The new and cosmopolitan Berlin.....
Trip Start Aug 22, 2011
18Trip End Sep 29, 2011
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I woke up early this morning and decided not to wait for the alarm. I got cleaned up and finished loading my Packs. I left the Hotel about 07:00 for the short trip to Amsterdam Central. I had expected the trip to take at least 15 minutes, but it was actually closer to ten. It was a quiet and reflective ride, as I passed through neighborhoods just beginning to stir for the day. There were a few shops and restaurants open, but most were still dark and shuttered.
Since I had lots of time, I decided to grab a small breakfast at one of the stands in the station. I then proceeded to Platform 10b, and had lots of time for a relaxing breakfast consisting of a Chorizo and Cheese bun, Orange Juice and Coffee. The train departed on time and it was a short 19 minute ride to Hilversum
When the train arrived in Hilversum, it was at the correct platform for my connection to Berlin. I had about a 20 minute wait. I said goodbye to the attractive young lady as she headed off for work (she lives in Amsterdam and her boss pays her commuting costs). I also bought a Ham & Cheese sandwich and a small bag of Potato Chips from a small Kiosk on the station platform. It's difficult for me to visit the dining car when travelling alone, as that means hauling all my luggage with me. If I don't keep watch on my bags, they may not be there when I return from dining (I've seen that happen to other people). The other benefit of buying a snack at the Kiosk is that the price is generally better than on the trains.
The train for Berlin arrived only a few minutes before it’s scheduled departure time, so loading was done very quickly
The train made several stops along the way, with people disembarking and boarding at each stop. The speed seemed to pick up a bit when the train left the last station in the Netherlands. The cacophony of conversations around me were not conducive to a relaxing journey, so I figured this would be a good time to use my active noise cancelling Earphones and my iPod. Listening to some favourite tunes made the journey so much more pleasant, and reminded me how much I enjoy travelling by train in Europe. It’s a dramatic contrast to travelling by air. The blur of scenery passing by the window was punctuated by small pastoral towns and quaint and well maintained houses, with people on bicycles and in cars slowly beginning yet another day in their lives. The gray and cloudy weather was not great for photos, so I didn’t take any for the first part of the journey.
When the train arrived at Bad Bentheim on the German border, there was stop of about ten minutes while the Engine was changed
I figured it would be a good idea to use the long train journey to bring my Diary and Blog up-to-date, as each day on the tour was busy and filled with activities (that I had paid for). I had hoped to be more punctual with the Blog, but as on past trips my intent and reality didn’t always work out.
After updating my Blog and Diary, I had a short nap. The lady and her two daughters had moved to another seat with four seats and a table, but they were now back in their original seats as the others were reserved. I started chatting with them and it turned out that the Mother is from San Francisco and both daughters have recently obtained University degrees. One lives in Los Angeles and the other in New York. They were also going to Berlin, but their journey would be ending at the new and spectacular Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main station). I’ve seen documentaries on how it was built and it’s a very impressive structure (it's partially built on a "Bog", so the engineering was especially challenging)
The train arrived at Berlin Spandau station right on time at 15:04 (that means my total journey would be about seven hours). Although I plan my trips very precisely, there’s always the potential for minor "glitches" and this was one occasion where this was about to occur. I was supposed to transfer to a train from Spandau to the Zoologisher Garten station. Zoo was previously the main station in the city, but has now been replaced by the new station. The name originates from the fact that it’s located right next to the Berlin Zoo (which was apparently also the site of one of three enormous Flak Towers during WW-II).
However, my specified train never showed up so I decided to take a chance and try one that was departing at about the same time. That proved to be a good choice as that would take me to the new Berlin Hauptbanhof. At that point, there was no doubt that I was in Germany, as before the train arrived at each station, a short Bavarian tune with an Accordion would play, prior to the voice announcement. My original plan was to avoid the new station, as it’s HUGE and I’ve never been through it before. In hindsight, this probably worked out for the best, as I’ve now seen the layout of the main station now and I’ll be able to manage fine next time I pass through there
Berlin is the largest city in Germany and the capital of the German Republic. It has at different times in history been the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and the ThirdReich. One of the most significant parts of 20th century history of
Berlin, was the division of the city into four sectors at the end of WW-II, and the subsequent construction of the Berlin Wall. The main industry is tourism, but it's also an important centre for electronics, pharmaceuticals, IT, renewable energy and film productions.
