Bringing it down in Berlin
This was our third trip to Germany, but our first to Berlin. You cannot live in Europe and never go to Berlin, you just cannot. That would just be weird and so that was precisely why it was our pick for the Easter Long Weekend trip.
Much on my better half's insistence we decided to take the train instead of a flight to Berlin. The convenience of being able to take the train from our Village to Paris and on, not having to worry about driving to the airport, parking for the weekend, not having to go hours before departure, and the space and relaxed atmosphere really make it a more fun and easier option in our opinion. I was a bit hesitant though as there is no direct high speed train between Paris & Berlin. You have to make a change in Mannheim or Frankfurt, which is not a big deal except if you want to leave Friday evening the connecting train from Mannheim to Berlin is a night train, which in not Express and makes quite a few stops before getting you in Berlin early in the am. European trains are so nice and comfortable we figured it would be a fun experience and we would just sleep our way to Berlin because this would give us the most time there.
I was a bit nervous because the Deutsche Bahn website lets you mention your seat preference, but does not let you choose specific seats for some reason. Anyways, come Friday evening, we left Paris East around 7:30 ish and got our preferred 2 opposite 2 seats with a table in the middle, super comfortable ICE train. I was feeling a bit better about this overnight train now. We got to Mannheim on time a little after 10 pm and had about 1.5 hours in between. We found a Dunkin' Donuts open. Sweet!!! No Dunkin in France you see, actually no decent donuts in France, period. So, the excitement was justified. The connecting train stops at Mannheim only for a few minutes so we were waiting on the platform and ready to get some shut eye on the train. In fact, our little one was already asleep and as always I was the one carrying him.
When the train finally arrived, we made our way inside and to our seats and we were in disbelief. What the heck!! I almost wanted to go out and make sure it did not say Nazi Night Line outside. Before we could get our bearings the train left so I laid down the little one; he was knocked out and could not care less. Adeen was in disbelief, but too sleepy and just wanted to change into his Pjs and sleep wherever. My husband was not making eye contact with me. It was not only his idea, but given how adamant he was he knew better not to make any contact with me.:P Long story short, the most horrible experience, rock hard plastic like seats with from hell that do not even recline, two big bright yellow lights that are never turned off, too many stops with people getting on and off everywhere and they call it a City Night Line. Another lesson learned the hard way. If you are travelling by train in Germany if it says ICE you are good, but if it is just IC you are screwed. We were royally screwed.
After the longest 7 hours we finally got to Berlin and could not be happier to be off that piece of crap train. It was a bright and sunny day in Berlin and we were hoping our luck would turn and we'd get to check in early because everyone except Aneeq who slept through the entire traumatic ride needed a bed right away. But, considering we were getting to the hotel so early we knew it was a long shot. We got our day pass for the Berlin transport, which was an amazing deal at 17 euros for a group of up to 5 persons and took a direct bus from the station to the hotel. Our
was actually situated beautifully on the river Spree in a quiet but central part of Berlin minutes from the main train station. First impression was great, hotel was lovely and the girl at the reception made our day when she told us it was extremely unusual but our room was actually available and ready. Hallelujah!
Our hotel in the back; on the river Spree
Our maisonette room was great, super spacious with two complete floors and super comfortable. Things were thankfully on the up and we got some hours of much needed sleep. Around 1 pm we were ready to be up and about around the town, but before that we needed some food in our tummies. Germany is known to have the best Middle Eastern and Persian food outside of the region. Us being big Persian cuisine fans and not having much of it in Paris decided to eat at this place called
. It was about 20 minutes by train from our hotel in what seemed to be a really nice Mediterranean influenced area south of Spree and Tiergarten (Berlin's central park) The food was delicious! We were so hungry and had 2 appetizers, 4 mains, drinks, the saffron ice cream (of course :P) and tea and the tab was not bad at all. I could have that meal again any day. In general, we did find Berlin to be more reasonably priced than all other European big cities, which was nice.
That smile says it all
It was time to see Berlin, most of which is relatively modern built, but needs to be seen for the immense historical significance of its post WW II and Cold War days. Considering where we were we decided to make our way north to Postdamer Platz and walked to the Topography of Terror on our way to the famous crossing between East & West Berlin called Checkpoint Charlie, which interestingly still has US flag, Army guardhouse and guards. Even though it is hard to imagine what it would have been like to cross it back in the day, it resonated with me emotionally remembering my father's story about what it was like to cross it in the 70s when he was visiting Berlin with his classmates during his grad study program in the UK. We then went on to the fittingly somber Jewish Memorial and then to the archetypal Brandenburg Gate that just over a couple of decades ago marked a divided Germany and is now a symbol of its unity.
