Berlin, ick liebe dir!

Sunset from Elsenbrücke Berlin with a view of the Molecule Man, Oberbaumbrücke and Fernsehturm and a boat on the River Spree

I was writing a new ‘About’ page but somehow it turned into a post about my love affair with Berlin.

‘I’m David and I’m a Berlin-aholic’.

I’ve been living in Berlin for almost three years now and in that time I have seen more than I ever thought possible.  Friends, some of them native Berliners, have asked me how I know so much about the city.  The answer: I’ve walked the streets, I’ve devoured blogs and scoured Twitter, always looking for something of interest in the city I love.

For me, it was love at first sight.

I first came to Berlin in the summer of 2009, lured by the promise of walls decorated with some of the finest Street Art the world has to offer.  What I discovered was a city with so many layers (and with the harshness of the winters here it needs layers believe me).

On that first trip, I spent 5 days getting to know Berlin – I started with the obvious tourist attractions: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the East Side Gallery but even then I was enamoured with the diversity of the architecture, the proliferation of bars, cafés and restaurants, and the sheer pleasure of drinking a beer bought from a Späti as I wandered.

I returned in 2010.  And then with a trip in the summer of 2011 already booked I decided to quit my job in London and spend a year living in Berlin so I could really experience the place.

The love affair hasn’t waned.  If anything my feelings have grown stronger.  On that first visit I felt more at home in Berlin than anywhere I had been before but now ‘Berlin is home’.

Self Portrait - Reflected in a light shade in a Berlin shop window

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud to be Welsh, to be British.

Growing up in Cardiff was great and I will always miss my family while I’m here (though Skype makes things a little easier).  Likewise the friends I made at University, in London, in Kent.  But there’s something about Berlin that just gets me.  A feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on.  A feeling that I’m meant to be here.

In my time here, I’ve made great friends and had so many wonderful experiences.  Looking back now it’s strange to read some of my first posts on this blog: it was meant to be somewhere to record my experiences but over time it has become so much more important to me.

When I was looking for a title for my blog, I wanted a pun (like so many others).  ‘andBerlin’ sounded in my head like ‘Ann Boleyn’ but also I remember the reaction when I told people that I was quitting my job to move here – a crazy idea as far as most were concerned.  Then came the question ‘and Berlin?’  The subtext was clear, why stay in one city you could travel the world? (I’d already done this in 1998/99); of all the cities you could choose, why Berlin? (I’ve tried and probably failed to explain that already).

BERLIN - Lettering on a rusted skip

There was also the question directed at the city itself: And, Berlin?

What will you throw at me? What will you mean to me?  What have I yet to learn about you?

Having been here as long as I have, having seen as much as I have, I still find more to add to my ‘to do list’, a list that keeps getting longer, no matter how much I try to see and do, no matter how many items I ‘tick off’.

The ‘never ending Berlin to do list’ isn’t something unique to me.

So many other people have moved here and keep discovering Berlin and inspiring me to do the same – überlin, Slow Travel Berlin, Abandoned Berlin, Digital Cosmonaut and Stil in Berlin deserve a special mention in this regard.

One of my goals when I came here was to learn German.

Things are progressing there.  My German still isn’t as good as I would like it to be.  It’s a cliché, but it’s a difficult language to learn.  Having said that, I can now hold a decent conversation and in May spent 4 days on Mallorca speaking only German.

A German friend recently said that Germans are tolerant of the mistakes that people make when they are learning the language.  “Of course we are tolerant”, he said.  “It’s hard enough for us to speak it”.

The added bonus of moving forward with one of my goals is that I feel that I understand the culture and the people here in Berlin better by speaking the language.

It’s difficult to know exactly what will happen next in a city that is constantly changing but if my experiences here so far are anything to go by, Berlin will continue to astound me, entertain me and thrill me.  I’m still a few years away from a potential 7-year-itch so presumably my love will grow.

Sunday Documentary: The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989

A boy stands at the Berlin Wall in 1961

Photo: Still from ‘The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989′

Produced for Berlin Story to accompany the book of the same name, The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989 is an informative and entertaining documentary covering the lifecycle of the world’s most infamous border fortification.

