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Forever Berlin

Next Thursday I’m travelling to Berlin again, for the second time this year and the fourth time in two years. Despite the frequency of my visits, I’m still hugely excited, not least because I’ll get to visit my favourite burger bar, Burgermeister, eat a McRib, and most importantly, get to have an absolutely amazing and authentic döner kebab.

I’ve already spoken of my love for Berlin, a city beyond comparison to anywhere else I’ve ever visited. Truly my favourite place, each of my visits has been markedly different due to the time of year and group of people I’ve been with, as well as where I’ve stayed.

For my first and second visits, I stayed at the very decent Meininger hostel opposite Mockernbrücke station (however, they no longer own that hostel). The second visit last summer, a group of six of us rented a small apartment in Prenzlauer Berg for three nights. For my birthday in January this year, my partner and I stayed in the opulent Pestana hotel adjacent to the Tiergarten, and enjoyed the sauna and swimming pool when we weren’t out exploring.

This visit, we decided we fancied staying somewhere a little different, and thus we’re spending our first night at the Ostel, an East German theme hotel. Arriving in Berlin a couple of days after the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall, this seems appropriate and also quite exciting!

So, with only a week to go until our departure, I’m already very excited to return to my favourite city. I can’t wait to go to familiar haunts as well as discover some new ones.

The Horrors

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Last Friday evening I saw one of my very favourite bands around at the minute play live; The Horrors. Unbelievably it was only the third time in the four years that I’ve been a fan that I’ve seen them play live, after Evolution Festival 2010 and Glastonbury this summer. The venue was the o2 ABC in Glasgow, an extremely good venue. An amazing show. An amazing band.

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It’s perhaps an obvious musical cliche, but they’re one of those bands that make me feel rather than just hear. Across their four albums (Strange House, 2007; Primary Colours, 2009; Skying, 2011; and this year’s Luminous) they’ve transitioned from one style of music to the next, creating blissful soundscapes from a myriad of influences whilst retaining their own particular bass-heavy and synth-drenched style. Wondrous.

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This week…

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…I travel from Glasgow to Tel Aviv, leaving Friday and stopping off in London for a long weekend before flying to Israel for a week’s holiday on Tuesday.

I’m extremely excited about this trip, as I’ve wanted to visit Israel for such a long time. It’s a place with a fascinating, if often sad, recent history, and much of the food and culture of Tel Aviv looks amazing. There were a few weeks over the summer where I doubted if we would end up going as planned; easyJet were offering to amend bookings to other destinations if people didn’t feel safe flying given the then current situation, and for one day they suspended flights to Tel Aviv altogether.

However, they rescinded their offer last week once a ceasefire was announced, and the British Foreign Office website only advises against travelling to Gaza and most of the Golan Heights, as they did before the recent conflict. So, we’re going on our trip as planned. I can’t wait to immerse myself in Tel Aviv life, and gorge upon falafel, shawarma and humous!

Burgermeister, Berlin

Alongside travel, food is one of life’s most wonderful pleasures in my opinion. One of the things I enjoy the most when travelling is the opportunity to try new foods, or variations of foods I already know and love. For example, I’m spending a week in Israel this coming September, and ever since I booked my flights I’ve been driving myself wild thinking about all the amazing food I’ll be able to savour.

Similarly, at the end of last year, after having arranged our four days in Berlin, we immediately set about trying to locate places to eat that we’d both overlooked on previous visits. One of the first that came to my partner’s attention thanks to TripAdvisor was Burgermeister. At the moment in the UK there’s an ongoing trend for “trendy” and “gourmet” burgers, which although delicious can often be financially ruinous and served by irritating staff who seem to believe they’re New York hipsters. Thankfully, Burgermeister’s utterly delectable burgers are both unpretentious and relatively cheap.

