A memory of bygone times in a modern world
My first visit to Berlin was in December 2016. I arrived the fateful day that a truck was deliberately driven through the Christmas market in Breitscheidplatz.
In my blissful state of newsless oblivion (I rarely ever check the news when I’m travelling) I got up in the morning and headed over to Breitscheidplatz to visit the market. After all, one of the main reasons I was in Berlin was to do some serious christmas shopping. The scene when I arrived was more than sobering. I could see the roofs of market huts over a wooden barrier, but there was no way through to them. The streets were eerily quiet and the road was filled with police and camera crews instead of cars and cheery christmas shoppers. I wandered confused and a little lost, wondering what I had walked into, until I overhead English voices quietly discussing the events. After a short, enlightening conversation with the owners of those English voices I wandered on, away from the market, away from the confusion and chaos, unable to move my mind from how I had been just scant 15 hours from being in the wrong place at a very wrong time.
It was going to take more than a few deep breaths to try to process the news. Coffee and a little time to think seemed in order. In my pocket I had a slightly dog-eared piece of paper with a list of things to see in Berlin. It had been given to me by a dear friend who lived in Berlin for a while before I met him. One of the places he insisted I should visit was the Cafe Kranzler, only a few minutes walk from the Breitscheidplatz. The iconic 1950s rotunda with its red and white awning was impossible to miss against the backdrop of a huge glass wall towering sixty metres high behind it. The Neue Kranzler Eck, designed by brilliant architect Helmut Jahn and built at the turn of the millennium, now surrounds the well-preserved Café Kranzler like a shield, protecting it from the march of time.
The main part of the old building is now a Superdry store, with an elegant spiral staircase rising up from that bastion of modern culture into the past. Stepping into the circular cafe was wonderful and such a surprise. The light and airy circular space was a complete contrast to the dark modernity of the store below, with the 360° balcony that runs around the cafe offering striking views of Berlin. The scent of freshly ground coffee filled my senses as soft jazz music floated quietly through the air, calming and relaxing me. It was still too early for lunch, but I couldn’t resist a slice of deliciously crumbly carrot cake to accompany my coffee. I chose a seat by the window, looking out over Kurfürstendamm, watching the city as it slowly pulled itself back together on that cold, quiet morning.
When it was time to leave I headed towards the spiral staircase, but one of the waiters gestured to me and showed me to an elevator. He told me to take that way down and head out through the side entrance because there was something in the back yard that I should see. I was most bemused, but followed his instructions. I walked outside and found myself in a beautiful, small oasis in the shadow of the huge glass tower of Neue Kranzler Eck. Centred in the garden were two tall pyramid-shaped aviaries with over 80 species of bright and exotic birds from almost as many different countries. The brightness of their feathers was so surprising and welcome. I sank to a seat and watched them strutting and fluttering and showing off with a huge smile on my face.
I have no idea why the waiter sent me back down to the streets that way, but I was so grateful that he did. Had he sensed that I was needing the peace and lightness of the birds to cheer my spirits that morning? Maybe he often sends travellers down that way to share the surprise of the aviaries. Whatever the reason, I was grateful to him for the gesture.
The timelessness of Cafe Kranzler and the beautiful surprise of exotic birds singing in the cold morning air were just what I needed to buoy my spirits on that strange and historic day.