So much for German frumpy!
26.09.2013 - 03.10.2013
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Berlin was not quite what I expected. Given its communist influence, I pictured a city a bit run down and drab, but with a rough, cutting edge chic. Nope. The place is clean, stylish and modern with gorgeous shops and cute restaurants. Parts of the city, such as the famous west Berlin shopping mecca, the Ku'damm feel a lot like Disneyland as many of the buildings retain a 18th and 19th century character, yet they all look brand new! Post-WWII, bombed out buildings were reconstructed as they used to be and since the fall of the wall in 1990, east Berlin has been renovated to the hilt using this same approach. In addition, the demolition of the wall opened up prime real estate in the downtown core which has been filled with shiny office tours with central courtyards filled with sidewalk cafes. Sorry ladies, the men are the fashion stars in Berlin. Nothing flashy or in your face, just well tailored clothes and snappy shoes. I do suppose the large gay population might be skewing the average, but even the straight guys seem to know how to style a scarf. So much for German frumpy! As to the myth of the gruff Berliner, I have seen the odd manifestation, but for the most part, people have been surprisingly patient and kind.
Berlin has always had a reputation for being the German hotbed of decadence and moral decay. In the 1920s the cabaret and burlesque shows were the rage. Today, Berlin is still party-central with tons of night clubs each with some nuttygimmick. For example, one bar is split in two by a labyrinth/obstacle course which you have to crawl through in the dark after a few drinks. Another club requires you to pass through a kebob shop, and then make a call at a payphone. Then and only then does a special door in the pay phone open up to let you in. The place is also steeped in more traditional culture. The picture gallery had a selection of Italian masters such as Botticelli and Titian and as well as featuring 17th century Dutch masters like Vermeer. Wow!
This sense of liberalism has perhaps helped Berliners to be open about its checkered past. The Nazi era is viewed with a mix of shame and resignation. There a various memorials around town for the "murdered" jews (the Germans chose these loaded words) from a large maze of black stone stele to small brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones with the name of the Jews known to have lived in that building before being rounded up by the Nazis. Most of the wall that surrounded west Berlin 1961-1990 is long gone, but a double line of brick embedded in the pavement continues to mark its route and graffiti art commissioned on a section of the wall to celebrate reunification (the Eastside gallery) is also being preserved. A few decades of reunification appears to have bred a weird nostalgia. East Berliners seem to long for the simplier lifestyle under communism like crappy Trabant cars and the ampelman (crossing light man), while West Berliners lament that their city is no longer "special" and has become like any other European city.
A couple of highlights:
1) Circling up the big glass dome on top of the Reichstag (German Parliament building) at sunset with the city sweeping out below you.
2) Enjoying a silly currywurst (white spongy sausage with curry-ketchup sauce) at the crazy beer garden at Alexanderplatz.
Food: I have been pleasantly surprised by German food. It is simple, but full of flavour. I tried pork knuckle. Sounds vile, but it was fantastic. Basically they slow roast a pork hock until the skin is crispy and the meat falls off the bone. It was served with creamy sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. I was not wild about wiener schnitzel which was very dry, but the meal was saved by the sides -- the dressing on the warm potato salad was mustard creamy with a hint of lemon and the vinaigrette on my side salad was rich and full of flavour. If I wanted something different, Berlin was cosmopolitan enough that I can go for Thai or Indian
I have fallen in love with the neighbourhood cafe -- coffee, booze and the most wonderful cakes and tortes. Yes, there is apple strudel, but there is also sour cherry torte with custard cream. My favourite thus far is the sansouci cake (named after a famous german castle at Potsdam)- layers of chocolate and vanilla cake separated by hazelnut cream, topped with a thin layer of marzipan and slathered with a creamy chocolate icing. Delish!!
Part 2 begins. I arrived in Krakow, Poland yesterday evening!