First Look of Berlin (during the day)
After spending all of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my host, I was excited to finally break into the city and explore… starting with Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour! When they were hiring, their mindset must’ve been “ALL THE ENGLISH ACCENTS!” because the guides were all British. In my case, it was Seb(astian), a Spaniard who emigrated to England and transplanted to Berlin. As a newcomer to the Sandeman tours, I can honestly say that this was one of the best tours that I’ve ever been on. It was a combination of his English humor and an Australian friend that I made on the tour that won me over.
In total, the tour lasted around 2.5 hours during which we visited the Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Memorial, the part of the Berlin Wall by the Topography of Terror, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt (ha, joke’s on you guys: I visited this last night!), and the site of Hitler’s old bunker. Tiny Bladder Alert: you do get to stop for a coffee/food break in the middle of the tour! The last site is probably where Seb parted with the most interesting and insightful piece of wisdom about Berlin (paraphrase mine, obviously):
You can tell by Berlin’s monument how the Germans feel about their history. The Jewish Memorial is set right next to the Bradenburg Gate, possibly the most famous icon on Berlin so that you’re not going to miss it. What do they do to commemorate Hitler? Nothing. The only reason you know his bunker used to be here, in this old parking lot, is because I’ve brought you here. They’ve done everything to forget that part of their history… except for the one and only time people remember him—when they take their dogs to this parking lot in the mornings to do their business.
And with that, we collectively breathed a sigh of satisfaction at Hitler’s gruesome end, and I left with my newfound friend to find food. This turned out to be harder than expected because it was Boxing Day, a holiday that has completely gone over my head back in the states. Here, it’s a national holiday which means almost nothing is open outside of the stores and restaurants owned by those who don’t celebrate.
I was looking for something quick to snack on, but even the food stands seemed largely deserted. So, I settled for some poorly-made and extortionately expensive Margherita pizza—here’s a [tip]: for cheap eats after the tour, go back to Checkpoint Charlie’s. There are fast food chains and a slew of food stands right there. Whatever you do, don’t go back to the main street, Unter den linden, leading up to the Brandenburg Gate. This is an area designed for tourists where you will only find mediocre food and wallet-tears.
Topography of Terror
You would think after such a historically-invigorating tour, the last thing I’d want to do would be to subject myself to more history. But that’s just what I did; I wanted to dig my hands deep into the World War II history. And so, we headed back to the Topography of Terror which is free anytime there’s a day. I highly recommend this museum mostly because of the slew of interestingly-put information hanging from the ceiling. It’s designed like a large book and a scavenger hunt at the same time; the numbered pages hanging from the ceilings giving detailed accounts of the tactics behind the Nazi regime—most importantly, it answers how it was possible that such a thing was allowed to go on unnoticed for so long?
In this museum, I spent about 2-3 hours, easily. [TB Alert:] Also, if you’re nearby and really need a toilet, you can use the one in here for free. I think it’s a recent addition.
Christmas Markets, take two: Potsdamerplatz and Charlottenburg Palace
Ugh, Michelle. Haven’t you gotten enough of Christmas Markets already? I mean, they all kinda look the same after a while. When will enough be enough? Never, man. It’s the Christmas season and by god, I will have my Christmas markets!
Because I arrived around Christmas, there were a lot of markets that were no longer open. This fact was surprising to me given that there were markets everywhere I looked. In almost any platz of Berlin, you’d find a Christmas market up until the New Year. I found an oddity in the one at Potsdamer Platz though…
That’s right. That is a huge toboggan in the middle of the market. Had I not been with my camera and had I been with a few other people (can you imagine me shrieking with laughter alone all the way down?), I would definitely have ridden this thing especially after a few cups of mulled wine.
The market in Potsdamer Platz is far more crowded than the one in Gendarmenmarkt. Walking in was almost like queuing up for a Disney ride thanks to the cute little market gates. As I passed more and more people who held these amazing frosted mugs filled with mulled wine, my craving for the stuff grew. However, I didn’t want to splurge it in a mediocre, crowded market like this one. No, I wanted to taste my fill in the fairytale-esque market my host told me about near the Charlottenburg Palace.
So far, the markets I’ve seen had been too modernized for me to enjoy. I wanted the little rustic Christmas markets that I imagined, with none of the glass platings between customer and vendor as pictured above. When it comes to Christmas markets, I found I am anti-glass. I didn’t want a market that felt like a corporation had just disguised itself with wooden Christmas decorations. I wanted something real, something just… wood. Like the old days.
Ilze was right, of course, the one at Charlottenburg Palace enchanted me:
It was here that I learned the true difference between good Christmas markets and fantastic ones. With the palace as its backdrop, the market at Charlottenburg Palace was magical. The lights were the perfect shade of yellow, bathing the small wooden huts in what seemed to be firelight, similar to what a room feels like when illuminated solely by a reading lamp in a corner. Of course, some of the high roundtables were actually illuminated via candle, making it the most romantic place for either a couple or one fat greedy Michelle to eat. Other markets try to over-light their squares but sometimes it gives off too much of a modern, exposed feel to its visitors. This one was more like you were swathed in the cozy darkness of someone’s living room, surrounded by happy people murmuring.
Look, no glass in sight! The caveman in me was delighted. There’s nothing preventing me from stabbing the vendor if I had the inclination and that’s the way things should be. Here, I enjoyed a cup of mulled wine—probably one of the best ones I’ve ever had—by candlelight. After seeing other people enjoying food (you know this is Europe when people are actually enjoying their food…), I realized I was only using one of my hands to tote around my beverage, the other for my camera… which left yet another hand to enjoy whatever new Christmas market delicacy I hadn’t tried yet.
Honestly, I just really wanted another bratwurst (this sums up a majority of my trip). But I figured I should at least try one other dish before running back to ol’ faithful. So, I ordered this… thing… which happened to be whatever the lady before me ordered. The mushroom mixture had been stewing in one of their large pots; on top of it, the man heaped a healthy dollop of a cream sauce on it, and topped it off with a bun. As long as there’s bread, everything’s great. If there’s cream? Even better.
A Moment of Clarity in Which I Realize the Man Before Me is Me
While happily sopping up the remains of my creamy-mushroom mixture with what was left of the bread, a man joined my table, a table clearly hosting a dinner for one. Had it been another person, I would have gladly started conversation with a fellow solo traveler. But instead, he spent the next 10 minutes concentrating hard on demolishing the same dish; concentration so fierce that I briefly wondered if he’d secretly initiated an eating contest with me… or if he was American. Worriedly, I started to eat mine a bit more vigorously, alternating the bread with a swish of mulled wine, just like the pros do.
Why did this man look so upset? He was in Berlin, at a Christmas market enjoying some great food! What was there to be upset about? I looked around contently at the people laughing and talking together, sharing jokes over the third glass of mulled wine they’d had to drink that day. I started to smile to myself… and then I stopped. Isn’t it a bit weird when someone smiles to themselves? People would either think your crazy or get the wrong idea once you accidentally make eye contact.
It’s a strange concept, not being able to emulate happiness when alone. I peeked back over at the man across from me. Was he actually upset right now or was that just the face he defaults to when alone? What did my face look like in that moment (I’ve been told I have an excellent resting bitch face)? Suddenly, I missed having someone to talk to; anyone: a friend, family, some stranger who’s open to talking. It wasn’t exactly because I was lonely—although the thrill of wandering a Christmas market alone, albeit beautiful, was getting repetitive—but more so because I missed the ability to express my joy openly.
Yeah, I thought to myself, I’m done with Christmas markets…
I scuttled home quickly to talk to my host. Although the start of our relationship was a bit stilted, I had looked forward to returning home and having someone to talk to; someone with whom I could share my adventures, from whom I could gain some advice or learn some things about the places I’d visited or would be visiting. For an hour, we sat there exchanging funny stories and tips and, subsequently, I conversed with her flatmate for two hours after. I would say I regretted not heading to bed earlier, but I enjoyed the conversations too much.
Linking up with Bonnie for Travel Tuesday!