Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!

Trip Start Mar 01, 2011
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Pangea People Hostel

Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Sunday, June 12, 2011

Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin! - Berlin! Berlin! We're going to Berlin! - 2006 World Cup Chant

Brussels

We had an overnight stop in Brussels on our way to Germany. This was necessary, as a direct flight to Germany was horrendously expensive. Since we stayed only one night in Brussels, and our hotel was 5 minutes from the airport, we can't say much about the city. The airport seemed nice, and our hotel did a nice breakfast. Belgium looked nice as well, at least when viewed from the plane window. We’ll be back in August for a proper inspection. Apparently there is a Tintin museum in town, which brand me a child, I believe is a must see. Plus Belgium makes good beer and chocolate, which will keep both Beezel and I happy.

One thing to note, slowly but surely the airport security people are giving me a hard time. Beezel has consecutively cruised through customs/passport control. I haven’t. Most recently at Brussels, the passport Gestapo asked me: 1. Where I’d come from 2. Where I lived 3. How long I was staying in Brussels 4. What I was going to do in Brussels 5. Where I was going to after.

I would have liked to answer as follows:

1.     Morocco
2.     Wherever I happen to fall asleep
3.     As long as I bloody want (whilst waving my British Passport in his face)
4.     Drink beer, eat chocolate and read Tintin comics
5.     None of your business

Of course, I just meekly replied that I was only here for a night on route to Hamburg. But really, I’m getting sick of the mini interrogations. My beard does not mean I’m up to no good. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time until the airport Gestapo take me away to the little white room, slap on the rubber glove and order me to touch my toes.

Hamburg

Hamburg – Germany’s second city and until very recently, the second largest port in Europe (Antwerp now finishes second on the podium) Now everyone thinks this city is just one big red light district, which is not fair. Having said that, I should point out that our hotel was situated above a brothel, and once the moon started to rise, the ladies were on duty on the street corners. This was viewed from our hotel window; I didn’t go in for a closer inspection. Our hotel also won the award for the strangest layout (to date). The floor was in a kind of hexagonal shape. Our room had a nice big bed, sink and shower, but no toilet. And the shower and sink were at the end of the bed, no separate bathroom. If you were travelling with a mate, I hope you are really good mates, because you’ll be copping an eyeful. This is the norm for hotels in this part of town. The design does not allow for a separate loo, so everyone makes use of a communal one.

We headed out on a free walking tour of the city, under a sky that threatened to bucket down rain at any moment. Hamburg lacks true high-rise buildings, save the imperialist 'Ratthus’ (town hall). And whilst all the buildings look like they were built in the 1700s, this could not be further from the truth. In 1842, a fire lit by an arsonist ripped through the city centre and destroyed nearly everything that was standing. It took about 50 years to complete the rebuilding. Of course, 50 years after that, the city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. In late July of 1943, the RAF & USAAF bombed the city for 8 consecutive days, which caused a firestorm. For those who don’t know, a firestorm is when a fire gets so hot, and so large that it generates gale force winds and sucks more oxygen into it’s self. Simply put, fighting such a fire involves waiting for it to burn itself out. Temperatures on the ground in Hamburg hit 800 degrees Celsius (1,500 Fahrenheit); the asphalt in the streets and oil soaked harbour water caught fire. 50,000 died, and a further 900,000 fled the city. The church of St Nicholas was destroyed, save for the spire. Ironically, it was the spire that the allied pilots used as a target to follow. The church was not rebuilt and stands as a monument against war, similar to the old Coventry Cathedral.

Happily though, Hamburg has been completely rebuilt and has remained relatively fire free for the last 60 years. The old harbour is now defunct, as it cannot accommodate today’s large ships. So it has now become home to new trendy/yuppie inspired units, and something of an architect’s playground, with all different styles living next to each other. This is also the site of the new concert hall that is currently under construction. The concert hall is not quite a white elephant, but it is a light beige colour and getting lighter at an alarming rate. The architect who designed it inadvertently spent the entire project’s €28m budget, before any concrete was even laid. The hall was supposed to be finished in 2009, now it looks like it might be completed by 2014. The cost has also blown out to €500m. To top it all off, the building inspector checked it out recently, and bluntly stated that it was structurally unsound, and would fall down if people came to see a concert. Though I’m sure it will look great when (if?) its finished.

