90 hours in Berlin

OK, I’m very tired and very behind on a number of other things, so this Berlin trip summary is going to be a brief one.

TUESDAY

We left home at decent time, but an accident on the Gardiner screwed us over. Everything slowed to crawl, and taking this one back road for half mile took half an hour. We finally got to airport at 5:25 and ran up to check in at 5:30. They told us flight had closed at 5:20. Nellie nearly burst into tears.

The agent called and got them to re-open it, but told us we’d have to run. So run we did. We ran all the way to the end of Terminal 1, then through security, then almost all the way down the giant walkway. I thought we might actually make it, when I suddenly realized I was missing my boarding pass. I sent Nellie on to the gate and ran all the way back to security, saw my pass sitting there (thank goodness!), and then ran all the way back to the gates. I’d probably covered about 2km in all by this point. I ran up to the gate, exhausted and sweaty, and found out…that it was delayed. So we/I just ran everywhere like chumps for nothing.

To cool/calm down we went to a nearby bar for a drink. It took a while for Nellie’s sparkling and my Keg-sized Sauvignon Blanc to arrive, and when it did I all but chugged mine. We soon boarded, but there was another delay while we waited for the second pilot to arrive. However, waiting in a business class seat with a Globe and Mail and a couple of drinks was a pretty decent way to do it. Eventually we got underway. I listened to a Joel Plaskett podcast about his favourite places to eat in Halifax, then watched two movies: Top Five and Rosewater. After that I knew I had to try to get some sleep.

Even with the lie flat bed I had a hard time getting more than an hour of sleep. In retrospect I should have used the mask and earplugs provided, because the couple next to me searching for her glasses with a flashlight for half an hour were hard to ignore.

WEDNESDAY

The sun woke me up as we flew over the UK, and I re-watched Mockingjay Part I while eating breakfast. I watched green, rolling hills get closer and closer. Switzerland looked lovely already. We landed in Zurich where we knew we’d already missed our connecting flight to Berlin. A gate agent let us know that they’d just rebooked us on a noon-ish flight, which was no problem as we just hung out in the SWISS lounge. Our flight to Berlin only took an hour and we both drifted in and out of fitful naps the entire time.

We checked into Ritz-Carlton, where my conference was being held. Since it was right on Postdamer Platz we took the easy route and went to the huge tourist trap Sony Centre next door for a beer at Lindenbrau. There we bumped into some colleagues, drank weissbeer and dunkel, and ate white Bavarian sausages and pretzels. Germany!

That night a small group (the conference speakers, actually) gathered at FACIL, a nearby two-Michelin-starred restaurant. The space was stunning, and the food was pretty stellar as well:

  • 2011 Scharzhofberg, Riesling Sekt Brut (Bischofliche Weinguter, Saar)
  • Langoustino w/ lettuce and kalamata olives
  • Eggplant “rosa bianca” w/ ras-el-hanout, harissa, and goat yoghurt
  • Char w/ leek and cidre
    • Previous three courses served with 2010 Grassnitzberg Sauvignon Blanc (Weingut Tement, Southern Styria)
  • Shoulder of poulting lamb w/ purple carrots and green cardamom
    • 2008 Corbieres “Cuvee Etoile” (Pradines D’Amont, Roussillon)
  • Dessert of dulcey-chocolate w/ kumquat and mandarine

And so ended our first (I think?) Michelin-starred-restaurant experience.

THURSDAY

On Thursday I attended the conference while Nellie went on a tour around Berlin, first on a bus, then on a boat.

That night the conference attendees put on their finery and went to a dinner at an interesting venue: Tempelhof Airport. Tempelhof has an interesting history: it’s named after early colonization of the area by the Knights Templar in the 13th century. The airport was (nearly) built by the Nazis, and it housed the only concentration camp in Berlin. The Russians occupied it when they took Berlin, then handed it over to the Americans, who used it a few years later for the Berlin Airlift. Commercial air traffic peaked in 1971 but diminished over time as jets grew in prominence. It officially closed down in 2008, and is now a multipurpose and event space. On this evening, the event was dinner in the main hall, with a 1940s flight attendant decor & band. Yup.

Unfortunately I accidentally deleted the pictures of this trip from my phone, and my phone was the only one with us (since it was black tie and Nellie had no pockets), so you’ll have to trust me on this one.

FRIDAY

On Friday we wrapped up the conference, including my bit. Nellie slept in.

We left the Ritz and took a cab to our second hotel, which was called The Dude. That’s right: The Dude. We expected to see a giant likeness of Jeff Bridges when we walked in, but alas. It’s a small, boutique-y kind of place with real character, away from the main tourist zones but still within a decent walk of everything we wanted to see.

We spent the last dwindling hours of Friday exploring the main Berlin sights: walking across the Spree to the Nikolaikircheplatz, past the Berliner Fernsehturm, then back across the Spree and past the Berliner Dom and Lustgarten. We walked along Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, then up to the Reichstag. We didn’t bother going inside because of how long the line was. Instead we cut through the corner of the Tiergarten to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There is an underground information centre, but what we saw — what most people see — is the field of 2,700 stelae. The way people sat on them, ran around them, hid behind them…either people didn’t know what the memorial was, or it was meant to be this open and interactive and unlike any traditional memorial. The holocaust was, after all, unlike any disaster before it.

After that we made the long walk down to Checkpoint Charlie, which wasn’t really worth it. It’s an unremarkable site, made remarkable only by what once happened there, which can’t be replicated. We left there and walked up to the Gendarmenmarkt on our way to dinner.

