Travelling from Brussels to Berlin is the perfect way to see Europe old and new in one trip, with the perfectly preserved chocolate-box-beauty of the former throwing the sense of flux that pervades the latter into sharp relief. And going by train allows you to immerse yourself in both.
You will have to navigate, to engage with your surroundings. You’ll have to read signs and listen to announcements in languages that are not your own. Boarding the Eurostar at St Pancras International is to immediately leave the UK behind, even as you speed through London’s suburbs, past the Emirates stadium and across unmistakeably English countryside. As the English, Flemish and French announcements are chirpily made (play the very fun game - if you are on your own; it’s all relative - of guessing the stewards’ country of origin from which accent they do best), it feels the way being in an Embassy does: like you’re on foreign soil even though your own country is right outside the window.
Two hours later you are deposited at Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid, the city’s main railway station. There is little point doing the “let’s stay in an authentic neighbourhood where the locals live” thing in Brussels: it’s not big enough, and almost everything you want to see and do, eat and drink, is within a half-mile radius of the Grand Place/Grote Markt, the medieval square that denotes the city’s centre. Just remember to tell yourself that the free Flemish rock concerts that are a regular fixture there, and which resonate clearly round the centre, are adding to the fullness of your Belgian cultural experience.
This quirky city, with a urinating child and a giant model of the atom as its symbols, is the mothership of the absurd. Rightly proud of beer, chocolate, waffles and fries being its gifts to the world, Belgium also gave us Tin Tin, Art Nouveau, Dries van Noten, Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Smurfs, and Rene Magritte.
The Magritte Museum at Place Royale is curated along a timeline of the artist’s life and work, of which it displays over 200 examples, progressing through Impressionism and Cubism, to illustrate the unfolding of the Surrealist movement. Start at the top floor, pausing to take in the views across the city to the Atomium, and work your way down to the ground, where you will come out into the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, to be confronted by the vast, glinting, dreamy canvases of Belgian Symbolist painter Constant Montald.
When it comes to eating and drinking there are offbeat gems to be found even among the tourist traps that line the network of narrow cobbled lanes around the Grand Place. A Brussels institution since 1974, Le Cercueil is a tiny bar on Rue des Harengs/Haringstraat, and a shrine to the macabre, and the kitsch. Almost pitch-dark and hung with swathes of dusty black velvet and funeral wreaths, this sinister little nook resembles an undertaker’s parlour more than it does than a pub, and was indeed furnished at a closing down sale at a funeral home. The name translates as ‘the coffin’, and glass-topped caskets containing glowing green-lit skeletons serve as tables. The soundtrack is strictly metal, and the cocktail menu includes such potent potions as Sperm of the Devil, although there’s an extensive list of Belgian beers (served in skull-shaped mugs) too.
Amadeo, on Rue Sainte Catherine/Sint-Katelijnestraat, is a rib joint with queues out the door, thanks to its all-you-can-eat racks of the best sticky ribs you’ll ever taste, served with baked potatoes with curry butter and a giant bottle of red wine on every table that you pay for by the centimetre. The atmosphere is welcoming and cosy, with a décor that is a hodge-podge of red-checked table cloths, Moroccan lanterns, dark wood beams and Buddha statues, walls lined with Flemish books and a ceiling heavy with dried hops, and, given that Brussels is not generally a cheap city in which to eat out, the bill is equally heart-warming.
There isn’t a lot of hustle and bustle to escape, but if you want to see more than the city centre, take the tram though the woods to Tervuren, nicknamed the English Village thanks to its quaint appearance, and the number of Brits living there (it’s a stone’s throw from the British School of Brussels) and hang out by the lake in the vast park, also home to the Royal Museum for Central Africa, one of the world’s biggest museums and research facilities devoted to the continent, founded in 1898 during the era of Belgium’s African colonial presence.
