Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Berlin

Berlin. Another city I've been itching to get amongst. So without hesitation we booked some cheap Ryanair flights out of London Stansted, easily convinced friends Peter and Sueanne to do the same, and the four of us headed to Berlin for a long-weekend. Coincidently, and without any forward planning, we had timed our trip to exactly when my brother Michael and girlfriend Rebecca would be visiting the city on their 3 month European backpacking tour, so we made plans to stay at the same accommodation.

We opted for an 'early' Saturday morning flight, meaning that to avoid sleeping at the airport the night before (on the floor!!) we'd have to take Sueanne's work car and face the long drive across the city at 4am to get on our 6:30am flight - but it proved worth it when we returned late on Monday night, and were able to walk out of the terminal, and hop straight into a car and drive straight home, avoiding all of the usual dramas of the train or bus back to West London. You don't realise how rubbish that train/bus trip can be, until you don't have to do it!!

We arrived into Berlin on-time, and faced a very crisp cool morning. But at least the weather was fine. We made our way to the East Berlin hotel we were staying at, and after ditching our bags we headed straight out in search of big beers and bratwurst - we were not disapointed!

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The travellers, and the amazing buildings in the square on museum island

Very soon after we got off of the plane and began the journey from the airport to the city on the train, one key theme began to emerge - EFFICIENCY - everyone jokes about the Germans being efficient, on-time, and a bit serious.. however it was very obvious as we made our way around the city that this was all pretty much on the mark - everything was on-time, everything seemed to have and be in its place, the way things were layed out and designed oozed efficiency. This undercurrent continued throughout the whole stay, making us laugh each time we came across yet another example of things being just right.

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Amazing buildings and features on some of the old palace-style buildings not far inside East Berlin

As we began to explore the eastern side of the city around Alexanderplatz, we walked straight into a street market on our way to the museum island area and Pete & I were able to sample our first of many german sausage/bratwurst snacks for the trip. While we indulged, the girls walked through the markets at Hackescher Markt. We then found some fantastic funky clothes shops in a great street just around the corner and carly indulged a little, taking advantage if the pound-euro conversion.

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Our first crossing through Brandenburg Gate

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Some of my shots of the Reichstag German parliament building; and me and Peter with my 'loaned' 10D Canon dSLR

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The unique office and residential architecture, sitting alongside the parliament building area; and the East Berlin pedestrian crossing signals

We then pretty muched lapped the main part of East Berlin, from the amazing square on museum island, around and up to the Brandenberg Gate into West Berlin, and then past the Reichstag, following the river back into East Berlin and to the square next to the station at Hackescher Markt, where Pete and I indulged in our first 1 litre beer.

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The first of the 1L beers!

After just one of these monsters, the cold got the better of us and we headed back to the hotel to meet brother Mike and Bec, and then head out for dinner.

Finding somewhere to eat with 6 people isn't the easiest thing in the world, so I took on the unfortunate task of picking somewhere - stupidly I looked to the Lonely Planet, which, despite letting me down in the past, I trusted to take us across town for some very traditional German faire beyond the Potsdama Platz area, in yet another area previously split in two by the Wall. We eventually found the very full restuarant, and on finding it to be fully booked and unable to accommodate us, we had to start the search again. Mike did the job this time, darting into a Holiday Inn Hotel to get a recommendation for another restuarant in the area, and we were on our way again - but with some success this time.. We got a table at this German resturant and surveyed the menu for the most traditional dish we could find, and tucked into some great food and beers. After our very early start we headed home soon after for some sleep, in preperation for what was to be an epic day on the Sunday.

My mate Dan had told me about the 8+ hour walking tour offered by Brewers Berlin Walking Tours, and it seemed like the best way to get the 6 of us around the city without arguments of what to see etc. So after a fantastic breakfast of meat, cheese, and more meat at the hotel, we headed to the start point of the tour, to meet our fantastic tour guide Barnaby.

