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Sue decided that she wanted to visit Berlin for her 42nd birthday treat. The "42nd" should not be confused with her age but reflects the number of years she has been provided these treats!
We were not "wafted there from paradise". No mate, Luton Airport and Dennis satnav took us via Milton Keynes which has more roundabouts than France. Easyjet arrived on time at Berlin Schönefeld Airport. This was originally the East German airport and will eventually become the main Berlin Brandenburg Airport where the terminal is still under construction and years late. You actually land on the Brandenburg runway and taxi for miles across to the adjacent Schönefeld terminal. You then walk for about half a mile to the train station where the RE7 airport express takes you into town.
We purchased a welcome card on line which cost about £40 for 6 days unlimited travel in ABC fare regions which includes Potsdam but if you only want the city centre it is slightly cheaper. The card also gives you an average 25% discount off the many museums and other attractions like bus tours.
Once you get the hang of the transport system it is easy to find your way around but signage is not the best and the printed maps are not great. We used google maps on a smartphone but the problem was you are never sure if you are walking in the right direction until you didn't arrive at the place you wanted.
There are several transport options and the welcome card can be used on all. The bus and tram are obvious and you show your card to the driver as you board but all the rest there are no barriers and you just get on the train. All the time we were there nobody ever checked if we had a ticket. There is the U-Bahn which is the underground railway, The S-Bahn which is the overground and finally the D-Bahn who run the RE (regional) train sevices like the RE7 airport express which should have conveyed us to the Zoo station but we mistakenly alighted too early at Friedrichstraße and had to board an S-Bahn train to get to the Zoo.
After a long walk down the Kurfürstendamm we turned into Bleibtreustraße and found the Hotel Bleibtreu. The street is in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, named after the painter Georg Bleibtreu in 1897. But its English equivalent would be something like "Stay True Street," or "Remain Faithful Road."
After checking in we wandered back out into the Kurfürstendamm where we found Bier's Kudamm 195 where, according to some, you get the best currywurst in the world. This is a Berlin speciality fast food which consists of a German sausage (Bratwurst), cut into sections, sprinkled with curry powder and smothered in curry flavoured tomato ketchup. So we stood at a high table and ate currywurst and pomme frites from a polystyrene plate with plastic forks washed down with Berlin Bier drunk from the bottle next to a wedding party with the bride wearing her long white dress and her groom in full regalia!! Our first eccentric Berlin experience.
The next morning dawned sunny and warm. Breakfast at our Hotel was an extortionate €19 so we found ourselves a nice little Italian restaurant on Savignyplatz called San Marino where we sat outside in the sun and I had a full English breakfast consisting of two eggs, four sausages and bacon strips, a side dish of baked beans, a side salad, numerous bits of fruit, bread, butter and coffee, all for less than €8.
At the end of the Kurfürstendamm is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The original protestant church built in the 1890's was badly damaged in one of the many air raids on Berlin during WWII and was demolished to build a new church but the remains of the spire was left as a reminder of the War.
It was here on 19 December 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market by a Tunisian failed asylum seeker and Islamic extremist, killing 12 and injuring 56 people. He was shot and killed by police four days later in Milan.
A short walk from here down the Tauentzienstraße brought us to the Kaufhaus des Westens known by its abbreviation KaDeWe. It is a huge department store founded by Adolf Jandorf in 1907 but its crowning glory, literally because it is on the top floor, is its food department where they sell almost everything edible in the world, even Montgomery Cheddar! In addition to selling every known food and drink known to man they have a range of different restaurants scattered round plus a buffet style one they call the Wintergarten under a huge glass dome just above the food hall.
I tasted some Danish licorice covered with salted chocolate which really took my fancy and Sue bought some new Lindt chocolate macaroons.
In the Wittenbergplatz opposite we wandered around a street market selling the sort of food the other half eat plus the usual German tat and Sue bought herself a fridge magnet of a Trabant car. While most girls would be attracted to guys driving 500hp Ferrari's or something similar, you might pull Sue if you were driving one of these awful old East German cars powered by a smelly two stroke lawnmower engine. She thinks those Trabi's are cute and we now have a toy one on our mantlepiece.