As mentioned, the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main rail station) is massive and is about six stories high, with an enormous glass roof. There are numerous stores and restaurants on the upper floors as well as offices in adjoining buildings, and the locals commonly describe it as "shopping mall that has trains". During the construction, two halves of the upper structure that are above part of the glass roof had to be lowered into place similar in fashion to bridges that are raised to allow boats to pass underneath. This was accomplished by hydraulic mechanisms and had to be done VERY carefully. The two halves fit together precisely and were then bolted together
The train arrived in the lowest level and I although I wasn’t really sure where to find the connection I needed to the area of the city I wanted to go, I used my usual tactic and followed the crowd. I eventually found a Deutsche Bahn ticket office and they provided the necessary directions. The S-Bahn (an elevated train, similar to Sky Train) is on the top floor on Tracks 15 and 16, and the two lines run east and west. It didn’t take long to arrive at Savigny Platz and after getting my directions sorted out with a young lady on the street, I found the Hotel.
The Hotel Clerk on duty, Charlie, provided a brief introduction and then showed me to my room. There were no “checking in” formalities or request to provide my Passport. I decided to have a short rest.
I woke up at about 16:30 and went down to the Lobby to get some information on local restaurants, ATM’s etc. Charlie was providing information to a group of four young ladies, and there was another man waiting for the “spiel” also
By this time I was getting quite hungry, and Charlie suggested a couple of local restaurants. I decided to try a local Pub, Dicke Wirtin’s which was only about a two minute walk across the street from the Hotel. It was a classic old German Pub with lots of dark wood paneling and lots of character, and is frequented by students (there’s a University nearby). I ordered the Beef with fried Potatoes and Salad, along with a draft Guinness. When the food arrived, I was shocked at the portion size but managed to finish it without too much difficulty.
After dinner I decided that a walk would be a good idea, in order to “burn off” some of the dinner. I headed for Bahnhof Zoo using the GPS for directions, as I wanted to get some idea how far it was from the Hotel. That’s where the official “Berlin Walks” tours depart from, which I hope to take in the morning. It took me a good 15 minutes to get there. I had a quick look at the station and the neighborhood and then headed back to the Hotel via a different route.
During the walk I noticed that there were lots of modern office buildings and classy stores in that area, but also Sex shops, an Erotic Museum, a "Videokabinen" (the posters of scantily clad women inside the front door provided some indication of it's function). There appeared to be a few “unsavoury characters” loitering about the station with open Beer bottles but they weren’t a problem. I eventually made my way back to the Hotel, and got a take-out Coffee at a VERY busy Pub next door to the Hotel. I went back to the room to get caught up in internet work.
11 Sept. 10 – Saturday
I slept in until about 07:00 this morning and then got cleaned up for breakfast. I was anxious to see whether this Hotel would have the same type of breakfast fare as my favourite Hotel in Munich.
When I opened the door to the breakfast room, I was greeted with a deafening roar as the room was almost full and everybody seemed to be talking. There were few empty seats, so I “staked out” a spot. The selection on the buffet table was quite extensive, and included not only cheeses, cold meats, slice fresh vegetables, a few cereals and Yogurt and also scrambled eggs
I walked to Bahnhof Zoo and now that I’m becoming somewhat familiar with the area it only took about ten minutes. Even at that time of the morning, the area was bustling with activity with lots of people and vehicle traffic.
The Insider Berlin tours meet in front of the McDonald’s opposite the station and when I arrived there, a large crowd was already gathering. Several of their tours depart at 10:00, so not everyone would be on the Original Berlin Walks tour. I paid for my ticket and of course asked for the “Senior Discount” and saved €2.00 (I’m not sure I like being a “senior” but I’ll take any discount I can get).
The group for the walking tour ended up being over 40 people. The Guide for the tour was Tarek, and he had a bit of an interesting story. He had an Egyptian father and German mother and grew up mostly in New York City. He attended both NYU and Columbia and has degrees in Architecture. He does tours on the weekend as he enjoys it and of course making a few extra bucks never hurts
I ended up in the group with Jessica, along with an Indian couple from Birmingham who had their small son in a Stroller. I got talking to them at it turns out that the husband is an Anaesthesiologist and he’s considering moving to Canada. Of course, I told him that B.C. was the best place in the country to live. Considering the recent difficulties with hiring people in his field, I’m sure he’d have no trouble being accepted at any Hospital.
One of the first buildings the group stopped at was a large and impressive building housing the National Museum. The Guide recommended we see the Museum if possible. While we were listening to her presentation, the Gypsies were “working” the crowd asking people to read a small card which had a crude hand written note on it
We also visited a small building which was a memorial to war and suffering. The building contained a single statue of a mother holding her dying child. There's a skylight above the statue and apprently during rainy weather the statue appears to be weeping. It was a very moving sight!
