After having to cancel a trip to Barcelona earlier this month due to an injury and some flight cancellation drama (not related to each other of course), I was looking forward to jumping on a plane to Berlin for my third solo adventure of the year. German culture is something I have always related to. As someone who is logical, to-the-point and who likes efficiency, the way that people live and act in the big German cities really appeals to me, probably more than British culture.
I armed myself with my Canon R5, 35mm lens and 70-200mm lens, as I wanted to capture a range of looks on this trip. It actually turned out that it was flat white cloud on most days, so I didn't take my camera out all the time.
I know it's a little boring to start with telling you how my flight was, and usually there's something to complain about, but this time I got lucky! My flight from Gatwick was perfectly on time and we actually landed 20 minutes early. A real novelty.
Berlin Brandenburg airport is very modern, everything just works and flows, including the train station situated directly underneath the airport where I jumped on the FEX double decker train and headed to the nearest station to my accommodation.
The area I was staying in, Friedrichshain, is youthful, quirky, hipster and really quite beautiful. The blocks of 5 storey residential buildings range in colours and are divided with a fair amount of greenery. The number of independent cafes, restaurants and bars in this area is quite something, and the majority of them are really good too.
While wheeling around my suitcase, it was time for lesson number one in Germany. They really, really like cash. I'm so used to not carrying any cash in the UK any more, that it hadn't occurred to me to get some euros out in cash. In my mind, Germany is equally, if not more technologically advanced to the UK, so why wouldn't they just accept card, right? I was wrong. Practically every place in the Friedrichshain area insists on cash only, they don't even own card machines. There are a few exceptions, and often they are the places run by people from other countries, but if you don't have cash, you're going to struggle somewhat in this area.
I couldn't get into my room until about 3pm, so I had a wander around the area and found myself a cafe that did accept card (as I was waiting for my credit card balance to update to take out cash, which it wouldn't until the following day). The number of vegan restaurants and cafes is really quite wonderful, with people simply embracing it as much more of a norm than we do in the UK yet. I felt like this area was especially good for it too, as it was so youthful.
My AirBnB apartment on Simon-Dach-Strasse was beautifully presented. In a block of other similar apartments managed by Apartmently. There was a bit of a mix up at first, as I had collected the wrong key card from the lock box, but once I was finally in my room, I was very pleased with the decor, quality, and also the absolutely enormous bathroom. i probably could have hosted a small gathering in the shower, it was that big (the shower gathering never occurred, for anyone wondering). I ate the free Haribo on my bed and had a little rest.
It was time to venture out. My first walk was around the area, and I was still definitely getting used to looking the correct way when crossing roads. I can't tell you how many cyclists I almost walked in front of. A lot of shops are closed in Germany on Sundays, but bars and restaurants are thriving, with queues outside the doors for many of them.
I popped back into the apartment and wrapped up a little warmer. The temperature was dropping towards 1-2 degrees as it got dark. I then set off on my trip into the city, keen to see some of the famous Christmas markets. The train and metro system in Berlin is (as expected) very prompt and efficient. My nearest station was Frankfurter Tor, and I jumped on a metro over to Unter Den Linden, where the Gendardenmarkt Christmas Market was located. I soon discovered it had moved location slightly due to building work, but it didn't matter, I wasn't getting in. There was a 1 Euro entrance fee in cash, the most petty amount to deny me entry - and I until the next day, I wouldn't have a penny in cash. I'd come back another day though.
In hindsight, I didn't mind an excuse to explore the area more. This area of the city was an upmarket one, with expensive 5-star restaurants and fashion houses, a far cry from the rustic charm of Friedrichshain. Eventually I jumped back on the metro and set off to Alexanderplatz, where I knew there was another large market without an entrance fee. This area was bustling, it's clearly the shopping area for the every day person, with familiar shops such as TK Maxx, Paperchase and Primark lining the outsides of large squares. The feature though of course, was the markets. It was fully dark by this time, so the glow was beautiful. The largest of these is nestled underneath the Fernsehturm (enormous TV Tower), outside the Rotes Rathaus, the Berlin Town Hall.
This market looked far more 'christmassy' than the one I had been unable to get into earlier, with the wooden huts, greenery, warm lights and stalls brimming with everything you'd expect to see at a German christmas market. Easily the most common stall repeated throughout, is the Gluhwein stall (mulled wine), which people simply can't get enough of. The market featured a circular ice skating rink around a statue of the Roman god Neptune, with a large ferris wheel behind it creating a lovely scene. I wandered around both this, and the Alexanderplatz market for a fair while, before grabbing a burger from Burgermeister. The shops and chain restaurants in the city centre all take card, so there was no issue here, and we really need this burger chain in the UK, it was delicious.
