An early start on the 01:38 train from York got me to Manchester airport just after 4 am for the 07:00 EasyJet flight to Berlin Schönefeld airport. It was my first time visiting Germany, although it’s always been somewhere I’ve wanted to visit. We (Pimoroni) were travelling to Berlin to attend Maker Faire Berlin for the second year running.
Maker Faire Berlin
This year, Maker Faire Berlin was being held in Station Berlin, a former postal railway station. Arriving on the Thursday morning to set our stall out, the emptiness of the two large halls made it apparent just how large the venue was. The hall that we were in was curved, I guess to fit the curve of the former railways tracks, while the other hall was more rectangular in shape.
Our boxes, full of merchandise and display materials, were already waiting there for us, and it took us about four hours to get everything set up. Our stall was next to James Mitchell’s (and friends’) Raspberry Jam Berlin stall, that was full of fun demos, some of which featured our products, such as a set of Mote lights, the colour of which could be controlled by a Skywriter, and a Unicorn HAT running a Game of Life simulation.
I’d put together demo boards for some of our products and, like James, I chose to feature heavily those with blinkenlights because who can resist the lure of blinkenlights? We had demos of Mote, Unicorn HAT, Micro Dot pHAT, Display-O-Tron HAT, and Automation HAT. We also had a Picade set up with some retro games loaded up, which ended up being very popular with the kids.
Friday was an education day at Maker Faire, with kids and teachers browsing the various stalls. Saturday and Sunday was the Maker Faire proper, and both days were jam-packed. The Saturday ended up being the busier of the two days, although only slightly, and the rainy weather on the Saturday probably aided that. On our stall, everything sold well, although Pi Zeros and the Raspberry Pi Starter Kits were particularly popular. Many of the German customers buying Pi Zeros were telling us how awkward it was to get hold of them in Europe, hence their popularity.
We held workshops on both days, teaching how to solder the 40 pin header onto a Pi Zero, and these were over-subscribed on both days. They ended up going down well, I think, although it was hard to tell how many wanted to learn how to solder and how many just wanted to get their hands on a Pi Zero!
There was an amazingly diverse range of stalls. I had a bit of time to browse them on my lunch break, and there was everything from 3D printers (lots of them) to midi controller gloves, and papercraft lampshades to robotic knitting machines. Highlights for me were the flea market electronics stall with heaps of vintage volt meters and oscilloscopes, and the make your own silver ring workshop (which I did!)
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Maker Faire Berlin. The venue was fantastic and, most of all, the incredible range of different stalls and activities going on really made it an exciting and special weekend.
Pasta, pens, patches, and popsicles!
On the Thursday afternoon, after we’d set up our stall, we ended up at a little restaurant for lunch that specialised in Schwäbisch maultaschen, essentially big ravioli filled with meat and vegetables. I went for the vegetarian option - one parcel with tomato and mozzarella and one with spinach and ricotta, with a tomato and paprika sauce. It was served with mashed potato with onion, vinegar and lashings of melted butter - pretty filling!
After that late lunch, we headed to a lovely little shop in the Friedrichshain area called Schoene Schreibwaren that sold leather goods (made in a workshop at the back of the shop) and stationery. I got myself a little Kaweco Al-Sport fountain pen and a leather pencil case.
We also stumbled across a quirky little shop called Werstück Flickli that sold nothing but iron-on fabric patches, with pretty much anything you could imagine on them, from spooky skeleton cats to Mexican wrestling masks. I ended up buying a few, and even made a return visit to buy a couple for my wife.
A couple of hundred feet away from the patch shop was what I guess you’d call an “artisanal” (I loathe that word) ice lolly shop called Paletas. They sold some really strange flavour combinations like lemon and cucumber, and orange and rosemary which was the one that I had. It was delicious and very refreshing!
That evening, we headed to the Markthalle street food market for dinner. It was a bustling place, full of every sort of food you could dream of - traditional German Kaese Spaetzle (cheese noodles, a bit like macaroni cheese), naanwiches (sandwiches made with naan breads), and spicy kimchee buns. It reminded me a lot of the Boqueria food market in Barcelona, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. I ended the night with a shot of pure ginger juice, which was actually a really refreshing end to the meal - highly recommended!
Computer games, communism, and curry
On Friday morning, we visited the computer games museum on Karl-Marx-Allee, which seemed like a no-brainer for self-confessed retro gaming nerds like us. As well as one of virtually every games console ever made, including some real oddities, they had three or four mock-ups of kids’ bedrooms from the eras of the NES, the Sega Genesis, and the Commodore 64, and a mini arcade with about half a dozen arcade games, all playable.
After that, I had a walk down Karl-Marx-Allee to the TV tower at Alexanderplatz. It really did remind of something out of Soviet Russia - not surprising, I guess - with big, brutalist buildings and Soviet style signage. Although it wasn’t exactly subtle, there was something strangely elegant about it.
I loved the TV tower. I ended up taking photos of it every few steps all the way down Karl-Marx-Allee, as I found new and interesting views of it.
A quick stop at Burgermeister for a delicious Meisterburger (burger, bacon, cheese, fried onion, pickled gherkin, lettuce and tomato, and mayo) was followed by a walk along one of the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall - the East Side Gallery. This stretch of the wall, around a kilometre and a half, has been turned into a gallery of street art. Some of the pieces of art are what you’d consider graffiti, while others are more traditional paintings - a mix of classical and more modern, abstract pieces. The other side of the wall, on the west side, has a photographic exhibition about the history of the wall on it.