The S-Bahn took us to Potsdamer Platz where we found Tony Roma's Rib House where we intended to eat that night. We had pre-booked a concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker for that evening and decided to collect our tickets. After getting hopelessly lost we eventually found the box office closed so headed for the Brandenburger Tor where we sat outside the Adlon hotel for a couple of beers.
Sue dreams of driving her Trabi up to the Adlon hotel and stay in the Royal Suite which costs in the region of €26,000 per night as the hotel features in many of the spy novels she reads.
Just for posterity and to remind me not to do it again I kept the bill for two beers. (Photo on the right).
Just opposite the Adlon (see photo below) we found Trabi Andy, another Berlin eccentric and the proud owner of the light blue Trabant full of stuffed life size dolls. Andy insisted on posing with Sue in front of his car and was on the pull. Unfortunately he had forgotten his false teeth that morning and so was not having much success!
We were now in the Pariser Platz where the goddess of victory gazes down from her chariot on top of the Brandenburg Tor (see photo top of page left) to the French Embassy. She was brought back from Paris after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo by British and Prussian armies. Here we joined a walking tour led by a very articulate and well informed Canadian lady and we began by walking though the gate from what was the Soviet sector into what was the British sector of Berlin until reunification of the two German states in 1990.
Behind the Hotel Adlon and opposite the British embassy is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It was inaugurated in 2005 and cost €25 million. It consists of 2711 rectangular concrete blocks which are already showing signs of cracking. Criticisms of the memorial are many but the city is to be congratulated for having this memorial in such a prominent position.
Just a few yards from the memorial is a car park. This was the site of the Führerbunker where Hitler and his henchmen ended their days. The Soviets tried to destroy it with explosives and couldn't so they just left it as a car park, wary that it might become a place of remembrance for right wing extremists.
Passing through the Mall of Berlin (well they couldn't call it the Berlin Mall could they?) we came to the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus. When it was built in 1936 it was the biggest building in Europe and housed the Air Ministry headed by Hermann Goering. It survived the bombing of WWII and Bomber Harris must have given his aircrew a good talking to when they failed to destroy the biggest building in Europe!
The East German state (the DDR) used the building for all its Ministries and since 1999 it has been the home of the Finance Ministry so it remains the preserve of those the Germans dislike.
The building is close to what remains of the Berlin Wall which you can see part of in the adjacent photo. So close in fact that a famous escape was made from its roof using an improvised rope cableway.
The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to save the East Germans from the Fascist West. Only problem was that the East Germans thought the "Fascist West" offered the better lifestyle so they flooded across in such numbers that a wall had to be built to protect them and they were shot if they tried to climb over it. The last person killed trying to escape was in 1989 and the wall was demolished in 1990.
I once travelled on business by car from Hamburg through the DDR to Szczecin in Poland towards the end of the 1970's. We stopped for lunch in a little town on our return where a local offered me ten Deutsche Marks for a promotional lighter I had. He explained that as it was translucent he was able to refill it so I gave it to him. Ten Deutsche Marks was a lot of money then especially to him and I came back from that trip depressed for a week.
On the other side of what remains of the wall once stood the building housing the Gestapo. Its ruins were demolished and the site left undeveloped for years as nobody wanted to build anything at a place where so many had been tortured and killed. Eventually they decided to make it the site of an exhibition documenting the horrors of Nazism called the Topography of Terror.
A few yards down the road is Checkpoint Charlie which is where you could cross from the American to the Soviet sector. Our tour guide told us of the day an American diplomat wanted to go to the Opera in the East but the East German guards demanded to see his passport. He refused as the agreement amongst the allies was for free movement of their nationals between the sectors. The East Germans pointed out that they were not Soviets and not part of that agreement so they wanted his passport. The upshot was a stand-off between Soviet and American tanks at Checkpoint Charlie and matie never did get to the opera.
