Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg. The story has been updated.
On our first night in Berlin, my son, Liam, and I ducked into a cozy pub in the quaint Nikolai Viertel neighborhood for a famed Berliner Weisse wheat beer and a bite to eat. It was so crowded that the waiter waved us into a dark wood-paneled backroom and motioned for us to join another couple at a small table. I hate to admit this, but we both felt immediately uncomfortable. We decided to order something small with our beers and find dinner somewhere else, where we could have some space and, like classic Americans, sit alone.
We were jet-lagged and tired. I had come to Berlin to give a talk and headed to the conference straight off the plane that morning. (Liam, a lover of history who jumped at the chance to come with me, slept most of the day.) Though I studied German in college, I hadn’t spoken it much in 35 years. And to be honest, I still had wounding memories of the last time I sat in a pub not unlike this one in what was then East Berlin, in 1981, not much older than my son is now.
Then, wearing my bright blue and orange Nikes and maroon conspicuously labeled Columbia ski jacket, I stood out like a riot of offensive color in what was then a drab, gray, ghostlike town. I remember it was so quiet you could hear the sound of East Berliners’ shoes clacking on the sidewalk. No one talked, or laughed, or smiled. Least of all at us unruly American college students barreling through Checkpoint Charlie out to see the world and venturing into what was then enemy territory at the height of the Cold War.
In 1981, you could get a one-day visa from West Berlin, but you had to buy about 25 East German marks and spend them all by the end of the day. The problem was, there wasn’t much to buy. So, after a day of exploring, tired and hungry, my friends and I, all studying in Austria for the year, sat at a pub and tried to order a meal.
Not a single soul would look at us, much less talk to us. Or take our order. Not the waiter. Not the people at the nearby tables. It was as if we were invisible. That evening, passing through the armed guards and returning to the wall-encircled enclave of “free” West Berlin, we left our unspent marks at the border.
This time, it was different. The atmosphere in the pub was noisy and festive. Outside, the now-unified Berlin was bustling with new construction, renovations and riotous color everywhere. And our tablemates were smiling at us. After nodding politely at them, Liam and I quickly ordered what looked like a cheeseboard, though the only word I recognized in my rusty German was käse.
Out came a plate of slabs of malodorous yellow Harzer käse with caraway seeds and dark brown, soft buns that I took to be the schusterjungen of the menu. Plus a pot of what I assumed was a whitish kind of butter.
Puzzled, I spread some of the stuff on the roll. Our tablemates shifted in their seats, smirking, and eyed me. I took a bite. Gah. Not butter. Our companions burst into laughter. “It’s fat. Pork fat. Griebenschmalz,” said one smiling, not unkindly. “How do you like the cheese?” asked the other. I shrugged. Liam wouldn’t touch it. “It’s very popular in the country. It’s like cheese for farmers.”
And we were off, talking about how it’s made from sour cheese curds. How awful it smells. How it reminded me of a cheese we’d dubbed stangenkäse, or stink cheese, in our butchered English-ified German back in college. “Yes!” they said, “It is called stangenkäse!”
If the ride into vibrant, newly reconstructed Berlin from the airport hadn’t convinced me that the now unified city had thoroughly changed, this bonding over stinky cheese and pork fat certainly had. It was the first of many sometimes jarring surprises I’d encounter in our five day trip to this nearly 800-year-old city where the past is still very much alive in a very dynamic present.
We headed out of the pub, only to find out later that it was the famed Zum Nussbaum, an old inn built originally in either the 16th or 18th century, depending on the interpretation of a cellar inscription.
The guidebooks said Nikolai Viertel, the oldest residential area in Berlin, was founded in about the year 1200, and holds St. Nicholas’ Church, the oldest in the city. It sits in the heart of what’s now called Mitte, or middle, but what had been East Berlin, just off the River Spree and not far from Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its five extraordinary museums, including the Pergamon, which houses the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the massive Pergamon Altar, built in what is now Turkey in the second century BCE. (The Pergamon Museum was closed for remodeling during our visit, and is not scheduled to reopen until 2019 or 2020.)
I remember visiting the museums in 1981, passing decaying buildings that, if my memory serves, had trees growing out of the roofs. But I don’t have any recollection of this charming little pedestrian quarter.
That’s because it wasn’t there. The medieval alleys, winding lanes, churches, shops and tidy buildings in Nikolai Viertel were completely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II.
