Germany

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.

Wanderlust

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This time last week I was in Germany enjoying craft beer, right now I’m sat in a particularly dreary office in Scotland wishing I was elsewhere. It’s one of life’s tragedies that you spend so long getting excited in anticipation of a trip or a holiday, then before you know it it’s been and gone and you have to get back to regular life. Sigh.

Still, this Wednesday I’m off to one of Europe’s biggest festivals, Glastonbury, for five days. So things aren’t all bad…

Bremen (3)

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Our second, and regrettably final day in Bremen began with breakfast at a small cafe around the corner from our hotel opposite some stalls selling strawberries and asparagus. My hungry eyes skimming the menu, I ordered two large breakfasts and two apfelschorle, with hunger and thirst simultaneously battling each other for supremacy in my stomach. Our almost overbearingly friendly waitress quickly returned with two large plates of delectable-looking things typical of a Continental breakfast and a basket of dark rye bread, along with two pints of fizzy apple juice. Comprising local ham, some prosciutto, sliced chicken, a small wedge of Camembert, a tiny scoop of creamed goat’s cheese, two thin slices of some harder cheeses, a huge slice of watermelon, garnished with a radish and some sliced cherry tomatoes, it was all absolutely delicious. Delicious, and yet due to my hunger being the overriding factor when trying to find somewhere to eat, devastatingly expensive. I had failed to notice that the waitress had dreadlocks and a prominent lip piercing; the clientele were either reading iPads or Kindles; and the suffix bio- (organic) was in front of nearly every (admittedly mouthwatering) morsel on the menu. The cafe was now so obviously some kind of a quasi-trendy/student hybrid eaterie. The two apfelschorle (apple juice spritzers), whilst more than effective in quenching my thirst, were around €3.80 each. The total bill of two large breakfasts and two apple juices with sparkling water in them came to a gasp-inducing €28.

Bremen had been more than reasonable in terms of cost until that point, and this was a slightly irritating surprise. So, we paid and quickly agreed never to speak of that particular breakfast ever again. We sauntered through the nearby streets until we came to the main road, walked along past a block of 60’s-era looking buildings comprised in the main of Turkish buffet places, convenience shops and tacky-looking nightclubs, arriving not long after that at the Hauptbahnhof. A large, cavernous and beautiful old building (see top of page), Bremem central station lies next to a large square filled with bus and tram stops. Navigating our way through the throng of trams, pedestrian crossings and buses, we found a bar with some outside seating and sat and had a coffee near some old men who were drinking beer and discussing something in an animated manner whilst their dogs licked each other’s faces beneath their table.

This was a holiday with no set agenda and no real objectives; we were content just to wander and see whatever we could of the city whilst alternating between beer and coffee in whichever haunts we could find. In an aim to make sure we saw some of the more historic and particularly scenic aspects of the city however, whilst ensconced at that particular cafe we used some of our roaming data to see where we could head to afterward rather than just walking listlessly around the centre for the rest of the day. This led us on another wander through the city to the Schnoor, which is one of the oldest parts of Bremen and one that has retained a medieval character. Reminiscent of The Shambles in York, England in both appearance and age, the Schnoor is a street composed of tiny terraced houses on a small cobbled street, much of them now used as restaurants and souvenir shops. After reaching the end of the street and passing through a small, dimly-lit passage, we arrived back onto a regular-sized street near the river, and to our surprise we found ourselves standing outside Bremen’s open-all-year Christmas shop. One does have to wonder how these shops make a profit for most of the year – although we went inside the shop out of curiosity, as will many tourists and other gawpers no doubt, standing next to a fake snow-covered Christmas tree with flashing lights whilst outside the June sun blazed away made the 25th December feel the furthest away it possibly could be.

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After that slightly surreal experience we decided that it was that time of the afternoon, and proceeded to walk towards the river until we were on the Schlachte embankment. It was a warm day, and the beer gardens and terraces of the cafes and restaurants lining the street were starting to get busy. Finding ourselves a table next to the river, I ordered two Haake Becks and settled down to relax. Haake Beck is a type of the well-known Beck’s beer brewed just across the river from us, and is a variant intended specifically for the Bremen region. It was a lovely pale lager, and twice as enjoyable when drank out of a cold glass in those particular surroundings.

Two steins each and we were starting to get hungry again. It was approaching 5pm – happy hour at the Schuttinger brewery we’d visited on our first evening in Bremen. We traversed the subterranean passage from the Schlachte up to the Böttcherstraße, regained our table from the previous night, and as I was feeling particularly peckish by now I insisted we have Currywurst along with our two 0,4l of dunkel. Although a drinkable enough beer with the environment to match, two large glasses of Schuttinger felt sufficient for that evening, and we decided to head back to the Schlachte and the riverside beer garden we had been to earlier in the afternoon (which I now noticed was called Feldmann’s Bierhaus). The sun’s reflection softly moved further down the river as the night wore on and the light faded, and all the terraces and restaurants lining the embankment became steadily abuzz with people enjoying the weather after work. The smell of sizzling bratwurst from the beer garden’s barbecue was wafting through the air, the beer was as cold and refreshing as earlier in the day, and the noise of coal barges slowly moving along the Weser was almost the only other sound. It was a lovely evening, and made me wish that the two days in Bremen we’d resigned ourselves to could have been longer.

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We decided that our final drink of the evening and the holiday should be back at the Spitzen Gebel, as we’d enjoyed it so much the previous evening. A bonus was that as a smoking pub it  thus had the added pleasure of letting us enjoy a cigarette and a beer at the same time indoors until an unknown future date. Thus our two days in Bremen wound down with a small beer and a cigarette, finished off with another tiny glass of sluk ut de lamp. I was sad to be leaving; although a relatively small city, I felt that a third day would have allowed us to see more of the east of the centre; I knew there was an area called the Viertel that I’d wanted to visit, reputedly another lively area of the city filled with bars and trinket shops.

We walked back through the dormant city centre, across the Marktplatz and the Wallanlagen park next to the river to our Ibis hotel and began to prepare ourselves for the flight home the following morning. Along the way some post-lager hunger returned, and so we made a stop at McDonald’s and sampled the pork and barbecue-flavoured delights of the McRib! Although I used to abhor the though of going to McDonald’s abroad, feeling that it was not in the spirit of being a “proper traveller” and that it was imperative to avoid anything that’s vaguely familiar or available in the UK, in recent years it’s occurred to me that I’m not betraying my own tenuous code if I try menu items that you can’t get in Britain

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This was also my thinking when, after a 7am tram ride back through town and the inner suburbs to the airport, for the sake of convenience, closeness and curiosity we decided to go to the McDonald’s opposite our Ryanair terminal for breakfast. No McDonald’s menu item will ever surpass the Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin in my eyes, but a Chicken, Bacon and Egg McMuffin (accompanied by a large apfelschorle) from the McDonalds Bremen Flughafen was a perfectly good way to end my two days in beautiful Bremen, Germany.

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.