Arriving in the former Eastern Block airport of Schönefeld, we made our way to our hotel, via the city’s S-Bahn. Excited but starving from the day’s travel, we were treated to a meal at Alpenstück, rumoured to serve the best Wiener Schnitzel in all of Berlin – and we would not have disagreed. On our way home we visited the notorious Alexanderplatz where the iconic Fernsehturm (TV tower) loomed over us as we drifted around Weihnachtsmarkt, the first of many traditional Christmas markets we visited.
The next morning, we went to the Neue Synagogue, which was once the largest in Germany. Although the synagogue narrowly survived the Kristallnacht (‘the night of broken glass’) as well as an air raid attack and subsequent fire, it was not until 1993 that the remaining foundations were restored and made into the Centrum Judaicum. It was rededicated not as a place of worship but of teaching and education. We visited the museum’s exhibition called “Open Ye Gates” which tells the history of the building and the lives connected with it.
We all got the hang of the city’s transport layout and revisited the Fernsehturm, built by the GDR as a show of Communist power and which has dominated Berlin’s skyline since 1969 at 368 metres, although the viewing deck at 203 metres was plenty for some in our group. The view illustrated the sprawling rebuilt city in all its grandeur, with the decisive Unter den Linden crossing (the main boulevard lined with Lime – Linden - trees) East to West.
On returning to ground level, we had a brisk walk to the Brandenburg Gate – another iconic landmark – and then Checkpoint Charlie. The Reichstag can be seen as a backdrop to the Gate; beside and near to the building are the memorials to the Roma and Sinti people, also the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. The memorials were sobering, harrowing and showed the real consequences of history.
Later in the day we headed to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to witnessa very lively ice hockey match (a first for many of us) - Berlin vs Düsseldorf – a fiercely competitive match. As with football, this is taken very seriously, with supporters dressed in team colours, scarves, whistles, and all fans in full voice chanting encouragement to their team and expletives to the opponents. Thankfully Eisbӓren Berlin won 3-1.
On the third day we headed to the financial district of Potsdamer Platz in West Berlin, via the S-Bahn. There we went to the German Spy Museum, which detailed the history of espionage and Berlin’s entanglement in the Stasi. It demonstrated the many methods used by the Secret Police, including a camera in a lipstick and other ingenious disguises.
That evening we went to a traditional Rhineland restaurant before watching “Vivid” which was a dazzling display of theatre, costumes and acrobatics. An announcement was made that royal milliner Philip Treacy, who designed the show-stopping costumes, was present at the show.
On our final day we travelled to the palace of Charlottenburg, which was the residence of Emperor Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany, and his wife Sophie Charlotte, the palace’s namesake. We were amazed by the incredible collection of chinoiserie in a room named the ‘Porcelain Cabinet’, which was designed to impress visitors with not only its size and quality but with the kingdom’s international relations.
On a more modern note we then decided to go to the German equivalent of Harrods, called KaDeWe or Kaufhaus des Westerns. which means ‘department store of the West’. During the Cold War it was a beacon for everything Western. It was full of Christmas shoppers and took us ten minutes just to get through the entrance. After our retail therapy we proceeded to the Reichstag, the German parliament. We had a guided tour of the building and even saw some of the original Soviet graffiti from the Battle of Berlin. The tour concluded at the renowned dome atop the building, which gave views of the whole of Berlin.
As a treat for our last night we revisited Potsdamer Platz to go sledging and then visit yet another Christmas market at the Gendarmenmarkt. For our final supper we went to the Sony Centre - which is covered in bright LED lights and is where German films are premiered - before having traditional German cuisine. (No-one was brave enough to try the pork knuckle.)
By the next evening, our whirlwind trip had ended and we were all back with our families ready to enjoy Christmas.