The then-East German government decided to completely rebuild the vanished neighborhood in 1987, in time for the then still-divided Berlin’s 750th anniversary. The eight-year undertaking was derided by some as “Honecker’s Disneyland,” after former East German leader Erich Honecker, because hardly any of the buildings were rebuilt in their original locations, including Zum Nussbaum.
Epcot-like or no, we were drawn continually to wander the lanes and, after the pub, we found Ephraim’s Cafe-Restaurant, which serves traditional German fare, that soon became a favorite. Eating at Ephraim’s, which sits right above the Spree, is like eating in a favorite eccentric aunt’s parlor. We sat on cushy chairs by the fireplace under a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. The adjacent room boasted a piano. And Liam ate the first of what would be about nine wienerschnitzels over the course of the week. The warm apple strudel, with a dollop of cool vanilla ice cream, was divine. It felt so like home that Ephraim’s became the place we went for dinner each night.
Liam and I had gone on college visits together, but this was the first big trip we’d taken together, just the two of us. And to be honest, I was really looking forward to breaking out of the often dreary routine we’d fallen into. Our conversations usually consisted of me nagging him about homework or college applications or anxiously peppering him with well-meaning questions, only to be greeted by a grunt, his eyes never lifting from his phone. As for Liam, he just wanted to go to Berlin.
There were challenges: I was raring to go in the mornings long before he deigned to crawl out of bed. (I’d work out and read in the lobby.) He kept eating the expensive chocolate in the mini bar. (Even when I asked him not to.) And at night, he was eager to go out and explore the city and its nightlife on his own. Each night, I’d watch him leave, the ghost of my former self, while all I had the energy for was streaming Berlin-themed movies on my laptop, such as the Cold War classic “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”
But the trip and the city brought us together in new ways. Liam was constantly surprising me with his deep knowledge of history and his willingness to explore together. “You weren’t acting all mothery,” is how he put it. He was eager to hear what my experience in Berlin was like decades ago, when the world felt explosive and I, like him, was wondering with both awe and terror what choices I’d make and who I’d be for the rest of my life.
Every evening, after dinner at Ephraim’s and before parting ways for a few hours, we’d sit by the fire in the lobby of our hotel, Novotel Mitte, talk and laugh about the adventures of the day, and plan ones for the next day over steaming cups of hot chocolate.
The key to most of our adventures were the three-speed bikes we’d rent from the hotel every day for 10 euros each.
We sought out markers of the city’s Nazi past: The Topography of Terror, a powerful, sobering modern museum that sits atop the former SS headquarters, charts Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the chilling, slow creep of intolerance, bigotry and will to dominate . The moving, labyrinthine Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that engulfs you the further you venture in. Nearby are the memorials for the homosexuals and Romani, or Gypsies, who were also victims of the Holocaust. The Reichstag building has a notable history because it is where World War II began and finished. The 1933 fire that burned the Reichstag down was possibly the most important event in Hitler’s rise to power, and its capture by the Russians in 1945 signaled the end of the war. As we climbed to the top of the impressive glass dome that now crowns the building, we learned that the glass throughout the building in the Reichstag, now home to the German Bundestag, or parliament, is designed to be a clear reminder of the importance of transparency in government.
One day, at Liam’s urging, we took an Insider Tour four-hour Third Reich walking tour and saw not only Hitler’s bunker — now paved over and the site of an unremarkable parking lot — but also the place where Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were executed after their failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. Liam remarked again and again that one of the most surprising parts of the tour was seeing that many beautiful old buildings are still scarred by bullet holes in a constant reminder of the city’s turbulent history.
We didn’t have to cycle far to see very clear reminders of the era I remember best — the Cold War: Checkpoint Charlie, a site of real fear in 1981, is a silly, touristy replica, with actors dressed as American and Soviet officers, a parade of boxy old East German cars putting by on a “Trabi Safari,” and a McDonald’s nearby. Checkpoint Charlie was also the site of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, where U.S. and Soviet tanks were in a standoff for 16 hours, and was the closest the superpowers ever came to war until the Cuban Missile Crisis one year later. We stood in silence before the Berlin Wall Memorial, with a section still intact of the once 28-mile-long ring of drab, concrete-and-barbed-wire-topped wall, the menacing watchtower and the open air “kill zone” between the inner and outer walls on the East German side. Although the wall is now gone, a ring of bricks embedded in the street shows where it once stood. One late afternoon, I cycled across town to the East Side Gallery, the largest section of the wall that still stands.