The Thalys train to Köln, where you connect with your ICE train to Berlin, departs from Brussels Midi/Zuid. The one hour 45-minute journey is spent in a plush burgundy velvet armchair, of a similar comfort level to those in which someone’s grandfather might sit to read Dickens by the fire. Relaxing dim lighting, luxuriant amounts of leg room (plus foot rest), free wi-fi and, even more endearingly, free pastries and endless tea, coffee, juice and English, French, Dutch and German newspapers, make getting off the train decidedly unappealing.
Particularly when the destination is Köln Hauptbahnhof: a chaotic warren that reverberates to the sound of unintelligible platform change announcements in three languages. It is neither modern nor welcoming, but they do at least allow you to smoke on the platforms before you board, like civilised people.
The tumult stands in stark contrast to the ICE train that pulls up. Just sitting in the sleek, grey leather-bedecked interior makes you feel dynamic. All the futuristic clichés associated with European high-speed rail travel are pleasingly present. There is nothing bohemian about this experience (catch an Italian train for that), but speeding across the only bit of Europe that has any money left, perusing German newspapers like some vital cog in the über-economy, listening to Jeans Team (insert your own soundtrack but I find accessible Berlin electro works for me in this context, and Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express was just a little too obvious), is its own kind of romance.
Even more spacious than the Thalys, with high ceilings, expansive windows and a wide aisle, my first-class carriage was only a quarter full, but even at capacity I’d have been eight feet from the nearest other person. There is seat service, but a trip to the proper restaurant-style dining car breaks up the four hour journey nicely. Screens descending from the ceiling tell you your current speed, and my train got up to 250kmh, yet still the only clue that you are moving at all is the speed at which the swathes of windfarms and endless fields outside fly past – be warned that the views across central Germany are neither varied nor particularly inspiring; from Köln at the west border to Berlin at the east nothing in the landscape changes. But hey, a steward comes round as you approach your destination with a basket of free Kinder Buenos, providing you with a little sugar hit to prepare you for Berlin.
Use the Fernseeturm as your compass when navigating the German capital, but don’t hang around its location at Alexander Platz unnecessarily, unless you’re really into Burger King and C&A, and use the quick, cheap and easy-to-navigate U-Bahn to get around. If in need of a pick-me-up on the move, grab a bottle of Club Mate from any corner store – a caffeine-heavy, mate-extract fizzy tea, whose slogan is “You’ll get used it it”, commonly seen in the hands of Berliners on the move.
When it comes to more substantial sustenance, Berliners are spoiled for choice.
California Breakfast Slam is a weekend-only pop-up diner on Pflügerstraße in Neukölln, serving enormous American-style brunches (think fluffy pancakes, courgette and potato hash browns,and huevos rancheros) that will keep you going till dinner. But where’s the fun in missing lunch?
For that, head to the former Jewish Girls’ School on Augustsraße in Mitte. This elegantly-spare modernist building was erected in 1930 to replace the school’s old premises. By 1938 the school was over capacity as the Nazi law prohibiting Jewish children from attending non-Jewish schools was passed, and in 1942, when they were forbidden to attend school at all, it closed. Within a few years most of its former pupils had been transported to the camps. An eerie atmosphere pervades, as a result of the fact that the building’s original purpose remains unmistakeable – go to the bathrooms and the stalls and lowered sinks will take you right back to primary school – but its revival as a cultural and culinary centre is a good example of Berlin’s regeneration of such sites, and its attitude to addressing the sad chapters of its history. Ghosts are everywhere in the city, but it has embraced its past, as the best way to move on from it. Mogg & Melzer on the ground floor is a New York-style Jewish deli, and serves immense, and perfect, pastrami sandwiches, complete with giant pickles and coleslaw.
For afternoon Kaffee and Küchen head to the original Café Einstein Stammhaus, a Berlin institution. This Viennese-style cafe in an 1878 villa on Kurfürstenstraße in Charlottenberg was the meeting place of choice for the intelligentsia of the 1920s. If the overall feeling in Berlin is one of progression, in Einstein the clock stopped 90 years ago: this was Berlin before.
