Whether on a warm summer's evening or a crisp winter night, there's something cosy and inviting about the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter). What could be nicer than a stroll through Berlin's authentic old town? Well...old town...well...town anyway. The thing is that the Nikolaiviertel isn't quite what it seems...

The Nikolaiviertel was indeed right at the historic centre of Berlin, facing its twin town of Cölln on the other side of the river (on what's now known as Fischerinsel). At its heart is the Nikolaikirche, Berlin's oldest church, parts of which are thought to date back to around 1230.



It's worth taking a closer look at some of the other buildings, though, as they point to a rather different heritage. Look up above the shops and you'll see that the facades of many of the buildings are not the coloured stucco you might have expected but rather, painted concrete. The architectural curiosity that is the Nikolaiviertel was actually almost entirely constructed in the mid 1980s, completed in 1987 for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin (the date being taken from the first written mention of Cölln in 1237; the settlement was likely founded quite a few years before that - current archaeology points back to at least 1183). The development included the restoration of the Nikolaikirche and the reconstruction of a number of historic buildings which had originally been found in other parts of Berlin.

If all this seems hard to believe, it's worth taking a look at this picture taken by Günter Bittner in around 1970, from the fairly recently opened Fernsehturm:



As you can see, there's not a whole lot there - there's still a small collection of buildings on the Spree side, plus the ruins of the Nikolaikirche, but a large amount of what's now filled by the Nikolaiviertel's shops, pubs and restaurants is just empty waste ground. This, looked at together with the following picture from 2009, shows just how much was built from scratch in the 1980s.



As with many of East Berlin's redevelopment projects, architects were invited to submit suggested plans for the redevelopment to a competition in 1979. The winner was the plan by Günter Stahn, who had previously been involved with the rebuilding of the Berliner Dom (which, it's interesting to note, also involved a combination of straight restoration and the introduction of modern elements).

His plans reflected a change in the attitudes to architecture and town planning in the GDR, a move towards greater acceptance of traditional town structures and building forms. Instead of being driven by a need to pave a new route into a socialist future, the building of the Nikolaiviertel was driven by a need to route the new socialist state in the German past.

At the same time, there were very real practical issues which had to be solved, not least the GDR's chronic housing shortage and its shortage of funds for addressing it. It was necessary for the new Nikolaiviertel to provide much needed housing, but it also needed to fit the state's budget.



The solution was to use the exact same technique that had been used to build much of East Germany's new housing: Plattenbau. Using pre-cast concrete parts, Plattenbau (otherwise known as large panel system building) meant buildings could be put together quickly and cheaply, the parts being produced in a factory and slotted together on site to form the finished buildings. Using this method, Stahn managed to build 780 flats in the Nikolaiviertel without breaking the budget. More than that, he seemed to be quite a fan of the technique, being quoted in a Spiegel article from March 24th 1986 saying that "Die Platte ist nun mal der Stein unserer Zeit" (the [concrete] panel is just the stone of our era). He wanted the development to contain elements of both modern and traditional, which he executed in a way that shows its most modern face on the side that looks out onto Marx-Engels-Forum, taking on more traditional elements as you work your way into its centre.

The word Plattenbau tends to be associated with the grey, angular developments which line streets like Leipziger Straße, but the buildings in the Nikolaiviertel used panels cast specially for the development. This helped them take on a more individual character, blending more readily with the reproduction and genuine old buildings which they rub shoulders with. Look closely at the facades, though, and you can quite easily spot the joins between the panels.

If you walk into the Nikolaiviertel from Spandauer Straße, along Am Nußbaum, you'll find a gateway on the right hand side which leads into a courtyard behind the shops. Here, you can really see the buildings' Plattenbau heritage in all its undecorated glory:



Critics tend to not have many kind things to say about the Nikolaiviertel - the word 'Disneyland' tends to pop up quite often. Looking at tourists' comments reveals a different view, though. Some don't even realise that they're not walking through Berlin's old town (or at least a restored or rebuilt version of it), let alone that they're walking through what's partly a 1980s Plattenbau development. Even some of the reconstructed historic buildings are ones which wouldn't actually have been there before World War II (though that's another topic in itself).