The usual historical events are covered: the building of the ‘wall’ on 13 August 1961, Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech and Reagan’s challenge to his Soviet counterpart, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”; but there are also personal insights that add colour to the story.

The film lacks a little of the polish of a documentary produced by the likes of the BBC, National Geographic or the History Channel but the abundance of archive footage make this a must-see for Berlin history fans.

The Berlin Wall 1961 – 1989

Curry Baude – Lecker Currywurst in Berlin Gesundbrunnen

Close Up of Currywurst and Chips (Pommes) at Curry Baude in Berlin Gesundbrunnen

Reina Lehmann has been serving Currywurst to the people of Berlin at Curry Baude, his Bude (kiosk) outside U-Bhf Gesundbrunnen, since 1989.

Herr Lehmann prides himself on serving quality food – the sausages and sauces are all homemade with the finest ingredients.

Curry Baude Currywurst Kiosk in Berlin Gesundbrunnen

Currywurst is €1.50 and available with or without skin (mit oder ohne Darm) and the Pommes (chips/fries) €1.20 (or €1.30 with ketchup and mayonnaise).  My drink of choice here is a Schultheiss ‘Bombe’ (a 330ml bottle) that will set you back €1.10.

My usual order is 2 x Currywurst mit Darm and Pommes, which I ask for ‘ein bisschen schärfer’ (a little spicier), all washed down with the previously mentioned Schultheiss.

Currywurst and Chips (Pommes) at Curry Baude in Berlin Gesundbrunnen

For me, this is the tastiest Currywurst in Berlin, the ‘top dog’, the ‘best of the Wurst’ if you like.  The sauce, like my previous favourite at zur Bratpfanne, is a blended spicy tomato sauce rather than the ketchup with a sprinkling of curry powder served at many of the cities Buden.

The pommes are nicely cooked – crunchy as you bite into them and soft and fluffy inside. The food is served up piping hot in no time at all.

I haven’t tried it but the locals rave about the Currywurst Spezial, made with sweetcorn, peppers and ‘Zigeunersauce’ – a sweeter alternative to the standard sauce – for €1.80.

Whether you are a ‘Currywurst connoisseur’ or you’ve tried one of the sweet ketchup versions at one of Berlin’s more touristy spots and decided Currywurst isn’t for you, I suggest you head out to U-Bhf Gesundbrunnen and eat the real deal at Curry Baude.

Banksy Flower Chucker / Thrower in Berlin

Flower Chucker / Thrower - Street Art by Banksy in the courtyard of the Kunsthaus Tacheles Berlin

Did you know that there is a large-scale example of one of the most recognisable Street Art pieces by undoubtedly the most famous Street Artist in the world in Berlin?  Banksy’s Flower Chucker / Thrower has been reproduced by thousands of opportunistic entrepreneurs on posters, mugs and canvases. You can even buy your own stencil.  The piece can be found in the courtyard of what was the Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles).

Flower Chucker / Thrower - Street Art by Banksy in the courtyard of the Kunsthaus Tacheles Berlin

Tacheles is a former department store squatted by a group of artists soon after the fall of the wall that became one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions.

Global Warming Exhibition sign inside the former artists squat Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin

Graffitied staircase inside the former artists squat Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin

It was built in 1907 and has a very interesting and chequered past.  Between 1928 and 1980 it was used by AEG as a shop and showroom called Haus der Technik, housed the central office of the SS, was used as a Nazi interrogation centre and then became the home of the Free German Trade Union Federation.

The building was partially demolished in 1980 and it was in order to save the building that the artists collective occupied the building in 1990.

Graffitied staircase and cage inside the former artists squat Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin

Tourists relaxing inside the former artists squat Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin

The last squatters were finally cleared from Tacheles in September 2012 after a protracted legal battle against eviction.

Banksy has been at the forefront of an explosion in the popularity of Street Art and Graffiti over the last couple of decades and his work has risen dramatically in value.

His pieces tend to make a political or social statement and he can count Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Kate Moss, and Jake Gyllenhall among his fans.  The fact that he has so far managed to remain anonymous despite numerous attempts to unmask him only adds to the hype surrounding his work.