Just along from Checkpoint Charlie is the Trabant Museum and Sue became intensely excited to see so many of them in one place.
We walked down the Friedrichstraße then a few blocks East found us on the Gendarmenmarkt where Martin Schultz was having a political rally, it being a general election that weekend. Lots of loud music and not many people which perhaps explains why he only got 20% of the vote.
On the left of the photo above you can see the 19th century concert hall while in the centre is the 18th century Französischer Dom or French Cathedral. Behind where I am standing to take the photo is the Neue Kirche Deutscher Dom which was covered in Scaffolding so not worth photographing. All of these buildings were rebuilt after the war.
We had been walking for close to three hours since our Adlon Biers' and combined with our earlier efforts meant we were ready to eat. Our walking tour came to a thankful conclusion on the Bebelplatz. This was where the Nazi students burnt the books from the Alte Bibliothek that the party deemed unsuitable and there is a memorial under a glass topped pit in the centre of the square containing empty bookshelves. The square is bordered by the Berlin State Opera house and St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale.
The walking tour was free so we tipped our Canadian guide generously and walked back up the Unter Den Linden to the Bandenburger Tor past the very fine statue of Friedrich the Great on his horse.
The U-Bahn took us back to Potsdamer Platz and some good ribs at Tony Roma's before making our way to the Berliner Philharmonie for our concert.
The Berliner Philharmoniker were playing works by Ravel, Bartok, Debussy and Roussel. Unfortunately they were all pretty obscure works and not very melodic, however, the sound this orchestra makes is nothing short of amazing and conductor Alain Altinoglu poured his heart and soul into the music, especially the final ballet music Bacchus et Ariane by Frenchman Albert Roussel which had the orchestra percussion section in stitches.
This was the first time we had sat behind an orchestra facing the conductor and we enjoyed the experience seeing the expressions on his face.
It was the Berlin marathon on the Sunday so we escaped the crowds to Potsdam. Weather was a little unkind so we took a bus tour which turned out to be the best option to see the place in a day. We stopped first at the Cecilienhof which was the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm but was also where the allies met to carve up Germany after the war and known as the Potsdam agreements.
Each leader had his own entrance to the conference. Stalin entered by the East door and Truman by the West of course while Churchill entered through the central courtyard. The Soviets controlled this area and Stalin had the flower bed in the centre of the courtyard planted with red geraniums in the shape of a star which Churchill had to walk past each time.
Sanssouci is the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (1712 - 1786). The name means "without care" and that was what the great man wanted when he came here.
He ruled Prussia from 1740 until 1786 and was victorious in the seven years war which concluded in 1763.
To celebrate the achievement he built a new palace. Whereas Sanssouci is a small palace with just ten rooms this new palace had over 200 rooms and when Frederick saw it he thought it ugly and retired back to Sanssouci.
Frederick seems to have been a monarch who was close to his subjects and was responsible for introducing the potato to Prussia. The locals didn't like the idea of eating things which grew under the earth which they regarded as only fit for animals so Frederick had a problem. His solution was to set a guard of soldiers around the plot and the locals then thought what was growing there must be valuable so began to steal the potatoes which was what the king intended.
His final wish was to be buried on the terrace of Sanssouci but his nephew and successor Frederick William II buried him in the Potsdam Garrison Church. It wasn't until 1991, 205 years after his death that his wishes were carried out. He was known as the potato king hence potatoes can always be seen on his gravestone.
The New Palace was much favoured by the Kaisers' after all the German states amalgamated into the German Empire and it was from here that Kaiser Wilhelm II gave the order for Germany to enter the first world war.
On a first visit you look at the palace then turn and look at two even more ornate buildings opposite and about 200m away which are actually the servants quarters. These buildings also contain the kitchens and were separate from the palace to lower the fire risk. The problem was that hot food had to be carried from outside so the Kaiser and his guests were condemned to eat cold food most of the time. Eventually they had a tunnel constructed between the buildings.
