Newest Review: ... where was advertised the "Englisher Garten". As the map suggested that there was a café nearby, that seemed as good a destinatio... more
Three Days in Berlin
Member Name: grahamt
Date: 15/05/12, updated on 29/05/12 (60 review reads)
Advantages: Lots to do and see
Disadvantages: Lacks character
As it turned out, the German organiser completely screwed up; he had to rearrange the dates and hadn't even bothered to consult my wife to see if she was available (she wasn't)! So, as it was their mistake, they agreed to cover our visit, which would now be just a leisure break.
We flew with Easyjet. Very cheap flights, booked well in advance, flying into Schoenfeld airport, south of the city. I won't tell you how to get into the city from there (it was quite easy) as Schoenfeld closes in June 2012 so, in future, you will fly into somewhere else.
Berlin does a tourists travel ticket (Berlin Welcome Card) that covers buses and trains. Like London travel passes they cover various zones, three (A, B & C). A & B cover the city and outskirts whilst C covers the suburbs, such as Potsdam. We bought the ABC one. The 72 hour one costs just over Euro25. Good value for money I reckon. It also gets you discounts on various attractions.
Berlin has a very good train and tram system. The trains are generally the U (Underground) services, like London's Tube, and S services, which are the overground lines. There are also R (Regional) services which mostly consist of the double-decker trains you may have seen. Different services can run on the same lines though, just as in London but the trains look the same so you have to know which number service you need and in which direction you want to go.
Staying in the City
We had booked into the Hotel Kubrat on Leipziger Str, right by the Stadtmitte U (U2 and U6 lines) station, recommended to us by our hosts. I will do a separate review. This hotel could scarcely be better located: it's just in what was the old Russian-occupied East Berlin part of the city; the World-famous Checkpoint Charlie is just around the corner on Freidrich Str, just 200m away; Unter den Linden, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are no more that a 30min stroll away; there is a superb selection of restaurants on the doorstep in the Gendarmenmarkt district.
Day 1 (Saturday) - Berlin on foot
Overcast with occasional sun and a biting cold wind.
I always say that if you want to discover a city, the only way to do it is on foot. So, we set out heading west along Leipziger Str, towards Potsdamer Plz. This area has been drastically rebuilt from the rubble of the war.
The main attraction here was a new shopping mall. The shops don't open until 10am but stay open as late as 9pm. My wife was in heaven when she discovered Deichmann's shoe store, selling a huge range of shoes at unbelievable prices, even cheaper than Brantano but far better quality than Shoe Zone. She showed remarkable restraint in only buying two pairs.
We then headed towards the city's main park - Tiergarten. This is quite close to Potsdamer Plz and soon we were walking in amongst the trees, which provided welcome relief from the wind. This park is much more like a wood rather than the sort of park to which we are used in London. Utterly delightful though and the more so when you see the pictures of the total destruction it suffered in the war.
We wandered across it, stopping to watch the birds on the various waterways that cross the park, and to take pictures. This early in the year there wasn't a lot of colour, other than a few rhododendrons and a few planted out flower beds. I would expect that to change come summer. Spotted some black and grey crows-sized birds I'd never seen before. Turned out to be Hooded Crows.
We headed to the opposite corner where was advertised the "Englisher Garten". As the map suggested that there was a café nearby, that seemed as good a destination as anywhere. As it turned out, the garden was somewhat of a disappointment but the café was definitely welcome. We enjoyed a couple of very tasty wheat beers (Maisel's) which went down a treat.
We headed back eastwards through the park towards the Brandenburg Gate and just as we arrived, turned left the 100m or so northwards to see the Reichstag building. I understand that you can visit but we didn't really have time. Shame really because, from outside, you don't get a good appreciation of the scale of Norman Foster's glass dome, as it's sat right in the middle of the building and so mostly obscured. If you walk back a fair distance on the lawns facing the grand entrance, you get something of a feel for it.
It was here we heard a German brass band and so wandered across. It was then that we discovered that Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were in town for the German Cup Final and that was one of the supporters' bands. For the record, Dortmund won. The fans were boisterous but well-behaved.
The fans were mostly congregating around the Brandenburg Gate, having their pictures taken with the various entertainers, dressed up in military uniforms. This is the start of Unter den Linden and was the most famous (after Checkpoint Charlie) dividing line between East and West Berlin, the gate itself being entirely in the Russian zone.
