It took twelve trains to complete our journey from home, near Solihull in the West Midlands area of the UK, to a number of central European capital cities and back again in September of this year. If I recall correctly, the idea grew out of a notion to visit Vienna and the holiday escalated from there. The party comprised our friends P and B, my wife and myself. We had a number of planning meetings earlier in the year, which culminated in B expertly booking all the train seats and hotels in one session.
On the 14th September we caught a local train to Solihull and thence to London Marylebone and made our way to St. Pancras for the Eurostar to Brussels, arriving in the early afternoon in time for our connection to Cologne where we arrived just after 4.00 p.m. Almost 800 km on day one.
The evening proved warm enough to sit outside one of Cologne’s famous drinking establishments named Fruh, a bar, brewery and restaurant that has been in existence near the massive cathedral for just over 100 years. We soon tuned in to the method of serving beers at Fruh. Waiters cruise the tables wielding circular containers that carry about ten empty or full glasses of foaming beer (brewed on the premises), each full glass containing one-third (I think) of beer.
As soon as any one of us put an empty glass down on the table, it was rapidly replaced with a full one. This procedure continued until we had almost drunk an intemperate amount of beer and only ceased when we learnt that placing one’s (marked) beer mat on top of an empty glass signified (to the staff) that one had had enough beer. It was a very convivial evening, topped off by our moving inside to partake of our first sausage-oriented meal of the trip. The restaurant was busy and buzzed with diners eating and drinking (yet more beer). Our jolly waiter, a short, rotund middle-aged man, served us with efficiency and offered advice as to what was what on the extensive menu. As he went about his business among the tables, he amused himself and diners with snatches of Queen songs, most notably ‘Radio Gaga’.
Our introduction to the prominence of beer and meat in the diet of German diners proved to be a very satisfying evening at Fruh.
We had time to look around the vast cathedral before catching our train to Berlin the following morning. The sheer scale of Cologne cathedral made an immediate impression on all of us. We would be retracing our steps to London via Cologne in due course, so we looked forward to another look at this magnificent building on our way home.
A fast journey of about five hours brought us to Berlin. I think it was on this trip that the DB (Deutsche Bahn) train achieved 200 km per hour in places.
After checking in to our hotel, we purchased a group travel pass and caught a bus to Potsdamer Platz, an area of modern buildings in central Berlin, from where we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most well-known landmark in Germany. This triumphal arch is built on the site of a city gate and looked very impressive bathed in golden light at dusk.
The next day we used the circular (hop off and on) tourist bus to get a sense of the size a layout of Berlin and to identify points of interest to visit during the next two days.
It soon became apparent that Berlin had almost been completely destroyed in the last days of the Second World War. Hence there are large areas of the city that have been rebuilt in modern style, whereas other buildings have been reconstructed in their original style. For example the Reichstag building, which housed the German parliament between 1894 and 1933, was severely damaged by an arson attach on 1933 and after the Second World War the building fell into disuse. Its full restoration was facilitated by German re-unification in 1990 and Norman Foster’s reconstruction, so that today the Reichstag includes the shell of the original building, which embraces Foster’s parliament hall, topped by a glass dome. A visit to the dome afforded us a 360-degree view of the surrounding cityscape.
The Reichstag is near the Brandenburg Gate, opposite that is a vast park, the Tiergarten, which runs west towards the city borough of Charlottenburg, where our hotel was located.
Also near the Brandenburg Gate is the Holocaust Memorial, an open area of almost 3,000 grey concrete blocks of differing size, arranged in a grid pattern on an undulating area. The sounds of the city seem to fade into the background as you wander around this simple but effective monument. The next image (also taken on my iPhone) shows one of the deeper alleyways of the grid.
It was a highly rewarding experience to spend time in the city where the ideologies of East and West collided, resulting in a city divided by a wall for almost thirty years. It was, therefore, rather disappointing to find that Checkpoint Charlie seemed to be ‘manned’ by fake soldiers for the benefit of tourists: “rather naff”, was our collective opinion. Despite the inappropriateness of this aspect of Checkpoint Charlie, its significance as the most well-known crossing point between East and West Berlin was not lost on us, as the sentry box and road signs signifying entry or exit from each part of the city are extant. The eastern part of the city is still somewhat of a project in progress, as evidenced by the forest of cranes visible from the dome of the Reichstag.
The other physical manifestation of the once-divided city was, of course, the wall. On our second day, I opted to spend some time taking photographs at a lengthy section of wall that has been kept as a monument, while the others went to an art gallery.
Spending time on my own next to a section of this intimidating structure was a very emotional experience, lightened by a visit to a car park across the road that was populated with Trabant cars. An automobile manufacturer in the former East Germany built these vehicles.
Unfortunately I failed to see the “Do not enter” sign on the open gate and found myself locked in. (The gate must have closed automatically after I wandered in to take some photographs.) How would I explain to the others if I failed to meet them at an art gallery later in the afternoon? Eventually I spied a couple of guys at the far side of the car park and pleaded with them to be let out.
“We can’t let you go; you will have to stay,” said one of them. “If you collect a T-shirt from the guy over there, you can work here.” And we are given the impression that German people don’t have a sense of humour. It turned out that I had wandered into Trabi World (http://www.trabi-world.com/). Needless to say, they showed me the way out and I met the others without further incident.
The principal reason why we met was to visit the Neues Museum on Museum Island and view the 3,300 year-old bust of Nefertiti. This object is, IMHO, just about the most beautiful image of feminine beauty that I have ever seen. Her face mesmerised me for several minutes.
Overall I was surprised and impressed by the size of Berlin, with its wide boulevards and splendid modern and reconstructed buildings. It is a wealthy city in a wealthy country: a great city.
Bruce Springsteen sings a great version of Wizz Jones’ ‘When I Leave Berlin’ at the opening of one of his concerts in the city:
(Wizz Jones was on Cerys Matthews’ Sunday morning BBC Radio 6 Music programme a few weeks ago; he was thrilled that The Boss had sung his song.)
Next time: Prague and Vienna.