It was Stahn's intention to create a "vibrant central area with high experiential value". The majority of tourists' comments seem to suggest he succeeded with that, though it does seem to be tourists rather than locals who are most drawn by its 'experiential value'.

The Nikolaiviertel has a definite tranquil air about it, sheltered from the bustle of the nearby main roads. Entering it does feel a little bit like you're stepping into a bygone age...even if that age is more 1987 than 1897.



"Hat die Menschheit einmal ihren Erzähler verloren so hat sie auch ihre Kindschaft verloren" - "Once humanity has lost its storyteller, it's also lost its childhood."

When I wander Berlin's Holocaust memorial, I can't get these words - spoken by the character Homer in Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) - out of my head. Homer, played by German-Jewish actor Curt Bois, wanders the city lamenting the state of storytelling and wanders Potsdamer Platz searching for the Berlin he once knew, before "the people were no longer friendly".

The memorial - more properly known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) - is just a short walk from Potsdamer Platz, built in one of the gaps left in the city by the wall's death strip. Through these empty spaces, Berlin seemed to enjoy a kind of second childhood in the early post-wall years, a time of boundless possibilities, when areas left or forcibly made empty by the city's division suddenly became usable again. Berlin became known as Europe's biggest building site and began the process of capitalising on the potential of its empty spaces.



Designed by American-Jewish architect Peter Eisenman and opened in May 2005, the memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars - or stelae, as they're often referred to - arranged in a grid pattern. The heights of the stelae vary between 0.2m and 4.7m and the ground level also undulates, making it generally deeper in the middle. In his explanation of the memorial, Eisenman says that "The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system" - that it reveals the potential for chaos in what seems to be something orderly.



The Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, famed for his eccentric architectural design work, once said "An uneven and animated floor is the recovery of man's mental equilibrium, of the dignity of man which has been violated in our levelling, unnatural and hostile urban grid system." Rather than the memorial's uneven floor destroying the "illusion of order and security in the internal grid and the frame of the street grid" I find that it actually brings a sense of freedom and a desire to explore. To me, the uneven floor, like Hundertwasser's work, feels playful.

In a 2005 interview, Eisenman said that "I think people will eat their lunch on the pillars [...] I'm sure skateboarders will use it. People will dance on top of the pillars. All kinds of unexpected things are going to happen."



People do dance on top of the pillars. Skateboarders use it too. Just they get shouted at by one of the guards employed to make sure that the atmosphere remains as solemn and rigid as the concrete pillars themselves. Eating your lunch on the pillars might just about be ok, as long as you don't do it on the tall ones, though I can imagine the guards' tolerance for that being fairly low too.

Eisenman's comment there seems to suggest that he knew how the chaotic element of his design would make visitors behave, that he was aware of the playful edge which it would lend the memorial.

Before the Nazis came to power, Berlin's Jewish population was at the centre of its entertainment industry - writers, musicians, composers, artists, actors and cabaret performers, people who observed and commented on the city's daily life. During the Holocaust, Berlin lost many of its storytellers, and perhaps, for a while at least, it lost its childhood too. The Holocaust memorial, in having its playful side suppressed by its guardians, then becomes a lament for this lost childhood. The playful elements of the design end up jarring with the imposed order of the society which guards it.



How much freedom should visitors be allowed, though? It's clear from Eisenman's explanation of the memorial that his concept is something rather deeper than commemorating the Holocaust with an adventure playground, which is what it could be in danger of becoming if people are allowed to run, climb and jump their way through the memorial as they fancy. There have been times when I've been in there when it's been filled with shrieking teenagers - the atmosphere is certainly far from reflective then.

Interestingly, Eisenman also states that the memorial represents "the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail." Interesting because the ordered part of the memorial, represented by the stelae, is itself becoming disordered; some of the stelae are starting to develop tiny weather cracks. Very slowly, the sharp, orderly corners are becoming notched and jagged as pieces flake away.