Unter den Linden is a very wide boulevard with lots of souvenir shops and restaurants along its entire length. I wouldn't say that the architecture is interesting: much seems to have been rebuilt after the war to an "expedient" design. Having been in the Russian zone, you might even call it utilitarian. We did stop at a German restaurant (Nanteck Altberliner) for some lunch and had a very enjoyable meal for an extraordinarily good price of Euro30, including drinks!
From here we headed up towards Alexander Plz where stands the famous radio tower, but we promised ourselves a visit to that for another day. Being not far from our starting place, we headed, somewhat foot-weary back to our hotel.
Not wanting (or able) to walk far, we wandered up Fredrich Str to find a restaurant for an evening meal, and came across Bocca di Bacco, an Italian restaurant. It looked nice but only rated 99th out of 170 on Tripadvisor (!) but we decided to give it a try anyway. No complaints about the food but the service was decidedly off-hand. Clearly they have the idea that maybe we mere tourists were beneath them. The waiter obviously took one look at my watch and decided I was good for a Euro300 wine. Nose severely put out of joint when I ordered something much cheaper! At nearly Euro160, the meal wasn't even cheap overall; I don't mind paying if the experience is good; the tip I left was probably less than they were expecting!
Day 2 (Sunday) - Potsdam
Grey and still a biting wind!
We reached Potsdam in around an hour by a combination of U and S trains. A quite easy journey; Potsdam is about as easy to reach from central Berlin as Windsor is from Central London. The Potsdam station exit at one side takes you to the tram and bus station and on the other side to the coach park where the tourist buses depart. We wanted to go and see the Sans Souci palaces, which is on the route of the Potsdam City Tour bus, one of the usual jump on/jump off tourist buses you find in most cities.
What we hadn't realised was that you can't buy a ticket on the bus itself and there was no one obviously selling tickets anywhere. I the end we found a guy on the public transport side of the station. Tickets cost Euro12 with your discount.
The bus covers all of the famous locations in Potsdam, including the Schloss Cecilienhof, where the famous Potsdam Conference was held, which divided up Europe between Russia and the Allies and which ushered in the Cold War which culminated in the building by the Russians of the Berlin Wall. You even get to ride through what was the KGB enclave, from which Russia did much of its spying on the West and where U2 spy plane pilot, Gary Powers, was held after his plane was shot down and before he was exchanged for KGB spy, Col Fisher, on the nearby Glienicke Bridge. The complete ride takes around 1hr 45mins.
We got off at the Neues Palais at the furthest point of the route. It was time for something to eat but out here all there was was a sort of marquee selling food and drinks. We both had a chicken risotto, which arrived just luke-warm, together with a couple of beers; not an enjoyable experience and all the worse for them not accepting payment by card!
This was a problem I found widely in Potsdam. It does appear that where finances are concerned, outside of the major cities the Germans live in pretty much the financial Dark Ages. It does seem extraordinary that, over 40 years after they were introduced, there are still German business who will not accept credit or debit cards. From what I see, Germans seem to be happy to carry around wads of note and pocket-fulls of coins and pay for everything in cash. God knows what they would make of contactless payment! What price the "Cashless Society"? At least we didn't have any such problems in Berlin.
We decided not to do the palace tour and, as the weather was at last starting to brighten up, we walked back though the park towards the town instead. Halfway we took a detour to the Orangerie, which is set high on a hill overlooking the park. The central section is open to the public and, by climbing up the tower to the concourse, you get tremendous views over Potsdam.
Onwards from there we passed the windmill that was used to shred tree bark for the local tanning industry. Past here and you are pretty much back in the centre of the city. Here, just to one side of the main square is, what Potsdammers like to boast, the "original" Brandenburg Gate. Much smaller and older than the Berlin one, it leads onto the main shopping streets, with many restaurants and cafes from which to choose. These mostly traffic-free cobbled streets are by far the most attractive quarter of the city.
On the way back to the station you pass what appears to be a mosque. It turns out that it is in fact an old pumping station for the waters of the fountains of Sans Souci! The minaret is the old chimney of the original steam engine! I wonder what the reaction to that would have been in Britain?