We had grand plans to go and visit the large parklands in Hamburg, as well as the nearby WW2 labour camp, but the weather during our visit was not brilliant. So we’ll do these things next time around. I’ve written this section of the blog on route to Berlin by bus. And oh my god, there are deer in the woods next to the road. Little baby deer eating the grass! How awesome.

Berlin

After the ~200km deer spotting bus adventure, we arrived in Berlin. However, the bus dropped us off at the Osterbahnhof, which translates to train station nowhere near your hostel. Hmm. So drawing on all of our mastery of the German language, which was limited to saying hello and ordering beer, we attempted to decipher the maps and platform announcements. This was serious, the Osterbahnhof is the main regional train station, so get on the wrong train and you’ll end up in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Hannover or any other number of German cities. By sheer luck more than anything else, we managed to get a train to the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station, which was only a few minutes walk from our hostel. 

Our hostel took the term ‘new’ to a whole other level. It only opened for business in mid May. Also, our previously booked accommodation had been >€150 more expensive. That was the good news. The bad news was that a number of the facilities mentioned on the website were not yet operational, i.e. the guest kitchen and laundry. The kitchen we could take or leave, but the laundry not existing was a problem. We’d spent the last week in Morocco, then time in Brussels and Hamburg without washing any clothes. Things were serious now, our backpacks were refusing to take our clothes, and our clothes were getting up and walking around on their own accord. The bloke at reception advised us that there was a Laundromat ‘just up the road’. So we grabbed all our smelly clothes and set off. ‘Just up the road’ turned out to be what is usually termed a death march. When we eventually arrived, more challenges: the instructions to use the washers and dryers were naturally in German. The machines were all computerized and overly fancy; I couldn’t even find the slot where one put in your money. Panic started to take hold, I imagined myself smelly for the rest of my life. With the situation rapidly deteriorating into a bad Young Ones episode reenactment, I noticed a control panel on the wall, and worked out this was how you used the machines. Next problem, we didn’t have the right change. So I strolled up to a nearby shop to buy some crap I neither needed nor wanted so I could just get some change. I stood patiently at the counter when the shopkeeper said something in German, to which I just smiled. In case you are unaware, a smile is actually not the global language of good faith and/or intentions. It is actually sign language for "I don’t know what you just said, and I don’t know how to tell you I don’t know what you just said, so I’m just going to stand here and wait for you to serve me, or, conversely wait until you grow uncomfortable with this smiling idiot and call the police". Either way, at least we will have a resolution.

Inevitably, the police did not come, and I now had change. The laundry was then completed without incident, and we began the trek back to the hostel. Hungry now, we were on the prowl for something to eat. We were dubious, Barcelona had been hideously expensive, and there was no reason not to expect Berlin to be similar. We were wrong. We came across this little hole in the wall that did pizzas, kebabs and of course, beer. Pizzas were about €3, beers half that price. We ordered two pizzas, assuming they would be small. Wrong again. They were full size pizzas, freshly made. The beer was of the half a litre size too. So basically, a huge meal for two was around €10, less than the cost of one beer in Barcelona. Things were looking up.

Now whilst I may have complained about the lack of kitchen and laundry at our hostel, I really should mention that it did have an awesome bar located on our floor, literally crawling distance to our room. Beer here was not as cheap as our mate at the pizza shop, but still cheap enough. My heart was warmed when the barman advised me that they don’t do small beer in Berlin, you either drink it by the half a litre measure or you piss off. Beezel was equally impressed by the €5 daiquiris. Who needs a kitchen or laundry when you have a bar? Plus the hostel does a great, all you can eat buffet breakfast for €5,50 that for some reason known only to German folk includes cupcakes, donuts and apple slice. I’ve never seen Beezel spring out of bed quite so enthusiastically at 8am ready for breakfast.

