It’s early evening and fairly dark by the time we get to Berlin. It wasn’t meant to be this way. Not at all. We should have been here earlier, when it was still light. After all, this was going to be a big family adventure. No private transfer to the door of the hotel and no sticking to those same four walls for food. We were winging it, exploring and showing the kids how to have fun in a big city. But then, like a giant fun sponge, Ryanair intervened and presented us with a delightfully unexplained one and a half hour delay. All of a sudden the omens weren’t so good and our adventure was seeming less and less like a good idea.
Given our delay and the time of day, our excitement is now slightly tinged with a nagging apprehension. It’s late on a Sunday and we don’t even know if Tourist Information will still be open and if it’s shut, how we’ll be able to find our way to Berlin. We’ve planned to take the train, described by the inhabitants of Trip Advisor as ‘easy’, ‘excellent’ and ‘efficient’ – the kind of words you’d fully expect to find when describing German public transport. But now, it’s getting later and it’s dark. We have two children with us and we’ve been on the move since around 9am. Should we not just jump in a taxi?
Thankfully, having collected our case – more adventure, my wife usually insists on about 3 cases, all of which are my responsibility – we arrive in a well lit part of the airport and there, nestled in the corner, is the wonderful sight of the Tourist Information office. We queue up for a few minutes before we are asked to approach the desk by a friendly faced young man. And it is here that I witness something utterly amazing that will unwittingly set the tone for our adventure. Forget the pyramids and the Grand Canyon. Squeeze Radiohead at Glastonbury to the back of your mind. And leave behind the phenomenon of the Northern Lights.
There is no sign that anything miraculous is going to happen, but happen it does. My wife, who has been warning me for weeks that just because she knows a bit of German, we can’t simply rely on her, proceeds to have a full conversation in German with the assistant! As someone who still struggles with English, this is genuinely remarkable. I am chock full of admiration, but better still, we now have our Welcome Cards and directions to the train. Suddenly, everything looks brighter and we are officially off and running in our Berlin adventure!
The miracles continue with the appearance of an actual angel on the train into Berlin. We have hopped on to a train that we believe will take us to Potsdamer Platz, close to our hotel, but we’re now struggling to work out the map of the railway. I can tell that my wife is worried and frankly, map-reading is not a skill that I possess. She’s probably right to be worried! But then up steps The Angel of Berlin. A young woman has watched our very English distress from across the carriage and comes over to offer help. Now, I don’t wish to get involved in any Teutonic stereotyping, but something had me half expecting Germans to be cool and detached. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. So far on our trip everyone we’d encountered had been friendly. But now we’ve been blessed with our very own angel. Not only does she smile sweetly and explain things in perfect English, but when it turns out that the train is terminating at the next stop she comes back over to us and via the conduit of Google Maps, explains to us exactly which trains we need to take to get into Berlin safely. Short of leading us onto the train with a packed lunch and a cushion to sit on, The Angel of Berlin could not have been any more helpful or kind.
And so it is that not long later we emerge into the early evening chill of Potsdamer Platz, a busy area of central Berlin, packed with shops and restaurants. It’s a Sunday though, so it’s reasonably quiet and despite an ever present feeling that we don’t know where we’re going, we soon arrive wearily at our hotel. The Novotel staff keep up Berlin’s happy average for warm friendliness and once we’ve dropped out bags we then spend the rest of the evening wandering before stopping off at a local Italian restaurant for some of the biggest pizzas we’ve ever had. So far, so good for Berlin.
The next morning we’re up and out early. As part of our newly found adventurous spirit, we’ve decided to go off in search of breakfast rather than relying on the hotel. Now to some this may not seem overly adventurous, but with children as fussy as ours who are more used to an all inclusive buffet breakfast by the pool, this is Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Bear Grylls all rolled into one! Unlike any of the aforementioned adventurers, however, we’ve done a little Trip Advisor research and are heading for Maracay Coffee to sample for their delicious sounding breakfast.
