On a Thursday night, I was in a gastronomic fix. In the hipster district of Kreuzberg in Berlin, otherwise known for its annual May Day riots, tucked into the alleys is a massive hall called Markthalle Neun, where the movers and shakers of Berlin’s burgeoning pop-up restaurant and supper club scene come together. I had clearly stumbled across the underworld of Berlin cuisine.
Orbs of fried octopus, Koshary (Egyptian street food), Berlin Meat Balls, Peruvian Ceviche (raw fish with lime juice), Allgäuer Kässpatzen (German-style macaroni and cheese) and Korean Bao Buns vied for my attention. Local beers and ales flew off the shelves of the bars at tandem. I was in a dilemma that no food lover could complain about – I was caught in a hubbub of music, people and street food in a 19th century market hall, the windows of which were once painted black and its business brought to a standstill during World War II.
In Berlin nightlife begins only around midnight and these food markets cater to nocturnal revellers and gastronomes alike. As I left that district which is home to immigrants, progressive youth and expats such as my husband’s Canadian friend of Chinese origin who took us into its hipster heart, the feeling that I was in a freewheeling city clung to me.
Beer bikes are another aspect of the lotus-eating culture of Berlin. A rolling bar pedal-powered by groups of beer chuggers is legal and a cheerful sight. The reward? How does 10 litres of beer per hour sound?
Everything goes in Berlin. A curious bohemian thought process is reflected almost everywhere. That would include its famous 520-acre public park, Tiergarten Park that once used to be the hunting quarters of kings till one worthy Frederick II decided upon transforming it into a “lustgarten”. Loosely translated, it means a “pleasure garden”. Walking through its lush green paths, I wondered what Frederick would have made of the nudists who sunned themselves in the buff in a certain quarter of the park.
My initial reaction to Berlin was hedged around dismay. Modern facades seemed to take away from the history of a city which within the 20th century had seen all. It been headquarter to the Nazis, had staged a revolution, been bombed to oblivion, sundered into two and been reunited again.
It probably started on the Kurfürstendamm, one of the most famous boulevards in Berlin that gets its name from the former Kurfürsten (prince-electors) of Brandenburg, where my hotel was strategically located. Every day as I stepped out I could see the ruined spire of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), a Protestant church built in the 1890s that was badly destroyed after the air bombing raids of 1943. Even for its obvious aura of history, it was surrounded by the urban accoutrements of glitzy shops, hotels, restaurants and, Bikini Berlin, the new ‘concept mall’ of West Berlin which is named so as a reference to its structure that is divided horizontally by an open floor into two parts like a two-piece swimsuit. Bikinis and churches bring to the mind a strange discrepancy.
But then I spent time at the historic Mitte. In the long walks to the Mitte through the leafy trails of the Tiergarten Park, I made disconcerting discoveries. One of these was a blue wall which turned out to be a memorial to Aktion 4 on Tiergartenstrasse, a programme of forced euthanasia in Nazi Germany that was carried out on psychiatric hospital patients deemed unworthy to live. The methods employed at Aktion 4 were later to be replicated at extermination camps and mobile death vans.
Memorials are an intricate part of Berlin’s landscape. There are more than 30 memorials that mark its warped history. There are memorials to the Soviet Soldier, the Holocaust and the murder of the Sinti and Roma gypsies under National Socialist rule. But perhaps the most poignant of the commemorations is the plaque for Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, who became a symbol of the Cold War.
Fechter was shot by GDR border guards in 1962 as he and a co-worker attempted to climb over the Wall to Kreuzberg in West Berlin. The co-worker got away safely but Fechter bled to death after an hour even with guards and witnesses watching him die.
The testimonial I looked high and low for was the Rosenstrasse memorial. It recalls the non-Jewish women’s uprising of 1943 when their husbands, 2,000 Jewish citizens of Berlin were detained in February 1943 at Rosenstrasse 2-4 as part of the deportations by the SS and the Gestapo. In March 1943 the prisoners were released.
Now, the commemoration that needs no hunting down is Checkpoint Charlie. The crossing between erstwhile East and West Berlin nowadays resembles the first guard house erected during 1961 with sandbags. A former colleague of mine told me that she had found soldiers patrolling the checkpoint when she had visited the city during the year that the Wall came down. How different times can be. I came upon actors dressed up rather shabbily as allied military policemen and charging enthusiastic tourists for token photographs.
Parts of the Berlin Wall, peppered with graffiti and street art, are scattered around the city in chunks, and the bit that stands out remarkably is in the heart of Berlin’s commercial nerve centre, Potsdamer Platz. During The Cold War, what had been no-man’s land as it fell in between the American, British and Russian sectors, is today a vibrant square around which the futuristic Sony Centre and the Deutsche Bahn’s corporate headquarters stand sentinel over.
In between queueing up for a visit to the Reichstag for hours and coming across free but excellently archived museums such as the Willy Brandt Haus on Unter den Linden (‘Under the Linden/Lime Trees’), I fell for a few quarters in the city. The grand Parisier Platz at the end of the Unter den Linden with the neo-classical Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) marking one end of it and the Reichstag just around the corner grabbed my attention. And down the Unter den Linden is Museum Sinsel (Museum Island), the hub of five museums, which is dominated by a gorgeous structure called the Berliner Dom that sits on the River Spree. The jewel in the crown is surely the Pergamon Museum which has collections of objects from antiquity started by the Electors or Kurfürsten of Brandenburg.
My designated ‘happy’ corner in the vicinity was the Gendarmenmarkt, named for the Gens d’Armes, an elite Prussian mounted regiment that was quartered there from 1736 to 1773. With its three landmark buildings of the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral), Deutscher Dom (German cathedral) and the Konzerthaus (concert hall), the Gendarmenmarkt tends to impress.
On a grey windy day, in the middle of a hot summer, I climbed the 254 steps up the Französischer Dom and was rewarded by a beautiful view of my surroundings. From up above which I could still hear the rantings of a strange pony-tailed man who had been stomping up and down the square with a strolley for some time, screaming himself hoarse about some kind of conspiracy. The amusing evening was brightened up by a dose of premium chocolates at Fassbender und Rausch (Fassbender & Rausch) Chocolatiers. It is the first chocolate restaurant in Europe which spices things up with cocoa. Be it fish and meat or salad and soup, you can expect chocolate in it.
I was warned about the temptation that awaits the unwary at Berlin’s famous flea markets. On a steamy Sunday, when the outdoors seemed to be the very personification of a sauna chamber, I stepped into the Straße des 17 Juni Flea Market to keep in step with my antiquing soul. In a market that has been tagged Berlin’s oldest flea market tag since 1973, along with the hordes I braved the sultriness to rummage through vintage metal tin signs, antiques, paintings, cutlery, crystal and vinyl to my heart’s content and the thought running through my mind that no day in Berlin can be orthodox.
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph Calcutta on November 22, 2015)