Berlin at Christmas with a teen in tow

Berlin at Christmas with a teen in tow

We always try to get away for a couple of days around Christmas and New Year and 2016 was no exception. Berlin was this city of city of choice on this occasion.

Brandenburg Gate

When we are looking for a city break with Txiki Tom, the first thought is always ‘will there be enough to do?’ Last year we visited Venice at a similar time. It was an inspired choice. We had a wonderful three days of pizza, pasta and vaporetti.

Berlin would be a different trip altogether. With the youngster taking a real interest in history at school it seemed an obvious choice. That and the fact that the three of us love Currywurst. Frankfurters, pools of ketchup and a sprinkling of curry powder – what’s not to love!?

We booked the break back in May and even though we have been away a number of times in the intervening period, the excitement for this trip built steadily.

Brandenburg Gate

Transport

Berlin is a wonderfully well connected city. The flight time from the UK was just over 90 minutes and Schoenfeld Airport is linked to the centre via an Express train.

As we were intending to see a lot of the city, we opted for a 72 hour Welcome Card. The advantage of this is that a child up to the age of 14 travels free of charge. The two tickets cost us €59 and this gave us carte blanche to go where we wanted over the next three days, including the transfer to and from the airport.

Friedrichstrasse Station

The public transport system in Berlin is one of the finest that I have encountered. U-Bahn, S-Bahn, train, tram and bus all interconnected seamlessly. And there are no ticket barriers. I’m sure there are ticket inspectors but we didn’t see one at any point. With tickets so cheap, I think the German attitude is very much, ‘Why would you try and cheat the system?”

Try making that work in the UK!

Waiting for the U-Bahn

The lodgings – Eurostars Berlin

We spent a little more on the hotel for this trip than usual. Given the potential for poor weather, we thought that an indoor pool might prove a useful addition and a chance to warm up. Unfortunately the temperature of the pool failed the ‘shrinking and stiffening’ test for males and females respectively. Mrs L wisely decided to give it a miss. Txiki Tom and I persevered – perhaps that is why I still have an ear infection two weeks later! The sauna was nice and warm though.

Eurostars

Actually, the Eurostars Berlin hotel was great. It had a brilliant location right next to the station on Friedrichstrasse which meant getting around was really easy. The room was clean, modern and big enough to accommodate a decent sized foldaway for the youngster. Robes and slippers were provided as standard – they were well utilised but Txiki Tom did complain that he could only get half of his size 13 feet in the footwear.

The hotel bar and restaurant

Breakfast was the usual buffet variety. There was plenty to choose from and the quality was very good. But why is it that whatever the standard of hotel, the toaster is near as damn it useless? They had a rubbish pop-up version and the conveyor option – you know the type. Put it through once and it’s anaemic, twice and it’s like charcoal. Somebody could make a fortune getting that right.

The hotel also had an elegant bar area and upon check-in we were presented with a voucher for a complimentary ‘Welcome Drink.’ As is our usual way, we ended up taking this as our ‘Farewell Drink’ on our final night! The free cheesy bites were an added bonus.

Welcome drink

Nibbles

Being so close as we were to a main railway station, there were a number of people living locally who could not count on a warm and quiet bed like we could. In fact the number of people wrapped up in sleeping bags and cardboard boxes under the tracks was quite upsetting.

Street living

But wherever there is plight there is the opportunity to witness the positive side of humanity. We saw a lady in her senior years, taking off her hat and scarf and giving it so a man who had obviously fallen on hard times and looked weather-beaten, cold and weary. If only more people showed such compassion.

The Christmas Markets

We visited a number of Christmas markets during our visit to Berlin as the majority of them were still open between Christmas and New Year.

We were desperate to join others at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Christmas Market to pay our respects to the victims and those affected by the attack on the 19th December. It was truly moving to see all of the floral tributes. People were still trying to enjoy themselves and there was a definite air of defiance but the atmosphere was noticeably different to the other markets. I firmly believe in carrying on with normal life or the terrorists have won, but at the same time it felt a little wrong to be eating and drinking on the very spot where innocent people had lost their lives just one week earlier.