Our cover as adventurers and international jetsetters is blown in seconds as the assistant pretty much ignores my wife’s attempts at German and sorts our order out in almost flawless English. German efficiency, again! We scramble over to the last remaining table in this clearly popular café, sinking comfortably into the sofa and talking the kids through the selection of photographs of some of Hollywood’s finest that decorate the wall. In no time at all our order number is called and we’re wolfing down wonderful toast with butter and marmalade and cradling coffee or hot chocolate in order to guard against the cold outside. By the time we’ve sat, chatted and enjoyed the atmosphere of Maracay, we’re ready for the rest of the day.
Our first day is hectic, but only because Berlin boasts so many things to see and do. Even as we walk along Wilhelmstrasse, towards our first sights, we have to keep stopping to read through the information boards that tell us about the various SS and SA buildings that used to reside here, before being demolished. Soon though we’re confronted by one of the most iconic sights in any city on the planet: the Berlin Wall. It’s not all here – obviously – and it’s clearly in a state of disrepair, but what’s there is enough to stop you in your tracks. We stand and gawp at this shabby symbol of terror and injustice, trying in vain to explain its importance to our 12 and 9 year olds. It doesn’t even look particularly solid, but when you read about the ‘no man’s land’ between East and West and imagine the guard posts dotted along it and the barbed wire it becomes particularly chilling.
It’s now getting increasingly cold so we take the short walk over to the Topography of Terror, a museum that documents the rise and fall of the Nazi’s and their reign of terror. A sign on the way in politely asks you to behave in a respectful manner here, but really, there’s no need. Mere minutes spent looking at the photographs or reading through some of the details of what went on is enough to stun you into silence. I walk round with my 9 year old son and find myself explaining almost every photograph or exhibit and while usually going to such lengths would be a chore, this is simply a necessity. He clearly can’t understand it all – who could? – but such is the quality of the whole place that he can’t fail to have learnt a lot. I realise that my knowledge of this period of history is not what it should be and I learn a lot myself. By the time we get to the end I feel slightly emotional and overwhelmed by it all. The Topography of Terror details the kind of things that you really don’t want to read about, but there can be no other word for the place than stunning.
As we blink our way out into the sunlight and the cold, we’ve gone from excited adventurers to a kind of stunned silence. We walk a little further on before stopping to consider our next move. We’re close to Checkpoint Charlie, so explaining it as a box in the middle for the road where people would be stopped and have their documents checked by soldiers, we head off! It’s not far and we’re done in around ten minutes, having taken a few photographs and attempted another, more comprehensive explanation of what it actually was – my son genuinely expected a cardboard box in the road after the first try – we move off, grab some dinner at Back Factory, a kind of German Greggs (but nowhere near as good, because what is?), and then retreat back to our hotel in order to add more layers of clothing with which to battle the winter weather. It is genuinely freezing and as a last minute packing decision I’d put base layer tops from football for myself and my son into our bags and now they’re on!
Our changes pay off and it’s a much warmer next few hours. We stride on taking in the quietly stunning Holocaust Memorial, a vast and thought-provoking tribute, the majesty of the Brandenburg Gate and then the Reichstag building. It’s slightly disappointing not to be able to get closer to the last two, but you can’t blame Berlin for that. Outside the Holocaust Memorial police are searching underneath a suspiciously parked van, while there are cordons everywhere by the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag – this is the world we live in now, I guess. It doesn’t spoil our afternoon and in fact, it’s just a thrill to be able to stand in front of most of the things that we see on this trip and fantastically, not once do we feel afraid or intimidated. Berlin is simply a very relaxed and cool place to be. We’ve been here less than 24 hours and we’re totally at home.
As night falls we make our way to Supreme Burger Bar and Grill for a well earned tea. It feels like we’ve walked for miles, but we’re in high spirits. Berlin has undoubtedly welcomed us and we’re thoroughly enjoying it. Following a theme, our waiter in Supreme is fantastically friendly, apologising for some of the menu being in German and explaining whatever he feels might need explaining, while also recommending a few things too. Following his lead somewhat, we all go for burgers, spending the next hour or so eating delicious food, chatting and just generally enjoying the glow that Berlin seems to have given us. We take the train home, stopping off at Podtsdamer Platz and the Berlin Mall to do a little bit of shopping. We’re a day into our time in Berlin and already using the train like pros! Our kids – a little bit sheltered at home and ferried everywhere in the car – are loving the new found thrill of public transport and well they might. Venture down into the S-Bahn or U-Bahn here and not only is it clean and safe, but – get this fellow English people – there are trains! They arrive on time, set off on time and, even better, they run every few minutes. Not once in our trip do we have to wait any more than 5 or 6 minutes for a train to arrive. In terms of being English and using public transport, Berlin is like a trip into the future! Clean, reliable and safe – what’s not to like?
