More than vodka and schnitzel: Exploring post-Soviet Berlin's kitschy side

More than vodka and schnitzel: Exploring post-Soviet Berlin's kitschy side

November marks the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. You can still get a sense of what it was like during the Cold War, via fascinating museums, architecture, restaurants and shops.

NYT - Die Tagung
Die Tagung, a bar in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood, celebrates the GDR with a sense of humour. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

On Nov 9, 1989, the East German government made a surprising announcement: It was easing travel restrictions on its citizens. East Berliners flocked to the nearest border crossings at the Berlin Wall, especially at Checkpoint Charlie, the famed crossing between the divided Berlins. 

Not long after that, Berliners from the east and west began chipping away at the literal and metaphorical wall that had separated them for nearly three decades, since the Soviet-backed East German government erected the concrete slabs that split the city in two. The Cold War was over. Well, sort of. 

NYT - Berlin Wall
At the Berlin Wall Memorial, visitors can see the most preserved swath of the remaining complex. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

Today, in Berlin, you can still go back to that world by eating and drinking in restaurants and bars dedicated to the German Democratic Republic – GDR for short, or DDR in the local parlance – as well as learn about the former East Berlin via fascinating museums, architecture and shops.

FRIDAY

  • 3pm: Communists, nudists and dissidents

Ever wonder why East Germans had a proclivity for hanging out in public stark naked? Or what it was like to drive a Trabant – the cult East German-made automobile with a Formica-like Duroplast body – around East Germany in the 1980s? Or what an interrogation room looked like? 

You can find out at the DDR Museum, a fascinating, immersive, hands-on experience that serves as an excellent introduction to life in East Germany. The museum, which opened in 2006 and is housed in a modern building on the Spree River, recently welcomed its six-millionth visitor. Admission: 9.80 euros (S$14.80).

  • 7pm: The people’s restaurant

Named for the People’s Chamber, the lower house of parliament in the GDR, Volkskammer tries to revive East Germany on a daily basis by cooking up gruel for the odd local with a case of “ostalgie” – nostalgia for the old East – and curious tourists willing to punish their palates with hearty slop like Falscher Hase, or counterfeit rabbit: A dense, gravy-smothered meatloaf hiding a hard-boiled egg and cured pork knuckle with kraut. Dinner for two is about 50 euros, including beer or wine. 

If you can’t stomach Soviet-era cuisine, try nearby Michelberger (in the hotel of the same name), which serves up excellent farm-to-table, uber-seasonal fare such as venison pie or wild boar schnitzel with pumpkin. Dinner for two is about 75 euros, with wine.

  • 9pm: Red hangover

Opened in 1992, just three years after the Wall fell, Die Tagung, a bar in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood, celebrates the GDR with a sense of humour. The owner, a longtime Friedrichshain resident, scoured a local abandoned train repair complex for former East Berlin-era signs that now grace the walls, along with tapestries bearing the image of Karl Marx and a large bust of Vladimir Lenin who was, on a recent visit, sporting headphones and aviator glasses. 

There are also enough red stars and hammer-and-sickle symbols to inspire a collective May Day parade. Imbibe a Russian Cocaine (3 euros): A shot of vodka that comes with a slice of lemon coated with sugar on one side and coffee grinds on the other.

SATURDAY

  • 10.30am: A Stalinist stroll

Built on the rubble of World War II, the wide boulevard known as Karl Marx Allee started life as Stalinallee, Stalin Boulevard, but was renamed after Marx in 1961. Between Frankfurter Tor in Friedrichshain and Alexanderplatz – just under 3.2km – the 91m-wide street is lined with monumental, wedding cake-like, Stalinist-style structures, built to be “workers’ palaces”, a place for East Germany to showcase the glories of socialism. 

NYT - Karl Marx Allee
Karl Marx Allee, which started life as Stalinallee, Stalin Boulevard, is lined with monumental structures designed to showcase the glories of Socialism. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

Italian architect Aldo Rossi called it “Europe’s last great street”. Placards are positioned along the way to explain the history of noteworthy buildings, such as Kino International, a still-working movie theatre and a gem of functionalist architecture, and the duel towers, Frankfurter Tor.

  • Noon: Snack break

Named for a popular GDR-era magazine, Cafe Sibylle is one of the few businesses on the Karl Marx Allee that still exists from the Cold War days. About halfway along the boulevard, the cafe is nicely positioned for a rest. After taking in the permanent exhibition on the evolution of the boulevard, complete with text, photos and household objects from the 1950s and 1960s, plant yourself at a table and sip coffee or a beer, and graze on a salad or a sausage. The wooden tables and high ceilings invite visitors to stay awhile. Lunch for two costs about 25 euros.

NYT - Cafe Sibylle
Cafe Sibylle is one of the few businesses on the Karl Marx Allee that still exists from the Cold War days. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

  • 3pm: Shop Like a socialist

Good news, comrade! Both ends of Karl Marx Allee – or at least between Frankfurter Tor and Alexanderplatz – are bookended by Humana Second Hand & Vintage shops. The outlet at Frankfurter Tor is the largest secondhand shop in Berlin: Four floors of vintage and used duds. 

The top floor focuses on clothes from the 1950s to the 1990s, and there are often select racks for GDR clothes at either or both locations. If you like your Socialist souvenirs even more kitschy, head to Ampelmann, south of Alexanderplatz, a shop that sells images of the “traffic light man”, an East German symbol that has become iconic since the fall of the Wall, on everything from golf balls to coffee mugs to T-shirts.

NYT - Humana Second Hand & Vintage store
The Humana Second Hand & Vintage store at Frankfurter Tor is the largest secondhand shop in Berlin. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

  • 5.30pm: Walking the Wall

The East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain; the long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is clad in colourful iconic images; and the Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie: These sites all get ample visitors. But the most sobering way to get a sense of what it was like to live in Berlin during the time of the wall is at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Prenzlauer Berg. This portion of the wall and the harrowing section known as the “death strip” – with its booby traps, armed guards, towers and trenches – allow visitors to see the most preserved swath of the remaining wall complex. Admission is free.

  • 8pm: Vodka shots and soljanka

Opened in 1994 and located in the former East Berlin neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Restaurant Pasternak serves dishes from around the former Soviet Union, particularly from Russia and Ukraine; many of the options have an Eastern European Jewish bent. 

The restaurant is named after the Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet and author of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak. Start off with a bowl of soljanka, a creamy, dill-spiked soup that has Russian origins but was one of the most popular dishes in the former East Germany; then move on to sauteed calf’s liver and latkes accented with a spicy apple jam. And don’t forget to have a few shots of the house vodka. Dinner for two, about 85 euros with wine or vodka.

  • 10pm: House party

You could go to the Museumswohnung, a three-bedroom apartment so perfectly preserved you’d almost expect the Stasi, the official East German state security apparatus, to be bugging the place. 

Or you could spend your Saturday night dancing at Salon zur Wilden Renate, a techno club that took over an abandoned apartment building in Friedrichshain and sort of left things as they were, including 1970s wallpaper, couches and beds. Opening times vary, so check the club website before heading out. Entrance is 10 euros to 15 euros, depending on the night and event.

SUNDAY

  • 11am: The lives of others

The Stasi’s main job was spying on ordinary people who were not in line with party policies and values, hauntingly depicted in the 2006 German film The Lives Of Others. The Stasi Museum is in the agency’s former headquarters in Lichtenberg. The three floors hold hundreds of artifacts, such as bugging devices, hidden cameras and lock picks, as well as placards detailing nearly every aspect of the organisation, including the fact that up to 180,000 East German “unofficial informants” were working with the Stasi by 1989. 

NYT - Stasi Museum
At the Stasi Museum in Lichtenberg, visitors can tour the former headquarters of the agency whose main job was spying on ordinary people who were not in line with party policies and values. (Photo: Andreas Meichsner/The New York Times)

The tour ends on the third floor at a cafe and bar – after the museum, you might need a stiff drink. There are free 90-minute guided tours in English at 3pm Thursday to Monday. Admission is 8 euros and the tour is free.

  • 2pm: Schnitzel and schlock

PILA is a restaurant on Friedrichshain Volkspark that also bills itself as a museum dedicated to the former East Germany. The interior is bedecked with all manner of GDR minutiae – enough East Berlin flags and portraits of former dear leaders to bring tears to the eyes of those nostalgic for five-year plans and collective farming. 

This is a place for those craving dishes like schnitzel atop fusilli pasta with a few splotches of ketchup-spiked tomato sauce and plus-size plates of currywurst, which is better than you’d think. Even the light, flimsy forks and spoons are legit GDR throwbacks. Lunch is about 40 euros with beer.

LODGING

  • Hotel Stadtbad Oderberger 

Rates: Doubles from 117 euros per night; www.hotel-oderberger.berlin

A Stadtbad, or public bathhouse starting in 1902, this ornate building in pretty Prenzlauer Berg became a hotel in 2016. Hotel Stadtbad Oderberger has 70 rooms, five suites and two apartments. Rooms have oak floors, TVs and coffee makers. The bathrooms have rain-shower heads. The handsome in-house restaurant, housed in a former thermal power station, cooks up German dishes with modern flair and offers a fair number of vegan and vegetarian options. And don’t forget your swimsuit. The original pool is now the hotel pool.

  • Ostel 

Rates: Doubles from 42 euros per night; www.ostel.eu

Ostel is an East Berlin-themed hotel near the Ostbahnhof, or East Railway Station, in Friedrichshain. The 36 single and double rooms are, as one would expect, dripping in Communist-era kitsch, complete with groovy, colourful wallpaper and bedspreads. All rooms have GDR-era radios. But be careful! It would be easy to think that the Stasi is secretly listening to you. Some rooms have shared bathrooms.

  • Prenzlauer Berg

If you want to go the private apartment rental route, base yourself in Prenzlauer Berg, where studios and one-bedroom apartments may cost around 75 euros per night.

By David Farley © The New York Times

Source: NYT

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