When it comes to history, there are few cities with such a chequered and fascinating past as Berlin. I’ve wanted to visit for a really long time but had been vaguely put off by friends’ accounts of a grim concrete wilderness and endless building sites as the newly prosperous and unified city pulled itself together. However, as time went on, I started hearing different reports about Berlin and how beautiful and interesting is and once again my interest was raised and I put it to the top of my Must Visit List.
Imagine my joy therefore when my rather nice husband decided to whisk me off to Berlin for five days as a very special birthday present. Okay, I was less thrilled that this trip would involve going on planes (I HATE flying!) but overall, I was pleased as punch to finally get to see the German capital with my own eyes and set to work brushing up my German and writing epic lists of places to visit and things to eat. The latter being VERY important as I’m a strict vegetarian/almost vegan and kept hearing that Berlin is BRILLIANT for vegans.
The flight there was not quite so bad as I had been expecting (in that we didn’t crash) but still not entirely marvellous and it was with some relief that I emerged into the gloom of Berlin Schönefeld Airport last Thursday afternoon, braced and ready for a German adventure – which began, typically, enough with us getting lost and then having a fight with a ticket machine before finally and triumphantly boarding our train to Berlin.
Flying outfit – coupled with a black faux fur coat, some very high heels, a chignon and some bright red lipstick, I felt like a VERY glam 1940s film star getting on and off the plane, which helped my tattered nerves rather a lot!
After we had ditched our stuff at our (really jolly nice and massive!) hotel suite, we headed out again to ‘see something Berlin’, just to reassure ourselves that we had actually made it to a different country. Our hotel was within walking distance of all the main sites but we decided that the Brandenburg Gate was our goal, being probably the most easily recognisable of all Berlin landmarks. It took a fair bit of walking along weirdly silent roads and back streets (while commenting several times and at great length on both how ENORMOUS the roads are and also how quiet the city is) but then, as these things always seem to happen, we turned a corner and there it suddenly was, right in front of us in all its glory. In fact there was even more glory than usual because we had cunningly timed our visit (thanks mum!) to accord with the Berlin Festival of Lights, which involves loads of monuments across the city being lit up with beautiful light displays.
After this we walked down the busy Unter den Linden and past some more beautifully illuminated buildings to Alexanderplatz, where we had spied an Oktoberfest biergarten in full swing on our journey from the airport earlier on. As both Dave and I absolutely love German biergartens and never fail to spend as much time as possible at the big German market that descends on Bristol every winter (only a few weeks to go – I can’t wait!), we were extremely keen to visit the real thing and see how it matches up. To our surprise, it seems that the Bristol Christmas market is actually pretty authentic as it really didn’t differ at all to the one in Berlin and had all the same gingerbread, sausage, crafts and BEER stalls. The only difference was, as you might expect, the price as it was significantly cheaper in Germany. WHAT a surprise.
Anyway, we settled in for a night of shared jugs of beer then had much needed kebabs (falafel for me, obvs) before wandering back to our hotel again. Unlike the UK, where kebabs are a post drinking snack mostly only eaten when one is too drunk to notice how horrible they are, in Germany they are as incongruous and common as burgers and you’ll see kebabs being eaten at all times of the day and night and mostly by completely sober people too. We also swung past a supermarket just down the road from the hotel, where I was amazed by the variety of vegetarian and vegan foods available, including stuff from familiar brands like Alpro that I have never seen in the UK – like their coffee soya milk and apple strudel yoghurt. Yum. I also picked up a vegan currywurst ready meal because, well, why not?
The next day was my birthday, which I had been feeling rather down about but turned out to be pretty amazing. After all, what could be a better way to kick off a new decade than waking up in a totally new place that you have never visited before? Nothing, that’s what.
After breakfast we headed off to the nearest U-bahn station, where I confronted yet another fear – underground trains. There were some tears but in the end I decided that nothing bad could possibly happen on My Birthday and so stepped aboard. Plus it was the only really viable way of getting to Charlottenburg Palace, where I had decided that I wanted to spend my birthday.
Wow, Charlottenburg. The palace is absolutely stunningly beautiful and although, sadly, the new wing of the palace, which is associated with the celebrated Queen Luise of Prussia is currently closed for renovation, there is still plenty to be seen and admired in the old palace, which has more of an eighteenth century feel to its decor and harkens back to the earlier rulers of Prussia, such as Frederick the Great.
Birthday outfit – a shimmering mermaid dress from Black Milk Clothing.
Charlottenburg was commissioned in the late 17th century by Frederick the Great’s grandmother, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, who was the sister of King George I of England and therefore a granddaughter herself of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia. Sophia Charlotte was actually a prospective bride of Louis XIV’s only legitimate son and heir, the Grand Dauphin but any hopes she may have nurtured in that direction were dashed when he instead married a Bavarian princess.
Although Charlottenburg looks like the most romantic and fanciful of palaces with its beautiful pale yellow exterior and elegant façade, it had its origins in Sophia Charlotte’s distaste for her husband, Frederick I of Prussia, who was for his part so enchanted by his bride that although he aped his fellow monarchs by maintaining a beautiful and expensive official mistress, he never actually slept with her, preferring instead to moon after the pretty Sophia Charlotte. Sadly, she didn’t return his ardour and Charlottenburg, which was then called Lietzenburg, was conceived as a sort of retreat where she could escape her husband’s attentions (he was only allowed to visit by her invitation) and have some space to herself. When Sophia Charlotte died in February 1705, aged just thirty six, her grieving and inconsolable widower renamed the palace in her honour.