Scene of 19th December attack

Message against terrorism

It was also noticeable at the other markets how security had been stepped up and concrete barriers where everywhere. Having said that, once inside it was very much business as usual. My personal favourites were the Gendarmenmarkt with its entertainment and beautiful setting, Berliner Weihnachtszeit with it’s massive ferris wheel.

We didn’t take part in the ice skating or tobogganing that were on offer. We wanted to start 2017 with all our limbs intact.

Cazzie Christmas

Christmas market

Ferris wheel

The Olympiastadion

This was the stand-out element of the trip for Txiki Tom. We arranged to go on the English language tour and were not disappointed.

There were about 30 people on the tour, the majority of whom were from the UK. There were others from the Netherlands and Denmark, plus a rather annoying group of six from Bologna in Italy. Two of their number didn’t speak English and had to rely on continued translation – much to the annoyance of the German tour guide, Alex. He was a Borussia Dortmund fan but very knowledgeable. His command of the English language would put about 52% of the British population to shame (not sure where I plucked that figure from!)

Olympic Stadium

It was fascinating to learn more detail about the history of the stadium and how it was a symbol of power for the regime of the time in the 1930s. Hearing the stories of Jesse Owens and the refusal of Hitler to shake hands with any of the black gold medal winners at the 1936 Olympics painted a picture of stark contrasts. Sometimes we forget though that similar bigotry was also present at the time in Owens’ home country where segregation was still prevalent.

The plaque detailing all the gold medal winners from 1936 still has pride of place in the stadium and is a fitting tribute to all the athletes who prevailed.

Olympic wall

Moving on to more amusing matters, the tour also takes in the comfy and large leather seating which hosts the VIPs. Alex informed us that I was sitting in the position usually reserved for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bottom during international events. How satisfied I was for choosing that seat at random. I hadn’t been so pleased since sitting in Princess Anne’s seat at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh a few years back! I must say that I preferred the comfort and the view from Mrs Merkel’s vantage point.

Angela Merkel's seat

Unsurprisingly, nobody was in the old Olympic swimming pool in December – I expect it was just as cold as our hotel pool!

Swimming pool

Berlin Zoo

While I usually take the lead in putting together the itinerary for a trip, I’m always keen to let others know what the options are so that we can have a balanced break that we all get the most from. We had two options available for our final morning at a similar price – the TV tower or a visit to Berlin Zoo.

It was a fairly grey day. And after going up the Burj Khalifa, every other tower seems to pale into insignificance. As a result there were three votes for the Zoo.

Rhino

The zoo is situated right next to a main railway station of the same name. It is also within earshot of the December Christmas Market atrocities.

We arrived about twenty minutes after opening and only had to queue for a couple of minutes for tickets. When we left a couple of hours later this same queue was about fifty metres long. Our Welcome Cards rewarded us with a discount of 9 euro which meant that our visit only cost the equivalent of about £20.

The zoo is home to more than 1,500 species and around 20,000 animals in total. Being December a good proportion of these seemed to be missing. Maybe they had buggered off to Barbados for a few months waiting for the weather to improve!

More by good fortune rather than judgment, we managed to catch a number of the feeding sessions around the park.

Wolves feeding

I’m not sure why but I seemed to develop a knack for taking photos as animals overlapped with their kin, giving the appearance of some kind of mutation.

Mutated zebra

Mutated giraffe

I’m not the biggest animal lover in the world but I have to say that the penguins were among the cutest I have ever seen and still make me chuckle today.

Penguins

Spandau

The town of Spandau is only three stops on the S-Bahn from the Olympic Stadium and with an hour before out tour to spare, we thought we would go and explore the Old Town and grab a coffee.

Spandau station

Tom was bitterly disappointed that there was no statue of Sir Tony of Hadley in town – it was the only reason he agreed to the detour! I did explain that the name Spandau Ballet came from graffiti in a Berlin nightclub toilet and is a reference to war times and the twitching of dead or dying bodies – all very pleasant.

The Old Town itself is quite picturesque and well worthy of a visit if you have the time.

Spandau

Spandau

It is also a bit of a time capsule. Experienced European travellers will be know that there are a number of brands that have been extinct on the British high street for some time but are still ‘de rigeur’ on the continent. Everywhere you go there is a ‘C&A’ but on this occasion we were also fortunate to stumble across a branch of Woolies.