In the evening, we went for a rather tasty curry at Khushi, very welcome after a long day’s walking - over 10 miles!
Concrete columns, Checkpoint Charlie, and Croatian cuisine
After Saturday and Sunday at Maker Faire, Monday was Unification Day, a public holiday, with a celebration around the Brandenburg Gate. I’d decided that I was going to do a mini-tour of World War Two sights: the Topography of Terror museum, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews Of Europe (also known as the Holocaust Memorial), Checkpoint Charlie, and the Jewish Museum.
The Topography of Terror was about a 20 minute walk away from our apartment, built on what was the SS headquarters, and next to another short stretch of the Berlin Wall. Outside, running along the wall was a very informative exhibition about the rise to power of the Nazis, with a lot of detail that was new to me. Inside, there was more detail on the Nazis’ atrocities during the war, and on the aftermath of the war and the division of Germany. I found myself literally shaking my head reading about the persecution of the Jews and thinking about parallels in the present day. Heaven forbid we ever find ourselves in a situation like that again.
Just a couple of minutes’ walk away is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a foreboding arrangement of 2,711 concrete columns, slightly offset in a grid, and at various heights. You can walk in between all of the columns, and one thing that I found particularly interesting was that you could walk for quite a while down one passageway without meeting anyone, and then suddenly (and literally) bump into someone. In the middle, surrounded by the concrete blocks and unable to see anything other than the sky above, you could almost forget that you were in the middle of a bustling city.
Checkpoint Charlie, a Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West, was also nearby. It’s a small wooden hut, with a sandbag barrier, American flags, a tall signpost with a Russian solider on one side and an American on the other, and a couple of actors dressed as American soldiers. It’s replete with tacky souvenir stalls selling American and Russian miltaria and you can pay a few Euros to have your photo taken with the soldiers. There’s even a McDonald’s restaurant overlooking it, for the full American experience. I found the whole thing a bit of a disappointment, given that it’s one of Berlin’s most well-known sites.
Although it was closed due to the public holiday, I went to visit the Jewish Museum, not far away from the East Side Gallery that I’d visited earlier. I’d read that the building itself was more impressive than the contents, and indeed it was, so I wasn’t hugely disappointed that I couldn’t see inside. It’s a modern building with lots of concrete and metal cladding, and windows at jaunty and slanty angles, strangely reminiscent of parts of the Scottish Parliament buildings.
That evening, we ate at a Croatian grill restaurant where you could eat your own body weight in meat for less than ten Euros. I jest… but there was a lot of meat. The strangest part was that the pieces of meat were served with a hemispherical piece of onion filled with some sort of flaming spirit on top. I had a slow-cooked pork rib stew, which was delicious.
Flat whites, Finland, and photography
On our last full day in Berlin, we visited the Nordic embassies, near the Tiergarten zoo, and the C/O Berlin photography gallery; a day of expanding our cultural horizons.
We met in the morning at a small café called Oslo Kaffebar, an unashamedly hipster establishment with upcycled pallet tables, cups and saucers made from recycled coffee grounds, and oat milk flat whites. I had a flat white and a still-melting-in-the-middle chocolate chip cookie. Lovely.
Then we headed to the Nordic embassies. The Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Icelandic embassies are all clustered together, mirroring their geography, with a common connecting building at the centre. The central building is a beautiful three-storey concrete, wood, and glass structure with a central atrium, exhibition space on the first floor, and café on the top floor. There was an exhibition of Nordic design, split into items from each country, with everything from food to clothes to homewares and the ubiquitous salted liquorice!
After a quick lunch, we headed to the C/O Berlin photography gallery, where there were a couple of exhibitions being held. On the ground floor, there was a superb exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks, one of the most well-known black photographers. As well as commercial work for the likes of Life magazine, Parks photographed celebrities like Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few; some of my favourites though were his documentary shots of life in New York neighbourhoods like Harlem. Upstairs there was an exhibition by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin entitled “Don’t Start With The Good Old Things But The Bad New Ones”. Pages from the Bible had words or phrases underlined in red pen, and a relevant photo stuck on the page. I found the whole thing a bit too abstract for my tastes, and much preferred the Gordon Parks exhibition.
On a whim, we decided to eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant called Arirang, despite it being described by one Tripadvisor reviewer as being “like a very dirty North Korean labour camp cafeteria.” The decor, I had to admit, was a bit odd and somewhat dated, but the food was excellent. For those unfamiliar with Korean barbecue restaurants, the food is served raw at the table in a shallow pan on a gas stove, and you get to tend to it as it cooks. We had one spicy chicken dish, and one beef and noodle dish, and they were served with various kimchee - lettuce, cabbage, sweet potato. The smell of the food cooking right in front of you, and the communal aspect really made the experience special, and the food was excellent. We also tried makgeolli, a Korean fermented rice drink, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, and something I much preferred, boricha, a roasted barley tea that was really tasty.
Berlin really is beautiful. I loved how diverse the different quarters were, with distinctive characters, and the sheer number of different things to do. You’d definitely need a good week to do it justice; the three and a half days that I had weren’t enough to scratch the surface, as I didn’t get to see any of the (supposedly excellent) art galleries or the Reichstag, or the Currywurst museum (how could I miss that?!) Still, it gives me a great excuse to go back!