The best way to start off a visit to a new city, we’ve come to realize is by taking a free walking tour. There is a mob that does free tours in a lot of the major cities in Europe. The guides work for tips only. So if they do a crap job, you give them a crap tip. If they’re great, you reward them in kind. So we went on a 3˝-hour walk through Berlin. And it was fantastic. We started at the Brandenburg Gate and visited all the major points of interest, too many to list here. Instead, I’ll list some notable sites:

Ironic Site: The building formerly used by the Luftwaffe (WWII era German Air Force). 90% of Berlin was destroyed in World War II. Funnily enough, the German headquarters for their airforce went unscathed.

Humorous site: Brandenburg Gate. Atop the gate, there is the ‘Goddess of Victory’. Formerly the Goddess of Peace, in 1806, Napoleon conquered Berlin and stole the Goddess. Fast-forward 8 years, the Prussians have defeated Napoleon, took back the Goddess, renamed her after victory and put her back atop the gate. Even today, the Goddess stares down at the French Embassy.

Solemn sites: Everywhere, Holocaust memorials for the Jews, communists, homosexuals & Gypsies. Military memorials for fallen Red Army comrades. Memorials for all those who died trying to cross from the east to west during the cold war.

Cheesiest site: Checkpoint Charlie, the embodiment of a tourist trap. No resemblance whatsoever to the long demolished, actual checkpoint.

Prophetic site: The square outside the Humboldt University where in 1933, the Nazis decided the best way to save on heating bills was to burn a whole lot of ‘non-German’ literature. Back in 1820, Heinrich Heine, a Jewish poet stated that those who burn books would eventually burn people. He was right.

Underwhelming (initially) site: A largely unpaved carpark a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. Not much to see standing there, but if you had a bulldozer handy, you could start digging up the ruins of the Fuhrer Bunker. This is the spot where Hitler waited for the end, and where he was hastily cremated after killing himself. Spooky.

Reality Check sites: A number of the older buildings throughout Berlin, where you can make out the numerous bullet holes and artillery damage that has since been repaired.

At the end of the tour, we tipped our guide €20. He really was excellent, and he knew all his stuff. And, all modesty aside, I would know if he was wrong on his facts. We continued on after the tour was done and checked out a few more sites before grabbing something to eat and heading back to the hostel. All up, we walked the city for nearly 11 hours. We went up to a viewing deck on top of a building on the Potsdamer Platz for a bird’s eye view of the city. Berlin is a remarkably low city, with most buildings less than 10 storeys. This one was around 25 floors high, with entry only €5. Of course, there is also the enormous TV tower with revolving restaurant and other crappy tourist traps, but entry to this attraction costs approximately 1 kidney2. So we settled for Potsdamer Platz. Mind you, using the loo at the viewing deck incurred an additional €0.50 fee. This is fairly standard across Germany, Spain, and parts of the UK.

However, Berlin compounds this problem by having a distinct lack of cash machines/ATMs. Unless I’m going blind, I could not find an ATM within 3 blocks of the Brandenburg Gate. We went for lunch on the hope that the café would accept cards; otherwise there would have been the potential international incident of two Australians ducking the bill at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berlin. At least the British Embassy was strategically located within sprinting distance. But back to the pay toilet problem. I was concerned that if we couldn’t locate an ATM, you’d remain penniless, and thus unable to procure the services of a pay loo. Berlin appears to be a liberal city, but I doubt they would turn a blind eye to tourists squatting in the gutters.

We had decided to visit the DDR Museum the next day. DDR of course stands for Democratic Deutsche Republic and was the old East Germany. The title in itself is a bad joke. Firstly, there was nothing democratic about it; the same party ran the show for 40 odd years. Secondly, it was not republic, the country toed the line successively demanded by Joe, Nick, Lenny, Yuri, Con and Mick (the Soviet leadership). The only truly honest thing about name was the Deutsche part. Anyway, the museum was supposed to be worth a look, and entry was only €6, so off we went. First up, the place was very busy, which made it somewhat difficult to check out the exhibits. But the exhibits were fascinating. Life in the east involved everyone having a job. Unemployment was basically 0%, which is interesting considering that next to nothing was really manufactured in the country. Maybe the fact that ~20% of the population fled the country prior to the wall going up in 1961 contributed to the full employment.