We’re up bright and early the next day and ready for more adventure. It’s already clear that Berlin has far too much for us to cover in our time here and so we’re trying to narrow down adult and child Top 3s to help with our remaining days. After another delicious breakfast at Maracay, we catch the train to Hackerscher Markt and then attempt to use our new ‘adventurer instinct’ to get to the DDR Museum. The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful and unusually warm day. Unfortunately though, after around two minutes of walking we’re losing faith in our instinct and my wife is forced to ask a passer-by, again in what appears to me to be fluent German. The lady doesn’t speak English, but after enquiring as to whether we are in fact English, she is lovely enough to be very precise with her directions. We turn and head in the opposite direction to that which our instinct had us heading in and within 5 minutes are taking the short walk along the river and entering the DDR Museum.
The museum allows visitors to experience what life was like in East Berlin under Socialism. Having grown up hearing reports from East Berlin and the horrors of life behind the Wall, I’m intrigued and ready for a culture shock. I also experienced the fall of the wall and the joy of people who found freedom and so I’m expecting an interesting few hours. I’m looking forward to the section of the museum that will inevitably be devoted to David Hasselhoff, who of course we all know was instrumental in the fall of the Wall. He went looking for freedom and when he couldn’t find any, he just made it happen. Big up the Hoff.
We’ve tried to brief the children, but at 12 and 9, we realise that this might not be their cup of tea. However, within minutes both kids are enjoying the simulated Trabant driving and have smiles plastered all over their faces. The smiles and the intrigue continue too as we look at exhibitions about public life behind the wall, its politics and even a section where we go inside the flat of a typical East German situated in a mock up of a Berlin tower block. Looking at some of the décor I’m prompted to make a mental note to ask my parents if we have any East Berlin heritage – I’m certain that we grew up with similar wallpaper and furniture in our 70s front room!
Over 2 hours later we emerge from the museum blinking into the sunlight. There was not one mention of The Hoff in the DDR Museum, but I feel sure he’ll crop up somewhere else, later in our trip. It’s an absolutely beautiful day and the buildings around the River Spree look fantastic in the sunshine. We have a few photos by the river then wander off in search of food, stopping for more photos of the TV Tower. Sadly, we decide that we haven’t got time to actually go there as we have so much more to see, but at least it gives me another reason to come back one day. We grab some food – a quirky but delicious selection of hot dogs in a wrap – and then trek off down the river in search of the Palace of Tears, a museum dedicated to the separation of families during the time of the Berlin Wall. Again, it’s quite an emotional thing to see with lots of interesting artefacts and again we run out of time. It’s hard to get your head around the fact that someone somewhere once thought that the wall was a good idea, despite the sheer heartache that it would cause. It’s also hard to get your head around the fact that, yet again, there’s no mention of Hasselhoff.
While we’re not exactly sombre as we leave we decide that we need a break and find a table in a busy café called Flamingo Fresh Food Bar. We’ve been on our feet now for a large part of the last few days so the chance to sit down without the time pressure of thinking about where we go next is very much welcomed. Myself and the kids opt for fresh juice while Louise goes for her usual coffee, hoping for the shot-in-the-arm that caffeine often brings. There are cakes on display – delicious looking things too – but we give them a miss in favour of avoiding elasticated waist trousers for at least the next few years.
As we leave Flamingo and head for the train we see our first instance of any trouble in Berlin. I say trouble but perhaps what I should refer to it as is ‘a little slice of England’. We hear him before we see him. Shouting. Sporadically bursting out and travelling across the square. It’s very definitely a lone voice so we know it’s not exactly trouble with a capital T and as I say it’s in fact, quite English. As it turns out it’s man huddled up on a bench shouting at pigeons. He’s clearly been drinking or indulging in something. I mean why else would you take offence at pigeons? But it says a lot about Berlin that this is the only uncomfortable moment that we have in our four days. And it’s hardly uncomfortable, just a little sad, really.
