Visiting Berlin: Balm for the Soul

One of the 20 "Green Walks" in downtown Berlin. Photos provided by Kirsten Schmidt.
One of the 20 “Green Walks” in downtown Berlin. Photos provided by Kirsten Schmidt.
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany. photo by Sonja Stark, Pilotgirl Productions.
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany. photo by Sonja Stark, Pilotgirl Productions.

By Sonja Stark

“Berlin?” asks my Mutti, the German equivalent to ‘Mother’ in English, “why would you want to visit Berlin?”

In Mutti’s mind’s eye, this German capital is still synonymous with barbed wire, food shortages, wire-tapping, and the Stasi police.

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Mutti was born at the height of WWII, on the border between Germany and Russia, and has never been back, as far as she knows, nothing has changed. But change it has.

After nearly a quarter of a century since the iron curtain fell, Berlin is like a balm for the soul. It’s a place of peace and prosperity, arts and community and paint – lots and lots of paint.

I started my wanderings unpacking at a fabulous lifestyle hotel called nhow. The lobby, bar, and restaurant are all pink, an outrageous runway model kind-of-pink. The hotel concierge offers me a pink electric guitar, pink bathrobe and pink toothbrush – playful aesthetics that put me right at ease.

nhow hotel, Berlin, Germany.
nhow hotel, Berlin, Germany.

Once divided by the Berlin Wall, I’m in the creative nexus called the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. My spread overlooks the River Spree with glimpses of the Oberbaumbrucke Bridge and a Stadtstrand beach bar on the opposite bank. It’s the perfect location to sip a signature cocktail from a funky beanbag chair.

I peaked out the back patio where my present thoughts come face-to-face with the past itself – segments of the original Berliner Mauer or Berlin Wall.

The Past Meets the Present

The city was divided on August 13, 1961, by the construction of 87-miles of reinforced concrete slabs, watchtowers and bunkers. Each gray slab weighed in at approximately three tons and stood 12-feet tall. Today you can’t describe the Berlin Wall or the city in general without mentioning graffiti.

Most of it is political and it’s as important to the heritage of Berlin as the museums, memorials, and historical sites. To mark the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the building of the Wall, nhow hotel transformed their back yard into Freedom Park.

The Reichstag, Berlin.
The Reichstag, Berlin.

The temporary exhibition includes sections from the former border between Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Platz. Symbols of unity – doves, rainbow prisms, and even President Obama’s face mask the scars of the past.

East Side Gallery Memorial

Just a block up the street from the nhow hotel is the longest section of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery Memorial. 106 urban paintings canvas the entire one-mile stretch.

The most famous painting is the recreation of a photograph taken in 1979 with the Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Erich Honecker passionately kissing Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. The ‘tongue-in-cheek’ satire is called “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.”

Dining with Consequences

Kater Holzig Restaurant, Berlin.
Kater Holzig Restaurant, Berlin.

In any other city, a bombed-out soap factory on a weedy lot that discourages advertising would be a recipe for disaster. But, try as they might to keep Kater Holzig a secret only among the alternative scene, word gets out to the masses. It turns out that this restaurant is a cultural playground flush with a theater, a mock beach and a dance lounge.

I followed the crowd up three flights of gritty stairs to a quirky open-kitchen concept hotspot. There are warnings against photography, but the ‘cool factor’ of this dilapidated warehouse is too much for me to resist. After a lengthy 4-

course dinner that included a fennel salad, confit olive tapenade, braised wild boar, dumplings, and chestnut strudel it was a lot easier going down stairs than coming up. Half looped up on liquor and heading for the exit I completely forgot the critical photo policy.

Out of nowhere an angry guard grabbed my arm and demanded I empty my digital camera card. Berlin thrives on individuality and creative expression.

Once considered vandalism, art in the form of graffiti or tagging is now encouraged. But take a commercial photo for an internet travel article and the subculture revolts. The contradiction baffles me.

Finding Answers at Museums

Section of the original Berlin Wall.
Section of the original Berlin Wall.

The next day I headed straight to the museums for answers. You can literally spend every day of the year inside a different museum in Berlin so choose wisely.

On display at the Allied Museum are the CIA and SIS (British Secret Service) ´Spy Tunnel´, the guardhouse of Checkpoint Charlie from Friedrichstrasse, and a British “Hastings” airplane used for reconnaissance. I’m surrounded by a sordid history that puts Berlin’s complex chronology in a better perspective.

I make a necessary stop at the Berlin Wall Documentation Center, then the mothballed Templehof Park; the former airport for the famous Berlin Airlift, and finally, the interactive Story of Berlin Museum.

Paying Proper Deference

This is how you pay proper deference to Berlin. Before you take photos you learn acronyms like GDR (German Democratic Republic), FRG (Federal Republic of Germany), NPA or NVA (National People’s Army) and SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). My head was swimming with history but I was finally coming to terms with what haunts Mutti and understanding Berlin’s complexities.

The Mitte (Midtown) District

Of the 12 districts in Berlin, I barely scratched the surface of two of them. I only had one day left to pull together an analysis of Berlin and assure Mutti she had nothing to fear. I decided to go visit a small farmers market for further investigation.

The tasty-smelling Kollwitzplatz Market is in the gentrified Mitte District home to a working-class family population. There are leafy playgrounds and Bauhaus schools and it’s an intellectually stimulating district for thought and meditation. On the corner, I spotted a grocery cart full of free flowers and a makeshift stall giving away used but still wearable clothing.

“The baby population is exploding in this section of Berlin” said my Visit Berlin travel guide Nicole Robel. Nicole confessed she lives here and loves the vibe and atmosphere of her trendy neighborhood.

Currywurst in Berlin. We strolled the market sampling a slew of Berlin favorites like Marzipan, fresh Brötchen and a venerable sausage creation called currywurst. I think the currywurst is an acquired taste.

There are narrow streets to explore with high-end dress shops and boutique galleries to pine over. And, like the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district and perhaps all districts, the ever-present political tagging permeates vacant buildings, street signs, and sidewalks.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin.
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin.

A girl can’t live on retail therapy alone so as my stomach growled louder a familiar inverted “M” icon caught my eye. The menu listed ‘supersize’ and ‘take out’ but this eatery, the W * Der Imbiss was clearly the antithesis of McDonald’s.

I shared several tall glasses of wheatgrass and two naan pizzas with Nicole. One with olive paste, sundried tomatoes, and arugula and the other with artichokes and chilies. We dined al fresco watching mommies push baby strollers and students rush to class.

Traditional Alsatian Gastronomy

In the evening, I was back to my carnivore ways sharing dinner with friends at the Gugelhof. If it’s glamorous enough for German Chancellor Schröder to take US President Clinton out to dinner here, well, then, it was good enough for me. My cholesterol count jumped several notches as I plowed through their most popular fondue dish.

The Clarchens Ballhaus is a 1913 school dancehall with an upstairs Mirror salon and a downstairs swing floor. By the time I arrived from Gugelhof, it was 10 pm on a Sunday evening and there was just one romantic couple on the dance floor. It was too late to see a show at the Hackensche Hofe Filmtheater so we took photos of the Brandenburg Gate, wet from a soft rain, and lit up nicely.

It was my last evening in Berlin and after the Kater Holzig anomaly, nobody tried to confiscate my camera. Like the beloved Trebant vehicles and little Ampelmännchen traffic lights, perhaps the altercation was just a leftover gesture from East Berlin times. Either way, nothing should deter anyone from visiting Berlin and given the size of the city, it will take more than one visit.

Visit Berlin Travel and Tourism Website

Time Out Berlin Magazine


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