One of the truisms of life: You can’t go wrong with a restaurant recommendation by a food blogger in their own home town. Uncharacteristically for me, I had dropped the ball in making dinner reservations for the Saturday night of The Hive conference in Berlin (now sadly defunct as a blogger conference). Lucky for me though, there were lots of food bloggers and Berlin locals at The Hive. We were there for a travel conference but also a fun weekend getaway to Berlin.
So I was pretty comfortable when one of the other attendees I knew at The Hive conference, the lovely Natali from Kochen, Kunst & Ketchup, made a reservation for us to eat dinner at a popular new restaurant in town, Spindler Berlin, in the trendy neighbourhood of Kreuzberg.
The original plan called for dinner with Elisabetta, an architect and design blogger at Italian Bark, and Sarita who blogs at The Orange Gift Bag. We had all been to The Hive last year and had become friends. By the time we had left the Scandic hotel for dinner though, we had morphed into a happy chattering group of people.
We didn’t have a problem until we got to the restaurant.
“The reservations you made are for 5 people.”
“Yes, but there are 10 of us now.”
The German waiter looked flustered. Not surprising. It would be hard to accommodate 10 people on a Saturday night at any popular restaurant in any big city.
We were offered a table outside. After the afternoon rain, all the outside tables were empty. The evening though still had a chill in the air from the rain. We apologised to the nice waiter at Spindler and went en masse to the restaurant next door. Good thing we were on a street known to have lots of good restaurants, Paul-Lincke-Ufer on the canal.
The twinkling lights of the lanterns in the front garden of Chan Asian Food Market were welcoming.
The fragrant smell of delicious Thai food wafted through the air. The waiter at Chan, likewise, was a bit flustered but offered us drinks in the garden until a table could be found.
Fairly soon, he had tables for us even though the restaurant was pretty full. The atmosphere of the restaurant itself was friendly and relaxed. The food was as delicious as it smelled. We were all talking and laughing the night away.
You know you are with bloggers when everyone takes photos of the drinks before they start drinking. This place had great cocktails!
I had the tofu Thai red curry which was excellent. Elisabetta pronounced her Pad Thai as terrific as well.
Good food and good conversation – what could be better? I loved that our group was so diverse. As with any large group though, you chatted with the people who sat nearest you. In my case, that was Anita, a Hungarian interiors blogger living in Budapest writing at Creative With Love; Agata, a Polish design blogger living in Milan writing at Passion Shake; and Magdolna, a Hungarian luxury fashion blogger living in Germany writing at Silk So Fine.
We discovered we were all dog lovers. Even though some of us had children, it was photos of our dogs that were passed around! I think that is another life truism: People who love dogs are good people!
Our dinner plans came together somewhat haphazardly but all’s well that end’s well. Natali told me later that Chan is well known among locals for having excellent Thai food at reasonable prices.
I did return for ‘new regional German food’ at Spindler Berlin on another weekend trip to Berlin and it was indeed fabulous! Berlin is an easy flight from London so we do visit frequently for long weekends. It’s got lots of interesting history, good food, great nightlife as well as amazing street art and the more kitschy stuff like the the Ampelmann crossing guards and the Buddy Bears.
Who knew that pedestrian crossing lights do not have to be so, well, pedestrian? The pedestrian crossing lights in Berlin are really special. The design of the so-called Ampel Men (Ampelmann), tare one of the holdovers from when Germany was a divided country.
The Design of the Ampelmann
In 1961, traffic psychologist (now that’s specialised!), Karl Peglau, designed these signals to combat the growing number of pedestrian accidents in East Berlin. The traditional red, yellow and green are difficult for people with colour-blindness to decipher. My husband who is colour-blind, for example, just knows the order of the lights and goes by which one lights up even if he doesn’t know what colour it is.
The beloved Ampelmann design is a relic from the days when Berlin was a divided city.
The stop sign is a man in red with his outstretched hands meant to convey that you can not enter. The go sign is the man in his little hat walking with his hand showing a forward directional movement. The jaunty little hat was inspired by a photo of Erich Honecker, leader of the GDR (East Germany) from 1971 until 1989, wearing a straw hat.
It wasn’t cost effective to replace all the traffic lights in East Germany so they only did it for the pedestrian lights. People really liked the Ampel Men. Let’s face it – they are adorable with their big head and short, stout feet.
In fact, the Ampelmann were so popular that they had their own television series in East Germany. They were used to promote road safety and were incredibly popular – like the recent mega-hit from the Melbourne transportation advertising, Dumb Ways To Die.
The Survival of the Ampelmann Post-reunification
In 1994, the Ampel Men faced being phased out as West Germany began modernising East German infrastructure The people who campaigned to keep the Ampel Men won in the end. Instead of changing the design, the authorities agreed just to change the outdated electrical wiring on the lights.
Now, throughout Germany there are three variations of Ampelmann – each of the old East German and West German Ampelmann and a unified design from 1992. Each German state decides which version of Ampelmann it wants to use. In 2002, Ampelmann’s girlfriend, Ampelfrau was installed in some cities like Dresden.
The Ampelmann is not without controversy – they are part of a movement nostalgic for the days of East Germany. Because, you know, cardboard cars, secret police and separated families really were the good old days.
The Ampelmann Shop in Berlin
There is an Ampelmann shop on Unter den Linden, the main street in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It sells all sorts of novelties with the Ampelmann design such as magnets, cookie cutters, gummy candy and tee-shirts.
