Berlin was our last city stop where we would get any time to explore. Neither of us had visited the city before and we had done very little research about what there was to do. So, guided by a bunch of leaflets grabbed from the tourist info at the train station, we decided to try out an underground tour which sounded quite interesting.
This involved taking the Underground “U” trains to Gesundbrunnen station in the north of the city to the offices of Berliner Unterwelten to stand in line for tickets for one of the tours. I was a bit annoyed at this point, because it seems unnecessary to have people spending their holiday time standing in line in the day and age of online booking. But we only waited for about 15 minutes, and managed to get booked onto an 11am tour called “Dark Worlds”, which explored a World War 2 air raid shelter located right beneath the station.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed on this trip, so I just have a couple of us descending into the tunnels.
My annoyance at having to queue soon passed as the tour unfolded, and it turned out to be a great way to spend a morning. The one and a half hour tour was spent with a really excellent and engaging guide who was full of fascinating stories about the air raid shelters which were used to protect women and children, and there were many objects on display in the tunnels to help understand what the conditions were like then. Parts of the tunnels are coated with phosphorescent paint so they glow during a power outage, and there was a lot of information about the massive rebuilding effort that was required to reconstruct Berlin. (The number of railway wagons of rubble stretched end to end would circle the equator twice). Towards the end of the tour there also was a short exhibit on the hydraulic post system that was previously used in Berlin for rapid delivery, and some information about the breweries that were once located on the higher land surrounding the city. My favourite fact of the day was that the name of Berlin derives from “swamp” because it is located on marshy land and so it is extensively pumped by a network of pipes visible all over the city.
It turns out that this short tour had set us up with a mine of information to start a day of exploring, and if you are ever in Berlin I would highly recommend checking out this company. They also had a tour on the cold war which we could not get on to. The money from the tours goes towards their organisation which is dedicated to underground archaeology.
After this tour, and the most expensive toilet stop in the world….(sorry Sani”fair” I had to highlight this- I don’t know why you think your bathroom is worth a whole one Euro!), we headed back to the city centre to try to see the city’s “must-see” sites.
First stop Museum Island, on the river where there are some really impressive buildings- including the Bode Museum (photo for Leslie). Also the Jewish synagogue.
Many of the older buildings in Berlin have had to be restored or completely rebuilt after the war, and there are hundreds of pock marks from shrapnel peppering them.
On the way to the Bundestag, we stumbled by accident onto the city’s only remaining flak tower, also extensively marked. Much of the war infrastructure including most of the underground bunkers that existed and flak towers like this were destroyed by the allies to try to eradicate Nazi infrastructure and demilitarise the area. It’s easy to understand why this happened, but at the same time there is a massive amount of history that has also been erased alongside it. The flak tower is sealed off to the public, but rather strangely seemed to have what looked like an apartment right at the top of it.
Just up the road we crossed a bridge towards the massive Bundestag building, with the Tiergarten park next to it, which was milling with tourists. It was great to get some sunny weather for this part of the trip, although we opted not to go up in the massive dome which is also accessible.
We wandered around the gardens with memorials to Roma victims of the Holocaust and to the Russian soldiers and made our way to the Brandenburg Gate. Also extensively restored after being almost completely trashed by the end of the war, it was quite easy to see which was the old stonework, and which had been rebuilt.
The road through the gate was tourist hell, with numerous overpriced souvenir shops, but when we stumbled upon the “Europa Experience”- a free museum dedicated to explaining all about the European Union, we felt like it would be rude not to pop in under the circumstances. There was a bunch of displays, including some cool maps and, quite impressively, a mock up of the European Parliament where you can sit and learn about how European laws are made. I have to say that, as well done as this display was, it’s pretty hard to make European law interesting, especially when you are subjected to footage of Nigel Farage delivering a speech. It’s clearly not yet been updated to capture recent events.
I left after posing for the requisite cheesy Euro-propoganda photo in the special booth for geeky tourists. The EU has played a pretty important role in my life, having provided the funding for a 2-year Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship placement in Denmark in 1998, without which I would probably not be doing the job I am now. This one’s for you Nigel.
All of this tourism had made us a bit thirsty, and so as we found ourselves by the river on a sunny day, we settled in at a place called the Ständige Vertretung which is a brewery from Cologne famous for its kölsch beer. This was a really nice beer…very clean taste…. served in disappointingly small glasses, but we tried to get on board with drinking beer the German way. After a few of these, the plan for later became a little more freeform.
I had a vague idea of where to find a veggie restaurant, and we wandered around a fairly interesting part of town, but we ended up in a sports bar watching Germany play Qatar at handball. Trying some slightly less clean tasting beer.
Eventually we settled on a fairly upmarket restaurant called Mani for dinner which seemed to have decent veggie options, and was a short stagger away from the sports bar. The middle Eastern influenced food was really great- including an aubergine in tahini sauce, tomato salad and a beetroot salad.
The walk home was long, wandering through the streets getting lost (like all good geographers) and with me moaning about how cold it was. We got some great views of Berlin by night though.
Next day, we wanted to learn something about the wall, and we had a few hours before our train to Brussels was booked. So, we wandered a few hundred metres down from our hotel to Checkpoint Charlie. There is a good display here explaining the political context for the construction and removal of the wall.
It seemed like there was no need to pay to go into the museum next door, and we also decided to pass on the 360° wall theatre experience. This place has been turned into a theme park. The actors posing as American soldiers for you to have your photo taken with them seemed particularly tasteless and, rather aptly, there was MacDonalds positioned right behind the gurning fools.
One quick trip around the Gendarmarkt, and it was time to travel to the Hauptbahnhof station to get our train to Brussels.
This was the most expensive ticket so far- at around 180 Euros each. We had to change at Aachen on the Belgian border, through the agricultural regions and industrial landscapes of the Ruhr valley. We were wondering what exactly we would be getting for our money. It turned out we were getting something pretty similar to a train you might find in the UK. Same sort of seat booking system (we had no reservation because we booked late, so just had to take what we could…at one point I ended up sitting on the floor). It was quite a good reminder of what we could expect once we were back on British trains. Amazingly…for the first time in the entire trip we had a 30 minute delay due to an accident on the line. Not what I expected in Germany.
They delayed the connecting train for Brussels for 5 minutes so we could catch it.
Brussels was having a party when we pulled into Midi station. Nice under other circumstances, but quite distracting when you are looking for a hotel in the middle of this.
It seemed as though the hotel had prepared our room especially…
It’s our last day of travel tomorrow on Eurostar to Brussels early morning, and then from London to Beeston (straight to the Queen Vic). The challenge is on for the East Midlands trains….18 trains so far….will the 19th one be on time?