Well, in short we have been pretty busy over the last two weeks. After returning from our weekend in Bremen, we jumped in the car and drove to Den Haag (The Hague), in Holland to visit one of Kerstin’s university friends, Caro, who is working there on a placement in one of the EU ministries. The place surprised us and we enjoyed it, finding it modern and pleasant. It is set right on the coast and nearby has some nice long beaches, which at this time suit a good wrapped up walk along the beach. We missed out on the nightlife, being quite tired after the weekend, but from what we heard, Den Haag has a great deal to offer. It is also not Amsterdam, so you get to see a bit more of what “real” Holland is like! We had a nice time with Caro, who was kind enough to put us both up for the two nights and we vastly enjoyed chilling out drinking beers, playing cards and hanging out.
After returning from Holland we had a weekend here and then went on our scheduled trip to Berlin. Courtesy of Kerstin’s brother we had two nights in a suite staying in the Marriott on prestigious Potsdamer Platz. Our other two nights were to be spent in a hostel “roughing it”!
We went to Berlin by train. The drive, though direct, is a long 6 or 7 hours from Dortmund, and after driving back and fore to Holland, I didn’t fancy it. We struggled to find cheap train tickets to start with, but lucked out with 1st class tickets at bargain prices (cheaper than the standard priced tickets) and with a journey time of 3 hours and 15 minutes it seemed to be the best way to get there, since flights seem to have become exorbitant recently to go anywhere! The journey there was a pleasure and we travelled at an average 250kph (155mph – get that British Rail!) and we arrived sooner than we had expected into the famous Zoo station in the centre of Berlin.
We made our way to our hostel called “The Circus“, which is one of two by the same name. Ours was the smaller one on Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse and it was a really good hostel. It was quite quiet and had a mix of young interrailing types and some older budget travellers, which I guess we are ourselves! The place was very clean, although a bit of a maze, the staff were very helpful and if anything could be said to be annoying, it was the showers, since you have to keep pressing the button to keep the water flowing. Very environmentally friendly though – thumbs up!
Our first afternoon and evening was spent wandering around Prenzlauer Berg, the place to be for the more alternative back when the wall had just come down. It was part of what was then the Soviet sector, and then the former DDR, and many of the buildings retain that crumbling, failing, unattended look that summed up social communism under the former East German regime. More recently become the place to live, and is the more trendy and cool part of Berlin. Great bars, cheap good food, fantastic one off clothing shops, no big brands and cool clubs all permeate through this area, and must be visited!
For the next day, we had planned to do a walking tour of Berlin, and we planned to go with Brewers Walking Tours since they offered an afternoon tour which takes about 4 hours. Early in the morning I was sitting in the reception of the hostel and the guy who’s namesake is “Brewer’s Walking Tours”, the one and only Terry Brewer, walked in to pick up people for the all day tour. Twigging that it was Terry Brewer, someone I had heard was quite an institution in Berlin and almost one of the landmarks himself, I enquired about the afternoon tour. To cut a long story short, we ended up taking the all day tour and rushed to catch up the group outside the Jewish Synagogue. If you are doubting which tour to take, I’ll be plain and simple – take the all day tour with Terry Brewer! It is brilliant and you will not see everything in 4 hours! You can walk for 8 hours easy, you get to stop for food, and the pace is leisurely. We had a fantastic time and I cannot recommend it enough!
Terry takes the all day tour himself, and is extremely knowledgeable about the city, after being posted to Berlin during the cold war, where he promptly started to show friends and embassy staff around when they came to visit. You will be amused at how everyone in the street seems to know him, his knowledge of geography is awesome and how he is greatly entertaining and thoroughly British to the core. The presence of Kerstin, a native German, I think was enough to calm down his jokes about the Germans, but they were still quite apparent!
Berlin is truly a fascinating city. The fact that it was once a divided city is visible but much of that is starting to disappear under the weight of a dynamic and changing population. It has history popping out of every nook and cranny of its ancient foundations. From the Prussians, to the Third Reich, to the Cold War, Berlin has it all, and you feel the history in everything you see. You also feel the pain the city has gone through. Many of the buildings, especially in the former DDR are still war damaged, unfixed from 1945, when Berlin fell to the Russians, and the sight of shrapnel and bullet marked walls is quite evident in the older parts of the city.
Our next day was a big move into the Marriott and we had been looking forward to it, since we had a whole suite to ourselves. Kerstin’s elder brother, Jan, had gifted Kerstin with the stay last year, and we had been planning our trip for quite a while. The Marriott sits on Potsdammer Platz, in an area that is filed with high rise hostels and office blocks in the centre of Berlin, which ten years ago, did not exist. After the wall came down, the area where Potsdammer Platz is now had been the wall and the various barbed wire fences and minefields, but then once the wall fell, the cities architects found something quite unique. They found a large amount of prime real estate, in the centre of a major capital city, which they could plan and build on to their hearts’ content! And that they did. Potsdamer Platz is impressive, there is no doubt about that, but it is dry, and generally characterless. The hotel was fantastic and we lorded it up in the Executive Lounge, took full advantage of the pool and the sauna too. Be prepared though, as us British find it a bit weird when people walk into a sauna starkers, but in Germany, as with most other European nations, nudity in the sauna is as normal as Brits drinking pints of beer and taking the piss out of “the bloody French”!
We went shopping on the penultimate day, and I bought some new trainers (Adidas Chile 62) to those of you with trainer fetishes, and wondered around parts of the city we had skipped by on Terry’s Walking Tour, but wanted to see again. We sat out for quite a while and enjoyed the sun in Alexander Platz and then went back to the hotel before going out for a few drinks at one of Berlin’s many bars. We didn’t stay too late, and went back to the hotel knackered!
The last day was spent in Friedrichshain, the new place to be seen. All the alternative people that started off in Prenzlauer Berg, started complaining that the “trendies” had moved in and had started to do things like re-render the walls of the houses and put central heating in, so they skipped east and went to Friedrichshain. We spent the Sunday morning wondering around the flea market there and enjoyed seeing the various people wondering around there too. A lot of people look like traveller and squat types, most seemed to be not from Berlin, but then many people aren’t who live in Berlin. Mongrel dogs were aplenty and dope could be smelt wafting in the brisk Sunday morning autumn air.
We stayed as long as we could, before we took the U-Bahn back to the hotel and onto the Zoo, making the train with minutes to spare. We got some funny looks from the posher first class travellers, since I looked like I had just been to a squat party (hoody, unshaven, etc.), but jabbering on in English just seems to get me that look of “oh, he’s just British, scruffy yes, but just eccentric like all the Brits”, which is often how many Germans seem to see me!
Berlin retains an alternative energy compared to many cities I think. It has an air of rebellion, of anti-normality. It seems to pride itself on a people who are not followers, but individual and down to earth. The people we met were friendly and helpful and did not seem to have that snobbish attitude many Londoners seem to have. We loved it and look forward to going back. Many of the museums and galleries we missed and they all looked good. This visit was really just a taster I think!
Photos of Holland and Berlin are now on the site too and be found in my online Photo Album . For information about Berlin, I highly recommend WikiTravel.