It really is a most magical place to visit, with each room being more delightful than the last. It’s grand but definitely not as stately as the likes of Versailles and it’s obvious that there was a feminine hand involved in its overall design, which is cosy and exquisite rather than overpoweringly opulent. Sadly our visit was a little marred by another visitor, an elderly German man, who very rudely and nastily told me off for taking photographs even though I had dutifully bought a photo permit along with my ticket.
However, that didn’t take all of the shine from the day, although getting nasty, rude and unsettling looks and comments from older German men became something of a theme during our time in Berlin, which took me hugely by surprise as no one bats an eyelid at me here and I’d been assured before going to Germany that blue hair and alternative clothes aren’t exactly eyebrow raising there either. However, for every hostile person I encountered, there were dozens more totally lovely ones so I’m not going to let it ruin my memories of our holiday.
ANYWAY. MOVING ON.
After we had finished exploring Charlottenburg Palace, we headed off into the surrounding area, which had a distinctly Parisian ambience, I thought and was a marked contrast to the areas on the east of the city. It made feel really sad to be honest, to think that the whole of Berlin was probably just SO beautiful once upon a time. However, there’s loads of building work going on and it’s obvious that money is just POURING into the city so I expect it will rise, phoenix like, again.
We’d really wanted to have lunch at Vaust, which is a vegan microbrewery in Charlottenburg, but sadly it turned out to be shut so instead we turned back to an amazing burger place that we had walked past on the way there, which was probably much better as I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a vegan burger so much. And oh, the perfectly crunchy sweet potato fries…
After this we wandered over to poke around the shops for there are few things I like more than looking in foreign shops, especially supermarkets. I succumbed to the lures of Yves Rocher (anyone else remember the awesome catalogues they used to put in magazines years ago?) and Kiko, where I bought the perfect glittery pink eyeshadow. I was mostly thrilled though by the amazing pony sized rideable toy horses on wheels that could be hired for just a few euros for ten minutes and then scooted around the inside of the shopping mall. How amazing is that? I don’t think I have ever seen anyone look so happy as the little boy I saw scooting off on his hired horse.
After a bit more pleasant wandering around Charlottenburg, we went back to our hotel to dump our spoils and sort ourselves out a bit before we ventured back to Alexanderplatz for a restorative glass stein of banana beer, which is a totally weird but delicious concoction, while we watched the chaos of Oktoberfest unfold around us as girls in traditional dirndl danced with homeless men to the sound of oompah and the cheers of the crowd. It was a bit odd but I enjoyed it all enormously.
While wandering around the stalls, I noticed that lots of the revellers were wearing traditional grey felt hats and decided that I HAD to have one. However, when we couldn’t find a stall selling them it became clear that the only way that I was going to be able to get my hands on one was if Dave won one on the hammer game by the entrance to the biergarten. He wasn’t keen at all but after being reminded that it was MY BIRTHDAY duly gave in and lo, a hat was mine. Hurray.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. As it was a special occasion, we had booked a table for dinner at the celebrated vegan restaurant The Lucky Leek and oh my, I’m so glad that we did. We both enjoyed the walk from Alexanderplatz up to the restaurant and then settled in for what was to be a truly memorable and astonishing meal, the likes of which can rarely be enjoyed here in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, we have a really strong and thriving vegan culture going on here but it is NOTHING like the one in Berlin, where vegan restaurants were refreshingly plentiful and pretty much everywhere we went had at least one vegan option and several vegetarian ones marked on the menu.
However, back to The Lucky Leek, where we greeted by the most delightfully friendly servers and enjoyed drinks and canapés while waiting for our main course. I’m not totally sure what was in the canapés but I DO know that one of them involved vegan feta cheese. VEGAN FETA CHEESE. I’m not totally sure that I know what either of the other courses were either to be honest but the starter involved an amazingly creamy and rich pumpkin soup while the main course had seitan and more pumpkin and other things all beautifully arranged on the plate and totally delicious. Unfortunately, I was just too full for the pudding but seriously, I’m going back one day for the five course taster menu as it was superb.
Feeling totally happy and replete, we then strolled back via the Berliner Dom, which was beautifully lit up for the Festival of Lights so we sat on the nearby museum steps to admire the view for a while before tiredness took over and we went back to our hotel.
I lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about what an extraordinary and amazing city Berlin is with all its history and energy and grandeur. Everything is built on a huge scale – it’s not beautiful precisely, but instead rather GRAND and extremely impressive. For someone like me, more used to the delicate and romantic coquettish charm of Paris, Berlin was something of a culture shock as it was so HUGE and brash and kind of intimidatingly powerful if a bit rough about the edges. I didn’t LOVE it precisely, but I was definitely intrigued and keen to discover more about this peculiar and fascinating place with its crazy mishmash of old and new and its bleak and bewildering history, that felt so different to anywhere that I had ever visited before.
Berlin might not have captured my heart but it had definitely seized my imagination.
Part two coming soon…
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