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Residential buildings - Communist pre-fab East Berlin-style!; our group on a display section of the wall near an old crossing point

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Brandenberg Gate, this time with Mike and Bec with us on the walking tour; and the path of where the wall once stood near the gate - now traversing traffic

The tour was brilliant, and we're all guaranteed to recommend it to anyone else we know going to the city. We saw everything we wanted to see and more! Barnaby's knowledge of the city was beyond impressive, and we were taken to some of the most imporant sites in 19th and 20th Century history, including several key points of where the Berlin Wall once stood; the Brandenberg Gate and the parliament building - the Reichstag; stood above the bunker of Adolf Hitler; an amazing open air display/museum in the basement of the former SS headquarters - the very confronting Topography of Terror; the recently constructed monument to the jewish victims of the holocaust; the site of the U.S. Checkpoint Charlie; many of the cities major chruches, monuments, and memorials; the amazing(?) architectural designs of buildings in communist East Berlin including actually visiting the inside of an apartment restored to its former cold war glory; the square containing the site of the famous 'book burning' incident; many of the major sites of Nazi and Cold War Berlin.. basically the list is endless because every 5 minutes over the 9 hours of the tour we'd stop and hear some quirky tale or amazing historical fact about the site we were looking at. At one stage of the tour, we were standing in an area surrounded by impressive modern buildings, and were told by Barnaby that actually nothing stood here not 15 years earlier because we were in no-mans-land where the Wall once stood - Berlin had undergone a massive re-building program at the end of the Cold War divide, resulting in massive debts for the city, but some amazing feats of construction and restoration work. Even now there are still cranes, scaffolding and barricades everywhere, which to our shock was much worse 5 years earlier at the height of the regeneration work!! Even more than usual my camera got an absolute work out shooting some of the most impressive architecture i've seen in Europe so far.. I even got to loan Sueanne's Canon 10D digital SLR to get some high quality ones of some buildings I loved.

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The controversial monument to Jewish holocaust victims - a very confrunting piece of art..

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The site of Hitler's bunker, buried far beneath this non-descript car park

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A former communist party building and the old and new murals on display; and a 'still-standing' section of the wall at sunset

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The signage at the old U.S. Checkpoint Charlie - the scene of many Cold War tank stand-offs

At the end of that day we were absolutely spent. We made it back to the hotel, by which time it was very dark and getting very cold. But, a quick shower and change and we were on the pavement again, looking for dinner in an area of bars and restuarants in the Prenzlauer Berg area in east Berlin, recommended by Barnaby that day. We found a great contemporary restuarant where we were able to fuel up with some impressive schnitzels (3 out of 4 of us ordered the same!), and sample a few more German beers. The restuarant was fantastic and the suburb very much like Fortitude Valley back in Brisbane (it even had its very own Apple reseller store with a Classic in the window!). The six of us spent most of that night discussing what we'd seen during the long day on foot, and figuring out what we were going to see on our final day. Friends Peter and Sueanne also enjoyed spending dinner finding out a bit more about Mike and I as brothers, fuelled on by contributions by Bec and Carly.. Mike & Bec told us plenty about their huge European tour so far, and a heap of funny stories about people with walking sticks and strange moustaches to name a few funny situations.. they also talked about what their big plans were for their return to Queensland in the new year, and the exciting things they have ahead of them. We also placed a mobile call from dinner to Mum back in Brisbane, wishing her a happy birthday for the 31st of October, which it already was on the other side of the world.

The next day was the last one for us and Sue and Peter, however Mike and Bec were staying another 2 days in Berlin - so they moved hotels to be closer to the city centre. We met them mid-morning at the Reichstag, and walked back along some of the previous days tour to the Topography of Terror museum display at the old SS headquarters building, right next to the longest remaining section of the wall.

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Mike and I at the Wall; and Carly and I

After going through the display, we headed to the centre of old West Berlin to see the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church near the Zoologischer Garten train station. This momument is a church which was heavily damaged by bombing in World War II, but has been stabilised and retained in its damaged state as a memorial to the mindless destruction of war. You can still walk through the remains, however it is in stark contrast to the modern westernised buildings around it that remind you that you are in what was always West Berlin.

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The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in West Berlin

From there we looked around what was actually the pretty uninteresting area of the main business and shopping area of West Berlin (of course in comparison to what we'd been experiencing in East Berlin), and after that we headed to back to the East for a few final monster 1L beers and something to eat (Pretzels and Bratwurst again!) before we would have to leave for the airport.

Mike and Bec met us here for a drink after they had a longer look around west Berlin while we collected our bags from the hotel, and after that we said goodbye to them until they return to London on the first day of 2006. With a few litres of German beer under our belts, we then headed to the train out to the airport, and our late flight back to London.

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End of the trip, outside Berlin-Schonefeld airport

An amazing city with some amazing history.

-shane

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