The off side of Berlin
BERLIN — My husband, Alan, and I were on our way from L.A. to Budapest, Hungary — our first trip to Eastern Europe. We had to change planes somewhere, and that somewhere happened to be Berlin, a frequent hub for travel to Northern and Eastern European destinations.
We had heard that Berlin was an up-and-coming artists’ community, often compared with L.A. Instead of sentencing ourselves to a long layover at the airport, we decided to spend a long weekend in Berlin.
We expected three days of prowling contemporary art galleries mixed with sobering visits to historical sites (the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a glimpse of where the Berlin Wall once stood). Maybe a little beer, bratwurst and strudel thrown in for good measure.
Instead, that June weekend found us sampling delicate Alsatian Flammkuchen (sort of a flatbread pizza) on our first night in town in a neighborhood cafe called “No!”; bicycling through city Stassen (in unexpected competition with that Sunday’s Garmin Telethon bike marathon) in search of Berlin’s best waffles; and taking a wacky trip to Mauerpark for the vast Sunday flea market and the craziest karaoke experience we will probably ever encounter.
For the record, we did visit the starkly beautiful Holocaust memorial, the Berlin Wall Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate. We ate Wiener schnitzel and some great sauerbraten at Lutter & Wegner.
Bad timing put us on Augustrasse, the art gallery hub, too early in the morning to find most places open. But later in the day, we did trudge through the treasures at Schonhausen Palace, re-opened in 2009 after an extensive renovation. I say “trudge” because this visit was late on Saturday, after we’d been up and down countless subway stairs and city sidewalks. It took us until Sunday to discover that biking was the best way to get around this town.
But our more offbeat adventures came thanks to the proprietor of the studio apartment we rented for three nights through Airbnb.
We lucked out with our host in absentia, a young photographer coincidentally from my hometown, Detroit. Her apartment is in the DZ Bank building, a mixed-use, Frank Gehry-designed structure that houses a bank, a spectacular atrium and 39 residential apartments.
The place felt like home, with her eerily beautiful photos of abandoned Detroit houses and L.A. architect Gehry’s familiar touches. It was also next door to the American Embassy, directly across the street from the Holocaust memorial and a short walk to the landmark Brandenburg Gate.
The apartment complex also stood adjacent to the luxury Hotel Adlon Kempinski, founded in 1907, where even the most basic room for two would have cost us double what we spent on her apartment ($720 for three nights, including the Airbnb fee of $75). Plus, we got a touch of the Adlon experience, anyway: She left us our keys at the hotel’s front desk with a welcoming bag of Gummi bears, which I suspect are not on the Adlon room service menu.
Running on Gummi power, we explored our immediate surroundings but decided to turn to her emails for a dinner recommendation, which led us to the warm, homey Café No! and the crispy-gooey Flammkuchen. Saturday was a mixed bag of our own wanderings, the aforementioned historic sites and our discovery of Lutter & Wegner for an elegant dinner served at outdoor café tables.
On Sunday, we decided that, weather permitting, we would rent bikes. Our host had warned us that Berlin weather was a lot like Detroit weather — wildly unpredictable — but a cloudy morning quickly turned sunny and clear. We also knew our first destination would be to another of her choices: cozy Kauf Dich Glucklich waffle house in the hip Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Its delectable waffles are served with thick yellow custard, fruit, chocolate sauce or the shop’s own homemade ice cream. Like Gummi bears, ice cream seems to go with just about anything in Germany, including breakfast.
We had also decided that we would follow her suggestion to visit Mauerpark and check out the flea market. But we were planning to politely ignore her enthusiastic Mauerpark e-recommendation: “Make sure to see the karaoke — really fun!” Going into a dark bar to hear amateur Michael Jacksons belting “Billie Jean” in German didn’t seem like the best way to spend a sunny afternoon in Berlin.
The endless flea market was fun, but thumbing through old record albums and examining used denim jackets was not unlike something one might do in the U.S. No karaoke bar in sight. While fingering vintage goods we had no intention of hauling home with us, we heard Doors music wafting through the air and decided to wander over to discover the source.
We stumbled onto something that, in retrospect, seems pretty hard to miss: A 2,000-seat amphitheater surrounded by lawn seating, which every Sunday hosts Bearpit Karaoke.
No dark bistro filled with wannabes here: This scene was a hybrid of Woodstock, a concert at the Greek Theatre and “Germany’s Got Talent,” if such a show exists. Onstage, between two large wooden speakers that looked as if they’d sell for 20 euros tops at the flea market, magic was happening before our eyes.
We found standing room on a grassy hillside, where patrons lounged on blankets. Bearpit founder and host Joe Hatchiban held court onstage alongside what we later learned were battery-powered speaker boxes.
To the cheers of the wildly supportive audience, a man with silver curls and mustache crooned “What a Wonderful World” in German. A shy young woman got more applause than she probably deserved for her hesitant rendition of a pop song. Another male singer went Johnny Cash in a black western outfit and hat and offered a medley of German-language country music. And to the lyrics of “Let’s Dance,” a youth in plaid shorts lighted into a solo dance routine, repeating what looked to be the only step he knew.
By email, Hatchiban told us that the free-of-charge karaoke takes place, “depending on the suitability of the weather,” from sometime in the spring to the end of October, although agreeable weather sometimes allows karaoke into late November or early December.
On our last night, we made the mistake of ordering a large sampler of meats and sausages at a beer garden right around the corner from Lutter & Wegner, where we should have returned for another meal. Was that pink rubbery stuff in the middle really food? Still, we’d had enough Gummi bears, karaoke, waffles and fun to make even the Cardiologist’s Nightmare Plate taste pretty good on a rainy evening in Berlin.
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