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Based on a quick browse of their website (http://www.burger-meister.de/), we knew we had to put Burgermeister as a priority on our list of things to do during the trip. As we were ravenous upon arrival in Germany it was the very first place we went, en route to our hotel. After landing at Schönefeld and taking the AirportExpress train to Ostbahnhof, we doubled back on ourselves to Warschauer Straße, changing to the U-Bahn to travel one stop across the Oberbaumbrücke. Located under the elevated tracks of U-Bahn line U1, just across the road from the steps up to Schlesisches Tor station, Burgermeister serves amazing food.

Burgermeister’s burgers are without a doubt one of the most delicious things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Additionally, the menu isn’t too big or too fancy, and the overall quality of the food is absolutely excellent. From the seven meat (and one veggie tofu) options available, I decided upon the Meisterburger – fried onions, mustard, bacon and barbecue sauce atop a plump, meaty burger, all sandwiched between two toasted halves of sesame-seeded burger bun. To accompany this flavourful feast of flesh and sauce, I ordered a side of perfectly cooked pommes (fries) and a bottle of Rothaus Tannenzäpfle beer. Juicy, saucy, meaty burger, crunchy bacon and onions… the Meisterburger had it all. I dipped my fries in creamy mayonnaise, and washed it all down with delicious pilsner.

It was almost a shame that it all filled me up just right (and I have a depraved appetite) and thus I had no room for another burger – the Hausmeista (mushrooms, cheese, bacon) sounded amazing. If I were going for the full blow-out, I would have gone for the Meister Aller Klassen – two burgers, double cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce and jalapenos. We considered returning for another go at a later point in the holiday, but with only three full days at our disposal and kebabs, currywurst and other exclusively Berliner treats ahead, we decided that our first mouth-watering visit would be the only one for that trip. Next time…

From a cost point of view, this place has it just right. For two Meisterburgers, two portions of fries and two bottles of Rothaus, I paid around €10. As with the majority of takeaway food available in the city, you can eat something that’s delicious, filling and authentically Berlin without spending a horrendous amount of much-needed Euros.

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Burgermeister has been going since 2006, and in the years since its inception has expanded slightly to include a covered standing bar area (see top photo) as well as the original picnic tables outside (which is still how it appears on Google Street View, from 2008). These true masters of burgers (a clever play on words; in a traditional sense, Bürgermeister means “master of the citizens” in German). Admittedly, it is rather small, can be cramped, and during busy periods it can be difficult to get anywhere to perch within, or anywhere to sit on the few picnic tables outside. HOWEVER, any and all minor tribulations are forgotten once you’ve placed your order and are sipping an ice-cold Rothaus within smelling distance of the food. The food, the food…

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Burgermeister, Oberbaumstraße, Kreuzberg. Closest station is Schlesisches Tor, or Warschauer Straße if you fancy a walk across the beautiful Oberbaumbrücke.

Bremen (2)

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These past couple of years, whenever I’ve had the urge to go away for a couple of days with my partner and we’ve not had anywhere specific in mind, we’ve searched for cheap flights using Skyscanner. It’s a really useful travel website and app that has taken us to Gdańsk, Brussels, Marbella and now Bremen using low-cost airlines. Thanks to having worked away from home for a couple of years on what was essentially an all-expenses paid sinecure, I’ve acquired a decent chunk of Accor hotel points that I’ve put to lively use on these trips, keeping our accommodation costs down.

I love Germany, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Bremen; of course much of northern Germany is beautiful and rich with history, but all we really knew of the city before we left Scotland was that the airport is very handy, being just outside the centre, and that the city is home to Beck’s Brewery. I also knew that I would be completely exhausted, having been at a two-day beer festival in Scotland immediately before flying out. However, our main aim was just to relax, wander, and sample as much local colour (and beer) as we could in two short days, so this didn’t present a problem to us.

Arriving at the small, rather spartan Ryanair terminal at Bremen airport, the first thing I did was ask the border guard in my politest German if he could stamp my passport (see top of page. Success!). Second, we tried to locate a cafe of some sort; not only are all of the cheapest Ryanair flights we’ve taken from Edinburgh seem to be very early morning ones, I’d been up since 3am by this point of our trip and had nursed a raging hangover throughout the previous day. Keen for some proper European-style coffee, we found a relatively nondescript but nonetheless pleasant place attached to the main terminal, and we enjoyed a large coffee with cream whilst a resident of the nearby pond sauntered past.

