Many people told me the same thing over and over: Berlin is colorless, dull and impersonal. I found many colors in the capital of Germany: in its parks, with their yellow, rust and red leaves. It certainly isn’t dull or characterless; for sure it is challenging, especially when it comes to the things that have been removed or destroyed, but that have left their mark anyway. In Berlin there’s a huge elephant in the room: the past of the city, looming somewhere over the roof of Check Point Charlie, moving from the two actors dressed up as soldiers and the row of souvenirs shops.
Sometimes, during my stay in Berlin I have felt the need to take a break, to do something lighthearted: for some it’s retail therapy, in my case food is the cure. That’s why between one neighborhood and the next I stopped along the way for many food – and coffee – breaks, which were anyway useful to get to know the city. My meals took place over the course of three days, but ideally I’d love to spend a full day eating up Berlin.
After walking through the Wall Memorial at Bernauerstrasse, after seeing the photos depicting the desperation of the families divided by a block of bricks and concrete, one needs a distraction. At least I needed to stop thinking – if only for a while – about what it must have been like to walk past a watchtower everyday on your way to work or to school.
In just over twenty-minute we are in Prenzlauer Berg, a former working class area. Now the cobbled streets surrounding Kollwitzplatz are dotted with independent shops and small cafés. One of these drives me to its door: Meierei is a small coffee place with a handful of tables, where you sit down with complete strangers, smile and enjoy the atmosphere of this former dairy. You order at the bar, choosing an Americano or a chai tea, nibbling on a bretzel or a apple and raisin pie, all the way looking at Berliners on the sidewalk outside.
We are in Schöneberg, a residential area in southwest Berlin. It is amazing how each corner of this city is imbued with history: it feels like every single cobblestone has something to tell about its past. It’s in a square close-by that Kennedy gave the famous speech where he described himself as ein Berliner. Besides, the Schöneberg City Hall hosted the city council of West Berlin, in opposition to the Rotes Rathaus, the red town hall of the Soviet sector.
Renger-Patzsch is the ideal destination for lunch in Schöneberg. Understatement is the key world here: the décor is minimal, with worn out wooden floors, simple tables and sturdy chairs. The place is named after the famous photographer whose works are hanging on the whitewashed walls. The menu is uncomplicated, with a series of classic dishes such as the Kasspressknödel with veggies and mushrooms, or Gulasch with potato and green salad. At the end, a serving of raw milk cheeses and date and chocolate Strudel.
Coffee break: Panoramacafé at Kollhoff Tower
Potsdamer Platz is an ultra-modern square, with sharp skyscrapers that somehow remind me of Times Square, only smaller and harsher. Once again, the history of the square is sad and complicated: most buildings were destroyed during World War II, whereas after the building of the Wall it became a waste land, with its death strip dividing the West from the East. The tragic past of Potsdamer Platz can easily be perceived through what is left of the Wall and its concrete blocks covered in graffiti. What happened in the past is right there in front of your eyes: on top of the Kollhoff Tower, on the 25th floor deck, it is possible to compare the photos of the square as it once was with the actual Platz. From the glorious past of the 20’s, to the devastation of the World War and the Cold War, and finally the rebuilding that took place starting from the 90’s.
The Panoramacafé is not cheap and its hot chocolate is just ok, but the strongest point is its location with a 360 degree view on the city and its landmarks: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building, the Cathedral and the Fernsehturm.
Kreuzberg is probably the most varied neighborhood from a cultural and ethnical point of view: a melting pot where students, punks and immigrants live side by side. It brings back to my mind some memories of London in the 90’s: a bit run-down, but still charming. The past peeks out from the narrow alleys, as if trying to remind walkers-by that this was one of the most troubled areas in the years following World War II. Kreuzberg was the neighborhood of the Mietkasernen, the council flats built in the 1800’s to house workers and their families. In the 80’s it became a sort of no-man’s land sandwiched between West and East. That’s when the riots against the police started: the authorities wanted to send away the inhabitants of the neighborhood apartments – most of which were actually squats – that were to be rebuilt or renovated. Kreuzberg became a battlefield, and its pubs became the meeting points of the local workers and the Besetzer living in the squats.
One of the oldest places is Henne, an ancient Kneipe um die Ecke, a sort of inn at the corner of a street. The place has probably undergone very few changes since it opened in 1908. Sure enough, the rickety tables and the worn-out wooden floor are probably as old as the green, thick curtains that keep out the cold and prevent passers-by from peeking inside. A couple of ancient chandeliers cast a dim light on the set of antlers standing guard over the doors. The menu is quite limited, with two starters – potato or cabbage salad – whereas the only main course is a half chicken, deep-fried. As to desserts, one can choose a chocolate tart or a vanilla cake. The check is just above ten euros for a simple meal and a step back in time.