One of the buildings we visited was Humboldt University which has a history tied to Frederick II (also referred to as Frederick the Great). The Guide related an interesting story concerning Frederick. Apparently he had little interest in his regal duties and tried to escape to England with his childhood friend (and possibly his lover). They were captured near the French border on orders issued by his authoritarian father, Frederick I, and returned to Germany. As the friend was an officer, he was charged with desertion and was to have been imprisoned however Frederick I ordered him executed by beheading. Frederick II was forced to watch the execution of his friend
We crossed the street and stood in a large Courtyard in front of the Law Campus. This was a very historically significant site, as it’s where a Nazi group burned 25,000 books that they considered “un-German” on the 10 May 1933. There was a very subtle memorial there consisting of a square plexiglass plate on the ground. The Guide asked us to look at it from an angle as well as straight on. Looking from an angle revealed a room beneath, filled with empty bookshelves. When looking straight on, the memorial became a mirror so all that could be seen is a reflection. The subtle but powerful message was that we can’t change what happened in the past, but to ensure such events don’t get repeated we need to look at ourselves.
During a stop outside of the Concert Hall, a symphony orchestra began playing (I recognized the tune, but don’t know the name of it - see the video for a short view of the performance). I felt that was a nice touch and appropriate for the location. The Guide did a short dance and then continued with her talk.
The tour passed by a large chocolate shop which had models of the Titanic, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial and other famous landmarks all constructed in chocolate. The models were quite large and must have taken an enormous amount of time and work to make. The Titanic model was at least a five feet in length. We then had a 20-minute break at a small Café on the route.
As the tour continued, we started to see more sites from recent history. We visited the Checkpoint Charlie site (although didn’t go inside the Museum) and we were told about the blockade of Berlin and the Berlin airlift in the '50s. I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of activity when we rounded the corner and stood in front of the former Checkpoint between the east and west. It was a mass of people, tour buses and other activity! I managed to get a few quick photos, but people were constantly in front of the Checkpoint and the two actors dressed in something that slightly resembled U.S. Army uniforms.
As we proceeded away from the Checkpoint, we passed the Trabi Tours offices. The Trabant (shortened to Trabi) was a small car produced in East Germany and had a fiberglass body. Families apparently had to wait as long as 15 years to be able to afford one. It was reportedly not too reliable and makes a lot of noise when driving. The Guide called it the “quietest car in Berlin” as people usually cover their ears when the cars go by. The exhaust resembles a lawnmower engine.
We then visited a site that had a large section of the Berlin Wall still standing
We also visited one of the last buildings of the Nazi era, the Air Ministry which was commanded by Hermann Goering. It’s a strongly constructed building and is apparently where he planned the Battle of Britain. The building is still in use by the Ministry of Finance.
As the tour neared the end, we visited the site where the Fuhrerbunker once stood. The Guide pointed out the locations where the entrances were and the location where Hitler and his wife were cremated. The Bunker has mostly been destroyed during the rebuilding of the city, but apparently a few corridors still remain but are not accessible. The area is now mostly a parking lot with a small plaque erected to mark the location
Our last stop was the Brandenburg Gate, which is very significant. As we approached the gate, the noise and the crowds both increased and the square in front of the gate was bustling with activity. Hotel Adlon is located on the far side of the square, and the Guide pointed out the famous window where Michael Jackson “dangled” his baby over the side of the balcony. The Guide reminded us oft the famous speech that John F. Kennedy made in Berlin, in which he announced "I am a Jelly Doughnut" (he mis-pronounced the German words, so the meaning was entirely different than what he intended).
We had a final brief talk inside the Performing Centre next to the Hotel and the Guide answered questions. By this time it was after 15:00, so it had been a long tour. The group then dispersed. I decided to return to Bahnhof Zoo to have some lunch, and the Guide provided directions on the #100 Bus which went in that direction (my S-Bahn ticket was also good for the Bus). The ride only took about 10 minutes.
Back at Bahnhof Zoo, I had a Burger at a fast food joint and then went across the street to the station to buy a Zone ABC ticket for the trip to Saschenhausen tomorrow, as we’d be using public transit to get there
Now that I know the way, the walk back to the Hotel only took about 10 minutes. I had a short nap and then decided to do some internet work. I wasn’t hungry at dinner but decided to go for a snack at about 20:30. I didn’t know which establishments would be open, but figured Dicke Wirtin’s would be a safe bet. I had a salad with chicken breast strips and of course a couple of pints of Guinness. The food is good with generous portions at Dicke Wirtin’s but the service is at best mediocre. One almost has the impression that you’re disturbing them and they’ll serve you when they feel like it. I had a brief conversation with the girl seated next to me at the Bar, but her English skills were about equal to my German skills so it was a short conversation.
