I hope you’ve all had wonderful holidays spent with loved ones. My first Christmas in England was every bit as magical as I could have imagined, and then some! Cheers to a sensational 2014, eh?! For now, though, I shall get back to writing because I have to tell you about my recent visit to Berlin!
I think it is interesting that my first European destination was to the capital of Germany. Mostly because Berlin wasn’t even close to being at the top of my Europe travel list, plus,I knew next to nothing about it. If I have a few months to travel in Europe, come on, I want to see France, Italy and Spain. However, a last minute deal came up for two nights/three days in Berlin ((including flights from London)), and it suddenly sounded incredibly appealing.
Andrew’s dad, whom we affectionately refer to as “our driver,” dropped us off at London’s Luton airport very early on a Monday morning ((how am I ever going to face the reality of a regular pre-11am alarm again??!!)). Our EasyJet flight departed Luton just after 7am and a short 2 hour flight later, we touched down at Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport just after 10am local time ((Berlin being +1 hour from GMT)). Upon entry, my passport was stamped by a no-nonsense looking border patrol worker, with zero questions asked. Not a single word.That was a first!
Andrew had done some research to get an idea of where our hotel was in relation to the airport, and where different neighborhoods were. I, for some reason, could not be bothered to do much research other than look up which of the 60 Christmas Markets I may want to visit, and where Nivea Haus was in case I wanted to treat myself to a facial or some spa treatment. Priorities, obviously. I cannot figure out exactly why I have such a lack of interest in researching the heck out of a place before I arrive, but the routine we often perform seemed to work for us in Berlin. It goes like this: walk as much of the city the first day without any real agenda; arrive at the hotel for check-in with aching feet; spend a couple hours researching what we saw and what we may want to see before dozing off to sleep each evening; explore places that peaked our interest the next few days. For a short visit such as this, we really make an effort to not see or do too much so one or both of us is miserable from the overkill.
Upon arrival and after a quick withdrawal of Euros from an airport ATM, we took the S-bahn from the airport to Prenzlauër Berg, which is supposed to be a hip area in what used to be East Germany. Since we didn’t have any internet connection or cell phone, we did a lot of wandering past little shops and cafes, making our way along Prenzlauër Alee. It was a gray, drizzly day, but it couldn’t keep us from continuing to walk through the entire city, or what sure seemed like it. We passed through Alexanderplatz, where we lunched inside a cafe called Oliv, away from the rain soaked streets. The waitress was incredibly sweet and friendly, and taught us how to properly say “danke” an “tschüss” which are informal German words for “thank you” and “bye.” She confirmed what we already know about non-English speaking Europe ((and I suppose this goes for other non-English speaking countries apart from Europe)) – if you put in effort to speak a few words or phrases in the native language, locals will appreciate the effort. I knew Andrew learned German when he was in school, but I had never really heard him speak it, so one of the best parts of the trip for me was hearing him speak the language while there! I was so impressed when he would order food or drink for us in the native tongue.
By the time we got to the Art’Otel where we were lodging, after walking over six miles through Berlin, I was soaked from all the rain and wet ground. My hair was a rat’s nest. We had walked through Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte, Alexanderplatz, past the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, along the outside of the Tiergarten, past the Zoo, all the way to our hotel in the western part of the city center. Realization would come later that we had walked on the edge of each area we passed through, only witnessing tiny morsels of Berlin. I vividly recall telling Andrew “I don’t know what all the fuss is about this city.” Let me tell you, I would quickly learn.
Since I did not do my research prior to arrival, I did not have any expectations. Of course I had heard of some of the major sights to see, like the Brandenburg Gate and remains of the Berlin Wall, which was taken down during my childhood. The fall of the Wall in 1989 was one of the events I can recall being on television as my parents watched, but I had no idea what it was all about or what the significance was at the tender age of 7. As I walked through Berlin and read up about it on Wikipedia, it was evident that for being such a historic eight hundred year old city, it is all fairly new. So much of Berlin was destroyed by World War II, and therefore only rebuilt ((with British, American and French influence)) in the past 50-60 years. Old mixed in with new, just how I like a city to be flavored.
Andrew and I would go to five out of the sixty Christmas Markets scattered around Berlin. I tasted my first Glühwein at Weihnachtsmarkt an der Gedächtniskirche, which had quite a strong alcohol taste at first but soon warmed me right up. We split a bratwurst, which neither of us cared for since it was so bland even covered in ketchup. Other markets visited were Potsdamer Platz, Berliner Weihnachtszeit, Alexander Platz, and Gendarmenmarkt which would end up being the only one we paid entry to ((a bargain €1 each)). Each of the markets had the same enchanting holiday flair to them, offering sweets, bratwurst, currywurst, glühwein, hand-made knicknacks. But at the same time, each of them was slightly unique from the next. Gendarmenmarkt was the most crowded, but had incredible gifts and the most delicious rosemary roasted potatoes covered in garlic sauce and herbs. We listened to a group of older men sing German Christmas carols. Meeting up with friends and family for a warm drink and chat seemed to be common at each of the markets, and it felt pretty special that I was able to be surrounded by groups of people in the holiday spirit at each of the markets. Berlin continues to prove just how well European cities really do it up for Christmas.
Even though Berlin is a rather sizeable city, Andrew & I made our way around with ease. We walked, took the U-bahn ((underground)) and S-bahn to various places within the city. Might I add, we were respectful visitors, purchasing tickets each time we rode the subway system despite not having to prove to any human or machine that we had a valid ticket ((we only saw security checking tickets on the S-bahn near the airport)).
Berlin seemed so quiet to me. Maybe it was the time of year, combined with the less-than-ideal weather? Or perhaps this is just one of the city’s many surprising characteristics. Perhaps because we were walking or taking public transportation we were not tuned into the roads, but there didn’t appear to be any traffic jams. Nobody laying on their horns; nobody yelling at other drivers or pedestrians. Passersby would be conversing with each other if they were walking with someone, but if they were alone, they weren’t loudly chatting away on their cell phones. From what I experienced in Berlin, Germans are very friendly and welcoming, which can always make a visit that much more enjoyable. Even on two wet days and one dry cold day, I saw beauty in Berlin. The best view was from the Reichstag Building, where you can enter for free and take an audio tour to the top of the building for a 360 degree view of the city. Did I mention it was completely free? Anything like this would cost you money in America! We reserved our time slot for the visit a day in advance. I highly recommend doing this if you are traveling to Berlin, since you must have a confirmed reservation to enter the building, which houses the modern Bundestag ((German Parliament)).
One of my favorite parts about wandering a new city is the buildings or parks or scenery you would not have otherwise seen. In Berlin, we stumbled across photobooths in random spots, the UK & American Embassies, a couple of Christmas markets, and a Ritter Sport storefront ((which will get its own post soon!)). When my feet are tired from wandering, I am always up for subways, trains, and buses. At first, navigating the U-bahn & S-bahn system seemed daunting, but I am so glad we did because you get to experience the city more deeply that way. Plus it is fun to look back and laugh at how easy riding a subway in a new city can be once you try it. The U-bahn underground stations had 1950s flair to them, and my eyes would immediately glance around the quirky architecture and design at each station we encountered, and wondered what history it’s passengers had witnessed in their lifetimes.
Looking through the many photographs taken, I am struck by how much they help to illustrate the intrigue of Berlin. After wondering what the fuss was all about upon first glance, I departed the city two days later, with considerable admiration for the German capital. Neither the city nor the people we encountered were dark or divided, like parts of the Berlin and German past. I suppose the old historic buildings, like the Reichstag, are metaphors for the city of Berlin…aged outer walls which make up the shell of the building tell the stories, while the modern rebuilt interiors give new appeal. It really surprised me, and now I’m eager to see more of Germany. If you’re looking for a hip city with loads to explore, Berlin should be on your list of European destinations for 2014!
Look for my upcoming post about stumbling across a Ritter Sport shop in Berlin, where we made our own chocolate bars!