Archive for May, 2012

Berlin: crossing the wall

The last time I was in Berlin I had too much to drink. The resulting hangover meant that there was still a lot of the city which I didn’t get to see. With this is mind I arrived in Berlin determined to see as much as possible.

It was late afternoon by the time I checked into the Odyssey Globetrotter Hostel which is about a 15 minute walk from Ostbahnhof Station. Having been on a train for most of the day I was pretty tired and hungry so I headed out in search of something to eat and drink. Where ever you go in Berlin you are spoilt for choice when it comes to food. All along Warschauer Strasse and the connecting streets there are a huge number of restaurants offering anything you could possible want. It’s all very cheap as well and the portions are large. You can pick up a good quality pizza or kebab for 4 or 5 euros.

The following morning I headed out into the city. One of the great things about Berlin is the public transport system. It’s incredibly easy to get anywhere in the city using the trams, subway or buses. A day pass can be purchased for around 6 euros and give you unlimited travel.

My first point of call was the East Side Gallery which is situated alongside the river and stretches from Ostbahnhof to Warschauer Strasse. It is a section of the Berlin wall which has now be claimed by graffiti artists. Artist is certainly the correct word to use. These are not just simple tags, but huge murals. You really have to see it to fully appreciate the time and effort that has been put into some of these pieces. In England the local council would have cleaned it up by now at great expense to the tax payer, but fortunately the Germans have more sense than that. They recognise the political significance of the Berlin Wall and the art that accompanies it. And it’s a pretty big tourist attraction for those interested in seeing the “alternative” side of Berlin.

From there I hopped on a train and headed over to Alexanderplatz. When I was last in Berlin 10 or 11 months ago they were doing a lot of construction at Alexanderplatz, so I was disappointed to find that very little progress had been made. Perhaps it’s part of some elaborate job creation scheme which just involves digging up and relaying the roads for no particular reason. Upon arrival the first thing you will notice is the huge ugly concrete television tower. It dominates the skyline and can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city. You can pay to go up the tower which has it’s own restaurant and bar, but it’s expensive and I’m sure you can find better places to eat within the city.

There is also a small park at Alexanderplatz but this too had been ruined by diggers. At the far end of the park and on the banks of the river is a statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. On the opposite side of the road is the impressive looking Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral).

Just next to the Cathedral is the DDR museum which is well worth checking out. It’s a self confessed “interactive museum” meaning you can touch a lot of the exhibits. The subject matter is East Germany under Communist rule. Great for anyone with an interest in history or politics. In terms of size the museum isn’t very big, but there is a lot of see so it’s worth setting aside two hours.

Other obvious points of interest are the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. You can either get there by subway or if you don’t mind a 20 minute walk it’s easy to get to from the Cathedral.

I’d seen the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag on my previous visit to the city but has somehow managed to miss the Holocaust Memorial even though it is only a 5 minute walk away. At a first glance the memorial looks like a collection of grey concrete blocks, which to be fair is a totally accurate statement. It is the kind of memorial that people will either love or hate. The blocks however vary greatly in hight and you can walk down in between them. The best way to describe it is like a concrete maze.

Another sight which I missed last year was Checkpoint Charlie. As the name suggests it is a checkpoint which divided the America and Russian controlled parts of Berlin after World War II. I was expecting something pretty grand with watch towers and machine gun posts, but it’s pretty much just a hut. A dull white hut. Stood outside were two very German looking guys dressed up in American army uniforms. If you really want to you can have a photo taken with them for 2 euros. Needless to say I did not take them up on the offer.

After I’d been sufficiently underwhelmed by Checkpoint Charlie I walked to Topographie des Terrors. It’s a free outdoor museum which focuses on the rise of the Nazi party and what happened to Berlin during World War II.

Berlin is one of Europe’s most vibrant cities and is fast becoming a favourite of mine. There is so much to see and do (and drink), and I’ve probably missed out a tonne of stuff in this blog post. From an architectural stand point Berlin is far from being Europe’s most beautiful city. But what it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in its character.

Pro Tips:

Use public transport. It’s cheap and efficient. Berlin is huge so it take a really long time to walk anywhere.

