A long weekend in Berlin – what could be more fun? We called it the ‘Berlin Blast’, and eight of us hit the city running over four days at the end of April. Nothing like a crowd of enthusiasts with a keen interest in history and culture and a love of good food and drink. And everyone fell captive to Berlin’s unique magnetism.
Berlin skyline over the Spree River.
We stayed in Hotel Monbijou by Hackescher Markt. True to its name, this boutique hotel is a jewel. It is perfectly located in the middle of Berlin-Mitte and the high-ceilinged rooms are reasonably-priced with understated décor. The buffet breakfast is unbeatable and in good weather you can eat outside in the courtyard. There are three bars; in summer the Rooftop Terrace has great views of the Berliner Dom (cathedral), the Lounge Bar has a woodfire in winter and from Tuesday until Saturday the Bijou Bar serve wicked cocktails until the early hours.
Our Berlin Blast started at ‘Oxymoron’, a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel in the stunning Hackesche Höfe. This restored Art Nouveau courtyard complex is overrun with tourists at the weekend, but just perfect for Friday lunchtime. ‘Oxymoron’ came up to its usual high and the set lunch featuring seasonal asparagus was great value. After exploring the artisan shops in the Hackesche Höfe, we doubled back to the hip and quirky backyards of Haus Schwarzenberg, exploding with street art and containing the gripping Otto Weidt Museum and the Anne Frank Zentrum.
Courtyard outside Oxymoron
The area around Hackescher Markt is part of the Scheunenviertel (‘Barn Quarter’), once a poor part of Berlin just outside the old city walls where the hay for horses was stored. Its streets are now packed with historical and architectural interest. We walked along pretty Sophienstrasse with buildings dating back to the 18th century, and called into Sophienkirche, Berlin’s surviving oldest baroque church. From Sophienkirche, we turned left along Grosse Hamburger Strasse, passing buildings which still bear the scars of machine gun fire from Soviet troops fighting their way through the city in the last weeks of World War II.
The Scheunenviertel was also where a large proportion of Berlin’s Jewish population lived and it contains several moving holocaust memorials, as well as scores of brass ‘Stolpersteine’ embedded in the pavements, commemorating local Jews who were murdered in concentration camps. Grosse Hamburger Strasse was once the centre of Jewish community life, with its Jewish school, old peoples’ home and cemetery. In 1942 the Gestapo used the school and the home to round up Jews destined for deportation. The Nazis destroyed and vandalised the cemetery in 1943, making room for air raid shelters and using the gravestones for wall reinforcements. In 1945, almost 3000 Berlin war victims were buried here. 40 years later, sculptor Will Lammert created the Monument for the Jewish Victims of Fascism in front of the former cemetery.
Stolpersteine for a whole family
‘Peace Wall’ (2013) by the cemetery
Around the corner in Oranienburger Strasse is the Neue Synagoge (‘New Synagogue’), built in 1859–1866 as the main synagogue of the Berlin Jewish Community. Its stunning golden Moorish-style dome has been restored, but only part of the interior remains and it is now a museum. We strolled back to our hotel, passing street cafés facing the Monbijou park by the River Spree. These leisure gardens once formed part of the Rococco Monbijou Palace, destroyed by bombs and then razed in 1959 by the GDR authorities.
Next on the programme was an early evening boat trip along the Spree – an ‘Historic City Tour’ cruising past the wonderful buildings on both sides of the riverbank. Many of have them risen from the ashes of war and others are new additions, especially the ensemble of modernist buildings in the new Government District by the Reichstag. We embarked at the Alte Börse (‘Old Stock Exchange’) only three minutes from our hotel and were lucky with the weather – a clear blue sky. With commentary in English, it was a perfect introduction to Berlin’s city centre.
Cruising through the Government District
Our first evening meal was at ‘Ganymed’, a restaurant on the lively Schiffbauerdamm and next to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theatre. Now a French-style brasserie, in GDR times it was one of only a handful of restaurants in East Berlin providing good food. We often ate there in the 1980s and imagined that the chandeliers were bugged and the waiters could be Stasi spies. This was not so far from truth; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it transpired that many of them were informing on their customers from West Berlin. If you walk to the restaurant from Friedrichstrasse Station, along the S-Bahn platform and through the iron-girder bridge across the Spree, you can still sense the Cold War atmosphere.
Inside the Ganymed Brasserie
Saturday morning is always good for a Berlin market. For the Berlin Blast I chose the Kollwitzplatz market in Prenzlauer Berg, a pretty suburb of East Berlin constructed in the 1870s and only four tram stops from Alexanderplatz Station. Here you can linger by market stalls with irresistible hand-made goods, fabulous flowers and organic foods, alongside the ethno yummy mummies and media daddies who now populate this area. There was a swing band playing in the park in front of the bronze sculpture of the socialist artist Käthe Kollwitz. I wondered what she was thinking, surrounded by this bourgeois coterie.