Das Meisterstück was actually on my list because of it’s beer rating, but they also happened to specialize in sausage and other grilled meats, so…score. The beer (made in-house) was damned tasty, our my duck sausage was outstanding, and Nellie even enjoyed hers. We were able to sit outside for most of it too, going inside only once the sun went down.

We’d walked all the hell over Berlin and we were full of beer & meat, so we walked back to our room The Dude and crashed.

SATURDAY

With the touristy stuff done we decided to see more of some Berlin neighbourhoods…Kreuzberg, mostly. We took our time getting up and out of the hotel The Dude, then headed east. Pretty much immediately we saw the difference in architecture…some old, Soviet-style buildings were definitely in evidence. We walked through a (slightly dodgy) park to the Oranienplatz, where we had breakfast at a new café called Ora. We left there and walked along the Oranienstrasse, sensing we were on a frontier of gentrification…there were coffee places and funky shops, but also run-down storefronts. We cut north through the Mariannenplatz and across the Spree to see the open-air East Side Gallery, a 1.3-km series of murals painted on the remnants of the Berlin Wall.

We walked along the wall, then along the Spree, then crossed back over to the south side of the river. Our intent was to have lunch at Hopfenreich, the top-rated beer place (within striking distance) in Berlin. It didn’t open until 4:00, sadly, so we thought maybe we’d check out the next nearest place: Heidenpeters. We knew nothing about it, including that it was inside Markethalle Neun, which was like a smaller St. Lawrence Market but with fewer merchants and more food stands. Heidenpeters was a brewery tucked into the back corner of the market, and for €2.50 you could sample any of their four beers. Their pale was especially delicious. We each got lunch (me: Berlin beef balls and potato salad; she: focaccia and prosciutto) and brought it back to the bar, revelling in what a lucky find this was.

We still had some more time to kill, so we walked back down to Orenienstrasse to the Museum der Dinge, a tiny museum of…well, things. I can’t possibly explain the place, so I’ll let their website do it:

The Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge (Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things) chronicles the product culture of the 20th and 21st centuries, a culture marked by mass production and industrial manufacturing. At the core of our institution is the archive of the Deutsche Werkbund (DWB). Founded in 1907, this group of German artists, designers, and manufacturers was one of the leading organizations pushing for a cultural utopia achieved through design and way-of-life reforms at the beginning of the 20th century. The DWB aimed to counter the increasing feeling of estrangement by advocating for a reformed, modern and objective product design and architecture. It endeavored to forge a new understanding between product designers, manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers by establishing “ethically pure” design principles such as quality, material honesty, functionality and sustainability. Above all, it worked to determine an aesthetic ideal and to promote this ideal by exercising their influence on the design and production of modern German commodities.

The Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge is as an autonomous organization, aware of and stemming from this Werkbund tradition. Our goal is twofold: to preserve and document material associated with and advocated by the Werkbund, and to foster contemporary interpretation and reflection thereupon.

So there you go. I swear it was more entertaining than it sounds.

We walked all the way back up to Hopfenreich but it wasn’t quite 4:00 yet, so I wandered around looking for — and finally finding — 19 Grams. The espresso they made me was superb. And much-needed, as I was already pooped.

We finally walked into Hopfenreich, and we were not disappointed. First: it was empty, so we had our run of the place. Second: our bartender (once she warmed to us a bit) was awesome, and cursed like a sailor. Third: the taps had been built into an old drill press, a lathe, and a ventilation duct. Fourth: they had a terrific beer list. We drank exclusively from Germany; they had lots of US craft but it seemed silly to order that. We drank the following:

  • Dan: Bier Fabrik Berlin Lemon Ale, Camba Bavaria Nelson Weisse, BrauKunstKeller Moll, Hanscraft & Co Black Nizza
  • Nellie: Von Freude Ale Primeur, Häffner Bräu Hopfenstopfer Incredible Pale Ale, Kompaan 20 Bondgenoot, Schneider Meine Hopfenweisse

It was a long walk home after that, but we weren’t done yet. We’d passed a winebar and grill the night before on the walk home and wanted to try it for dinner, and so we did. It was called the Rotisserie Weingrün, and it was packed. We took one of the few remaining spots at the bar table, and ordered WAY too much food. Seriously, we thought European portion sizes were supposed to be small. We should have known when our appetizers (smoked ham, asparagus salad) were huge, but we truly expected the two meat trios (chicken, pork ribs, pork belly) to be one small plate each…not half a chicken, an enormous rib, and pork belly the size of three small pork chops stacked on top of one another. Our eyes bugged out. Our server laughed. We ate half and took half home. We drank our wine (Germany makes decent Sauv Blanc and Chardonnay, and at least one really good Pinot Noir…who knew?) and chatted with the Dutch father and son next to us, and pretty much rolled home.

It was late, and we were tired and dreading the 4:00 alarm and a little drunk, so we packed and watched the BBC and I sat on the floor and ate (with my bare hands) the meat I couldn’t bear to leave behind.

Germany!

SUNDAY

Yeah, that’s right, we were up at 4. I was so tired I wanted to punch the universe in the face. We checked out and got a cab to the airport, weaving around the Berlin kids on their way home from raves.

We had a quick flight to Frankfurt surrounded by obnoxious, snoring people, then a connection in Frankfurt held up by very long passport control lines, then a long flight home. I got an hour or two of fitful sleep and then re-watched Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar and a few episodes of New Girl.

We arrived in Toronto, which had just been hit by a humidity bomb. We breezed through customs but waited 40 minutes for our bags. Thanks for those priority stickers, Lufthansa. Anyway, we finally got out, and got home, and got changed.

In the 30 or so hours that we had we felt like we had done the hell out of Berlin, and had the blisters and extra pounds to show for it.

Thanks Deutschland.

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