After dinner I visited an ATM in the next block and then stopped at Schwarze’s Café for a take-out Coffee. They’re right next to the Hotel and apparently open 24-hours and also serve food so I’ll probably try it for a meal tomorrow. The location and opening hours are enormously convenient
11 Sept. 11 – Sunday
I woke up a bit earlier this morning to give myself a bit more time to get ready for the tour. When I went into the breakfast room, it was a dramatic contrast from the previous day. There was only a few people there and it was nice and quiet. I got my usual scrambled eggs, cold meats, cheese, Buns, etc. However, the quiet ended fairly soon and the room filled up. Fortunately I was finished by that time. A lot of the people must have had a late Saturday night and then decided to sleep in.
The weather was nice this morning, with clear blue skies and sunshine. That was a nice change from the grey, dreary skies of the past few days. I went back to my room and collected my gear and then started the now familiar walk to Bahnhof Zoo. I stopped at one of the small shops in the station and bought a Ham & Cheese Bun, a bottle of water and some Chips. It was a short walk across the street to sign up for the Sachshenhausen tour. The young lady who provided the tickets was not the one who would be leading the tour, but at the appointed time she led the group to the station for the short trip to the main station, where we would meet the Guide
Our Guide, Derek, was waiting on the lower platforms and it turns out that he’s Canadian and from the Toronto area. On the trip to the camp, I started talking with a young couple seated across from me on the train. It turned out that they were from Southern Spain, and fortunately they could speak some English. They were part of a Spanish tour which was also going to the Camp.
We caught the train to Orienenburg, which was about a 30 minute trip. From the station there, we walked to Sachsenhausen and Derek explained the smaller camps that were set up for a brief period of time in old warehouses, factories, etc., prior to the opening of the Concentration Camps. At one point we passed buildings which used to be a training centre for the SS Guards. It’s now used by the local Police for training. The houses leading to the camp were built for the SS Guards, so that they could enjoy a somewhat “normal” home life, despite the terrible events that were taking place a short distance away.
We entered the camp through the same entrance the prisoners would have used
Sachsenhausen was built as a “model camp” in 1936 using labour from other prison camps. It was loosely modeled on Dachau (just outside Munich) which was the first of the camps - I've also visited there). The camps was designed in a triangle formation, presumably to allow easy viewing of the entire area from any of the Guard Towers. It had the usual electrified fence, topped with barbed wire and a “forbidden zone” of a grassy median inside that. Any prisoner stepping on the grassy area would be shot. Survivors have indicated that some prisoners used either the forbidden zone or electric fence as a way of committing suicide.
In addition to the Barracks buildings, there was also a POW Camp for allied prisoners (who were supposedly treated according to the Geneva Convention), a Workshop (more on that later), a Cell Block, medical buildings and eventually an execution centre fitted with a small Gas Chamber and Crematoriums. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned at this camp
I’d rather not elaborate on too many specifics of the activities that took place there, but will say that the punishment was designed as much for psychological torture as physical torture. When on parade, prisoners had to stand at attention with their heads bowed. Any that dared to look an SS Officer in the eye could expect to be beaten (or worse). The SS used Kapos to administer punishment and keep the prisoners in line. The Kapos were selected from the prisoner ranks, and were often hardened and sadistic criminals. For their “service” they received extra privileges.
When the camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, it was immediately put back in use by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) to hold Soviet prisoners, which included Nazi POW’s and those that didn’t subscribe to the new Soviet Communist philosophy. This was designated as Special Camp 1, and was in use until about 1950. Between 12,000 and 20,000 people perished under the Soviets.
Regarding the workshops mentioned earlier, one of them operated to produce counterfeit English and U.S. currency. The theory was that if the Nazis could flood the market with counterfeit currency, it would destabilize the allied war effort
The tour lasted longer than expected and it was about 15:00 before the group started walking back to the train. There were several U.K. residents on the tour from Scotland, the Lakes District and Essex, so I enjoyed chatting with them. I ate my Ham & Cheese Bun during the tour, as no lunch break was provided. By the end of the tour, I was just about exhausted and my back hurt!
