Thursday, 18 August 2011

Days 19-20: Berlin

The train from Prague to Berlin is around four hours, so we caught the earliest train we could (8:30am) to arrive in Berlin for a reasonable time. We didn't have reservations, meaning we had a bit of a scramble to find seats and had to split up, but I was fairly grateful for the downtime after the marathon amount of walking in Prague.

Berlin also marks the start of what is sort of the final third of the trip, with us being back inside the Eurozone, and quite pleasantly also being back inside countries where I can read the language. My knowledge of German is, in itself, quite poor, but it's close enough to English and I apparently have enough of a grasp of it that I can usually fill in gaps well enough to read signs and notices. Plus I know how to pronounce German when I see it written, so I don't have to worry when reading from menus that I'm saying it completely wrong because I have no sodding clue how diacritics work when they're on a 'c'.

We got into the massive Berlin Hauptbanhof station, had around a mile and a bit walk to our hostel, which was just off Friedrichstrasse, and then straight off headed towards the Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg gate.

The Under der Linden is to a large extent Berlin's equivalent of the Champs Elysees. It's a fairly wide road completely lined with expensive shops, and in particular car showrooms for companies like Mercedes and Bugatti (actually Volkswagen, but nobody really cares about those cars). At the end of the Linden sits the Brandenburg gate (arguably Berlin's answer to the Arc de Triomphe, but not quite so much).

We pootled around the Brandenburg a bit before making a move to the Reichstag. I was in Berlin a couple of years ago with my parents (and as a result I'd already seen pretty much everything we visted in Berlin, and had a decent enough memory of the layout of the city to serve as our tour guide for the weekend) and the Reichstag was one of the more memorable parts. When I last went, and when Nick last went, the system was that you queued for a fair while outside (about half an hour), entry was free, and you got a reasonably good audio tour along with a great view of the Berlin skyline.

Unfortunately, times have changed, and whilst it's still free, entry to the Reichstag now requires you to book three days in advance. The first we'd heard of this was when we tried to go in, so we hadn't booked, and given we were only going to be in Berlin for around 48 hours we didn't really have the option to book either. Definitely something to be noted for anyone heading to Berlin.

From the Reichstag (which is at least reasonably impressive from the outside) we headed to the Holocaust memorial. The memorial itself is striking enough - a series of concrete blocks arranged out across an undulating floor. The idea is that it's meant to leave you disorientated and unsettled, and it does a reasonable job. What I didn't remember from last time was the museum underneath the memorial (free), though we didn't spend too long in there on account of already being fairly holocaust'd out from Auschwitz.

That said, we apparently hadn't had too much of the horrors of the Nazi regime, as our next stop was the Topography of Terrors, which is a partly-outdoors museum (also free), with the outdoor part essentially being a timeline of the Nazi regime, and the indoor part being quite a detailed exhibition on the SS and Gestapo (last time I went this was still being built and everything was outdoors). We spent a while there, but it really has an absolutely huge amount of information to read, and we didn't really have the stamina for it. You could easily spend a good three or four hours there if you wanted to read everything.

From the Topography of Terrors we headed back to the hostel via Checkpoint Charlie, again more outdoor reading, although this time about the Berlin wall, so at least post WWII.

The next day started with the Berlin Guggenheim gallery. Tickets are €3 for students, but they were running some sort of two-for-one scheme so it was half price each. This was less of a conventional art gallery, with the exhibition consisting entirely of videos. Some were good, others less so, but for the price it was hard to really put it down.

Our next main target was the East Side Gallery, which meant either a huge walk or an S-Bahn, so we headed for the S-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz, seeing the various sights on the way of the Humbolt University, the book-burning square, and the Berlin Dom. The square itself is pretty nice too, and contains the massive TV tower.

The train to the East Side Gallery was something I remembered fairly well from the last time I was in Berlin. The gallery is a huge series of artwork all painted out on a section of remaining Berlin wall which is just over a kilometre long.

Once we'd walked the entire stretch of the gallery, we took the S-Bahn from the Ostbanhof station to the entire opposite side of the city to see the Gedächtniskirche. The Gedächtniskirche is a church which was heavily damaged in the bombing of the city in WWII, and has been kept in ruins, making for quite a striking building.

This was again something I remembered fairly well from the last time I was in Berlin, and I got extremely confused when we got to the place I could swear it used to be, and it wasn't there. I reckognised all the buildings in the area, especially an octagonal chapel adjacent to the church, yet the church wasn't there. Instead there was a tall white building where I was expecting the church to be.

It took a good couple of minutes (and getting right up to the base of the building) before I realised that the huge tall white building actually was the church, only covered with what has almost certainly been the most ridiculous display of scaffolding we've seen all trip. The proportion of tourist attractions we've seen which have been draped in scaffolding has been high, but this one made it literally unrecognisable.

(there's a church under that, apparently)

We went inside, because the inside was at least visible. We then made a short walk to the KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe (the largest being Harrods). Except it was Sunday, so it wasn't open, giving us a second fail in ten minutes. The trilogy was completed by the fact that the entire Tauentzienstraße was a huge building site, so the nice gardens through the centre, and in particular the Berlin sculpture, which we were somewhat keen on seeing, just wasn't there. So altogether not a particularly successful excursion. On the bright side the Europa Centre was open, so we got to see the huge water-clock in the middle of it (called 'The Clock of Flowing Time')

(this is what the Tauentzienstraße looks like when it isn't a building site)

We sat in the Tiergarten and relaxed for a while, before walking back through the Tiergarten to the hostel - a fairly reasonable walk. It did include an excursion to the Berlin Victory Column, which was definitely bigger than I remember it being, and some of the carvings and decorative pieces on the column itself are really impressive.

Not long after leaving the Victory Column, the heavens opened, and the rest of the walk was through some of the heaviest rain I think I've ever had to be outside in.

Back at the hostel the rain was still unrelenting, and we ended up eating at a Vapiano, because it was close and the menu seemed cheap. We didn't really have any idea what it was, but it works differently to any restaurant I've been in before (and it took us a while to figure out exactly how things worked). You get given little RFID cards, you go up to a kitchen and you order what you want. It's then prepared in front of you, you swipe your card and what you've ordered gets added to it, and then you take your food back to the table. Pizza has an advantage because they give you a little handheld thing that lights up when it's ready, but for pasta you have to stand up and wait.

It was a good amount cheaper than eating anywhere else, and the food was good, but I'd definitely go for pizza next time, because standing up for around fifteen minutes (mostly spent in a queue while other people have their food made) whilst hungry watching food being prepared is definitely not as enjoyable as sitting at a table and waiting for your food to come to you.

From there back to the hostel for a few drinks in the hostel bar, and then bed for an early start for our (six and a half hour) train to Amsterdam the next day.

1 comment:

  1. Shame about the Reichstag dude but well done for a complete absence of the 'p' word. I knew you could do it.

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