If you like fast food check out “Burgermeister”. It is located under the railway next to Schlesisches Tor station. It’s only a small place and the only seating is outdoors. The building itself is what used to be a public toilet, but don’t let this put you off they do some of the best (and largest) burgers anywhere in Berlin.


15/05/2012 at 5:26 pm Leave a comment

Cologne: back on the road

It’s great to be back on the road again even if it is only for three weeks this time. Having a full time job means that I can’t take three months off like I did last year.

This time I’m travelling alone which adds a whole new dimension to the travel experience.

Cologne was the first city that I decided to visit on the mini tour. Prior to my arrival I knew very little about the city and only really picked it because I thought it would be easy to get to be train.

My journey began early on a Saturday morning with a ride on the EuroStar to Brussels. I had planned to arrive in Brussels and almost immediately jump on another train to Cologne. However my plans were scuppered by the notoriously inefficient Germany rail network who arbitrarily decided to cancel the train. Thanks I.C.E.

It was an agonisingly long five hour wait until the next train. I could probably have jumped on a train to Liege or Maastricht but I couldn’t be bothered twatting about with connections.

To make matters worse I didn’t have any euros with me. Only a credit card. Prior to my departure I had called the nice people at Santander (other banks are available) to tell them that I would be travelling to Germany, Czech Republic and France in the hope that they would not block my card. I had deliberately missed Belgium off the list as I did not plan on spending any great length of time there.

I.C.E however had different ideas and made the executive decision that I would be spending the whole afternoon in Brussels-Midi. This meant a call to the bank so that I could withdraw some money and buy something to eat and drink.

I hate phoning the bank to ask for anything. The service is fine and everything but I always get “the fear” that I might fail security and have my card blocked. What if I accidentally forget my mother’s maiden name or the name of my first pet? I’d be stuck in Belgium with no food and no money and no prospect of ever returning home. I’d be one of those homeless people you see in Europe rooting through bins for empty bottles so they can take them to recycling points in exchange for money (or more beer).

Getting back on track. I passed security, had my card authorised for use, withdrew some euros and bought some food.

Eventually a train arrived as well and I headed off to Cologne. Some other people on the platform had been waiting around all day as well which made me feel a little less shit about the situation.

It was around 8pm by the time I arrived in Cologne. Much to my surprise the main train station is situated right next to Kölner Dom, the large gothic cathedral which is one of Cologne’s main points of interest.

From there I headed to Barbarossaplatz and the Black Sheep Hostel where I would be staying for the next three nights.

After checking in and dumping my stuff in the room I headed out in search of something to eat and drink. I met with a couple of German guys who had travelled over from Munich for the bank holiday weekend. Cologne is a major university town and pretty hip and happening by all accounts. The area around Barbarossaplatz in particular is home to many bars and restaurants.

Drinking on the street is very much the done thing in Germany. Go into any corner shop, buy a beer and the shop assistant will open it for you. You could never operate a system like that in the UK. Someone would definitely get bottled in the face. Beer is Germany is really cheap as well. You can get a large bottle for around €1.50 which further adds to my belief that cheap alcohol prices in the UK are not the problem. Anyway, that’s a subject for another day.
On my first full day I went for a walk in one of Cologne’s many parks close to the university. The weather was superb and many people were out having barbecues, cycling or playing football. Coming from a relatively small town the equivalent at home would be gangs of teenagers drinking Smirnoff Ice in the park on a cold Friday night.

In the city centre itself I paid a visit to Kölner Dom. Amazingly it survived the second world war whilst most of the rest of the city centre was flattened by allied bombers. Consequently the cathedral now really stands out as a great piece of architecture amongst all the modern buildings.

A walk along the river Rhine is well worth it. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants although they are a lot more expensive then anything in the rest of the city. Another point of interest is the Hohenzollern Bridge, a train and foot bridge which crosses the river. All along the fencing between the train track and the footbridge people have attached “love padlocks” with their names engraved. How cute.

In the evening I headed back to the hostel and met with a group of Canadians who had travelled over to Europe to watch the world ice hockey championships. Later we were joined by a lone Australian who had been travelling the world for the past year. After exchanging stories over several beers we headed out for some traditional German bratwurst and sauerkraut.

04/05/2012 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment