S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen


G. and J. are friends from Toronto, spending the fall in Germany for degree-related research purposes. We went to visit them two weekends ago in Berlin while they're conveniently located on the same side of the ocean as we are. Of course, since we stayed in a Scottish hotel while in Paris, it made perfect sense to stay in an Italian hotel while in Germany. Through luck more than planning, we ended up staying by Friedrichstrasse, right in the heart of East Berlin, where most of the touristy things are.

The Soviet side of Berlin preserved the old, war-damaged buildings, while the American side was prone to pulling down the ruins and starting again. This is why the buildings most steeped in history - the touristy ones - are mostly located in the eastern part of the city. For shopping, we went westwards.

We embarked on a long walk of discovery on Saturday morning with G. and J. (with whom we spent all three days there). Throngs of tourists gathered in front of the scaffolding facing the Brandenburg Gate with people dressed as bears or frozen cold as statues; we joined them for photos of Victory or Fortune, or whoever it is driving the quadriga atop. We passed by the Reichstag, the capital building, where a long line stretched across the patterned grass into the chilly sub-zero air. Passing the end of the Tiergarten, the enormous park which occupies much of the central part of the city, we loitered among the introspective grid of grey stone, a city of blank faces and changing altitudes, the new holocaust memorial. It's a striking work: an enormous block is gridded off, with hundreds of blocks of stones lines up in rows and avenues in all directions. We wandered through the alley-streets, hiding from each other, taking photos, and drinking in the aura of mystery and emptiness which suffuses the place.

After C. acquired a scarf (forgotten in packing), we headed off through the unopened Christmas markets to a pair of identical churches, one of whose spartan interiors was closed until we'd drunk hot chocolate crowned with whipped cream and warmed up. From there, we headed off towards the pair of medieval churches in central Berlin, pausing for lunch at the Brauhaus Mitte, upstairs in a shopping mall. I had a robust goulash with buttery potatoes and the first of many glasses of apfelschorle. Apfelschorle is apple juice mixed with sparkling water; it looks a great deal like beer, and is, I hear, given to youngsters when they're too young for beer, in part for its appearance, and in part because it's a good drink.

At Alexanderplatz, the Marienkirche was mostly closed for a choir rehearsal, but we looked at the faded fresco of a Dance of Death winding around the entry hall, the figures largely illegible. From there, we made our way over to Nikolaikirche, the other medieval church in town. The walls stood intact after the war, but the roof was gone; now, exhaustively restored, the space is handsome, if crisp.

The light drew long, and so we took a train over to the western side of Berlin, to see some of it as part of our city tour day. Alighting at the Zoo, we made our way through more unopened Christmas markets, past the broken church and bustling shops, warming ourselves again over drinks and pastries in a bakery. We'd arranged to meet up with C.K. at Potsdamer Platz that night for dinner, also from Toronto and also researching in Germany. We ended up at a pubbish place (House of a Hundred Beers, or a name of that ilk), and caught up on each others' lives. Afterwards, we stood under the tent-like dome of the Sony Center and marvelled at the beauty of the wash of lights which caused it to glow and reflect in architectural elegance in the reflective glass of the tall buildings which supported it. The place is also one of Berlin's major free wireless hotspots.

I'd finally read the guidebook on the trip over to Berlin on Friday night and then, before I'd arrived, going out of the city a little ways, perhaps to the castles at Potsdam, had seemed a good idea. But England had been mild and, though I'd brought bundling enough for the chill, I hadn't taken the affects of standing around in the cold all the time into account. So on Sunday, we went to a closer castle, one more convenient for frequent indoor periods; we went to Schloss Charlottenburg. Built as a summer house in 1695, the castle was regularly expanded over the next two centuries into a monumentally long structure. Since it's enormous, the castle now serves a number of different purposes, including as space for governmental meetings. It offers tours of the oldest part of the complex (Chinoiserie! Cupid-and-Psyche tapestries! More oriental pottery than you could shake a stick at! Whacky personification paintings!). It offers two more sections of castle from different periods in its construction which can be toured. (Enormous collections of plateware! All the silver placesettings you could desire for your stylish eighteenth-century table!) And it offered a large garden, complete with abstract hedges, a closed mausoleum, a meandering stream, and a light rain shower. The pièce de resistance was the garden folly, a modest little three story thing with electricity and running water and more phenomenal ceramic place settings. It would be like having your treehouse designed by Foster or Libeskind or Sir Christopher Wren, depending on the period.

We made our way back into the city and, in the dark of late afternoon, visited the exterior of the Jewish Museum. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it's a striking building, silvery smoothness slashed with narrow diagonal windows, zigzaging walls which escape the street into a garden which is almost as evocative as the building. The gate into the hedge-equivalent of the new holocaust memorial (see above) was, alas, closed. We walked up the far end of Friedrichstrasse and paused to recharge ourselves at a coffee house by Checkpoint Charlie. I was tired enough that I dozed off on C.'s shoulders for a while.

Showing remarkable resourcefulness, J. consulted with the coffee shop cashier to find out if there was any small venue live music we might be able to catch, and received useful advice. Unfortunately, die Zwölf Apostel was live music free, but still provided ample portions of decently good food. My serving of gnocchi with squash sauce was monumental, as was my "side salad". Had the others known what sizes were coming, they probably would have shared their pizzas instead of ordering one each.

Come Monday morning, all the shops were open and the numbers of tourists ebbed. We went straight to the Reichstag for join the queue, and didn't have to wait long at all before being let into the warmth of the security check in the lobby. The building itself was constructed in the late nineteenth century, but a great deal of damage from fire as well as war led to a complete rebuilding of the interior and reconstruction of its former central dome by Sir Norman Foster. The tourist-accessible portion is the dome, a monument of glass windows, a central column of mirrors, and a double helix of rampways to take visitors up to the viewing platform with the pigeons at the top. The dome, you see, is open to the air at the top and entryways, and just about as chilly as the outdoors, albeit with less wind. Circling the bottom of the inverted cone of mirrors (perhaps it brings sunlight into the governmental chamber below?) was an exhibit, largely photographic, of the history of the building, well-worth working through. Afterwards, we circled the chamber again and again, climbing the ramps upwards until we could follow the far-stretching horizon with our handy English language accompanying brochures. There was the Sony Center, there the grass-roofed governmental offices, the expanse of the Tiergarten, the politics of high rises of east and west.

Then we went shopping. The Christmas markets, in preparation for previous days, opened on Monday. Suddenly, finally, they were full of life and shoppers and visitors. The markets were everywhere, on all the major streets, and filling up every square. We went to the one near the Zoo, surrounding the broken church. We ate classic Nuremburger sausages. They drank glühwein while I had hot apple juice dosed with calvados-soaked apple pieces. We tried out two variants of "Snowballs" (Schneeballen), balls of baked cookies, more like pie crust than anything else, crisp and dry. The one rolled in cinnamon was more successful than the one rolled in slivered almonds. We tried doughnutty dollops of deep-fried cream cheese-base dough. And we started buying Christmas presents.

Eventually, we made it to afternoon's goal: the food floor of KaDeWe, the Berlin equivalent of the Gallerie Lafayette food floor in Paris. The KaDeWe food floor is enormous. Although thematically divided, the place is something of a maze. Exotic fruits had their own case. An entire refridgerated aisle was devoted to cheese, in addition to the manned cheese counter. We couldn't find the Gewürtztraminer wines because they too had their own section, and we hadn't found it yet; we bought two bottles, one sparkling! There were slews of jams and honeys, and scores of mustards. The meat display counters were off in their own section, an enormous store in their own right. The food floor was particularly strong on imported products: all the major British brands of biscuits and jams and types of cheeses; a decent selection of American staples and brands; a full set with dozens of waters from nearly as many different countries.

Laden with aquisitions, we headed back in the direction of our hotel. The Tajikistan Teahouse wasn't serving food at its customary time because of a lecture, so we went to Jedermann on Under den Linden, north of Humboldt University, where G. and J. had previously had a good meal. It was, it really was a good meal, but the waiter had forgotten to put in the order for my steak with gorgonzola and spaetzle with the others' orders, and was abashed ever after. At the beginning of the trip, I learned it was rude to leave payment and tips on the table in Germany - hand them to the waiter. At the end, I learned that if the waiter replies to just leave it, it is an admission of flawed service.

Berlin is a vibrant city, full of new buildings and scaffolding and painstakingly-restored structures. We ate well, it was inexpensive by the standards of places we've been seeing lately, and G. and J. were superb hosts in a city they have lived in for all of a few weeks. I'd like to see still more of it some day.
Tags: eating in berlin, food

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