Monday, 1 June 2009

Sloughing off the misery of Heathrow

Given my hopes for the Berlin trip from a culinary viewpoint, it could hardly have got off to a worse start.

Although, to be fair, that wasn’t anything to do with Berlin or even Germany, but the grotesque experience that is Heathrow airport, multiplied by having to spend around three hours at the utterly dreadful Terminal 3 before actually being able to get on board our plane to head out.

Heathrow is an airport I attempt to avoid wherever possible. It was a salient reminder of why. Crowded, impersonal, utterly homogenised and like a winding, airless maze.

And the food was … well, how polite do readers want me to be?

Once stuck in the terminal, we ate at a Weatherspoons, one of a large chain of industrialised boozing joints throughout the country.

I ordered a chilli con carne. Well, that’s what it said on the menu – going so far as to claim that it was made with quality beef. There was simply the little problem of whether one could actually find any beef in the dish when it arrived.

Frankly, it looked rather like a bowl of liquid shit, and seemed to be a thick meat-flavoured gravy, with barely a hint of any pieces of meat to be found and a few kidney beans at the bottom, served with “yellow” rice (let’s assume it was artificially coloured, since one can hardly imagine the company going to the expense of using genuine saffron) and some nachos.

It filled a gap.

After what seemed an awfully long time, we landed at Tegel: straining to see out of the window, I was calling out sights as soon as possible – there was the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and sure enough, there was the Berliner Dom, the city’s Lutheran cathedral.

Suddenly, everything seemed to speed up – we were at the hotel on the Friedrichstraße, just down from Checkpoint Charlie, and, having unpacked, ready to enjoy the evening sunshine that had greeted us.

Maps had suggested that it was a long walk from the hotel to Unter den Linden, but we strolled up Friedrichstraße to get our bearings. Near Französische Straße, my bearings suddenly took a huge boost – looking down a street, I could see St Hedwig’s Cathedral. Which means Bebelplatz and then Unter den Linden.

Heading in that direction, we passed a most interesting restaurant – Gendarmerie – and made mental notes.

Wandering down Berlin’s famous boulevard toward the Brandenburger Tor, my excitement built. Seven years earlier, on our previous visit, the gate had been shrouded for restoration. I’d not seen it.

And so we bumped into Germany’s big birthday party – the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Bundesrepublik. The other side of the gate was a heaving mass of Germany humanity, being entertained by live acts on two vast stages.

We took in the atmosphere for a while, enjoyed a first beer, and then headed off into the darkening night to find food – proper food.

Realising that our hotel was very much in an area that has become dominated by government offices and businesses, we were beginning to wonder if we’d have to order sandwiches from room service, when we happened to almost run into a large group of Bavarians in costume – full lederhosen etc – just boarding a coach from Maximilians, a Bavarian restaurant.

First, they were still open. Second, they had a speciality menu of spragel – asparagus – just as I’d read about before the trip.

Delighted, I enjoyed my first white asparagus (beautifully presented, bundled together and tied with a fine strip of leek) and a wiener schnitzel, which was moist and very tasty. And hardly surprisingly, the beer was excellent.

After the misery of Heathrow, the trip was finally underway in style, and the stress of that experience simply sloughed off.

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