The inside of the rail cars was hot and stuffy on the way back to Berlin, and not the most comfortable but at least I could sit down. During the trip, I chatted with the young lady seated beside me that had been on the tour. She was travelling with her mother and it turned out that they were from a city in southern Brazil. Both spoke English very well, and apparently the girl taught herself to speak English. She had a delightful and melodic way of speaking in the way she pronounced some words, and I quite enjoyed visiting with both of them. They were travelling to Dublin, Belfast and London after this part of their tour and it sounds like they travel a lot
It was a quick walk back to the Hotel and I had a rest for an hour or so and then got ready for dinner. I decided to try Schwarze’s Café tonight, which is two doors down from the Hotel. The Café has a somewhat eclectic and interesting décor. This consisted of a combination of dark plank floors, old brickwork, a some gloss black and gloss red walls, a room divider made from a grill of copper plumbing pipes. They had loud latin music (including the old Santana tune, Oye Como Va) playing, and Servers which sported a variety of piercings, tattoo’s, shaved heads and other “decorations”.
I had the homemade Gnocchi on a bed of Arugula with Bacon, along with a glass of red wine. During dinner the Server mentioned that severe Thunderstorms were forecasted for tonight and eventually he started bringing tables in from the outside patio and "battened down the hatches". The storm “hit” while I was finishing my after dinner Coffee, and it WAS severe! When I walked back to the Hotel, rain was pelting the streets and the night sky was lit up with lightning flashes and the roar of thunder. It was a good night to be sitting inside the Hotel watching high-def TV, even if most of the channels were in German.
After touring for the past two days, I might use tomorrow as a “housekeeping day” and get some laundry done. I also need to buy my tickets for the trip to Prague, so might do that also. If there’s time, I may check out some of the local stores or tour the Topography of Terror Museum. There’s seemingly no end to the sightseeing options here!
11 Sept. 12 – Monday
I got up at about 07:00 today and after a relaxing breakfast I went back to the room, got my Itinerary and headed for a local department store to buy a few items. It was located on Kufurstendam Strasse and an easy walk. On the walk back I stopped at a Currency Exchange office I'd noticed, and bought about CZ$1500 in preparation for my trip to Prague on Thursday (that was about €70). I normally try to avoid Currency Exchange offices as the rates are not generally too favourable. However in this case, I only got a small amount for travel expenses in the Czech Republic until I can visit an ATM.
I then headed for the Deutsche Bahn office in Zoo station. Once again I failed to notice the number dispensing machine in the office, so after waiting for an open window, I was told to go back and get a number
I walked back to the Hotel and gathered my laundry, and then headed for the To Go Laundromat that the Hotel staff had suggested. It was a slightly longer walk, but not difficult to find. As I walked down Uhlandstrasse, I noticed that there were a LOT of Italian (and other) restaurants on that street. The wind was blowing gently and I was treated to a potpourri of food scents from the various eateries in the vicinity.
The girl working at the Laundry was very helpful and set-up the machines for me (the control panel for them looked like something from the Space Shuttle). The Laundromat was large and spotlessly clean. The girl was even cleaning inside the soap bins with a wet sponge, so the machines were clean inside and out!
After putting my clothes in the Dryer, I got talking with a couple from Florida. I had talked to them previously at the Berlin Walks tour on Sunday
We started walking back towards our Hotels, which were in the same direction and as we passed an Italian restaurant, all of us had the idea that it was about time for a meal so we stopped (I hadn’t had any lunch and by this time it was about 16:00). When we sat down the Servers greeted us in Italian and I was surprised that I responded to them in Italian without even thinking about it. I like being able to do that, so I’m going to continue my Italian language studies! We continued our visit at the restaurant for more than an hour over a fine Italian hot meal and then headed back to our respective Hotels.
When I got back to the Hotel and was passing through the garden on the way to my room, I noticed a man and two women sitting there enjoying a box of Wine. Of course I had to stop for a chat, and it turned out they were from Pittsburgh and had just arrived, so were feeling some jet lag. We talked about travel and a variety of other topics for more than an hour.
After my lengthy visits, I eventually got back to my room, dropped my laundry and then headed for Dicke Wirtin’s for a Guinness (they were so good, I had two)
When I left Dicke Wirtin’s, I went back to the room and got my Camera gear and headed out to take some night photos. I walked down Uhlandstrasse and then back on Kufurstendam Strasse. Before getting back to the Hotel, I stopped at Schwarze’s Café for a late-night snack and the place was busy as usual. The musical selection tonight seemed to be vintage Rock & Roll from the '60s.
Although I didn’t get any touring done today, it was a very relaxing and enjoyable day and I didn’t feel that I was wasting my holiday time. I felt like I was “living as a temporary local” for a short time and just taking care of routine activities. I'll carry on with the touring tomorrow.