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By this point it was just before lunch and too early to check in to our Ibis yet, so we took the tram from the haltestelle across from the terminal (€2.50 a single ticket) into the city centre. Alighting at the Domsheide stop opposite the cathedral with its huge towers shooting into the heavens, we walked across the square, through the market with stalls selling spargel (asparagus) and other fresh produce, as well as the ubiquitous German sausage and pork vans.

The city centre really is striking. Bremen (along with nearby Bremerhaven on the coast) forms its own city state in Germany’s current federated system, but was historically a member of the Hanseatic League. Consequently much of the architecture around the city is Brick Gothic, which can also be seen in former Hansa cities like Lübeck and across the north of Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. Wandering around, we came across a very pretty little street that looked very much in this style, called Böttcherstraße, but although seemingly very old was actually only built in the 1920s.

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After we’d had a wander around these nice bits of the old city centre it was time for luncheon, or more specifically, an authentic German döner kebap! I found an imbiss place that sold a variety of Turkish and Balkan delights and ordered two mixed kebabs with garlic sauce and salad. For people who’ve never had a kebab in Germany before, it may seem strange that I got so excited over something most commonly eaten in the UK when absolutely hammered after a night out – but those who have will know exactly why. The style of döner kebap ubiquitous across Germany was invented by a Turkish migrant worker to West Berlin in 1971, and in 2014 it’s the number one seller in the German fast food market, surpassing even McDonalds.

After demolishing the delicious flaky meat covered in crunchy salad, creamy knoblauch sauce encased in a crispy toasted bread roll, we decided to have a casual saunter to our Ibis hotel, to see if I could get us in early even though it was before check-in time. Luckily I wangled it and we had a bit of an afternoon sleep. I usually avoid naps when I’m travelling as I feel it wastes precious time abroad that could be spent enjoying wherever we are, but having been awake so early that morning and me still feeling the after-effects of innumerable pints of ale the previous weekend, we decided to have a couple of hours’ slumber before we headed back out around 5pm. We’d heard about a bar that I felt we should take a look at, seeing as I was trying to keep the purse strings relatively tight.

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The Schüttinger Braueri proclaims that it’s Bremen’s first craft brewery; most importantly for our purposes, Happy Hour is every day between 5pm and 8pm, which means a fairly large glass of their own beer (dunkel or helles) for €2, or €1 for a smaller glass. The helles was pleasant enough, but fairly bland; the dunkel was sweeter and hoppier. For €2 a go though, we weren’t complaining.

After having enjoyed around six beers each over the three Happy Hours, we decamped to a bar across the road called the Spitzen Gebel. Originally dating from 1400, we’d heard of this place before arriving due to it being a listed building, being infamously small, but mainly due to it being the only vendor of a very strong, peppery schnapps called sluk ut de lamp, poured from a bottle fashioned to look like an old-fashioned gas lamp. A curious mix of tastes, rather like Chartreuse and absinthe combined, it’s nevertheless interestingly pleasant and we had two tiny glasses of it across the next couple of hours along with more beers, this time the local Beck’s variant, Haake Becks pilsner.

The Spitzen Gebel is definitely recommended for those who enjoy old-fashioned drinking like us; it was small, smoky (the smoking ban in Bremen state only applying to bars that serve food) and welcoming. The barmaid gave me a leaflet explaining the history of the sluk ut de lamp, and assisted me in getting some more Marlboro from the cigarette machine by giving it a well-placed punch when it refused to work for me.

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By this time it was around 11pm and the town was almost dead; we found another bar, Cotton’s Pub, and had a couple more rounds of beer and cigarettes before heading back to the hotel around 1am. All in all, a lovely first evening in Bremen.