We arrived early at Gatwick airport, where Andy was promptly given a T-shirt with ‘I LOVE EMILY’ splashed across the front. He does; that’s why we were all there.
A few hours later, the seven of us arrived in Berlin to make the most of Andy’s last days of freedom before the shackles of marriage closed around his ankles. Or whatever shackles do.
Our first activity was a trip around Berlin on a beer bike, an unwieldy but somehow roadworthy vehicle with a set of pedals for everyone, and a local chap in charge of steering. On one side of the bike a beer tap connected to a 60-pint barrel of beer. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and instead of staying on the cobbled backstreets, we headed straight onto the Bundesstraße 96, a six-lane road that cuts through the middle of Berlin. There we caused long snaking tailbacks, all the while pouring and drinking beers. Great fun.
The stag do had been organised via a company who had presumed we would be completely incapable of navigation, so had equipped us with a sullen local guide to show us around. After receiving a scathing look when I asked her name, we found out she was called Ani, and she was from Ukraine. She found her way around Berlin by typing our destination into Google Maps on her phone, and studying the little dot intently as we traipsed along behind her. Every so often she would stop and stare puzzledly at the surrounding buildings, before turning abruptly and walking at quite a pace into the distance, the rest of us frantically trying to keep up. At one point one of us asked how she was “Ani are you okay?” which went down like a lead balloon. We soon decided she was a robot, and that ‘Ani’ stood for ‘Automated Navigation Interface’. Cue much laughter, which baffled Ani even further.
Our hotel for the weekend was the Meininger East Side Gallery, which had all sorts of well-designed rooms for couples, groups and families, and was perfect for a stag do. It was right alongside the East Side Gallery, a 1,300m stretch of the Berlin Wall which has been painted by graffiti artists from around the world. Some of the artwork is a bit hit and miss, but there are a few pieces I really liked.
Day two’s main activity was an escape room, housed in the basement bunker of a former East Berlin DDR building. Upon arrival at the bunker, despite Ani’s directions, we had a Soviet-style briefing in a room with a backdrop of a map of Eastern Europe, and were then immersed in a completely incongruous copyright-dodging ‘Game of Crowns’ escape game, which had absolutely nothing to do with the Soviet Union. We were divided into two rival families, then climbed, crawled, quizzed and connived our way through rooms of clues involving pianos, bibles, mirrors, chess and dry ice. It was good fun, and we escaped with a few minutes to spare, feeling ever so smug that we had beaten the other team to the crown.
After a photo opportunity where Andy was slightly coerced into crowning his brother, we decided it was time for some actual culture, so wandered towards Mitte, the centre of Berlin.
In Mitte, we had a look at the Brandenburg Gate, and agreed it’s fairly useless as a gate, but nice to look at. We also saw the Reichstag, complete with Norman Foster-designed glass dome. Andy’s best man, Pete, had previously attempted to book a tour, but after five emails sent, three PDFs received, six passport details entered, and multiple layers of German bureaucracy hurdled, it turned out it was already fully booked. No idea why they couldn’t just say that at the beginning.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, is an extremely sombre, foreboding place. Which is exactly how it should be. The touristy buzz of the surrounding area is quickly deadened by the vast concrete blocks, and you suddenly feel very lonely. I’ve read that the memorial’s proximity to the German Parliament buildings and foreign embassies is designed to be a stark reminder of recent history. It certainly makes you think.
To add to the cheerful stag do vibe, we also visited the Topography of Terror exhibition, which gives an in-depth account of the people, chronology and of the atrocities from 1933 to 1945. It was a harrowing, moving exhibition with graphic details of exactly how the Nazi party colds and methodically executed millions of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and minorities. Although it’s a bleak place to be, I’d recommend anyone to spend a few hours there.
In need of a bit of a lift, Ani had been programmed to direct us for dinner at Villa Rodizio, a Brazilian restaurant where we had pre-ordered a set menu of ten different meats. This is for a stag who was a vegetarian for much of his childhood, despite a Saturday job on the meat counter at Sainsbury’s. At the rodizio, we were brought platters of sweet chilli chicken, lamb, chicken hearts, chorizo, chicken wing, beef steak, mustard pork and gammon. It was ridiculous, excessive and delicious, and we washed it down with one of the strongest caipirinhas this side of Rio, and slices of flaming pineapple.
By now it was past 11pm, so we headed across the Oberbaumbrücke in search of some nightlife. Kreuzberg is a seedy neighbourhood where drug dealers lurk in the shadows, and shady characters sit in graffitied doorways. The bars are smoky, the booze is bootleg, and every so often the ground vibrates to the beat of an 24 hour underground techno club.
The first bar we found was a place called Banja Luka, where the smoke was thick, and occasionally very herbal. Poor Andy was bought far too many drinks (he is getting married, after all), and was soon belting out moving renditions of Michael Bolton’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ at full volume. It was not a karaoke bar, so we decided to leave before we were asked to.
We headed on to Madame Claude’s, a quirky bar in a side street where, for a reason that wasn’t immediately obvious to any of the group, most of the furniture is glued to the ceiling. We sat in a corner, drank cheap local beer, listened to an eclectic mix of French jazz and German trance, and generally had a great time. We headed back to the hotel for an ‘early’ night at about 2am, but a couple of the group diverted to one of the underground techno raves, getting back to the hotel as breakfast opened. At least it saved them getting a kebab.
I’d been to Berlin on a couple of work trips, but this was the first time I’d properly managed to get out and explore the city. And I absolutely loved it. It’s grimy, creative and dingy in all the right places. Sure, there are sleek marble buildings, polished government modernism and restored churches, and a whole lot of fairly recent history, but Berlin also has a thriving underground, alternative scene, which is where the real heart of the city beats. And it’s brilliant.