Berlin is an indisputably cool city. It is the punk-rock, graffiti-artist, high-school dropout of European capitals – the kind of character I am vaguely in awe of, slightly scared of, and will just never be. I was definitely in awe of the city; of its restored sections of Wall, complete with murals and graffiti, of the real-life punks, with shaven heads and hundreds of piercings, of the monumental, soviet, East Berlin architecture. But then, on our last morning in the city, my friends and I discovered Berlin’s oldest district, Nikolaiviertel, and I felt like I had found my little piece of Berlin.
Nikolaiviertel is unmistakably medieval in appearance and character, though most of it has been restored since the Second World War. It is right at the centre of Berlin, between the Rathaus and Cathedral, very close to Alexanderplatz. But its small jumble of streets, just wide enough for a car to squeeze through, are pretty much undisturbed.
Tall, wooden town houses line the streets leading to the Nikolai Kirche – Berlin’s oldest church, and one which shows its gradual development in its oddly different sections, like mismatched jigsaw pieces. The bottom is traditional stone, above is a section of red brick, and finally, there are two copper spires.
Outside is a statue of a bear – the symbol of Berlin. The whole city has capitalised on this with a series of Buddy Bears dotted about town, each bear decorated differently (there’s one at the American Embassy made to look like the Statue of Liberty) but in Nikolaiviertel, they’ve taken a far more nostalgic and charming approach, with souvenir shops selling beautiful, old-fashioned teddy bears.
Each shop along the main street has a different, wrought iron sign; one in the shape of a ship, another in the form of a pipe, some woodland creatures which reminded me of the Musicians of Bremen. Little cafes and biergartens populate several of the buildings nowadays.
It may be a somewhat touristy spot, but on the cloudless, springlike morning we were there, other tourists were remarkably thin on the ground. A family was writing postcards at a cafe table; an old lady browsed the teddy bears. The odd person would pause briefly to read the inscriptions on the church. Otherwise, we had this little fairytale section of Berlin to ourselves.
After just happily wandering for a while, we decided to stop at the cafe where the family had been writing their postcards. There was a table just perfectly positioned in the sunshine, and there was hot chocolate on the menu.
Our drinks came in beautiful cups, along with a divine little chocolate. Because you need chocolate with your hot chocolate. The place was run by a seriously-hot-but-possibly-gay guy, in whose presence we rather melted, so we were pretty much in heaven.
Eventually, after lingering a little longer to look at the triumphant statue of St. George slaying the dragon, we wandered out of Nikolaiviertel, and back into fast-developing, modern Berlin.
We passed a building site, cranes swinging overhead. Rather than the usual boring safety wall, however, there was a photo exhibition all along the side of the site, with pictures of people from all over the world, new and old. One of the pictures was of two women, roughly in their seventies, one with a map and the other with a camera, exploring a new city.
We looked at each other. “That’ll be us, one day!”
We’ve got a lifetime of cities to explore on our February breaks between now and then, but maybe we’ll return to Berlin when we’re old – the city is changing at such a speed that there will be so many new things to explore, even just a year or two from now. But however it develops, however ‘awesome’ and ‘edgy’ the nightlife, I’ll be heading straight for Nikolaiviertel for a hot chocolate in a sunny square. Un-rock-n-roll it may be, but this is my Berlin.
Have you been to Berlin? What was your favourite part of the city?