The Fernsehturm and Park Inn Hotel on Alexanderplatz

There were 52 channels on the television, but only one of them was in English. It was one of those obscure American news networks with names made up of lots of Cs and Ns. They were showing a debate on the merits of legalising marijuana, which promised to go on for some time and not reach any real conclusions. With nothing better to distract me, I switched off the TV and reluctantly started unpacking my suitcase. All of a sudden, a terrifying scream shattered the peace. It sounded like a woman’s cry, but I couldn’t be sure. A split second later, a body fell in front of my window. 

We had just checked in to the Park Inn Hotel on Berlin’s famous Alexanderplatz. It was an impressive forty-one storey building, constructed as a symbol of Soviet power and, during the communist era, the jewel in East Berlin’s crown.

My room was on the 29th floor and looked directly across the square towards the city’s iconic TV Tower or Fernsehturm. I was half concentrating on hanging my shirts while taking in the views of the city. That’s when I heard the scream and saw the body fall, like a lead balloon, right outside my window. I ran across the room, shocked and expecting the worst. Looking down to the concrete square, I could see the woman below me. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that she’d be bouncing up and down on a bungee rope!

I felt relieved – if a little foolish at having overreacted. I learned later from a poster in one of the twelve lifts that the hotel offers a “high adrenaline base flying experience” from a platform on the 40th floor. It seemed bizarre that they didn’t mention this at check-in, and I made a mental note to speak to the Manager. Some of my group were in their late seventies and might not survive that kind of shock!

The Pope’s revenge

Alexanderplatz was teaming with people making the most of a sunny Sunday afternoon. From my room, I could hear broken laughter and the tinny thud of music coming from a beatbox. On the far side of the square, S-Bahn trains rolled back and forth across red brick arches, stopping briefly at the station before continuing on their way towards Potsdam. Behind the station, the TV Tower dominated the skyline and cast its long shadow back towards the hotel.

The tower stands 368 meters above the square and is crowned with a stainless steel dome that resembles a giant silver golf ball. When sunlight strikes the dome, it reflects in the shape of a perfect Latin cross. The Soviet architects tried desperately to prevent this reflection, fearing that it would be seen as a symbol of Christianity. Their efforts were in vain, however, and the cross quickly became known by Berliners as ‘The Pope’s Revenge’.

The Popes Revenge reflection on the Fernsehturm

There is a rotating restaurant inside the dome, 207 meters above ground level, where you can enjoy dinner with fantastic views over the city. I once asked a waiter how quickly the restaurant revolves. He told me that it depends on how busy they are. The more people that are waiting, the faster it turns. I guess people time their meals in terms of the number of rotations completed.

Bitte or Bitter?

I met my group at 7.00 pm for dinner in the hotel’s Humboldt’s restaurant. There was a superb buffet laid on with a choice of fresh salads, cold meats, seafood and pasta plus a range of hot main courses. It is always a relief when meals are served buffet style, as you know everybody will be happy. I wouldn’t like to guess the number of evenings I’ve spent pleading with restaurant managers and chefs to prepare last-minute alternatives for guests who “never touch pork” or “can’t stand the smell of fish”. As someone who will eat just about anything, it amazes me how fussy some people are with food. And when it comes to gluten-free, dairy-intolerant vegans, don’t even get me started!

Tonight, at least, everyone was spoiled for choice, and I could relax and enjoy my dinner with them. The restaurant manager Karl showed us to our seats and introduced our waitress Anja. She was a thick-set girl who was well over six feet tall and had spiky blond hair with a died red streak running through it. Anja had a typically “germanic” service style which some of the group interpreted as rudeness. She would whisk empty plates away and slap unrequested drink bills onto the table without any of the usual pleasantries. Her limited grasp of English didn’t allow for friendly small talk. Bluntly she would state “Eleven euros funfzig” – or whatever the total was – and stand there silently waiting for payment.

