Bustling Berlin

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

We enjoyed our visit with Ulrike, Heiko and Sarah, but the road was calling once again! Before we left, Heiko presented us with some chocolate, a map of Berlin and a CD of music by an East German country singer. (Martin told Heiko he liked country music.) Our stay with them will be one of our highlights of our German tour.

We were tempted to rent a car in Germany, though there is a lot of heavy traffic, the parking is horrendous and on the autobahn there is no enforced speed limit which is a little scary. Martin has also found that he just doesn't see as much when he drives because he has to concentrate on the road. We decided to take the bus to Berlin. Although it takes about twice as long as the train (six and a half as compared to four hours), it is much cheaper. (Trains offer a 50% discount if you book three days in advance, but I don't know if we'll ever get that organized!)

The bus was large and very comfortable, complete with seat belts - I've never seen them on a bus this size. There was a bus attendant who took tickets and proferred drinks at the appointed time from a little cabinet across from the washroom. She realized we didn't speak German and made a point to repeat the announcements to us in English. It was very thoughtful of her. (Part of our trip to Berlin was on the autobahn - the maximum recommended speed is 130 km/hr, but many people drive faster than that!)

McDonalds and Wal Mart are everywhere - and in Germany, too. From the bus, we noticed their signs like giant sentinels. You often see signs in English or written with some English words. Ulrike said that Germans are using English words more and more. It makes you wonder if someday the whole world will speak only English, or there will be a universal language made up of bits of different languages. (Actually there is, but it's not widely spoken.)

We've noticed a lot of graffiti in the Netherlands and Germany, but Berlin has to beat all! From the moment we arrived on the bus, we saw it on every wall or vertical surface in brash, bold technicolour. Perhaps it stems from Berliners being so politically active; our guidebook tells us that they hold demonstrations for demonstrations in Berlin. There's even a daily "demo report" that lets you know where the demonstrations are taking place and how traffic will be affected.

Berlin, a sprawling metropolis of 3.4 million, is Germany's largest city. It covers eight times the area of Paris. There's so much to see here - so many mammoth buildings of historical significance, museums and parks. More sights than we could possibly see in only three days! (Martin does have a cousin here, but they were on holidays so we didn't see them. Must be a popular time of year for holidays!)

Of course, the moment I got off the bus I had an encounter with a cyclist who yelled at me to get out of the way. I've become a little jumpy around bicycles!

They have the most amazing machine at the bus depot in Berlin to help tourists determine which buses, trams ("S Bahn") and subway lines ("U Bahn") to take to their accommodation. All you have to do is plug in the street name and number, and viola! One bus and three subway trains later we were at our destination! It was as easy as pie! (Really, it was!)

We had difficulty finding a hotel because of the Berlin Marathon that was taking place on the Sunday we were here. I think we managed to book the last twin room available in the whole of Berlin! It was a new hostel in the Kreutzberg area (known for its counter culture and large immigrant population), not far from the city centre for 66 Euros (about $100 CDN) per night with shared bathroom facilities. No great deals to be had here! It was a great place to stay, though - clean, comfortable and the owner, Liane, was extremely friendly and helpful.

Our first night out, we opted to try a German restaurant nearby and it was typically German - lots of food and not much spice! (Even a little salt and pepper would have been nice!) One meal would have easily fed both of us, mine alone was enough to feed two hungry men and a small boy (well, almost). One nice thing is that Berlin is fairly cosmopolitan so there are quite a few different ethnic restaurants. There's a large Turkish community, most of whom emigrated to Germany following WWII. Apparently about 2.5% of people in Germany are of Turkish descent. As a result, you see döner and kebap (kebab) stands all over the place. (Another thing I've had difficulty with here is how late people eat supper. It's often 8 or 9 o'clock before you eat and by then I'm ravenous!)

We decided to purchase a three-day pass for the Berlin public transport to help us get around. The pass also gave us discounts at a few of the different tourist sites. It took us awhile to figure out their system as all buses, trams and the subway lines are overlaid on one map, but once we did, it was quite easy to get from place to place. We shared the job of navigating - I would decide where we were going, Martin would find the line we wanted to take and the stop where we needed to get off and I would ensure we were going in the right direction/exited the right way out of the underground!

One of the first points of interest we went to was Checkpoint Charlie. Following WWI, Berlin was divided into French, American, British and Soviet sections. Checkpoint Charlie was located in the American section in West Berlin, opposite the Berlin Wall and East Berlin. The Museum at Checkpoint Charlie is very interesting (although haphazardly organized) and contains a collection of stories, photos and paraphernalia in a maze of small, stuffy rooms. Mostly, the museum focuses on Berlin after WWII up until the fall of the Soviet Union and dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (Note: The Berlin Wall was actually constructed overnight in 1961 by the East Germans, dividing the city into east and west, to prevent the exodus of its workers.) There are numerous interesting stories (and photos) of escapes of East Germans who tunnelled underground; were smuggled out in cars, stereo speakers, equipment and even hollowed-out surfboards; left by hot-air balloon and glider - and just about any other way you can think of! The museum is also quite successful in putting a human face on the GDR soldiers - how many of them helped people through to the west, risking severe punishment. (BTW - A small piece of the wall - about the size of a Canadian quarter - can be yours for only €5.50 - about $8 CDN - at the museum giftshop!)