Then of course there was the Trabant or ‘Trabi’ exhibit. The Trabi of course was the East’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. The Trabi was technologically obsolete from pretty much the day the first one rolled off the production line, but that didn’t stop then producing them until after the wall came down. The 600cc, 2 stroke engine (!) got you to 100km/h in 21 seconds, but that was okay, because it topped out at 112km/h, around about the time when the car started to fall to pieces. The affection for this car was evident by the jokes attributed to it:

Why does a Trabi have a heated rear window? So you can keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.
How do you double the value of a Trabi? Fill up the petrol tank.
What is the difference between a Trabi and the flu? You can get rid of the flu.

Seriously though, the Trabi was a kind of cute car. They’re kind of becoming a collectible, with people turning them into limos, convertibles and the like. Back in the day, if you were a high ranking East German, you might have been lucky enough to get a more classy car, a big black Volvo. I think I’d have taken the Trabi.

Before I degrade the former East German state any further, I should point out that in a number of ways, they were ahead of a lot of western nations, even today. The school system involved sexual education from a young age and the pill was free to all females from the age of 16. Equality between the sexes, at least in theory was encouraged, with no restrictions on what industry women could work in (this was in the 1960s). Recycling was strongly enforced, and gardening was greatly encouraged, to the extent that at its peak, 25% of the nation’s citizens listed gardening as their favorite hobby. Newly married couples received interest free home loans to assist them in starting their life together. So it obviously couldn’t have been all that bad. From a western perspective, the strangest exhibit was the one regarding the East German currency. According to economists the country suffered from a ‘money glut’. That is, everyone had money, but there was nothing to spend it on. So the government had to open these shops selling fancy food items to entice people to spend money. I can’t imagine that would happen in a western, capitalist nation!

Our final full day in Berlin, we decided to brave the Berlin Bahnhof (efficient, all encompassing, but horribly confusing) and go and visit Sachsenhausen, the Nazi concentration camp 35km north of Berlin. Neither of us had heard of this camp, but it, for the lack of a better word, this was an important centre for the Nazis. The SS built a ‘training camp’ here. Apparently, one needed to learn how to run a concentration camp. Mass extermination isn’t easy. One of the first camps, and something of a model for future designs, Sachsenhausen was used to incarcerate and later murder Jews, Roma, regular criminals and in particular Russian POWs. Around 200,000 people went to Sachsenhausen, over half of them never left.  The camp had all the hallmarks of the Nazi extermination programs: beatings, hangings, mass shootings and the inevitable gassings and crematoriums.

The camp also had the medical experiments, as well as what can only be termed as ‘extreme field tests’. In one case, prisoners were made to wear prototype army boots of different materials. Then they had to walk around a circuit of different surfaces to test the durability, whilst wearing 30 pounds of weight on their backs. The normal daily ‘walk’ required was 25 miles (40km). This was required in the middle of winter, fed only on rations. The medical experiments also played a part. One human guinea pig was fed a cocktail of pills, and then walked the circuit for 16 hours straight. In 5 days, he only slept for 4 hours. I could continue with the horrific stories, but we would be here for days. And I think we’re all aware of the atrocities that occurred on a broader scale.

What sets this site apart from the numerous others is that after the allies won the war, and the Soviets had captured Berlin, the camp was reopened. Only this time, it was the enemies of the Soviet regime that were incarcerated. The camp was even extended under the new regime, and was operational from 1945 until 1950. Ostensibly, this was to assist with ‘de-Nazification’ of Germany, but the fact remains that by the time the camp closed, at least 20% of the ~60,000 prisoners were dead, and secretly buried on the grounds. The DDR government decided to make the camp into a memorial in 1961, and thought that the existing buildings were inadequate, so demolished most of them (hiding the evidence?). After reunification, the truth came out with former detainees accounts. Recent archaeological digs have proven said accounts.