What's ultimately intriguing is the way that the very play between order and chaos which Eisenman eludes to is what plays out within the memorial, that the system it seems to present does reveal itself to be unstable, even if visitors might not always stop to ask what position in this system they might be occupying.


This post refers to the service provided before the takeover of bmi by IAG, and is left here purely for historical interest. Flights to Berlin are no longer available through bmi.

Reading the horror-toned reports of snow chaos at London's Heathrow airport, I wasn't all that confident I'd make it back before Christmas. As it nears time to leave, nothing on bmi's website or their Twitter stream seems to indicate my flight has been cancelled though, so I head off to Tegel hopefully.

It seems to be business as usual at the airport and the flight's still showing on the board, so before I go any further, I check myself in on one of Lufthansa's quick check in machines.



I'd like to be able to say that I headed off in search of Lufthansa's business class lounge next, but I want to drop off my suitcase first and, by the time the baggage drop off point has opened, it's time to go through to the gate anyway. The Lufthansa lounge at Tegel is before check in and security, rather than after like bmi's lounge in Heathrow - I think it being after makes a whole lot more sense (no need to guess at how long you'll have to queue for baggage drop and security while you relax with your coffee and cakes), but Tegel's terminal design doesn't allow for it. A shame they don't open the baggage drop earlier, though - something bmi seems to have well sorted out at Heathrow (though they also guarantee that business class passengers at Heathrow can turn up just 30 minutes before their flight leaves and still make their flight).

On the plus side, though, Tegel's design does mean a whole lot less wandering around - in the picture above, the taxi rank is on the right and the entrance to the gate is on the left (the exit, if you're arriving at Tegel, is in practically the same place) - that's it, about 10 seconds' walk!



On the other side of security, there's a nice view out onto the terminal ramp, where another airline's plane is being de-iced before departure. There's something very sci-fi about the way the nozzles scan backwards and forwards across the wing, with white clouds of deicing fluid filling the air.

It's not long before it's time to board our own flight. I'd expected that, with some of the day's flights having been cancelled because of runway closures at Heathrow, this flight might be packed. Far from it - it seems like most of the evening's travellers have decided to stay at home, and it turns out I'm the only person sat in business class.

The de-icing machine comes over and gives our plane a good spray, then we push back and head off down the taxiway...and stop. The captain's voice comes over the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're experiencing a minor technical problem..."

Oh dear. It turns out they've lost steering on the nose wheel, which means we have to wait for a tug to pull the plane back to a stand. The flight attendant comes over to apologise and offers a drink. I ask for a cup of coffee, which he brings, shortly followed by a pack of almond biscotti to dunk in it. Very civilised.

Once we've been pulled back to a stand, the captain comes to the front to explain the problem further. He's been trying to steer, but "the computer isn't agreeing." The words "computer says nooo!" come into my head, but I resist shouting it out in case he doesn't appreciate Little Britain references (and besides, the look on his face suggests he might not currently be in the mood to see the funny side of things).

Shortly afterwards, some stairs are pushed up to the plane and a Lufthansa Technik van arrives. An army of men comes on board, armed with a laptop. Meanwhile, the flight attendants from economy class come through to fetch water and cups. They come past on their way back offering blankets and pillows.



After a lot of prodding around, the plane is given the all clear, the engineers head back to their van and we head off towards the runway. Then we're off into the air. After the initial climb, the plane banks slightly, revealing a spectacular view of Berlin out of my window.

As we were waiting on the tarmac at Tegel, I could see the timer on one of the ovens in the plane's galley ticking slowly down from 30. As the timer continued to tick, the smell of meat and vegetables started to fill the air. Of course things went a little bit awry when the plane ended up not leaving the ground, but having got in the air, the timer begins ticking away again. I know they're hiding something in there!

A while later, the flight attendant comes over and asks if I'd like to have dinner. "We've got Christmas dinner or gnocchi with spinach," he says. Aha! So that's what it is...and, yes, Christmas dinner sounds like an excellent idea (even if I did already have one yesterday).

Let's see now...



There's turkey, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, cubed sweet carrot and swede, a bowl of Waldorf salad (it's hiding under a lid in the picture), a nice warm bread roll and...a pair of chocolate reindeer (one of them took cover underneath the plate when I took the picture, but trust me, it's there). Not a bad spread! I'm not sure that its unplanned extended encounter with the oven has left it at its succulent best, but it tastes pretty good (I particularly like the spicing of the carrot and swede cubes).

When I'm finished, the flight attendant offers another drink. I choose coffee again, which he brings promptly, and I recline back to enjoy the rest of the flight. As we near London, the helpful flight attendant comes over again to say we might get a nice view of Windsor Castle out of my side if the cloud's not too low. Unfortunately there's not a whole lot to be seen as the plane comes in to land, but it was nice to be told anyway.

After all the stories I've heard about Heathrow, I expect to see piles of snow like there were in Berlin. Instead, there's a thin dusting on the ground, with blades of grass showing through. While it's clear that people have been clearing the runways and taxiways, it doesn't look like London's been quite the giant ice cube Berlin was.

Still, we've landed and I have to say, it's been nice flying with bmi. A big thanks to their staff for all their support and for making me feel so well looked after!

Disclosure: this trip has been sponsored by bmi. Opinions remain my own, palms lightly greased with business class tickets and chocolate reindeer. If you want to book your own trip to Berlin from the UK, have a look at bmi's flights to Berlin page.

Update - this Ketwurst stall is no longer trading. If you want to try Ketwurst in Berlin, head for Alain Snack at Schönhauser Allee 116A, which has been selling Ketwurst since the GDR days. A full write-up may follow eventually!



Head down to the U6 platform at Friedrichstraße station and you might notice this little hot dog stand. There's something a bit more unusual on offer here, though. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting...the Ketwurst!

Back in the late 70s in the GDR, a search for new fast foods to sell to visitors at Alexanderplatz led food researchers to come up with a combination of a sausage, ketchup and a bread roll...sounds just like a hot dog, you say? Well...almost.

Not happy to serve up American-style hot dogs in the heart of communist East Berlin, the boffins at the Rationalisierungs- und Forschungszentrum Gaststätten (that is, the streamlining and research centre for restaurants) created their own, more ideologically acceptable, version. The name came from combining the words Ketchup and Wurst, in typical East German style (a lot of words came about that way - MuFuTi from Multifunktionstisch, a multi function table, for example).



To make a Ketwurst, a long bread roll is placed on a heated spike, making a hole in one end. A bockwurst-type sausage, heated in water, is then dipped in tomato sauce, which is dripped into the hole before the sausage goes in after it.

Thomas Stürmer has been growing his empire of Ketwurst stands since 2003, under the name Original Ketwurst. Frustrated by the disappearance of what he felt was authentic Ketwurst from the streets of Berlin (there are other places selling it), he dug out an old recipe and took to the streets to sell the resurrected snack. The secret to his ketwurst is in the details - the roll is a more crusty type than the typical hot dog bun and the sauce is a more tangy, spicy sauce than ordinary ketchup (he keeps tight lipped about how it's made, but I suspect there's mustard in it, amongst other things). An East Berlin butcher makes the sausages and an East Berlin bakery bakes the rolls.

Does it taste the way they did back in the GDR? That I don't know. Does it taste good? It sure does...at least if you like this sort of thing! Those after a fine dining experience probably won't find munching on Ketwurst in Friedrichstraße station very satisfying. For fans of things involving sausages and tomato sauce, though, it's well worth a go!



"I wouldn't cook goose dear, it's very fatty!" were the words of wisdom my grandmother imparted on coming to stay for Christmas one year. We weren't planning on having goose, but still she felt it worth saying, repeating "Very fatty, dear" even after she'd been assured we weren't having it.

It was only when I was living in Germany that, invited by colleagues to a Gänseessen (goose dinner), I discovered the truth about goose. In place of the plate of blubber that my grandmother's remarks had led me to expect was a plate of a dark, tender and flavoursome meat. I was hooked.

You'll see goose starting to appear on the menus in restaurants from about November onwards (having a Gänseessen is traditional for St Martin's Day on November 11th) and of course it's a popular choice for Christmas dinner too. It's often served with red cabbage (Rotkohl), but sometimes you'll get offered a choice between that and Kale (Grünkohl)...and in the particular restaurant where I took the photo, it came with leeks (Porreegemüse, in this context - a leek is a Porree, or a Lauch).

This is a goose breast (Gänsebrust) but you'll sometimes see the leg (Gänsekeule) on sale instead...or you might get both (Brust und Keule von der Gans)!

You'll notice two big round yellow-ish things behind it. They're not, as you might fear, school-dinner-style mashed potato served with an ice cream scoop, but potato dumplings (Kartoffelknödel, or Kartoffelklöße). They are made with mashed potato, but usually together with flour and eggs (and sometimes semolina). They often have some toasted breadcrumbs in the middle.



And what to drink with all of this? I'm rather partial to a Schwarzbier (black beer) myself. While it might look like a stout, it's actually made like a lager. The character's somewhere in between - packed with toasty malt flavours, but not quite as heavy.

This particular one is Köstritzer from Bad Köstritz in Thuringia. It's been brewed there since 1543 and it's said that even Goethe was a fan. There's also a Schwarzbier brewed in Berlin, Märkischer Landmann, but that one is unfortunately going to have to wait for another time.

The Erna-Berger-Straße watchtower seems to find its way into a fair few walking tours and tourist guides and I've caught some people saying it's the only surviving watchtower in Berlin. Naughty. There's only one of its type, but there are three watchtowers in central Berlin...one of them is this one, hiding among the trees of the Schlesischer Busch park just off Puschkinallee:



Maybe hiding is too strong a word - it's fairly easy to spot - but it's fair to say there are quite a few trees around it. The trees to the south-east of the tower were left standing on the East Berlin side of the wall, and simply designated a 'Sperrgebiet' (no go zone). To the north-west, the trees were cleared along the strip parallel to the Flutgraben canal, creating a death strip that the tower looked out into.



This particular type of watchtower was a Führungsstelle - a command post - once one of 31 along the course of the Berlin wall. As well as being used as an observation tower, its occupants were also responsible for the command of border troops in watchtowers and other facilities in the surrounding area. All the signals from the sector's signal fences came through this watchtower first; if somebody triggered the alarm by attempting to get over one, it would sound in this watchtower first, before the troops in the relevant watchtower were notified. Communications were also routed through here, plus it was the only type of watchtower with heating and a toilet!



The tower is closed during the winter, but run as an art gallery by Flutgraben e.V. between May and September.

If you're visiting the watchtower, don't forget to cross over to the other side of Puschkinallee, where there's a small segment of wall (Hinterlandmauer) just in front of the industrial buildings there.


Update: The 'Reisebüro' sign mentioned here has, unfortunately, been removed, and there's no longer the Sharp advertisement on the front either!



If you've been to Alexanderplatz, you'll probably have noticed the building with the big flashing neon Sharp Aquos advertisement on it.

Of course the building actually has nothing to do with the Japanese electronics firm. A quick peek round the back reveals a clue to its history...



The sign says 'Reisebüro' - which could translate as travel agent's. It's not a new sign, either; in fact, I'm fairly sure that if you were to take the neon sign off the front of the building, you'd find an identical 'Reisebüro' sign underneath (only I wouldn't recommend doing that, unless you also want to find out what the inside of a Berlin jail looks like).

This building is the Haus des Reisens (usually literally translated as 'house of travel' though I think a case could be made for translating it as 'travel building'). The travel agency it housed wasn't just any old travel agency: it was the travel agent. The "Reisebüro der DDR", the GDR's state travel bureau, to be more precise.

The Reisebüro der DDR (which, until 1964, was known as the Deutsches Reisebüro - German Travel Bureau) had branches in cities across East Germany; this was its main office. That wasn't all, though - the Haus des Reisens was conceived as a kind of one stop shop for everything travel-related.