Karl Is Not Impressed

One of our group took particular exception to Anja’s manner. He was an outspoken Scouser called Gary who’d already had several run-ins during the tour. Before leaving the restaurant, Gary decided it was his role, on behalf of the group, to make their feelings known. He walked up to Karl with his chest puffed out like an angry rooster. “I have to say, I have never met anybody as rude as that waitress in my life” he griped. Karl – who stood a good six inches taller than Gary – looked down at him for a moment before calmly replying: “She is my fiancée”. I was fully expecting Gary to retaliate to this, but he seemed to accept Karl’s response as if it was a totally adequate justification. Sheepishly, he headed for the elevator, muttering under his breath all the way.

Anja’s behaviour didn’t offend me at all. Maybe the two years I had spent working in Germany allowed me to see beyond their uber-efficient and sometimes frosty style. There was a glint in her eye that suggested she was probably great fun, once you got to know her. As I was leaving, I noticed Anja sitting at a table with Karl, so I went over to say “Vielen Dank” for looking after us. She nodded, and pointing at the cup in front of her, invited me to “join her in a Muckefuck”. Fortunately, I knew this was a kind of coffee alternative with dubious origins that is inexplicably popular in Germany. I declined politely and smiled to myself, imagining how Gary would have reacted to her offer.

The Skateboarding Dog

It was late October, but the weather was exceptionally good for the time of year. I had offered to take the group for a wander around the local area so we could make the most of the balmy evening. A good fifteen or twenty people decided to join me, and we met in the Lobby in front of a small kiosk selling every kind of bear-themed souvenir imaginable.

The bear has long been the symbol of Berlin, having featured on the city’s original coat of arms. In the last 10 or 15 years, however, they have become ubiquitous. You can’t walk more than a few hundred yards downtown without coming across a large fibreglass bear. Each is uniquely painted in cheerful colours to represent some cause or organisation or event. The idea came from the States – of course – following the New York “Cow Parade” in 2002. Cow parades are a thing all over the world now, but Berlin has stuck soundly with their bears.

We left the hotel through the back entrance, which leads directly to Alexanderplatz. The square was still buzzing with activity, even as night began to fall. Groups of teenagers sat around on the concrete steps talking, listening to music and laughing. A hippyish man with dreadlocks and Khaki trousers was wandering around shirtless, accompanied by an English bulldog on a skateboard. It was quite a sight to see the pooch standing confidently on the board using his stumpy legs to propel himself forwards. He had attracted a sizeable crowd of people enthralled by his skills.

Skateboarding dog on Alexanderplatz

Is That a Sausage on Your Head?

Suddenly, an eerie silence fell over Alexanderplatz, and moments later, the TV Tower lit up in an explosion of colour. Psychedelic neon animations started cascading up and down the tower in stunning contrast to the night sky. We stood and watched for a good ten minutes before deciding to take a closer look. Making our way through the crowds, we soon realised that other buildings were being given a similar treatment. Pastel colours bathed the gothic St Marienkirche church as well as the magnificent cathedral and all of the buildings on Museum Island. 

The Fernsehturm lit up for the annual Berlin in Lights festival

I stopped to ask a Bratwurst vendor what the show was in aid of. He explained it was the last night of the annual “Berlin in Lights” celebration. Buildings all around the city had been illuminated to become stunning, candescent works of art. The young man had a large tray of sausages, buns and various condiments suspended in front of him by thick straps passing over his shoulders and around his back. It was an ingenious contraption that allowed him to walk around selling sausages wherever hunger struck. He was also wearing a felt hat shaped like a hot dog sausage sandwiched between two buns. Judging by the perspiration on his forehead, it was an uncomfortable attire, and I admired his dedication to the craft. I bought a can of Pepsi cola to thank him for his help and his service to the hungry of Berlin.

We spent the best part of two hours wandering the streets of Berlin that night admiring the beautiful displays. Sometimes you find yourself – entirely unexpectedly – amid something special like this. These fortuitous events serve to make an already great trip even special and, for me, are what makes travel so incredible.

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