I had forgotten to bring a UK to Euro plug adapter on my travels, so I posted on reddit asking if anyone in the area had a charger they would be happy to give me. A guy replied and I went to meet him. He looked just like someone I'd expect to see sitting on Reddit in all honesty (think, CeX worker), but was a really nice guy and it was very kind of him to help me out and meet me. Following this I got back to my apartment and rested up, it had been a long day.
I woke up, safe in the knowledge that I now had a card that actually had some money I could withdraw, hooray! After a shower in my enormous cubicle, I set off back into the city centre to explore in the daytime. I thought I'd have a little look around the chain stores in Alexanderplatz that had been closed the night before, mainly just to see if they had anything different to stores in the UK. They didn't. One thing you do notice walking around though, is that the Christmas decorations are all far more beautiful and tasteful than we have in the UK most of the time. There's absolutely nothing tacky.
I had another walk through the large Rotes Rathaus market, which opened at midday and was a lot quieter at this time. I hadn't eaten yet, so I picked up a bratwurst from one of the market stalls (because it has to be done) and enjoyed that while the aroma of the cinnamon from the Gluhwein stalls filled my lungs.
Venturing out the back of the market, I headed towards another area of the city with no set location in mind. I quite enjoy just wandering in a direction to see what I can find. It turns out what I did find, was a stunning three storey sex shop, with window displays as blatant as you might expect for a fashion brand. The attitudes towards this side of life simply isn't as cloaked in Germany. There are no blacked out, seedy doors to have to enter through, it's a pleasant experience with a happy welcome from the nice woman running the shop. Did I buy anything? Who knows.
Eventually I ventured back in the direction of Alexanderplatz station. There were closer stations I could have used, but it meant more of a chance to explore, and I knew that I could get where I needed to go from that station. Before getting on a train, I visited the enormous Galleria department store next to the station, basically John Lewis on steroids, with 5 floors of all the exact same items you would expect in the UK. Walking into somewhere like that ahead of Christmas though, makes me feel like Kevin in Home Alone 2.
Next up was a trip over to see the East Side Gallery along the Berlin Wall. It was very cold on this day, so I put on my thicker gloves and took the walk from Ostbahnhof station down to the long strip of wall along the riverside. It was rather moving to see. On the west side of the wall is typical graffiti that has built up over many decades, but on the east side of the wall is an enormous array of stunning street artwork spanning what must be a kilometre or more, with messages of togetherness, racial-harmony and much more. It's great to see that such a symbol of division has been turned into something showcasing these positive values in such a stunning way. The weather was grey and bleak, but in some ways I felt like that was right for visiting the wall. It didn't rain on my entire trip, and I was just thankful for that really.
Deciding to walk back towards Friedrichshain, I went via the East Side Mall, which was quite lovely inside, different decor to the malls I'm used to seeing. There was a decent book shop inside and I enjoyed browsing some books that I hadn't seen in shops in the UK. The notable addition to the sections I tend to look through (smart thinking, sociology, humanity), was books on sexuality and alternative relationship dynamics. As per the sex shops, these simply seem to be hidden away in England in some prudish and conservative manner. too. Most of the books in the shop were the English versions, with one section dedicated to German language books, testament to the effort that Germans put into learning English as a very competent second language.
I ventured back to my apartment and had another well needed rest. I had been carrying my 70-200mm lens all day and had walked a lot. Eventually I got up and across the road for some thai food at a restaurant called Lemongrass. The food was delicious, and the service very friendly. Asian food of all types seems to be very popular in the area.
That evening, I had arranged to meet up with a model, Eva, from just outside of Berlin for a couple of drinks and a boudoir photoshoot. I met her at the nearby station and walked back to my apartment, both getting along really well from the start, and laughing at my lack of access to cash the day before. I was very lucky to have a room that was so photogenic, but I had to improvise with the available light. It was night time, and I hadn't travelled with a flash or anything. In full problem-solving mode, I faced a free-standing lamp towards the giant net curtains in my room, placed two white towels over the windows behind them to better reflect back in the light, and used this the emulate morning light coming through the window, it worked perfectly. Click here to see the result, first image on the page (contains suggestive nudity, NSFW).
The shoot went really well, and eventually Eva set back off home in her Uber (after realising she had missed the last train). It was nice to have some great company for an evening while solo travelling. I spent an hour editing a couple of the photos before heading to sleep.
Today I decided I was a shameless tourist. I woke up and grabbed a delicious brunch at a local cafe, Silo, which came recommended online and is run by a super friendly Australian team. This place was impossible to get into on the day I arrived as it was so busy, but they were able to squeeze me in, and I ordered ' The Silo', consisting of sourdough bread, poached eggs, avocado, bacon and potatoes.
I decided not to take my camera with me, my shoulders were aching a little from the day before, and the weather was still flat and overcast, I was never going to capture anything that other people hadn't captured far better already.