Swing music at the market
From Kollwitzplatz, we walked along Sredzkistrasse, past the ‘Kulterbrauerei’, a converted Schultheiss beer brewery and then over to Oderberger Strasse with its interesting façades and the Hotel Oderberger Berlin, a recent renovation featuring a fabulous historic indoor swimming pool and a well-reviewed restaurant.
Historic public swimming pool in Hotel Oderberger
At the end of Oderberger Strasse we turned left into Bernauer Strasse where the Berlin Wall once ran down the length of the street and divided West from East. The whole area of the so-called ‘death zone’ now forms the Berlin Wall Memorial and is an absolute must for all visitors to the city. Each time I return, I discover new facts about life in divided Berlin. Don’t miss the Nordbahnhof station at the southern end of Bernauer Strasse. When Berlin was divided, this was one of the so-called Geisterbahnhöfe (‘Ghost Stations’) where trains linking boroughs of West Berlin ran under East Berlin through empty, darkened stations without stopping. The ‘ghosts’ were the shadowy figures of East German policeman patrolling the platforms.
Section of the Wall Memorial
Lunch on Saturday was at the iconic Clarchens Ballhaus on Auguststrasse. We took the S-Bahn from Nordbahnhof to Oranienburger Strasse, marvelled again at the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge and cut through yet more historic courtyards in the Heckmanhöfe, which link Oranienburger Strasse with Auguststrasse. This street is now famed for its contemporary art galleries. Of special interest is the five-storey red brick building at 11-13 Auguststrasse, the former Berlin Jewish Girls’ School which was eventually restored in 2012 and has become a modern art and gastronomy location.
Former Jewish Girls’ High School
The wonderful ‘Clärchens Ballhaus’ further along Auguststrasse is set back from the street behind its fairy-lit gardens and hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. My blog ‘Step back in time to the Music’ describes its nostalgic aura and the faded splendour of the Spiegelsaal (Mirrored Hall) on the first floor was chosen as the venue for a reception for Prince William and Kate when they visited Berlin in July 2017. On the Berlin Blast, we enjoyed a traditional Berlin lunch in the more prosaic surroundings of the dance hall on the ground floor.
Berlin ‘Boulette’ (beef and pork burger)
Saturday night’s entertainment had been booked months ahead and we had debated between ‘Vivid’, the glitzy Las Vegas style show at the Friedrichstadtpalais or Rossini’s jolly ‘Il Barbieri di Siviglia’ at the Staatsoper (State Opera House). Opera won the day – mainly because none of us had been inside the Staatsoper since 2009 when it closed for seven years to be refurbished. And what a treat it was; apart from enjoying an excellent production, we had great seats at a reasonable price and the interior gleamed in white marble and red velvet. During the interval we stood outside on the terrace surveying the length of Unter den Linden. After the opera, it was just a five-minute walk across historic Bebelplatz to ‘Sagrantino’ a lively wine bar and restaurant in Behrensstrasse to complete our Italian evening.
One of the high points of the Berlin Blast, quite literally, was Sunday breakfast in the Dachgarten restaurant on the roof terrace of the Reichstag. You have book well in advance, with passport details of all guests, but it is worth the trouble and paperwork. When we arrived through security, our gourmet morning feast had been laid out on a table with views across East Berlin. Afterwards we donned headphones and climbed Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome.
Postcard souvenir of Dachgarten Reichstag
From outside the Reichstag we boarded a 100 bus to wend our way through the Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten. This is a great way to cover some interesting sights en route to the West End of Berlin and recall how Berlin’s lovely central park, originally the hunting grounds of the Royal Palace, was devastated during the war and in the late 1940s was then used as a vast vegetable allotment to feed the starving Berliners. The 100 bus terminates at Zoologischer Garten station and across the street on Breitscheidplatz is a further stark reminder of the city’s destruction; the ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which has been left as a war memorial. On the steps of the new church, with its hundreds of stunning dark blue stained-glass windows, is now another memorial – to the 12 victims of the terror attack at the Christmas Market on this square on 19th December 2016.
Memorial to the victims of terror attack
We visited the exhibition inside the ruined tower as well as looking round the modern church. Berliners love to give nicknames to their most iconic buildings; the old tower is known as ‘the hollow tooth’ and the new church and tower have been dubbed ‘the powder compact and the lipstick’. The Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church was originally built in the last decade of the 19th century by Kaiser Wilhelm II in memory of his grandfather the first German Emperor and is located at one end of the elegant Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s main shopping boulevard.
Inside the new church
Our next destination was Checkpoint Charlie and bus M29 from outside KaDeWe, Berlin’s iconic department store, took us there in about 10 minutes. The former border crossing point is always teeming with tourists and another Berlin ‘must see’. There are plenty of interesting information displays in the area and several good museums and exhibitions. After coffee at ‘Einstein’, we walked along Zimmerstrasse – which I still recall in the shadow of the Berlin Wall – to the ‘Topography of Terror’, on the grounds of the former Gestapo HQ. This exhibition can be a devastating experience, discovering how the Nazi terror machine operated all over Europe – and with the help of thousands of educated bureaucrats.
