Metro Weekly

Weekend in Berlin: Christmas Markets, mulled wine, and a torrential hailstorm

A relaxing weekend jaunt to Berlin

xmas market at gen

Berlin is beautiful. The city dances to the rhythm of passing time, always changing, always moving forward. To many, it’s a city of history, culture, of great nightlife and food. Lucky for me, it is also the current home of a close friend.

It’s the week before Christmas, and I’m venturing to Germany to visit Ashley. We met last winter in between the Art Nouveau facades of Prague. We were best friends at first sight and have since been trying to see each other at any given opportunity. And as she’s crossing the Atlantic in a few days to visit her family for the holidays, it only seems right to hang out one last time in 2014.

I board the bright yellow Student Agency bus. It’s a five-hour journey, and a small part of me is disappointed it’s not longer. Student Agency is by far the best company with whom I’ve travelled around Central Europe. Not only are their prices reasonable, getting me from Prague to Berlin and back for around fifty bucks, but each seat has a built-in screen offering a relatively pleasant choice of films, TV shows and music. Okay, I’ll be honest. The first time I travelled with them they had Before Sunrise on the playlist, one of my favorite movies, and this may or may have not made me instantly choose sides. This time I spent the journey watching Friends and Meet the Millers (because Jennifer Aniston is, well, Jennifer Aniston) while sipping on complimentary hot drinks.

Berlin is a big city with a capital B. In fact, you spend a good part of the last hour of the journey just driving through the suburbs with their flat-roof factories, chimneys, apartment blocks and busy crossroads under the highway bridges. The city is alive, vibrant and you become a part of it all the minute you step foot onto the pavement of the central bus station, conveniently located near the U-bahn station Kaiserdamm and the S-bahn station Messe Nord. The U-bahn is basically the subway, while the S-bahn usually stays above ground and gets your from point A to B via a system of viaducts. Getting around the city is a piece of cake, and if you look into what ticket to buy according to how long you plan on staying, Berlin doesn’t have to be expensive.

I don’t spot Ashley right away. I search the crowd of winter coats with hands clutching suitcases, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes for a familiar face. Finally, I find my guide for the next few days. It’s off to her apartment, located in the city center, to drop of my bag. I tease her about her navigational skills and take a picture anytime see refers to her map. Not that I can really blame her, the public transport system as a whole is quite the network. It’s dark by the time we arrive at her apartment, but all the Christmas lights around town fight back the darkness. We have one thing on our minds: Christmas markets. The closest one is on Gendarmenmarkt in front of the beautiful neo-classicist concert hall. It’s arranged in endless rows of white tents, topped with bright orange stars and framed by two cathedrals.

xmas market at gen (2)

The aroma of spices and meat fill the air as we quickly make our way to a stand with Flammenkuchen, a soft slab of bread topped with cream cheese, pork speck and spring onions. Maybe it’s the “angels” walking amongst the crowd on stilts, but it tastes and feels like heaven.  Children are singing Christmas carols between a statue of poet Friedrich Schiller and the columns that form the entrance to the concert hall. We stop in a shop or two, my favorite being Käthe Wohlfahrt filled with handmade Christmas ornaments fashioned from wood and glass alike. When we look at each other between aisles of crystal globes and nutcrackers, we are filled with Christmas spirit. There’s just enough time to get one last look at the singers before heading off to our next sight.

inside the store

The Brandenburg Gate, one of the best known tourist sites of Berlin and a fine example of a neoclassical triumphal arch, is a ten minute walk from the market. Built in the 18th century, it was located immediately next to the Berlin Wall during the second half of the 20th century and was inaccessible for many years. These days, it’s not only a symbol of the reunification of Germany, but of European Unity, as well. A huge menorah guards the gate, counting the nights of Hanukkah, and I search for an angle to try to fit both into one photograph.


The main attraction of the night is a popular Bavarian restaurant called the Schwarzwaldstuben, on the corner of Tucholskystraße. It’s packed, and we are asked to wait 30 minutes for a table. As we wait, we notice the mounted deer heads, which gaze down at the tables from the walls. Luckily, Rachel, the third member of our dinner party saves the night, as we stumble upon her holding a table for us. We all order the same thing — Maultaschen mit Kartoffelsalat, pasta pockets filled with meat and a side of potato salad greatness. It doesn’t get much more German than this. The food is delicious. The potato salad has a slight vinegar twinge, the beer is gently bitter, the savory pasta pockets melt in one’s mouth. Before we know it, we are off to the last stop of the night: the Christmas markets at Neue Heimat, near Warschauer Straße.

This is the spot where we meet up with Hannah, a close friend of Ashley’s, who I met on my last journey to the German capital. I ask her how the city has changed since she first started living there and she starts filling me in on how the banks of the river Spree have been sold off to developers to build high rise apartments, offices and concert arenas. These new glass and steel buildings pop up where the wall used to run its course. Hannah remembers the banks of the Spree having a lot of character and as a great place to grab a few drinks with friends or just simply hang out. But the area is losing its character and attractiveness to the general public, something I can relate to, since a lot of similar types of locations in Prague have been sold off even before they got the chance to be open to the public. I look around the Warschauer Straße warehouses, and ask if she thinks a similar scenario could happen here. Unfortunately, it can, she tells me before we stroll into the markets.

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The area is old and industrial; it lies right off the city center. (Last time I set foot here it was past midnight and I had at least one bottle of wine in me.) Walls are covered with graffiti and paths are divided by puddles. The atmosphere is casual. It’s a popular spot in which to go out, as a number of clubs fill the old warehouses. The Christmas market, making its debut this year, fills two warehouses at the end of the complex. The first building is full of people selling handmade jewelery and local designer clothes. The second functions as a bar with live music. My personal favorite of the night is the indoor ice-skating rink we found complete with its own disco ball and bar.

skate (3)

The night is cold, but we decide to sit outside between the two buildings. After one Carlsberg, which isn’t high up on my list of beers I enjoy, and a lot of laughing around we get a mulled wine to warm up. Mulled wine is the beverage to drink in December in Europe. You’ll find it prepared differently wherever you go, but the base is always red wine spiked with spices such as cinnamon, star aniseed and, if you’re lucky, a few slices of orange. It’s sweet. It’s warm. It eases the nerves.

After saying goodbye to Hannah, we jump back on to the U-Bahn and make our way back to the apartment. Prior to coming, I’d been asking everyone I’ve know where to go in Berlin and what to see. The obvious choices are the Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the Wall or the Jewish Memorial. But I wanted to do something different.

tempelhofOn my last visit Ashley took me to Tempelhof, an airport shuttered six years ago. The old runways serve as a perfect recreational area and the green flat fields is the ideal picnic blanket. I got to experience Tempelhof at sunset and felt a sense of joy as I watched the setting sun paint all the cyclists, families flying kites and people drinking a soothing red. You can’t really have a picnic in December in Berlin, but you can visit one of the many memorials spread around the city. I got a few recommendations, among them the sprawling Soviet war memorial and military cemetery in Treptower Park.

The next day, I woke up to a gray morning and a screen being held to my face.

“Look. Ninety percent chance of rain!” Ashley cries, adding that it would likely start raining the minute we got there. She tries convincing me to explore the city center, but I stubbornly got us on our way to the Treptower Park S-Bahn station. I actually went on a rant about functionalist architecture while on the S-Bahn and couldn’t stop talking to the point where we missed our transfer at Ostkreuz.

While trying to get back on track it started to drizzle. I tried to calm the worried expression on Ashley’s face, while calming myself down, too, since we only had one itsy bitsy teenie weenie purple polka dot umbrella and two people in a sweater and a not-so-waterproof winter coat. We rushed our way through the stone arches marking the entrance to the memorial and found ourselves under the gloomy, grey, and windy skies of a Berlin winter.


I could only make out the silhouette of the statue commemorating the fallen in the distance. Before we even made it half way to the statue itself, things got bad. We got out the umbrella as the drizzle turned into rain and then into hail. A thin white layer slowly formed on everything around us. The intensity of the hail and rain blurred the distant image of the memorial. As Ashley and I ran for cover behind one of the two stylized flags made of red marble, thunder echoed throughout the park. I’ve rarely been scared by weather in my life, but when you see lightning and hear thunder in a hai storm, you know you’re not meant to go sightseeing. So we picked ourselves up and ran out of there, walking as fast as our tiny umbrella and wet feet would allow.

kebab placeDrenched and a little miserable, we find ourselves back at the station. I ask Ashley if she’s hungry. We are in her old neighborhood, Neukölln, and she knows of a great kebab place nearby. Just as I can’t imagine Prague without a Vietnamese grocery store on every other corner, I can’t imagine a street in Berlin without at least one place you can get a kebab. Neukölln has the largest Turkish community in Berlin, so this is the right place to get one. We hop into the restaurant, on the corner of Karl-Marx-Straße and Fuldastraße, to get chicken soup, a beautiful mix of tomatoes, potatoes, rice, carrots and chicken, and a basket of soft crispy bread to forget our near death experience at the memorial. This place treats its meat with some sort of spice. We both guess at cinnamon, but who knows? What we both know is that it tastes amazing and goes well with both the chili sauce option and the garlic one. We leave full and satisfied while only being six Euros lighter.

Exhausted, we raid the nearest supermarket for whiskey, wine, chocolate and ice cream and decided to bear the rest of the harsh weather inside watching movies until falling asleep at around midnight to Love Actually.

Our last day we have a quick breakfast of blueberries and yogurt, gather our things, and get ready for a long day of travel. Surprisingly, the weather is looking a lot brighter. Where was this yesterday? We decide to say our goodbyes at Alexanderplatz from where Ashley catches her bus to the airport and I get a chance to walk around the city center for another hour.

the berlin city palace

I know I’ll see Ash soon again, but I can’t help but feel a little bit lonely as I walk under the shadow of the Berlin TV Tower, the tallest structure in Germany. I circle the cathedral on Museum Island remembering the late summer afternoon spent relaxing in its presence. The island itself is the home of five significant museums and you could spend a whole day exploring just them. I walk through their arcades looking forward to future visits, passing the building site of the Berlin City Palace. Damaged by bombing during the war, the original winter residence of Prussians kings and German Emperors was demolished back in the ‘50s. Reconstruction started last year and progress on the building is going fast. (Cranes seem to be a recurring theme in the heart of Berlin. I run into them on every corner.)

the red town hall and tv tower

As I speed towards the U-Bahn to journey back to the central bus station, I pass the red neo-renaissance town hall, that overlooks all the construction alongside the TV tower, and then I disappear into the underground world of the U-Bahn. I get one last look at the streets passing through the suburbs on the bus, as I fall asleep, looking forward to my next adventure.

Photography by David Sedina

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