To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.
Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard
The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.
Kreuzberg Hinterhof today
The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.
Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard
There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.
Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I
An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.
Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg
Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.
Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe
On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.
Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe
Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe
For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’ and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.
Berlin courtyards – The Missing House
I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.
Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus. Berlin may be famed for its dark history and decadence, but it also has a reputation as a city bursting with culture. Music, literature and the arts have always flourished in Berlin and never more so than in its current 21st Century, post-unification era. What other cities in the world can boast a huge ‘Cultural Department Store’, open Monday to Friday from 9am until midnight, on Saturday until 11.30pm and on some Sundays, too?
The iconic Dussmann building
‘Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus’ is a unique store, offering an amazing selection of books, CDs, DVDs, sheet music and stationery. In fact, every product that a culture vulture could dream of. There are also regular cultural events such as readings, book signings and musical performances, and a brilliant café in the basement. The owner, Catherine von Fürstenberg-Dussmann describes her store as “the beating heart as the city” and compares Dussmann to a church; a place where people come together, reflect, and communicate with one another. How much better to browse at Dussmann, with the help of expert advice, than alone at home on the internet.
Dussmann originally opened in 1997 and immediately raised the bar for international book and music stores. For the past twenty years, whenever I have been anywhere near Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping artery of Berlin’s ‘City East’, the draw of this Aladdin’s cave has proved irresistible. Since February 2017, all five floors of the store have been reorganised and refurbished. Dussmann remained open during the building works and despite the upheaval, the loyal customers kept coming in. Now, everything seems more spacious than ever, as dividing walls have been removed, storerooms knocked through into the shopping area and more seating areas provided.
The towering atrium
On the third floor are text books and a Berlin Wall Memorial display with touch screens, complete with a piece of Wall signed by Ronald Regan. On the floor below are popular non-fiction books and children’s books. The first floor has novels, audio books and a huge selection of international DVDs. On the ground floor is the most comprehensive selection of books about Berlin in the capital, hundreds of Rock, Jazz and Pop CDs and a tempting range of ‘papeterie’. If you walk through to the back of the ground floor, there is even a separate two-floor English bookshop where ‘Shakespeare meets Auster’. And the basement has a wonderful classical music department with sheet music as well as CDs and space not only to listen to music, but to try it out yourself on an electronic piano.
DVDs of films set in Berlin
Classical listening space
Dussmann is a great place to meet up. It’s situated in the cultural heart of Berlin and is not only a unique shopping experience, but also boasts ‘Café-Restaurant Ursprung’ (Source) open from 9am until 9pm, six days a week, where you are encouraged to ‘eat-drink-dream’. Hype aside, this basement refuge has a relaxing vibe and an imaginative menu. You walk through the ‘nave’ of the store to be greeted by a sphinx at the top of the staircase and a vast back wall featuring a 270-square metre vertical garden of over 6,000 tropical plants. This spectacular ‘Mur Végétal’, designed by French botanist and garden architect, Patrick Blanc, has quite a wow factor – rather like the whole Dussmann experience.
An impressive café entrance
Inside Café Ursprung
‘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.
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).
I have always thought that Berlin’s free spirit has something Southern European about it. Maybe it’s because of the huge number of immigrants who have come to Berlin from around the Mediterranean and the general feeling of live and let live. Berliners also love to hang out in cafés and there is a long tradition of wonderful Italian restaurants. I have listed quite a number in the ‘Café Society’ chapter of ‘Berlin Unwrapped’, but here are two more discoveries, slightly off the beaten track. They both have that cosy, family-run atmosphere which lifts the soul in the depths of a Berlin winter. Germans call this vibe ‘Gemütlichkeit’ and Berliners can find it in their favourite local Italian restaurant, where they often pop in for an authentic bowl of pasta and sit chatting over a glass or two of Chianti.
Delizie d’Italia is on the eastern edge of the city centre in Kollwitzstrasse, one of those cobbled, tree-lined avenues with unassuming flair in Prenzlauer Berg. As soon as you walk in the door, the ochre-painted walls and red-checked tablecloths transport you to Italy. Originally, Delizie D’Italia was simply a delicatessen. But customers wanted to sample what they intended to buy and by popular demand it evolved into a fully-fledged Italian restaurant.
Preparing for guests at lunchtime
The menu at Delizie d’Italia features fresh pasta, meat and fish creations from the Italian region of Campagna – no pizza here. Locals love this place and in the evenings the candle-lit tables are often fully booked. In summer, the restaurant spills out on to the wide pavement outside, under the spreading maple trees. Service is friendly and efficient, without a trace of attitude found in more hip establishments. Delizie d’Italia offers a catering service as well, where you can order meals to serve at home or in the office. The restaurant is open from noon until midnight, Mondays to Saturdays. It is a15-minute walk from Senefelderplatz U-Bahn station or just three minutes from the M2 tram stop at Prenzlauer Allee/Danziger Str.
The Delizie d’Italia supports Naples
On the western side of the city in Charlottenburg, on the corner of Richard-Wagner-Strasse and Zillestrasse, is another Italian gem, Papageno. Named after the comical bird-catcher in Mozart’s Opera ‘The Magic Flute’, Papageno is only a stone’s throw from the Deutsche Oper. So it’s no surprise to find that opera and ballet goers love to eat here either before or after a performance. The nearest U-Bahn station is either Deutsche Oper or Richard-Wagner-Platz.
Papageno’s opening hours are 5pm until midnight, Tuesday to Sunday. The food is divine; cooked by a chef who often appears in the restaurant to flambé one of his creations, or to check that the guests are happy. I recommend trying the Antipasto Papageno, a “surprise appetizer for two people”, followed by the pasta dish of the day, which is always something with seasonal ingredients. You can look at their menu online and will see that the prices are very reasonable. The wine list is good too.
I love the atmosphere at Papageno. It’s definitely ‘gemütlich’ and authentic Italian, with a warm welcome from the staff. Apart from the essential red-checked tablecloths, the walls are covered with beautiful framed photographs, a variety of chandeliers hang from the ceilings and there are some fabulous antique wooden cupboards and mirrors. Best of all, there is a grand piano in the front room of the restaurant with an impressive candelabra bearing witness to magical evenings of musical entertainment. Check out the events on Papageno’s Facebook page.