Poster for exhibition on the Reich Ministry of Labour
Still on foot, we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate, taking in so many sites of historic interest: beautiful old restored buildings such as the Martin Gropius Building and the Berlin House of Representatives, as well as the modern versions of Leipziger Platz and Potsdamer Platz risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and Cold War abandonment. We skirted the edge of the Tiergarten to look at the Memorial to Homosexuals murdered by the Nazis and then walked through the unsettling steles of the Holocaust Memorial. The Germans certainly want no one to forget the horrors of their past. Standing on Pariser Platz, on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, we contemplated the Nazi parades marching with torchlights through its arches. The famous German impressionist artist, Max Liebermann, who watched from his window in January1933, recorded that, “it made him want to vomit more food that he could possibly eat”.
Nazi Rally at the Brandenburg Gate, 1933
After the mandatory group photograph in the front of the Brandenburg Gate, we continued into central East Berlin along Unter den Linden. Once the works on the new underground line and the construction of the Humboldt Forum on the site of the former Stadtschloss (City Palace) are completed, this famous avenue will regain its form splendour. One thing that the GDR government successfully achieved after the desolation caused by World War II was to keep the symmetry of Unter den Linden intact, even if the quality of reconstruction left much to be desired.
The Humboldt Forum nearing completion
We took a detour down Friedrichtsrasse to enjoy Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s loveliest square, then stopped for a break at ‘Erdinger’, a new restaurant serving German food and beer. On the walk back to our hotel, we called into the ‘Neue Wache’, which since 1993 has been the ‘Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship’. In the centre of the bare, simple, top-lit room is an enlarged replica of the statue Mother with her Dead Son by Käthe Kollwitz. From 1960, the GDR used the restored building as a ‘Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism’, with an eternal flame burning in the middle of the room. In 1969, the remains of an unknown soldier and a nameless concentration camp victim were interred, surrounded by soil from Second World War battlefields and concentration camps, and still remain under the new memorial plaque today. Until 1990, there was a changing of the guard ceremony at the memorial, with GDR soldiers marching in goose step.
The Neue Wache on Unter den Linden
Our evening venue took us into Kreuzberg, a borough of former West Berlin once famed for its May Day riots and its high percentage of immigrants and students. We arrived by U-Bahn at Moritzplatz and despite some gentrification, you can still sense Kreuzberg’s edginess. One of the windows of the Hotel Oranien restaurant, where we had booked dinner, had been smashed and the staff there later explained that the cracked glass hadn’t been repaired because “it fitted in with the local ambience”. Nonetheless, the Oranien is certainly a good recommendation for a gourmet meal in a shabby-chic neighbourhood. There was even a jazz duo to add to the experience.
The Oranien Restaurant – seen through its smashed window
Monday dawned, our final day, and the weather forecast was good enough for us to venture out to Wannsee by S-Bahn. Two of the Blasters were flying out after lunch, so they spent the morning at the Berlinische Galerie, one of the few galleries and museums open on Mondays and have sent back a positive report of the current exhibitions, as well as the Otto Dix café there. They struck luck with the taxi driver as he misunderstood where they wanted to go and took them to the outdoor ‘Berlin Eastside Gallery’. As they drove past its series murals painted directly on a 1316 m long remnant of the Berlin Wall, my friends realised what had happened and managed to redirect the driver to the Berlinische Galerie on the other side of the Spree!
Inside the Berlinische Galerie
Another gallery open on Mondays is the Villa Liebermann on lake Wannsee, the summer mansion of artist Max Liebermann. It only took us about 45 minutes to get there – by S-Bahn, then bus 114 from outside Wannsee Station. The story of Max Liebermann and his family is one of the many important threads in the tapestry of Berlin’s past. After learning about the interesting history of this lakeside mansion and touring the permanent collection of paintings, we wandered around the beautiful gardens and had coffee on the terrace.
Inside Villa Liebermann, discovering its history
Even more significant is the mansion a little further along the lake, the ‘Villa am Wannsee’. It was in this building that a Nazi conference took place in January 1942 and decided on the ‘final solution to the Jewish Question’. The ‘Villa am Wannsee’ now contains a detailed exhibition about the Nazi plan for the genocide of Jews during World War II and its consequences.
The room where the Wannsee Conference was held
After four days of intensive Berlin experiences, it was important to end the Berlin Blast on a light-hearted note and catch the upbeat feel of today’s capital. Bootshaus Bolle, a friendly beach café only a short walk from the two grand villas we had just visited, fitted the bill. We had delved into the city’s tortured past and understood Berlin’s message: never forget the value of freedom and inclusiveness. This is what Kennedy meant when he famously announced to the world, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. As we sat round a wooden table looking out over the lake, enjoying a simple fish lunch washed down with the local beer, we had become Berliners too.