Having figured out the source of the shouting we head over to Friedrickstrasse station to catch the train back to Potsdamer Platz and then back to our hotel. It’s only a quick change and dropping of bags before we’re back out – spirit of adventure and all that – and on another train – have I mentioned that I love the trains in Berlin? – over to Schoneburg where we’re off for our tea. Tonight, courtesy of a Trip Advisor recommendation we head to Evin’s Pizza Pasta and again, it’s a delight. We’re seated quickly and again the staff are friendly and eager to please. The atmosphere is nice and relaxed, encouraging us to spend a little more time than necessary to eat and in truth, rest. We’ve barely stopped for the last few days and so the chance to just sit is too good to miss. Our pizzas are enormous and incredibly tasty and by the time we leave to head for the train home, we’re stuffed!
As our final day dawns we’re determine to pack as much as we can into what remains of our trip. It’s our final day in Berlin and so breakfast – hello again to Maracay – is tinged with a certain sadness. Nevertheless, no one’s feeling sorry for themselves, despite our aching leg and sore feet, and we’re ready for more exploring. We make a slightly later start as there’s packing to do, and I must admit I’m not keen on our choice of places to visit this morning. We’re off to the Game Science Centre and as a confirmed non gamer, this promises little for me. But I’m gritting my teeth and getting ready to take the plunge as the rest of the family love playing games.
The centre is tucked away in Kreuzberg in what looks like a row of shops. I’m really not expecting much at all. However, as we enter it’s clearly a bit of a tardis. The inside of the place is clearly quite large and there seem to be a lot of things to do. For the uninitiated, the Game Science Centre is an interactive attraction run by game developers. You can play various games, controlling some by gesture, some with your eyes and others just in the traditional way, with your hands.
It doesn’t take very long at all to have me absolutely hooked! Before I know it, not only am I having fun playing games, but I’m laughing randomly at the type of things that I’m doing. The family are literally running between games. We make music, shoot stuff, dance, use a touchscreen to demonstrate how much of a competitive family we are in a four player game and even stop for a massage. They even have a Space Invaders style game where you shoot the aliens using ping pong bats and balls! The technology is fantastic and the variety even better. We even take a family vote to extend our time here and cut down on something else later in the day and by the time we leave everyone has had a fantastic time and we’re all smiling. But we have to move quickly…
We head uptown and catch another train over to the Berlin Zoo, where, with time running out on our adventure we literally race around to see as many of the animals as we can. The zoo is another fantastic Berlin attraction – clean, friendly and with an absolute tonne of animals to see. As you’d expect really because after all, it’s a zoo. We’d have loved to have more time to spend here, but with a case and bags to finish packing and a plane to catch we’re sticking to strict timings. So off we go, on to another train. Our final day has flown over and sadly we’re facing up to our last few hours in Berlin.
Before we know it we’re sitting in Schonefeld airport and there’s just time for one last moment of sheer German joy as we order a Burger King. The assistant – who once again speaks faultless English – is obviously and hilariously flummoxed by our request for plain burgers, questioning us on seemingly every salad item possible before finally agreeing to our request. His face though, as he asks us, ‘Not even tomato?’ is priceless and we’re reduced to stifling giggles. But the fun’s not quite over as we receive our meals and it becomes clear that my request for a Fanta just wasn’t healthy enough for him, especially on top of having no salad. Instead, he wordlessly replaces my Fanta with not one, but two cartons of fresh orange and having asked myself what The Hoff would do, I see no need to disagree and simply accept my fate. The folk of Berlin eh? Friendly, welcoming, lovely, but most of all, very, very health conscious!
As our plane takes off and we head home I’m tired, yet a whole load better for my time in Berlin. It was somewhere I’d wanted to see for a long time and now I have I feel very sure that I’ll be back again. Maybe next year? I genuinely hope so! Berlin has been an absolute feast – of history, culture, fun, walking, relaxing, smiling, friendly hosts and of course trains. Don’t forget the trains! No Hoff though!
Go to Berlin, get a Welcome Card, take the train…and have an adventure! And let me know if you spot The Hoff.