In 2010 he released his first film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which he described as “the world’s first Street Art disaster movie”.

Flower Chucker / Thrower - Street Art by Banksy in the courtyard of the Kunsthaus Tacheles Berlin

The piece at Tacheles depicts a youth with a scarf over his face and reversed cap throwing a bunch of flowers as though it was a Molotov cocktail.  Banksy used the image as the cover for his 2005 best-selling book, Wall and Piece.

Update: A comment on my Facebook page suggests that this is not a genuine Banksy and was in fact painted by someone connected to Zapata, the bar that occupied the part of the building on which it is painted.

Banksy originally painted the Flower Chucker / Thrower on the West Bank barrier, a wall separating Israel from the West Bank – it is appropriate therefore that it can also be found in Berlin, a city divided for so long by a wall.

Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch – An abandoned Shopping Centre in Berlin

Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

Another classic Berlin urbex destination is now on borrowed time.  The Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch, an abandoned shopping centre in Reinickendorf in the former French sector, will be torn down by its new owner, with the aim of building new housing on the site.

The Cité Foch (initially Cité Toucoulou) grew out of the Camp Foch, a settlement of the French Allies in post-war Berlin, and was a restricted area due to the presence of strategic sites, such as the listening post on Rue Montesquieu.

At the height of its popularity in 1991, the Cite Foch, named after Ferdinand Foch, a French Marshall, who was largely responsible for the Allied victory in the First World War, was home to 2,600 people.

The Getränke Markt and Open Door at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Eingang - the Entrance at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Spair Graffiti at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

The Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch was built in the 1970s to house the commissary (the food shop on a military base), a cinema and restaurant.

After the withdrawal of the French military from the area in 1994 there were some issues finding tenants for the housing estate.  Though it is now a popular residential area, the shopping centre did not recover.

At the end of the 1990s, Famila Warenhaus moved in but Kaufland acquired the brand’s operation in Berlin in 2001 and closed the store in 2006.

Inside Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Inside Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Inside Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Inside Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Inside Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

The building has been partially empty since then, though an Aldi supermarket and an Elixia fitness centre continued to operate past this time.  The last of the tenants left in 2011.

Since then, the building has been in limbo.  The majority owner since 1998, a Swiss investor was insolvent and the minority owner, BIMA (Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben), the Federal Agency for Real Estate, was for some time unable to contact him.

Several proposals for renovation failed to come to fruition and vandalism and a lack of care took its toll on the building.

In July 2014, the main creditor of the previous owner, a Frankfurt-based asset manager, acquired outright control of the site in a foreclosure sale, having already purchased BIMA’s stake.

The building will now be demolished and sold with planning permission (assuming this is granted) to a developer.

Smashed Lights at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Smashed Windows at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

When I visited on a cold February day the shopping centre was open to the elements.  Though it was clear that some effort had been made in the past to secure it, I had the choice of several open doors and smashed windows to walk or crawl through.

I had to be careful as I wandered around in the darker corners not to slip on the ice on the floor, formed where the rain had dripped, or in come cases fallen through, cracks in the ceiling and holes in the roof.

The Reception at Elixia Fitness Centre at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Elixia Fitness Centre at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Easy Chair at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Skylight at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

Unfortunately, by the time I discovered the place the authorities had taken some measures to make the place safer and reduce the impact of vandalism – much of the building had been gutted, including removing the escalators that were the most impressive feature of the early urbex photos I saw.

Outside Shot at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin Parking Garage at Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch - an abandoned shopping centre in Berlin

I would suggest visiting the Einkaufszentrum Cité Foch soon for a chance to explore the abandoned shopping centre before the bulldozers move in – though it might already be too late, as recent news footage shows metal fences around the building, which may already have been secured against opportune visitors.

Sunday Documentary: Life Behind The Wall

East German lady and Milka Cow - Thomas Hoepker for Magnum

Photo: Thomas Hoepker for Magnum

In Life Behind The Wall, a short documentary for The Economist, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker talks about his experiences in Berlin and his photographs, first in a divided city and then shortly after reunification.

Born in 1936 in Munich, Hoepker is a celebrated photographer with a long association with the Magnum Photos agency, serving as president from 2003 to 2006.