If you are looking for a cool gift from Berlin, these souvenirs at least have style and history behind them. I though the gummy Ampelmann were so adorable I got them as treats for my children.
There is even an Ampelmann cafe in the shop. This little design really brings in the Euros!
A small section of the shop is devoted to pedestrian crossing lights in other parts of the world, sort of like a mini-museum of pedestrian crossing lights. Needless to say, it is completely fascinating for children – completely random and not very big.
Two of the more interesting crossing lights I saw were from Mongolia and The Netherlands.
Since 2011, crossing lights in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, show the country’s three national sports – archery, riding and wrestling.
Since 2000, this little girl graces the traffic lights of Amersfoort in the province of Utrecht in The Netherlands. She has been nicknamed Sofie by the locals.
Have you seen any cool pedestrian lights in your travels? I have to confess the Berlin Ampel Men are the first time I even realised not all traffic lights are the same.
The Trabant, also known as the Trabi, is an East German car that became the punchline of many jokes. Here are some old Trabant jokes that have made the rounds frequently.
- Q. When does the Trabant reach its top speed? A. When it’s towed away.
- Q. What goes on pages 4 & 5 of the User’s Manual? A. The bus schedule.
I could go on with the Trabant jokes but I won’t because I thought they looked adorable. I saw them on the streets of Berlin when I visited last year.
The History of the Trabi
The Trabant started off as a serious answer by the Eastern Bloc loaded with ideology. With this East German car, automobile ownership would be available to the proletarian masses. The Trabi was supposed to have enough room for four people and some luggage. It was also designed to be simple enough for the average person to make their own repairs so they didn’t need to rely on auto mechanics.
The most popular car in East Germany, the Trabis were also available for export to the Eastern Bloc countries. After the fall of communism, unlike other Eastern Bloc cars such as the Yugo or the Skoda, the Trabi was not sold in the West.
The Trabi had some major issues, primarily that it was very loud and very smelly. The cars were made of an eco-friendly material called Duroplast (a combination of waste cotton materials and resins) because steel was in short supply in the Eastern Bloc. The joke that the Trabi was made of cardboard is not true. Not that you should test it out in a car crash or anything.
Other Trabant jokes were made about the waiting list for these cars and their parts. The Trabis were very popular and the factory could not make enough to satisfy customer demand even though there were approximately 3 million Trabants produced.
The last Trabi was produced by the factory in Zwickau in 1991. Germany has permitted the Trabi to be an exception to the modern exhaust and emissions rules which this East German car would have no hope of passing otherwise.
Trabis in Current Use
The Trabi Safari tours are a popular way of seeing Berlin. You get to choose and drive one of the colourfully painted Trabis the company owns. There are several different tours that are lead by a guide in the front car.
There is also a Trabi Museum in Berlin right near that other iconic image of East Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie. Many East Germans remember the Trabi with nostalgia – not necessarily the Communist era but just the East German car which made family trips possible for them.
More Trabis are now being exported as collectible cars because the designation of vintage only applies to cars that are at least 25 years old. If a car is vintage, then it does not have to pass modern exhaust and emissions rules.
With a Trabant Museum and Trabant Safari adding to its nostalgia and cult status, this East German car may get the last laugh. After all, you could have picked up a Trabant in the 1990s for the equivalent of £60 but I’ve seen Trabis advertised as classic cars in the UK for upwards of £2000. That’s not a Trabant joke by the way.
The Trabi Museum in Berlin is open from 10-6 and admission is currently 5 Euros (under-12s are free). The Trabant Safari is available in Berlin and Dresden and its not cheap to drive a piece of history.
Kreuzberg in Berlin is one of the trendiest neighbourhoods of the city. A fairly considerable area, the neighbourhood is eclectic and interesting. You can easily spend a few days in this area and not be bored.
The area is an architectural mix of buildings which date from the mid-19th century when industrialisation fueled the growth of Berlin and fairly uninspiring modern buildings. Irrespective of the building’s architecture, the facades of these buildings are the backdrop to the area’s famous street art.
During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall isolated Kreuzberg on 3 sides. Being pretty much surrounded by the Death Strip made it neither desirable nor fashionable. The neighbourhood was left alone which was great for those people with counter-culture leanings and squatters. The squatters are still there from what I saw of a commune set up in an abandoned car park.
Kreuzberg has also been the home of Berlin’s punk rock movement.
The SO36 Club was Berlin’s answer in the 1970’s to New York City’s CBGB. The SO36 is still going strong as this line to get into the club on a Thursday evening shows.
Traditionally though Kreuzberg has been home to many Turkish immigrants. There are many cafes, restaurants and shops that cater to the Turkish community which is still a significant part of the population.
Gorlitzer Park is where the Turkish families come to picnic on a nice day. It has stone terraces which are supposed to remind the Turks of the thermal hot springs and calcite terraces of Turkish UNESCO World Heritage site Pamukkale. Possibly if I had tried the drugs that Gorlitzer Park is notorious for, the resemblance might have been clearer.
The original Pamukkale terraces
The urban Pamukkale terraces
The young and the hip have moved into the neighbourhood. I was told Kreuzberg most closely resembles the Shoreditch area of London. I love this combination of a yoga and deli. I bet they sell at least one quinoa dish.
Inevitably, the young and the hip have children. Gentrification along the lines of Islington surely is not far behind.
Kreuzberg is one of the most interesting parts of Berlin which in itself is a pretty fascinating city!