We very much enjoyed Potsdam, which seems largely to have escaped the total destruction of the war suffered by many of its larger neighbours, especially Berlin. We just wished that the weather had been nicer.
Back in Berlin, we chose J W Augustiner in Gendarmenmarkt, a restaurant which brews its own range of beers. This is a very German restaurant, heavy on the meat and light on the vegetables, exactly as we imagine German cuisine to be. I did enjoy the meal though my wife less so. We did have a German red wine with it, rather than beer and, although of excellent quality, I suppose really that a heavy meal like that demands to be washed down with large quantities of beer. However, if this is what you are looking for, there really isn't much better. Great atmosphere, excellent service: Euro92.
Day 3 (Monday) - City Cruise
Sunny but still with a cold wind.
By now our feet were crying out for relief so we decided to take a cruise along Berlin's River Spree. We took the train out to Schloss Charlottenberg with the intention of taking the cruise boat back to Freidrich Str, close to Alexander Plz and a trip up the radio tower. The boat actually does a round trip, returning up Berlin's narrower canals to the starting point. Our half trip tickets cost Euro10 each.
There was a short period to wait before the departure and so we took a look at the outside and public gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg. You can take a tour of this palace and I understand that the gardens between the palace and the river are quite delightful.
The cruise was quite relaxing and enjoyable although much of the initial trip covers areas where the buildings are mainly residential and so not of significant interest. As you get closer to the city centre you do pass a lot more of interest, including the Reichstag and Berlin's cathedral. This is where we supposed to get off but there were so many passengers getting on at this point and no way of getting past them until they had all boarded that as we reached the disembarkation door, the boat was already pulling away!
We did eventually negotiate for them to stop briefly at the landing stage of a rival company to let us off and in the mean time we did have the benefit of passing through Berlin's Mill Lock and seeing sections of the old Berlin Wall, still standing along the edge of the river, and all for free.
From here we got the train back to Alexander Plz and took time out to have something to eat at Reinhard's on Poststrasse, in their sunny, sheltered courtyard. I can recommend you seeking out this eatery, tucked away on a side street. We had an excellent lunch, with beers, for just Euro38.
And so, finally to the radio tower (Berliner Fernsehturm). For just Euro9 (including discount) you get to take the lift up the just over 200m to the 360 degree enclosed viewing platform. From here you get outstanding views over Berlin. Around the edge of the platform there are information panels explaining what you are seeing but the disconcerting thing about them is that they don't line up with the views they are describing! However, the experience is highly enjoyable and not to be missed. Many, many photos were taken.
On our way back to the hotel we took the brief detour to Checkpoint Charlie. The location is still marked by the border crossing post in the middle of the road, just as it was before the wall came down. They have preserved the "You are now leaving..." signs and, in the middle of the road at the road junction there is a huge post surmounted by pictures of Allied and Russian army officers on either side. All around here are souvenir shops and, just on the old Russian side of the border, surrounding an undeveloped plot of land, hoardings detail the history of this famous location from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And so, to our final night out in Berlin. This time we took note of Tripadvisor and chose Entrecote, a French restaurant, 20th of the 170 restaurants listed. It's on Schultzen Str, just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie. The meal we had there was superb. The food was excellent but, unlike Bocca di Bacco, the service was impeccable. The atmosphere was great; the restaurant is quite narrow but goes back a long way. You got the feeling that they were actually happy to have you as their guest. Not only that but at Euro146, it was actually cheaper than Bocca di Bacco!
We enjoyed our visit to Berlin, brief though it was and I would love to go back again some time to take more time over those attractions over which we spent less time that we would have liked. Mind you, this is inevitable; in over 2 dozen visits to Paris, we still haven't really visited more than a half of that great city.
However, overall I was a little disappointed with the appearance of the Berlin. It does seem to be substantially lacking in character. I suppose, with the wholesale destruction that the city suffered after the war, this is somewhat inevitable. We might ask what London would look like today had it suffered similarly. Much of this is also undoubtedly due to disregard of style and the drive for utilitarianism that characterised much of the Russian influenced rebuilding projects that East Berlin suffered. No doubt, over time, Berlin's government may rectify these "errors", as they have already started to do.
Summary: One of Europe's great cities, still suffering the after-effects of the war.