For dinner, Santa Maria Mexican Diner on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg does outrageously good pulled pork burritos and has a comprehensive margarita menu. Go on Taco Tuesdays and get tacos and tequila for the princely sum of one euro, although, like most places to eat out in Berlin, it’s staggeringly cheap every day of the week.
Leave some room for organic ice cream at Fräulein Frost on Friedelstraße in Neukölln. You’ll forgive the tweeness of this pastel-toned parlour once you’ve tried the Gu-Zi-Mi (gurken, zitron, minze, or cucumber, lemon, mint) and Graceland (peanut butter and banana) flavours – just one euro for a generous scoop.
Fast-forward to the small hours and it’s street food time; for this go to Burgermeister, a burger bar housed in a former public toilet under the arches of the Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn station serving juicy homemade, flame-grilled burgers (go for the chilli cheese variety) almost too good to waste on your drunken tastebuds.
The Berlin Wall is, of course, something you must see, although its power and meaning resonate more afterwards, as you walk around the city, crossing no longer-visible lines that once would have been impassable. Berlin is a destination whose recent history stands on the same streets as the multitude of avant-garde bars, restaurants, shops and clubs that make it hub for those in thrall to the new and different, and for someone of my generation, seeing the traces of historical events I can actually remember is a novel feeling in a holiday destination.
At Checkpoint Charlie, bypass the sparsely-filled museum and don’t bother lingering at the recreation of the checkpoint, manned by costumed “soldiers” waiting to stamp your passport, and head for the excellent free outdoor exhibition, charting the history of the Wall and the Cold War with it, from start to end, and paying homage to those who made escape attempts. Starbucks and McDonald’s (complete with graffitied Wall theme) loom knowingly from across the street, and to be honest, this does feel like the one location in which drinking a can of Coke might just be the historically-accurate thing to do.
The Daniel Liebeskind-designed Jewish Museum on Lindenstraße is world-class, and fully exploring it requires the best part of a day. The most comprehensive and informative museum I have yet visited, it is also the most thoughtfully and powerfully designed, with its eerie voids slicing through its warped Star of David shape. It is a space in which the visitor loses all sense of time and location; disorientating, disarming, disconcerting, and pervaded by a sense of unease. Despite the exhibits covering every facet of Jewish life and history over a span of 2,000 years, from biblical times to modern day, and a cleverly curated and surprisingly affecting allegorical exhibition of photographs charting the process of integration into Judaism by post-soviet Russian Jews, it’s the donated possessions of victims of the Holocaust that stay with you the longest.
If you’re in town on a Sunday, Mauerpark flea market with musical accompaniment from the adjacent bearpit karaoke is a must. The market is a sprawling mass of stalls peddling equal amounts quality vintage clothes and bric-a-brac and utter tat, with some good DDR-era design finds in the mix. But the real attraction is the spectacle of those brave/still-drunk souls who take to the stone amphitheatre to belt out pop classics to an audience of hundreds from 3pm.
For the skinny on local happenings you won’t find in guidebooks check out Überlin, a blog on which expat-Brits Zoe and James cover art, fashion, food, music and offbeat events around town. We ended up at a pop-up outdoor short film festival on their recommendation, at the open-air cinema at Cassiopeia, a bombed-out WWII train depot now also home to a club, beer garden and skate park on Revalerstraße in Friedrichshain.
Disclaimer: Be warned that the train journey back from London to Scotland will be more painful than usual. The DVT-inducing two foot square of personal space in which you will find yourself; the faint but unmistakeable scent of the toilets; the much-touted wi-fi that doesn’t work for more than a minute at a time; the staff in the buffet visibly affronted at having to put down their copy of Closer so you can pay for your £5 Kit-Kat – all will be rendered unbearable, thanks to the nirvana of travel you will have so recently experienced.
Fares from London St Pancras to Brussels start at £69 standard class return. Fares from Brussels to Berlin start at £243 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit Rail Europe.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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