A booking office for East Germany's airline, Interflug, could be found here too, along with also a police registration office for foreigners, a foreigners' advice centre, a bureau de change of the Industrie- und Handelsbank (Industry and Trade Bank) and the tariff office of the ministry of transportation.

The Reisebüro der DDR offered organised tours to other socialist countries, as well as running hotels within the GDR, offering bookings for flights and train tickets and providing various services to foreign travelers in the GDR.



The building itself was designed by Roland Korn, Johannes Briske and Roland Steiger, with interiors by Hans Bogatzky. Korn was due to leave the GDR for Baghdad, to work as chief architect of Iraq, when plans by his collective won the competition for the redevelopment of Alexanderplatz and he was ordered to stay. The Haus des Reisens was built between 1969 and 1971 as part of this redevelopment plan.

The 17 storey tower block is surrounded by a two storey base, which has one of the building's most striking features - these unusual wave-like concrete mouldings, which are almost like the edges of a scallop shell. It's worth looking at in the satellitle pictures of Google Maps too - the scalloping's quite visible there and it looks almost more striking there than it does from the ground. The detailing provides an interesting contrast to the hard, skeletal lines of the tower block.



The eastern side of the building has a copper relief work by Walter Womacka. It's called "Der Mensch überwindet Zeit und Raum" (man overcomes/conquers time and space).

Womacka was a prolific artist in the GDR and his work is well represented around Alexanderplatz - the fountain in front of the Kaufhof department store (called the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft, which could be translated as 'fountain of friendship between nations') is also his work, as are the mosaics on the Haus des Lehrers (the building diagonally opposite the Haus des Reisens, over the other side of Karl Marx Allee).

If you like Socialist Realist art then this is really a fine example, brimming with space age optimism, which seems further enhanced by the building's sci-fi scalloping.



Perhaps the building's most talked about occupant now is the club Weekend which takes up two of the upper floors, and also opens up a terrace on the building's roof in the summer months. The Haus des Reisens may not be around for much longer, though: for some time now, plans have been in place to demolish it and replace it with a 150 metre tall skyscraper by Hans Kollhoff as part of his masterplan for Alexanderplatz, chosen in a 1993 competition. While not much currently seems to be happening in relation to those plans, the Haus des Reisens is currently far from fully occupied and, as it's not a listed building, it could well only be a matter of time before economic considerations bring its journey to an end.



Look up Quarkkeulchen on the internet and you'll read that they're small pancakes from Saxony, made with potatoes, quark (a soft cheese product a bit like fromage frais), eggs, flour and sugar, fried in a pan. That's all well and good...except somewhere along the way, the Berliners decided the world of Quarkkeulchen was round. It doesn't seem like the rest of the world's worked that out yet, though, so let's take a look at the things and help spread the word...

What gets sold in Berlin as Quarkkeulchen is something quite different to the Saxon pancakes. They still contain quark, but there's no potato in the dough and they're deep fried as balls. The result is more like a doughnut, though they're often flavoured with lemon zest and cinnamon, giving them quite a different flavour, plus of course the quark gives them a heavier texture. I've seen them sold as Quarkbällchen (quark balls) in other regions; sometimes they're really a lot more spherical than the ones in my picture.

The word 'keule' in the context of food is normally a leg (e.g. Lammkeule - leg of lamb), but the name of these has nothing to do with legs! It comes from the middle German word for a ball - 'Kaule' - which, if used in the diminutive form, becomes Käulchen (little ball), which sounds the same as Keulchen.

I bought these ones on a wander down Unter den Linden, from a stall at the Opernpalais Christmas market, but you'll see little stalls selling them at other times of year if you keep an eye out for them. These particular ones also had raisins in them and were really, really good. I'm sure the amount of lard they soak up when they're fried makes them the sort of thing doctors would attach a 'danger of death' warning to, but with the temperature continuing to plummet, a bag of warm Quarkkeulchen is a really great thing to munch on while you walk the icy streets!

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