We are both huge fans of slow travel but a quick city break requires you move fast and that we did for our first few days in Berlin. Having been there before, Phil took on the role of enthusiastic guide, sweeping me through two days of advanced sight seeing – everything from the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse to the excellent ‘free’ walking tour by New Berlin Tours. The tourist sights of Berlin are well documented and I found them fascinating and illuminating – yes, I was yet another luddite who thought the Berlin Wall was straight and ran through the centre of Berlin.
I love how Berliners choose to view their difficult history, they respect, grow and learn instead of becoming weighed down by it. An example of this is their monument to Georg Elser who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler, yet nowhere in the city is there any such reference to the dictator. Every country has a history that they are not proud of – Berlin is a poster child for how to pro-actively and positively deal with it.
For most people, a trip to a supermarket is blasphemy on a holiday but for us it is a pilgrimage. I love perusing the isles of foreign foods, finding new vegetables, flavours and especially new cheeses, so many wonderful, stinky cheeses. The drinks isle finds me in a wine bubble, ogling the bottles, wondering how many I can reasonably sample within the timeframe and cursing our extortionate taxation on alcohol in Ireland. €4.99 for a bottle of Banda Azul Rioja – yes I could live here!
And that was part of the reason for this trip – could I live here? We are starting our digital nomad adventure in March and Berlin jumped out as a perfect first location, so, after the initial flurry of typical tourism, it was time to walk the streets, drink in the cafes and get a feel for this city of contradictions.
Berlin Christmas Markets
Of course you cannot visit Berlin at Christmas without encountering several of the cities Christmas markets. We were staying off Alexanderplatz where one of the more popular markets that surrounds the famous world clock was in full swing. I could always take or leave mulled wine back home, but Glüwein is a whole other ballgame – gone is the sickly sweetness served in a paper cup. Here it is served in a beautiful souvenir frosted glass, accompanied with a shot of amaretto and genuine, wholesome festive good cheer of locals who come out to the markets every evening for a glass with their families and friends. I am proud to say we sampled one in each of the the markets we visited.
Gendarmenmarkt and Zoologischer Garten Markets were the two that really stood out to us. Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market is nestled neatly between competing German and French churches and overlooked by the beautiful Konzerthaus – concert hall. A four piece brass band played Christmas carols as we strolled around with our Glüwein. The local crafts tent was the highlight of this market, with beautiful handmade gifts and artisans enjoying the buzz of the festive season.
Our other favourite was the Zoologischer Garten Christmas market which winds around the picturesque Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche church tower.
Vegetarian food and wandering in Berlin
Traveling as a vegetarian and coeliac can be difficult and Germany with its meat-centric fayre was always going to be a struggle. More often than not, this is the case for us, so we booked an AirBnB apartment as accommodation so we could prepare some of our own meals. A breakfast of champions – scrambled eggs and gluten free hash browns got us off to the right start and delicious St. Agur blue cheese sandwiches filled either the lunch or evening gap leaving us with just one meal to scout out per day.
Kartoffelkeller was an absolute must first stop for us – a restaurant based around potato dishes – trust the Irish to seek out spud heaven anywhere :-). This was one of Phil’s favourite haunts in Berlin and while the menu doesn’t state that the dishes were gluten free, he trusted their insistence that preparation was suitable, so we both ordered the delicious Greek Style Potatoes. A quick hop on the S-bahn to Potsdammer Platz and we were at the famous Philharmonie Concert Hall for a stunning performance of great French composers. We simply bought the cheapest tickets on the door, dress code was informal and the sound was extraordinary – a highly recommended cultural treat.
The food highlight of the trip for us was found in Friedrichshain, just off the Warschauer Strasse train station. The Bowl vegan restaurant, located above the classy Veganz deli and supermarket, served us a stunning three course meal, where everything (except the beer) on the menu was both vegetarian and gluten free. The wine was organic and easily the nicest I tasted on the entire trip. I had a beetroot falafel bowl, Phil went for the Mexican bowl, and the flavours were simply divine. For desert we had vegan chocolate truffles and a ‘white chocolate’ mousse to share with two decadent bowls of Chai Latte that had to be seen to be believed (see the picture to believe). We would go back to Berlin for this restaurant alone!
Satiated and sleepy after our meal, we grabbed two gluten free beers downstairs in the supermarket and walked the streets of Friedrichshain, enjoying the pretty side streets, back alleys and quirky shops. Then on to Kreuzberg to experience a taste of the night life at the cities most famous entertainment quarter.
Another highlight for me was an afternoon spent at a more traditional local market in the beautiful surroundings of Hakescher Markt. Here we perused local food, artisan crafts and a more friendly, relaxed atmosphere, while being serenaded by an excellent guitarist busker. I tasted the most naughty chunk of lightly whipped Tiramisu and became ridiculously excited at the sight of a Moleskin shop. I am not much of a shopper but give me a good book or stationary shop any day. I’ve been a Moleskin devotee for many a year – their luxurious blank pages have been my constant companion and here, I purchased a limited edition Alice in Wonderland version for my 2016 dreams and thoughts. Bliss, I tell you.
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery was the only sight that I was pro-actively keen to experience in Berlin, so it was a surprise that it took us until our last evening to visit it. Everything happens for a reason and our visit to the wall was a joy, with relatively few other tourists and a stunning burning dusk sky as the backdrop. The gallery lived up to my expectations, what a wonderful display of the creative defiance and resilience of Berlin.
However, I was utterly shocked to see extent of the defacement of these beautiful murals – what is wrong with people that they feel the need to imprint themselves on cultural monuments? Have we become so selfish and unfulfilled that it takes scrawling a signature or banal saying to feel like we have ‘made our mark’ on the world? The wall was repainted by the artists in 2009 as it was unrecognisable and it is now on its way there again. So much so that sections of it have had to be gated off and you can now only experience it through metal grids. I was struck by how much the situation reflected problems with the world today – a monument that symbolises creativity and freedom from oppression being suffocated by the self righteous, selfish need for recognition and ownership.
I don’t want to leave this section on a low note because the East Side Gallery is still my favourite monument in Berlin and our walk along its flanks is an experience I will cherish. From here we strolled around Kreuzberg and stopped in a wonderful cafe on a corner that had free wifi and a delicious cortado – I am really disappointed not to remember the name – hopefully someone might know of it. From there we strolled by Görlitzer Park, where we faced some surprising heckling, and continued on to a bar Phil used to frequent – Luzia. There we enjoyed a beautiful bottle of red wine and a relaxed view of the Kreuzberg local atmosphere midweek. A wonderful way to end a wonderful trip to Berlin. See you in 2016 Berlin :-)! (By the way if anyone has tips on reasonable short term accommodation – we are all ears!)
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We are slow travelling daydreamers trying to make our own way in this world. Food is a constant joy and battle as we are both veggie and Phil is also a coeliac. This is a journal of our adventures in slow travel and food. more...