But perhaps the ultimate biking experience came when we decided to join the Fat Tire Day City Tour. For 28 euros each, it’s more than worth it. We made great loops around the city on cruiser bikes, flying through the imposing Brandenburg Gate, stopping for lunch at the wonderful outdoor beer garden, the Schleusen Krug, with chandeliers that hang from the rafters of the nearby porch in the grand park, the Tiergarten. As we pedaled, we learned more about the city’s tumultuous past that lingers so heavily in the air. Yet we would turn a corner and whiz past packed coffeehouses, clean, well-lit shops and restaurants that served Egyptian, Korean, Israeli, Syrian, Palestinian, Vietnamese, Thai or Turkish fare — all hopeful reminders of how things can change, how an ancient city, no matter how “poor but sexy,” as the saying goes, can keep reinventing itself.
For me, the trip was a hopeful reminder of human possibility and the power of change against seemingly insurmountable odds. It was also a bittersweet reminder of just how much time had passed since I wore my hair in long braids and looked out tour-bus windows in wide-eyed wonder at the world. And for Liam, it ignited something else, a desire to learn more, to go deeper. When we got home, he decided to study international relations and history in college. And signed up for his first class in German.
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Novotel Berlin Mitte
Fischerinsel 12, 10179
Clean, mid-scale hotel for family or business trips located near Alexanderplatz, Nikolaiviertel and Museum Island in former East Berlin. Hotel offers meeting rooms, free WiFi, bike rental and a cozy lobby. Rooms from about $89.
Spreeufer 1, 10178
Like dining in the library of a favorite eccentric aunt — cozy and filled with overstuffed chairs. Service can be slow, but what’s your hurry? Solid, traditional German fare, such as wienerschnitzel and Brandenburg-style beef brisket, starting at $10. Follow the meal with Tyrolean apple strudel for about $6.
Am Nussbaum 3, 10178
A cozy, wood-paneled German-style pub, rebuilt after being destroyed in the Allied bombing of World War II. Reservations are not offered and be prepared to sit with others. They serve Berliner Weisse, Pilsator and Echt Berliner beer and hearty, traditional German fare, along with entreessuch as the Berliner bollenfleisch (sautéed lamb and onions with salt potatoes) and a Nussbaum grilled sausage plate starting at $12.
Fat Tire Tours Berlin
Panoramastrasse 1A, 10178. Located near the television tower in Alexanderplatz.
The company offers bike and Segway tours that run from about $30 to $70. The Day City Tour, what we did, is a fantastic way to see the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Museum Island, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and sections of the old Berlin Wall, along with other iconic sites of the Hitler’s Third Reich and the Cold War. Stops include lunch at a lovely beer garden, which is not included in price. Tours typically start around 11 a.m. every day and last four and a half hours. The final stop is at the Reichstag. (Plan a separate trip to return to tour the glass dome on the roof with commanding views of greater Berlin.) Reservations are recommended.
Insider Tour Berlin
Pick from nine different walking tours in and around Berlin, including day trips to Dresden, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Potsdam, as well as walking tours in Berlin proper exploring Jewish Berlin, the Third Reich, the Cold War and a Pergamon museum tour. We choose the four-hour Third Reich Berlin Walking Tour that includes a train ride and spans both east and west Berlin. That tour, which runs about $15 for adults, $12 for students, leaves at 10 a.m. and doesn’t require a reservation. The tour passes by the Topography of Terror exhibition on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, (Niederkirchenstrasse 8, 10 am to 8 pm. Free. topographie.de/en) which is well worth a return visit to explore on your own.
Berlin Wall Memorial
Bernauer St. 111, 13355
A sobering and powerful reminder of a time when West Berlin was ringed by a concrete wall and kill zone to keep Soviet bloc Eastern Europeans out during the Cold War from 1961 to 1989. The site includes a memorial to the at least 139 people who lost their lives trying to cross into the west, includes an informative visitor center and section of the actual inner and outer walls, guard tower and kill zone. Visitor Center open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open-air exhibition and memorial grounds open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission $3 for adults, student entrance is free. (Across town, you can also bike to the East Side Gallery on Muhlenstrasse, the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall that still stands that artists from around the world have painted on to celebrate freedom and hope in humanity.)
For more information, check out the Visit Berlin website at visitberlin.de/en.