As a history student, Berlin has always been near the top of the list of cities I want to visit, and for my 21stbirthday I was lucky enough to be whisked away to the city on a Groupon voucher and RyanAir flight with my mum.
Mum and I have more of a sisterly relationship and where anything to do with travel is involved, I am the adult. I’d been so busy in the run up to the trip that I hadn’t managed to do any research on things to do or how to get around. As a result, my first thought upon exiting the Schönefeld airport was ‘oh crap’. I had no idea how to get to the hotel, or what we were going to do during the weekend.
It truly baffles me to think that people used to travel without mobile phones, let alone data roaming. Had our trip been 10 years ago, I think mum and I would have had to sit in the airport and wait for our plane home, as we would have had no idea how to get around. While I attempted to turn on my data roaming, we followed a crowd and hoped for the best.
Walking into the airport train station felt like going back in time. We joined one of about 15 queues for rusty looking ticket machines and purchased weekend passes for the train, tram and bus. This turned out to be incredibly worth the money! However, unlike London, where it is impossible to travel without some sort of ticket, we probably could have gotten around all weekend without one. There were no barriers at any stations, no ticket collectors, and when you tried to show your ticket to the man on the bus, he often glanced away. Perhaps it says something about German culture and a feeling of duty to pay, unlike us Brits who are always looking for a freebie.
Of all the Groupon hotels we have stayed in, this was the most basic and furthest out from the city, at a forty minute commute. When we arrived, we were horrified to find there was no kettle. ‘Generously’, they had provided us with a glass bottle of water which was clearly labelled ‘€2.50’. Needless to say, it was left unopened.
The ultimate highlight for me was visiting the Reichstag and going to the top of the dome. I’ve always wanted to see the Reichstag and it was actually a little surreal. One of the places you learn about at school and always seems a distant reality. I remember uttering ‘wow’ in awe when we turned the corner from the Brandenburg Gate and saw the intimidating, powerful structure. I was shocked to find you could go inside for free. For this sort of attraction in London, you would pay £30 each and wait in line for up to three hours. The ticket for the Reichstag said to arrive fifteen minutes early, and when we did, there was no queue. We showed our passports, went through an airport-like security scanner and that was that!
Entering the Reichstag was, however, a little anticlimactic. Walking up the many steps towards the colossal pillared building evoked thoughts of all the history that had gone on in this very place. Getting to the top of the steps I immediately noticed an almost clinical feel. Everything was very modern and immaculate. On the inside, you would never suspect the building has been there since 1884. The organisation of the visitor’s area was very precise. There was no chance a visitor could see anything they didn’t want you to.
It had been raining all day until we got to the Reichstag. Somehow, luck was on our side and the sun came out just as we got to the rooftop. It was beautiful. The sun shone over Berlin and we even felt a tiny bit of its warmth, under our many layers.
A friend of mine had recommended seeing the city by boat so, powered by the fact she’d also mentioned the tour boats have bars, we hopped on. Sailing down the river, we got close up views of the Reichstag and the Chancellery building – two buildings that could not be more different. The Chancellery building is one of the largest government headquarter buildings in the world, and ten times the size of the White House (thanks Wikipedia!). It was only opened in 2001, so is very different to other government buildings like Westminster. The building is slick and cold looking, serious and intimidating, and clearly built with German precision. A world away from the historical beauty of the Reichstag.
Something we did not expect was to find it so hard to communicate with the locals. Not that either of us speak a word of German except for ‘guten tag’, ‘auf weidersehen’ and ‘danke’… Our first embarrassment came whilst trying to use a public toilet in a museum. We pushed and pushed at the door of the women’s toilets but it would not open. A cleaner came up to us and we signaled that we could not get in. We were bewildered when her response was to start tapping the picture of the stick woman, in a way that seemed to suggest she thought we did not fit the category! We awkwardly nodded, and she gave the door a gentle pull… Yes, apparently in Germany, doors open and close differently.
I’m not a big meat-eater, so perhaps that’s why I was unimpressed by German cuisine. We mostly ate in Italian and Asian restaurants, especially after our attempt to go authentic failed miserably. On the first night, we swanned into a candlelit restaurant near Alexanderplatz, where we were greeted by an aproned waiter who took our coats. Mum and I gave each other the ‘we can’t afford this but let’s go along with it’ eyes, and sat down at the seats that had been pulled out for us. One look at the menu and we knew we’d made a mistake. Surprisingly, ‘Boiled beef’ and ‘stewed veal’ didn’t appeal.
Oh, what would a mother-daughter city break be without plenty of shopping trips? The Mall of Berlin (what a name, ey?) did not disappoint. Like magnets, we were pulled to the delicate, unmissable fairy lights, and especially the golden glow of the Lindt shop. We made various purchases from Lindt, mainly because with each purchase you got a free Lindt ball! I blame it on the cold that I struggled to shut my suitcase for the flight home – it forced us to shop more – whoops!
History, architecture and shops aside, the first thing I think of when I remember Berlin is the cold. Another European city off the check-list, thanks mum!