Hoepker first worked in East Berlin in 1959 when he was sent to photograph the ‘10 Jahre DDR’ (10 years GDR) celebrations. He describes a drab city, the grey punctuated only by the red of communism.

In 1972 whilst working as a photographer for Stern magazine, Hoepker and his wife Eva Windmöller, a writer for the magazine, moved to East Berlin on assignment.

Thomas Hoepker’s photos from this time are the backbone of Life Behind The Wall and his memories of and motivations for taking the pictures, along with observations about life in East Berlin accompany an impressive slideshow.

Life Behind The Wall

FlashInvaders – A Street Art App From Invader

Screenshots from the FlashInvaders app from Street Artist Invader

Screenshots from the FlashInvaders app

French Street Artist, Invader took the inspiration for his art from the classic arcade game, Space Invaders.  Now, with the launch of his app, FlashInvaders, he has gone full circle and turned his art into a game.

Invader’s tile mosaics of Space Invaders can be found in many cities around the world, most notably in his hometown, Paris.

The object of the game with FlashInvaders is to ‘flash’ (take photos of) Invader pieces on the street. The app compares the photo to a database of the artist’s work and, using your smartphone’s GPS, verifies that you’ve seen the mosaic in person.

Screenshots from the FlashInvaders app from Street Artist Invader on the App Store

Screenshots from the FlashInvaders app on the App Store

Players (users) are then awarded points for each Invader ‘flashed’ and compete against each other in a ‘highscores’ table.

The app is available for iOS and Android and can be downloaded for free from the App Store or Google Play.

I’ve seen lots of Invader mosaics in London but unfortunately, though he has been here, I haven’t found any of his Street Art in Berlin but if I do I’ll ‘flash’ it with my FlashInvaders app.

District Một – Saigon Street Food in Berlin

The 'street vendor' kitchen at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin

Like everyone else in the city it would seem, I’m always on the lookout for Berlin’s Best Burger so when I saw that the Bao Burger ‘De La Sauce’ from District Một was the three times winner of the Burgers and Hip Hop event organised by Stil in Berlin, I had to try it.

Street Food is one of the buzzwords of the moment and though I’ve never been to Vietnam, it’s obvious that the whole restaurant has been decorated to resemble a Saigon street market – quirky but stylish.  Corrugated panels, a backlit wall made from beer bottles, lanterns, a light made from a plastic fuel container and the coloured plastic stools are among the memorable features of the standout interior.

'Banh Bao' a light made from a plastic fuel container at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin Gladioli flowers at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin A backlit wall made of beer bottles at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin

I found it a little strange that we were seated with a lone diner when there were so many free tables in the restaurant but this may be an attempt to replicate the authentic street dining experience.  Other diners, I noticed, also found this unusual and asked for a table to themselves.

As my main objective was to try the burger, I had to resist the temptation of lots of other dishes on the menu, though I’m not sure I’d like to try the Nhộng chiên bộ (deep-fried silkworm, buttered) and the other items in the ‘For The Exotic Tongue’ section.

I chose the Khoai lang chiên (crispy deep-fried Sweet Potato with dip) to accompany my burger and Steffi plumped for the Summer Rolls as a starter.

The De La Sauce Burger (€6) is described on the menu as a ‘steamed “Banh Bao” wheat rice cake bun, 120 gram beef patty, Vietnamese pickled vegetables, pickled red onions, roasted Sesame, fresh coriander, Soy bean skin, fresh Mango with 3 homemade sauces (garlic mayonnaise from an egg yolk base, caramelized fish sauce and red curry sauce).’

The De La Sauce Bao Burger at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin

Reading the long list of ingredients, the one thing I wasn’t sure about was the slice of mango. I’m not a fan of ‘sweet and sour’, in fact I have what borders on an aversion and so I wasn’t sure how I’d react to fruit on my burger.  I was very pleasantly surprised – I thought it gave the De La Sauce a balanced and distinctive flavour.

Our food arrived quickly but as we were eating before 18:00 on a Friday evening the restaurant wasn’t busy.