I guess when referring to Sachsenhausen, it is a very different sort of ‘tourist attraction’. There is information overload; you could spend a few days taking everything in. But this is all overshadowed by the knowledge of the number of people who died here, and the fact that these crimes were committed in the name of two completely different entities, one fascist, the other communist, although both commanded both by megalomaniacs. It remains true, but no less despairing to view the accounts of mans’ inhumanity to man.

Reading the last few paragraphs, I feel I’ve finished the Berlin section of this blog on a decidedly gloomy note. Something Beezel and I have noticed is that at least in Berlin, the German government appears to have made it their mission to apologise for what happened under the Nazi regime. There are memorials everywhere and until recently, it was still frowned upon to wave the German flag, even in their own country.

In all honesty I could carry on for pages and pages on Berlin, but it would not be enough. I will just suggest that you all have to get over here and check it out for yourselves.

Potsdam

Our guide on the Berlin walking tour had told us in passing that Potsdam was a great city in Germany to visit if we had the time. Turns out it is only a 40 minute train ride from Berlin. What did I know about Potsdam? Part of that 1960s film ‘The Great Race’ was set there. And more importantly, the last meeting of the wartime ‘Big Three’ (Churchill, Stalin & Truman – not Roosevelt, he’d died by this stage) was held here. What did Beezel know about Potsdam? Nothing really. So this was going to be a fun day.

First of all, we managed to navigate our way through the ticket buying and train selection to Potsdam, which was a good start. Potsdam actually predates Berlin, being about 1,000 years old. It was also where the Prussian/German Kaisers resided, right up until 1918, when the monarchy fled after the First World War didn’t work out so well for Germany. So the city is full of palaces and other imperial wonders. It is also a major movie making spot, with the most recent film made here being Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’. The city is right now moving at a maddening pace to rebuild a number of the previously destroyed grandiose imperial buildings. This part of Germany was in the East, and funnily enough, the socialists didn’t care much for repairing war torn aristocratic architecture.

Map in hand, we strolled through the streets of Potsdam, admiring the buildings. Greek influenced architecture was very big in Germany in the late 18th/19th century. This was mainly to due to a certain bloke, whose name escapes me, but was universally referred to as ‘The Man’. So modest. Basically nothing could be built without the man giving his stamp of approval. The result is that there are statues of Greek mythological heroes everywhere. To your right, Atlas holding up the world, to your left, Hercules slaying a lion. Behind you, is that a Minotaur in its death throes? I think it might be. Anyway, this is an imperial city, and any misgiving about this fact evaporates when you enter Sanssouci Park. This was the German equivalent of Windsor, and the massive ~2,900,000sqm grounds include no less than 3 palaces, a Roman bathhouse, an art gallery and all the other trappings of the blue blood born. And it is all awe-inspiring. In the 20 years since reunification, the Germans have worked very hard to repair, refurbish and revegetate every single square centimeter of these grounds.

Entry is free to the gardens. To go inside individual palaces incurs a fee, but we were happy to just stroll the gardens. Our last stop was to be the New Palace at the far western section of the park, but the heavens opened and it started to rain. Lightly at first, then rapidly growing heavier. Thunder came next, and we became aware that sheltering under a tree during an electrical storm was taught in stupid things you should not do 101, so we sought safer shelter, without really getting to see the biggest of the palaces. At least we found safe refuge from the rain; along with about 30 other rain soaked folk. Ironically enough, we were all in a structure called the ‘Temple of Friendship’.  Making our way back through the park to the town, it just wouldn’t be a normal day for Besty if he was not asked for directions, usually in some language he doesn’t understand, today, probably Swahili. So it was that an older German couple started jabbering away at me. Cue stupid smile, and head cocking to the left. Then, I said ‘English’, and they smiled and spoke English. We shared our map with them, and then had a bit of a chat. This went well, until the Frau asked what part of the United States we were from. Devastating. New Zealand? I can handle that. American? Less so. We’ve come to realize that outside of the UK, no one can pick an Aussie accent; we all just sound the same.

Our time in the big city has drawn to a close; it’s now time to head to the countryside. We’re imaging rabbits, deer and chilling out at the farm for the next 4 weeks.

Next blog: Tangendorf. (Try finding that on a map, yet to meet a German who’s even heard of it).

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