It is difficult nowadays to discern where the wall was and which part of the city was which. I think it would have been very interesting to have visited prior to 1989 and have gotten a feel for the way it was. Berlin is now united, though tensions still exist between the have not "Ossis" (East Berliners) and the wealthier "Wessis". Liane, the hostel owner, had a very interesting personal story about the wall. In August 1961, just before the wall was erected, her mother, who lived in West Berlin, went into an East Berlin hospital to have her. However, she heard rumours about the wall and decided to leave find a hospital in West Berlin and had her baby there, just before the wall was constructed.

Besides being known for demonstrations, Berlin also has a vibrant nightlife. There are clubs everywhere; you can hear just about any type of music you want. (I'm not sure about country, though, so Martin might not have been in luck!) Many of the young people at our hostel staggered in not long before we would get out of bed - and then slept the entire day away! There's also a rich gay culture here - Berlin is considered one of the gay capitals of Europe.

It hasn't been easy using our credit card in Europe. Many places flat out refuse to take them (because of the extra charges they incur) or will charge you extra - so we've made a lot of trips to the ATM!

One of the other attractions in Berlin that affected us both deeply was the Jewish Museum dedicated to the six million Jews who were murdered during WWII. The building's architecture itself speaks volumes as there are walls and windows at various angles and the floors are sloped slightly upward (so that you are walking uphill) and also slope to one side, giving you a very unsteady feeling. In the Holocaust tower, visitors experience the isolation and desolation of no escape. There is little light and the only sounds are of vehicles passing on the street. Another area of the building is entitled "Memory Void" and, except for walls and oddly angled windows, is completely empty except for one room. In that room, on the floor, lay thousands of faces made of metal about the size of a small dinner plate; their expressions evidence that they must have died terrible deaths. You are invited to walk on the faces and, of course, can't help but look down at those miserable countenances in order to keep your balance. There's just the "ting, ting, ting" as you walk across the floor. It was very eerie in that room.

The rest of the building is an interactive exhibit focusing on the history of the Jewish people in Europe, from their arrival in the 10th century until post WWII. There's a museum gift shop, as you would expect. One of the strangest items I saw being sold there was a mousepad with Barbie and Ken wearing Jewish prayer shawls. I wondered what the significance of that was? Am I missing something???

People seem to dress quite conservatively in Germany - and I recall that from 24 years ago. In contrast, I thought the Dutch were much more fashion-conscious, more riske in terms of what they wore, but also choosing to wear more colour. Popular in both countries is jewellry with lots of sparkle: large gemstone/cut glass brooches, long dangly art deco style earrings.

I've also noticed that people seem to take their dogs everywhere here. You see dogs on buses, trains and even in restaurants. Somehow, I don't think that would go over very well at home!

I mentioned that we were in Berlin during a marathon and we just happened on it on our way to the subway on a Sunday morning when we saw some of the people in the "middle of the pack" run by. There were thousands of runners - it was a sea of people! (I believe the announced mentioned 30,000 participants, but Martin spotted jerseys with numbers as large as 35,000.) Runners from all over the world were there, from Germany (of course!), Italy, France, Sweden, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Korea, Chile, Japan, Australia, the US - to name just a few - and lots of Danes. We saw three Canadian shirts (one from Edmonton) and one runner wearing a Canadian hat. There were wheelchair athletes as well as lots of older runners. Many wore silly hats or costumes and the crowd cheered them on with clapping, noise-makers, signs and songs.

Our destination that morning was the Brandenburg Gates, but that's also where the race started and ended, so there was a huge crowd to navigate around (not to mention that much of the area was cordoned off for the race). It was interesting watching the runners reach the finish line. Each runner was given a medal commemorating the event, wrapped in a length of yellow plastic and then led to the recovery area to rest, rehydrate and eat. They even had hundreds of massage tables set up for soothing tired muscles! The whole area was surrounded by trucks where the participants, when they were finished, could retrieve their clothing. There were dozens of portable toilets, all sorts of food stands, as well as giveaways. (I got a measuring tape for a promotion to do with something about losing weight and Martin got a nice, juicy cherry sucker - not sure what it was for, but he got the better of the deal. I was starving and felt like Charlie Brown when all we got trick-or-treating at Hallowe'we was a rock! Martin (excitedly): "I got a nice, juicy cherry lollipop. What did you get?" Me (disappointed but resigned): "I got a measuring tape.") It was a huge production - and quite the experience! After surviving the crowds and having to walk way around the marathon area to reach our destination, we both felt like we'd run marathons ourselves!

One of the most colourful characters at our hostel was a woman named Scarlet who was born in Arkansas, but considered herself a "citizen of the world" because she had lived all over the globe. A speech language pathologist, she said she was having a mid-life crisis, so had quit her current job and was trying to figure out to do with the rest of her life. One of the other reasons she said she had left was that she couldn't stand the Bush administration and what they were doing to the US. She was frustrated that the American people had voted him in for a second term and feels it may very well mean the end of the US as a world power.

The hostel owner, Liane, was also a very interesting person. Her mother is Hungarian and her father from Papua, New Guinea, but she is German and also Jewish, so I guess you could say she is a citizen of the world as well! Every year she spends three months in Japan studying meditation and when the hostel is closed from January to March, she travels. On one trip, she spent two weeks with her son making her way through the Sumatran jungle with only a compass and a machete!
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