Summer Rolls at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin

The Summer Rolls were good but not able to beat the flavour of Steffi’s favourites at Viet Village, just down the road from District Mot. I was surprised when the Sweet Potato, which was tasty but a little greasy, was round rather than cut as chips/pommes/fries.

Sweet Potato with dip at District Mot, a Vietnamese restaurant, in Berlin

Overall, I would say that the food at District Mot was very good – the De La Sauce, is currently set for a place on an upcoming best burgers in Berlin post – but thought that it was a little overpriced.

Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg – Berlin’s other TV Tower

Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg a TV and radio tower near Wannsee

It seems that I have a thing for TV and radio transmission towers – I fell in love with the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz when I first came to Berlin and now I’m also a little bit obsessed with the Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg.

At 212 metres it is significantly shorter than the Fernsehturm but situated as it is on the top of a hill it is visible from a considerable distance.  If you’ve been to Wannsee you will most likely have seen its red and white antenna on the horizon, crowning through the trees of the Düppeler Forst.

Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg, a TV and radio tower as seen from Wannsee

In operation since 18 July 1964, it is owned by Deutsche Funkturm GmbH a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG and transmits television, analogue and digital radio signals.

Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg a TV and radio tower near Wannsee

I first noticed the Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg when I watched the sunset over Wannsee from a small beach on the Havelchaussee.  Steffi helped me locate the ‘mysterious tower’ and on a sunny May day last year I decided to get up close and personal, having already visited the Glienicker Brücke and the former DDR exclave in West Berlin, Klein Glienicke.

Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg a TV and radio tower near Wannsee

At the foot of the steps leading to the tower from the conveniently located Schäferberg bus stop, is a granite memorial to the Communist Party Chairman Johann Schehr and three other members, Rudolf Schwarz, Eugen Karl Schönhaar and Erich Steinfurth, victims of the Gestapo in 1934.

A memorial to Johann Schehr, Rudolf Schwarz, Eugen Karl Schönhaar and Erich Steinfurth, victims of the Gestapo in 1934, near the Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg, a TV and radio tower near Wannsee

A memorial to Johann Schehr, Rudolf Schwarz, Eugen Karl Schönhaar and Erich Steinfurth, victims of the Gestapo in 1934, near the Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg, a TV and radio tower near Wannsee

They were shot in the back ‘whilst attempting to flee’ in retaliation for the shooting of the Gestapo informer, Alfred Kattner at the hands of the Communists.

To reach the Fernmeldeturm Berlin-Schäferberg take the S1 / S7 / RE1 / RE7 to S-Bahnhof Wannsee and from there the bus 316 to Schäferberg, which is in Fare Zone (Tarifbereich) B.

Sunday Documentary: Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia

Portrait of Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse) from the BBC documentary 'Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia'

Photo: Still from ‘Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia’

Professor Christopher Clark details the life of one of Germany’s (then Prussia) most famous rulers, Friedrich der Grosse, in the BBC documentary ‘Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia’.

Fritz, as he was affectionately known, was a cultured man who gathered like-minded intellectuals and artists such as Voltaire at Schloss Sanssouci to enjoy music and discuss philosophy in a time now referred to as the Enlightenment.

A complex man, he is also recognised as one of the greatest military strategists of all time.

Frederick the Great came to power in May 1740 following the death of his father, Friedrich Wilhelm I (Frederick William I).  In a move that would shock his enemies, within seven months of his accession, Fritz, the Philosopher King, invaded Silesia.

He then waged war with the Austrians, who had been largely responsible for the violent and hate-filled relationship Frederick had with his father after he was forced to witness the execution of his friend, Hans Hermann von Katte – punishment for a failed attempt to flee the tyranny of his father.

Joseph Goebbels, who produced the Nazi propaganda film, Der Grosse König, adopted Fritz as a symbol of German strength.  Hitler identified so strongly with Frederick the Great that a portrait of the King of Prussia was one of his most prized possessions.

Frederick the Great’s legacy is evident in Berlin in the architecture of the Bebelplatz and his statue stands before it in the middle of Unter den Linden.  The nearby Friedrichstrasse is also named in his honour.

A story of scandal, intrigue, enlightenment and war, the life of Frederick the Great makes for a compelling documentary.

Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia