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A glimpse of Berlin’s history, beyond the Wall

Be prepared for the unexpected as you walk through a Nazi-era airport, museums—and taste the iconic beer

KaDeWe, the city's largest department store.
KaDeWe, the city's largest department store. (Pallavi Pasricha)

After touching down in Berlin, I head to my hotel in Kurfürstendamm, the heart of the luxury shopping district in West Berlin. With a bird’s-eye view of the hustle-bustle on one of the city’s most famous streets from my hotel window, I can’t help but notice one of the German capital’s most famous landmarks—the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

As I head towards the structure, damaged during World War II, a ruined spire that now stands amidst the new structure catches my eye. It was retained when the church was rebuilt, for citizens didn’t want to forget what had happened.

The calm and peace in the church, nicknamed “Hollow Tooth”, contrasts sharply with the buzz of the boulevard. And that’s what I have started loving about Berlin—a city that has marched ahead with grit to become one of Europe’s most happening capitals, yet has not forgotten the learnings from the two world wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided the country, in 1989.

BRLO beer.
BRLO beer. (Pallavi Pasricha)

In the city for just three days, I am determined to make the most of it. While iconic sites like the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz are on my list, I also want to explore its lesser-known museums, beer and food culture.

A five-minute walk from the church takes me to KaDeWe, the city’s largest department store, sprawled over six floors and home to luxury brands. Bypassing these, I head straight to the gourmet food brands and restaurants on the top floor to quench my curiosity about German beer. While Berlin is full of traditional beer brands, like the Berliner Pilsner, Schultheiss and Berliner Kindl, I go for the tasting board of a craft beer brand, BRLO. It arrives with five of their most popular beers—IPA, Weisse, Pale Ale, Helles and Baltic Porter. One sip introduces me to the world of German beers, whose alcohol content is generally higher than many other brands. Maybe that is why my favourite is the Baltic Porter, a dark stout with hints of chocolate and coffee—the strongest among these.

Also read: 6 places for the best vegetarian and vegan food in Berlin

Every offering in Berlin, be it food, drink or art, has a story. As I tuck into the famed currywurst sausages at a street stall during a food walk, I learn about their history. In 1949, a lady named Herta Heuwer met a British soldier, exchanging sausages that she used to sell at her small kiosk for some ketchup and curry powder. She used these to whip up a curry sauce, which she ladled on the sausages. The city could not stop devouring them. Today Berlin is dotted with kiosks and restaurants selling currywurst sausages.

Currywurst. (VisitBerlin/Philip Koschel)

While Curry 36 is popular, I have my first taste at Curry 7, a small hole- in-the-wall fast-food outlet in West Berlin. Like many locals, I stick to ordering just sausages but being Indian, I also order a plate of the extra spicy ones that come with a generous sprinkling of curry powder. I like them enough to make currywurst the hero of my last meal, this time at the Alt-Berliner Biersalon restaurant near my hotel. It’s served with fries and isn’t too spicy.

Home to more than 150 museums, Berlin is a history lover’s delight. Since I don’t have too much time, I head to Museum Island, a World Heritage Site in the heart of the city that is home to five museums which span 6,000 years of art and history. I make my way to the Alte Nationalgalerie, choosing to feast my eyes on the brushstrokes of 19th century European masters, such as Claude Monet, Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The Alte Nationalgalerie.
The Alte Nationalgalerie. (Pallavi Pasricha)

Step back into ancient times at the other four museums. The collection at Pergamon dates back to the empires of Babylon, Greece and Rome, the Neues spans thousands of years of Egyptian artefacts, including the 3,000-year-old bust of the queen Nefertiti, while the Altes is a storehouse of Greek antiquities. The Bode museum has medieval- and Renaissance- era sculptures and Byzantine art.

Strolling outside Humboldt Forum, Berlin’s newest cultural landmark, I come across something I never expected to see there—a replica of the famous East Gate of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. I learn that the stunning 10m-tall gate, depicting events from the life of the Buddha and resplendent with elephants, lions and peacocks, has been crafted by German and Indian sculptors. When it was unveiled in January, the Humboldt Forum noted in a statement that it stands as an embodiment of “the diversity of the world in the centre of Berlin”.

Expect to see something different in this space on each visit —this two-year-old cultural destination aims to be Germany’s equivalent of France’s Louvre.

My next destination is Tempelhof, a Nazi-era airport. Never would I have imagined that an airport, that too with such a history, could be transformed into a buzzing public park. But Tempelhof, which played a crucial role during World War II, is now the city’s most popular hangout summer spot. Joggers, kite surfers, picnickers and children flock to Tempelhofer Feld, which is bigger than New York’s Central Park.

I take a guided tour of the old airport and feel I have stepped back in time. This airport became famous for the post-war Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 that saw allied forces ferrying supplies when the erstwhile Soviet Union blocked land access.

Our guide tells us about a senior American officer, Colonel Gail Seymour, who would drop parachutes full of sweets. He came to be known as the “Candy bomber” and “Uncle Wiggly Wings”— because he would wiggle the aircraft to tell children he had arrived. Not surprisingly, the spot has figured in several movies, such as the Tom Hanks-starrer Bridge Of Spies.

All too soon, though, it is time to catch the flight back home. I have only scratched the surface of this multidimensional city—but it’s enough to prompt a return.

Pallavi Pasricha is a travel and food writer.

Also read: Walking down the pages of history in Segovia


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