My first location for the day was the Brandenburg Gate, an obligatory visit when in Berlin. Much like Marble Arch or Admiralty Arch in London, it leads onto the large parks in Berlin, flanked by official government buildings, most notably the Reichstag Building to the north, with its giant glass dome. I decided not to venture into the building, as it's quite a process with security checks, and visibility from the glass dome wouldn't be all that amazing on a grey day, but instead I walked down to the holocaust memorial, featuring 2,711 dark stone slabs in a grid of varying heights across a large area. I'm sure there's been a scene in a film where someone is running between them that I can picture, perhaps something like a Mission Impossible film, but I may be wrong.
I weaved amongst the roads of the city, most of the buildings very modern with a variety of shops underneath them and the occasional government or embassy building. I was heading towards the visible green dome of the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), which is a stand-out impressive classical building amongst the modern architecture. Naturally, there was scaffold on the outside of the building, as it seems impossible not to have any on a historical site these days, but it didn't stop the interior from being absolutely stunning. The dome was destroyed in WWII, so it's amazing that it's been restored in the way that it has. The rest of the building though was kept fairly intact to this day. I took a long steep walk up to the dome, which has panoramic views from the top, somewhat dampened by the flat, grey sky, but still really nice to get a sense of the layout of the city.
After making my way back down, I weaved in amongst the streets again, finding myself at the Gendardenmarkt christmas market, the one I had been unable to get into on the first night. I went in and explored. Despite it being the most mentioned on website recommendations, I found the white tents to be far less festive, and the stalls were full of extremely expensive items, suited only to the higher class of people who might frequent this affluent area of the city. it was still interesting to look around, but if you're looking for 'festive', stick to other markets.
Eventually I arrived back at Rotes Rathaus and Alexanderplatz, which seems to be the easiest place to end up at in Berlin, perhaps because of the TV Tower being such a visible beacon from anywhere. At the market, I decided to try a Weißer Glühwein, a white wine version of a mulled wine. I don't generally like mulled wine, as I don't like red wine, but this version was perfectly suited to my taste, similar to drinking a mince pie. Cinnamon is one of my favourite flavours, so I enjoyed the drink a lot.
I had seen everything I'd wanted to see in the area I was in on previous days and it had gotten dark, so I jumped on a train back to my area. On my way back to the apartment I wandered across a cafe and book shop called Shakespeare and Sons, crammed with great books on all walls and serving up bagels, pastries and much more. I had a good browse of their books and picked up a copy of The Disaster Artist, which I thoroughly enjoyed the film version of.
This was my last night in Berlin. After another rest at my apartment, I visited a traditional german restaurant called Wurscht & Knolle, and ordered a schnitzel with mushroom sauce. It was huge. The schnitzel covered the entire large plate, and had potatoes and onions underneath the whole thing. Somehow I ate most of it, although felt very full up afterwards. I had been tempted to get dessert, but it just wasn't happening.
My next stop was a bar called Booze Bar. From the name, you'd assume it was some cheap football-fan bar, but actually it was one of the best cocktail bars in the area. They don't have a cocktail menu, instead you tell the bartender what flavours you enjoy, and they decide what would be suited to you. I ended up with a vodka based cinnamon cocktail, a strawberry and blueberry drink similar to a cosmopolitan, and a more bitter cocktail that I can't remember the ingredients of (maybe the alcohol had started to hit).
I was watching the England v Wales World Cup match on my phone throughout, as it wasn't being shown in any local bars (German TV seemed to decide to show Iran v USA instead), and eventually left the cocktail bar to go and check out the local metal and rock bar, something I like to do in all cities as they can be really interesting. This one had really good decor, but the service wasn't as friendly as I'm used to in European rock bars so I just had one drink and left. I was feeling bloated from my giant schnitzel anyway.
It was time to head back to my apartment where I simply relaxed, listened to some music, and edited a few more photos, something I seem to never stop doing.
final day & heading home
The day of flying back is always a little awkward, as you always have your luggage with you. Wheeling my small case around the streets isn't all that great, especially since the temperature had dropped from the previous day. I had cleaned up my AirBnb, stripped the beds for them (good thing to do if you want them to leave good reviews of you as a visitor) and I set off to relax in Shakespeare and Sons, keen to try one of their bagels and a homemade brownie, which really didn't disappoint. I set up my laptop and started writing this blog.
My plane back wasn't until 6.05pm, so I had time to kill. After being in the cafe for a while, I explored some of the streets in the area I was staying that I hadn't seen yet. It was worth it just for the pretty buildings and avenues of trees, as well as seeing the variety of little eateries. Eventually I made my was to the station to jump on the train back to the airport.
Security all went smoothly and my flight was on time yet again, and arrived 23 minutes early this time. Clearly the drama I had gone through with my cancelled Barcelona trip meant I was owed some good karma with this one instead. I'm on my train back from Gatwick now, and had a thoroughly good little getaway. I may have to pop back at some point in the summer, as I know there was plenty more to explore.