadtschloss (Potsdam City Palace) and modelled on the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Destroyed in a bombing raid in 1945, it has now been reconstructed as a museum by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. At the official opening, its creator, media magnate Hasso Plattner, a co-founder of the multinational software company SAP, described the Museum Barberini as his gift to the city and “one of the most important things” he had done in his life. Plattner is a member of ‘The Giving Pledge’, a group of billionaire philanthropists who promise to give half their wealth to charity during their lifetime or in a will.

Queues of visitors outside the Museum Barberini

Plattner’s assets are estimated at $9.8 billion and his substantial private art collection will form the core of exhibitions. The museum’s first exhibition, for example, showcases Edvard Munch’s ‘Girls on the Bridge’ which Plattner is said to have bought at Sotheby’s last November for $54.5 million.

‘The Girls on the Bridge’

His social circle is sufficiently elevated that both Angela Merkel and Bill Gates attended the museum opening. Frau Merkel reportedly declared the museum to be “breathtaking”. Plattner has now been made an honorary citizen of Potsdam, a title he shares with Berlin luminaries such as landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and President Paul von Hindenburg.

Hasso Plattner with Angela Merkel

The opening of the Museum Barberini marks the end of years of strife. There were disputes over everything – from what Plattner was allowed to exhibit to where the museum should be built, and the project nearly foundered on several occasions.  But Potsdam’s Barberini has finally been reincarnated on its original site and completes the historic rebuilding of the fabulous Alter Markt square, which also includes the Parliament building for the State of Brandenburg. The cost of reconstructing the historic façade of the Palais Barberini and creating its modern, airy interior is estimated to have been more than €60 million. For further details, follow this link to a recent article in The Economist.

 

The reconstructed Alter Markt Square

(photo by Konstantindegeer, March 2016)

I paid my first visit to the Museum Barberini a couple of weeks ago and adored it. The beautiful exterior architecture speaks for itself and the three state-of-the-art exhibition floors are light and crisp, with 7-metre high ceilings and fabulous views from large windows. In the summer the building’s regal position on the waterfront of the River Havel will undoubtedly be a great attraction in itself. 

Reflected glory….

The debut exhibitions at the Barberini Museum are ‘Modern Art Classics: Liebermann, Munch, Nolde, Kandinsky’, and ‘Impressionism: The Art of Landscape’, featuring works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Caillebotte, among others. Both of them are perfectly curated and carefully themed. Most of the works are labelled ‘private collection’, although there are some on loan from major art galleries around the world. It is not clear how many of the paintings actually belong to Plattner himself.

‘Liebermann versus Nolde’

Impressionist seascape and snowscape

Apart from the two major exhibitions, other attractions include a display of Rodin sculptures loaned by the Musée Rodin in Paris and on the top floor the museum features an auditorium with a ‘smart wall’ where visitors can forensically examine most of the collection’s paintings, which have been reproduced in high resolution images. Just as interesting are the contents of the gallery next to auditorium, telling the fascinating history of the Potsdam Barberini Palace. After its illustrious beginnings under Frederick the Great, by the time of its destruction in 1945, it was being used as a youth hostel, public library and registry office.

Rodins  in the Lelbach Gallerty

English speakers are well catered for in the Barberini Museum. All the information, including the large panels and the useful descriptions of individual works, is given in both English and German. Headphones are available at €2 or the Barberini App can be downloaded free. The Museum is open from Wednesday to Monday from 11am to 7pm, as well as on the first Tuesday of each month until 9pm. Admission is €14. Forthcoming exhibitions include ‘From Hopper to Rothko: America’s road to Modern Art’ (3 June until 3 October) and ‘Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR’ (28 October until 11 February 2018).  I would recommend booking online in advance as this museum is proving hugely popular. The excellent café on the ground floor is doing a roaring trade too.

A Sunday of Films and Fools

A Sunday of Films and Fools

Mid-February is a great time to visit Berlin, with the Berlinale film festival plus a carnival to beat the winter blues. And it’s all wrapped up a week before the Oscars in Hollywood and the carnival celebrations in the rest of Germany. Just like Berlin to be ahead of the game. Now in its 67th year, the Berlinale is as popular as ever. It’s a true peoples’ event, with a reputation for political integrity and cutting through red carpet hype. Tickets are reasonably easy to come by; quite a number are available online three days before the event and there are four ticket outlets in the city centre, with plenty on sale over the ten days of the festival. For a round-up of this year’s films and winners go to the Berlinale website

One of the best things about the Berlinale is the final Sunday, known as ‘Publikumstag’ (audience’s day). The prize-winners have been announced and the stars have gone home, but many of the films are shown again and tickets only cost eight euros. The venues are still packed full and the applause at the end of each showing is just as enthusiastic. This is genuine appreciation of the art of film-making in a city that has always loved the cinema.

This year the Berlinale Publikumstag coincided with the annual Berlin Karneval procession along the Kurfürstendamm. The carnival season in Germany, also known as the ‘Fünfte Jahreszeit’ (Fifth Season) begins each year on 11 November at 11:11 a.m. when the planning starts, and finishes on Ash Wednesday of the following year. The main festivities take place on or around the Monday before Ash Wednesday – ‘Rosenmontag’, but carnival week itself officially starts on ‘Weiberfastnacht’ (Women’s Carnival) ,the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Follow this link for more German carnival detail.

Berlin is not traditionally a carnival city – the main ones are in Roman Catholic parts of Germany and the most famous parade of all takes place in Köln (Cologne). But Berlin loves a party and has plenty of local carnival guilds who want to join in. The Berlin procession this year took place on the Sunday before carnival week starts in the rest of the country. After the terrorist attack at the Christmas Market on 19th December, there was some debate about whether the procession would still go ahead. But it got the green light – amid strengthened security precautions and with the proviso that there should be five hundred metres of silence when it passed Breidscheidplatz, where the atrocity took place.

Over 200,000 people turned out to watch the carnival procession, many of them in fancy dress themselves. The colourful floats and bands set off at precisely eleven minutes past eleven from Olivaerplatz with 2,000 revellers making their merry way along the Ku’damm towards Wittenbergplatz, showering 30 tons of sweets into the crowd, who shouted back carnival greetings such as ‘Hai Jo’(Berliners) and ‘Alaaf’ (Rhinelanders). There are many local traditions associated with carnival, but all over Germany the participants are known as ‘Narren’ (fools) and often behave accordingly. It’s a time to let your hair down before the seriousness of Lent and poke fun at the establishment.

Later in the day, I managed to catch two films on ‘Publikumstag’. The first was ‘A Prominent Patient’ (original title: Masaryk), described in one review as a ‘stately, handsomely-mounted biopic of Czech wartime statesman Jan Masaryk’. Set in 1938/39, it focuses on the political intrigue leading up to the Second World War and tells the story of the son of Czechoslovakia’s first president, a diplomat who loved jazz and cocaine. It was a perfect film to see in Berlin. Interestingly, the sub-titles (where needed) were only in English. Most foreign films in the Berlinale are subtitled in both English and German.

The second film was ‘Helle Nächte’ (Bright Nights). A mourning father (played by Georg Friedrich from Austria won the Silver Bear award for best actor) tries to rekindle his relationship with his 14-year old son after years of absence and lack of communication. He takes him on a car trip across northern Norway during the summer solstice, hoping it is not too late. Much remained unsaid in this film, but it rang true. It also had the definite plus of being shown in the huge Friedrichstadtpalast, a theatre normally used for glitzy variety shows and where the air conditioning mist floats out of the top of the seats.