Woolies

C and A

The Berlin Wall

We loved the Berlin Wall and the whole East Side Gallery. Again we used the train and took the 10 minute ride from Friedrichstrasse to Ostbahnhof. Through the cranes showing ongoing redevelopment of the area we could see a crowd of people which pointed us directly to the start of what is left of the wall.

East Berlin

From here I’ll let the pictures take over for now…

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

I think this art is a little more recent…slightly cropped!

Berlin Wall

Bridges and burgers

There was a good reason for us starting the Berlin Wall visit at Ostbahnhof and finishing at Oberbaum Bridge. This would lead us to a Berlin legend and a veritable highlight of the trip for the three of us.

Oberbaum Bridge

U-Bahn

Crossing the bridge and turning to the left and you arrive at Burgermeister. Fine dining this isn’t. What greets you is a converted public toilet under a U-Bahn bridge. It is a Berlin institution and equally popular for both locals and visitors.

It isn’t the most salubrious of areas but I’m a firm believer in showing our kids that there is more to a place than the glitzy tourist hotspots. You only learn how to recognise and understand how to deal with potential dangers around you if you are actually aware that they exist.

Burgermeister

We had to wait 15 minutes to actually enter the relative warmth of the building and reach the ordering point. Beers in hand (well a Coke for Txiki Tom) we then gradually edged our way further into the structure to find a spare yard of bench to perch at. And it was another 15 minutes for our food to be ready and a return journey through the masses to retrieve our fodder.

Waiting with a beer

But boy was it worth the wait. I can honestly say that the combination of real meat and slightly warmed brioche bun delivered incredible taste and quite literally melted in the mouth. We couldn’t help but smile. Some supposedly must-see sights disappoint me greatly  I really struggle to see what makes Las Ramblas in Barcelona so special for example.

But Burgermeister is a little gem.

Best burgers in Berlin

Back to my earlier point about the area. I didn’t mention to the others that a rough-sleeper had been set alight by a gang only a couple of streets away the week earlier. Txiki Tom was unfazed but a little taken aback why this would happen. Txiki Caz didn’t seem bothered at all although I only got to understand her reaction later that evening. She thoguht I had said that a tram had been set alight, not a tramp!

Beerhalls

Moving back towards the city centre, Txiki Tom was quite apprehensive about a trip to a beer hall. I’m sure he was expecting some British city centre pub. The type where you have to battle your way through a bevy of smokers/vapers just to get through the door. Then you are greeted by groups of lads trying to throw pint after pint down there necks or over each other.

Hofbrauhaus

Although we were in Berlin we chose the Bavarian Hofbrauhaus to give him his first genuine bierhalle experience. A relatively recent addition to the local scene the place was vast and we knew we had made the right decision when an oompah version of the Birdie Song started blasting out of the speakers.

My litre stein of Dunkel went down a treat while Txiki Caz stuck to a pint sized pilsner. The youngster’s coke did look remarkably similar to my beverage and was served in an identical glass.

Having already eaten we declined to join the neighbouring diners as they gorged themselves on some of the largest meat platters I have ever seen. Having said that, I’m not sure how much actual meat there is on a pig’s bonce! We stuck to a desert of apple strudel which was both delicious and plentiful.

On another evening we paid a quick visit to the Brauhaus Mitte. Once more the beer was top notch. Although having seen the undercooked nature of a nearby table’s platter, I’m glad we didn’t dine there.

Brauhaus Mitte

Berlin with a teenager – my overall impression

Berlin is a vibrant city with plenty to do for all ages. It is so very easy to get about. Despite the obvious deprivation of some areas and abundance of people on the streets, felt quite safe.

It certainly isn’t as pretty as Venice. But then again, most places will suffer that fate. Having said that there ARE beautiful areas and many architectural gems.

Walking around Berlin, you get a real sense of it’s turbulent past.  But it’s also a city that is firmly looking forward to the future.

I’m sure we will be back one day to discover more of the city and the people who live there.

Until then, auf wiedersehen Berlin!

Txiki Stu

A few more photos from our visit

Cranes at night

KFC at Checkpoint Charlie

Cellphone!Trabant

Stadium

Gendarmenmarkt

Burgermeister

Dawn in Berlin

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