Checking out Checkpoint Charlie
We could see the Reichstag Building or the German Parliament from there, but we had plans to see it the next morning. Also, the combination of all that food at lunch and the sleepless night before was really making us lazy so we decided to head back to the hotel for some down time. That down time turned into a 3 hour nap time and next thing we know it was kind of past dinner time. Anyways, we figured we should eat something so we managed to get ourselves out of bed and went out only to feel like Berlin had gone to bed early. It was only around 9:30 pm and it was awfully quiet. We decided to eat at this
not too far from our hotel and it turned out Germany was playing England in a friendly soccer game at Berlin so everyone was either at the game or watching it. That explained a lot. Anyways, we had an OK meal and a very interesting conversation with the Pakistani owner, and dumdaar doodh patti (slow cooked milk tea) :P
The next morning we woke up all fresh and recovered from the day before's laziness and weirdness. Amazing what a difference a good night's sleep can make. We had reservations for breakfast at the
of the German Parliament (AKA Bundestag; AKA Reichstag) building and I was super excited that I scored that reservation despite it being Easter Sunday. The Reichstag Building is a must visit for the Norman Foster glass dome on the top with 360 degree views of Berlin. The tour is free, but you need to make reservations well in advance. I tried weeks in advance and there were no openings, so I did some more research to find out there is a lovely restaurant up top, and a reservation there includes tour of the dome. Love me some legal loopholes :P But getting a reservation is not as simple as you'd think it would be. You send a request online and wait for them to call back based on availability and when they do they need info like names, DOB and ID etc. as you are entering the German Parliament after all. Also, they monitor the number of visitors inside at a given time pretty strictly and understandably why. I had sent in a request about 10 days before our visit and patiently waited and finally got a call like 3 days before the trip. :D
Gorgeous inside and views from the dome
The restaurant has a great open and bright feel to it thanks to its floor to ceiling glass windows and of-course the views are fabulous. The breakfast was great too with a set menu option as well as several omelettes and a la carte options and a lovely kids menu. I was glad we had to go this way to get in to the dome because it was a great experience. The dome is simply gorgeous with the intricate mirror structure in the middle and the spiral walkway that leads you to the top of the dome with amazing views of Berlin in all directions. This was definitely Berlin's showstopper for me and the boys loved it too. We then made our way to the East Side Gallery where you find the only remaining section of the actual Berlin Wall, which has been turned into a graffiti project by several artists to celebrate its fall. It is a little ways out of the city center, but we HAD to touch the wall.
Touching THE Wall
It was time to take a break in the afternoon so we took the train back to the train stop closest to our hotel and took a nice stroll along the spree to see Bellevue Palace, home to the German President, which was 5 minutes from our hotel. You can actually see the Victory column from there as well and the walk was just lovely and the day was just a perfect Spring day for it. On the way back we were not quite hungry so decided to skip lunch and made a stop at this cute Grandma style
for some coffee and treats. We did not know this before, but it turned out to be 160 years old and quite famous and popular. Oh, the little gems one finds on these walks!! Super sweet deal at under 20 euros, but priceless really.
After the afternoon break we headed to watch a movie at Alexanderplatz, which is the biggest square in Berlin completely rebuilt post war. Why a movie in Berlin you may ask. For the love of Fawad Khan, I'll say!! :P I was so disappointed that Kapoor and Sons since 1921 (it is a Bollywwod movie for all my non-desi readers :P) was not playing anywhere in Paris, so I just did a quick search for Berlin knowing I was going to be there the week after the release and sure enough just one theater was playing it as a special event single show on that Sunday. Happiness!! Thankfully, the movie turned out to be great too. I feel like my family is not the craziest in the world after all. Hehe. We then roamed around a bit as Alexanderplatz really has a lot going on with lots of shopping, restaurants, the TV tower, interesting building of the Menschen Museum, Neptune fountain, Red brick Rotes Rathaus, St. Mary's Cathedral, and last but surely not the least the beautiful Berlin Cathedral on the museum island in the background. Way too many cool things to see for one square, really.
It got to be a bit chilly all of a sudden and we still had not had Turkish food yet in Berlin so we made our way to
, a Turkish restaurant I had looked up online on the other side of the town from Alexanderplatz but not too far from our hotel. The food was good and the boys loved the pudding, but we were a little disappointed that they did not have the Sac Tava or the Pottery Kebab that we so loved in Turkey. It was not as authentic as we were hoping it was. It was a modern take on Turkish food, but a good meal nonetheless and a good end to a great day in Berlin.
We had much better luck with our trains on the way back, both being ICE trains with awesome seats and hardly any stops. We had a little scare when our Berlin to Mannheim train was running behind and we thought we'd miss our connection to Paris, but that was running a bit behind too so it all worked out. With all these nice trains it really is a crime that Deutsche Bahn is running that crappy train, that too as a night line. We got over it, thanks to our contrasting and super comfortable journey back to Paris and despite that one horrendous experience we'd still take a European train any day over a flight or a road trip :)