After the end of the first world war the Kaiser abdicated and was exiled to Holland. It took 57 railway carriages to move him and his belongings. He said he would never return to Germany until the restoration of the monarchy and was buried in Doorn, Netherlands, on 4 June 1941, aged 82. I suppose that if the Germans made Angela Merkel Queen, like Frederick, they could move the Kaiser's bones back to Potsdam.
Potsdam itself was always a soldiers garrison town and during the cold war was part of East Germany. The border was the River Havel and the Glienicke Bridge across the river was where spies were often exchanged with the Soviets. Known as the "Bridge of Spies" it was where Gary Powers the U-2 spy plane pilot was exchanged after he was shot down after spending 21 months in jail.
The Soviet KGB secret service HQ was in the vicinity of the Cecilienhof palace where the spooks occupied the residences of the rich and famous Prussian aristocracy. President Putin speaks fluent German as he was a KGB officer stationed in Germany.
Back in the town centre we contemplated the contrast between the early 19th century St. Nicholas' Church rebuilt (completed in 1981) by the DDR and the adjacent Soviet style residential blocks. I couldn't help wondering why the DDR would re-build such a beautiful building to show up how ugly and dilapidated their modern housing was.
Angela Merkel lost a lot of seats that day in the election (33% of the vote, down 8%) to the advantage of the AfD (12.6% of the vote) who look like becoming the official opposition. This was the first time since the end of the war that a right wing party like the AfD had ever been represented in the Bundestag. Martin Schutlz SDP lot had the worst result since the war with only 20% of the vote, down 5.7%.
The locals say that it was down to two things; Merkel opening the German borders to unrestricted immigration and a general anti EU feeling, mostly in the East.
If Schultz refuses to form another coalition with Merkel so the SPD becomes the official opposition then she will struggle to form a government and we may see another election before long.
The next day it was Monday and raining so we thought we would try and stay indoors. A magazine in our room said that the Technical Museum was open and worth a visit so we went there and it was closed. We eventually found the Berlin Modern Art Gallery which occupied a few hours. My favourite was a painting by Öl auf Leinwand of the Unveiling of the Richard-Wagner Monument in the Tiergarten.
The other big museums are all closed on a Monday so we once again jumped on a tour bus.
On our last day in Berlin we had breakfast at the Bleibtreu Cafe. We had eaten there the previous night where we had an excellent meal. Sue had schnitzel stuffed with cheese and I had moules and frites with a nice bottle of Rheinhessen Riesling and we both had Apfelstrudel, vanilla cream with a blackcurrant jus to finish, all of which set us back a very reasonable €50.
We caught the train to the Hauptbahnhof, the impressive central railway station, where we stuffed all our bags in a locker. I thought the new station at Antwerp took some beating but this station is on three or four levels and is a fantastic structure.
We caught the S-Bahn along to Alexanderplatz. The Octoberfest begins in the middle of September and there were plenty of drinkers getting stuck in to the beer with the sun not yet over the yard arm.
Just across the Otto-Braun-Straße is the Teachers House named after a former teachers’ association building. A mosaic wrapped around the building known as the “abdominal bandage” is one of the worlds largest artworks. It is by Walter Womacka and is supposed to show the benefits of a good education.
The TV tower is 368m high and was built in the 60's by the DDR as a symbol of communist power. It has a revolving restaurant on the top and is the tallest structure in Germany.
Continuing along the Karl-Liebknecht-Straße we came to the River Spree and the impressive Berliner Dom, the 19th century Cathedral Church of Berlin. On the opposite bank sitting on the wall admiring the view was a bunch of bronze nudes while underneath was the DDR museum where Sue bought her Trabant model car.
We walked along the river to the next bridge and looked back to the Berliner Dom, probably one of the most attractive views in the city.
Just across the other side of the S-Bahn track is the Hackescher Markt which is now full of bars and restaurants so we sat down at one of them.
Here you can see me enjoying a glass of Konig Ludwig Weissbier and very good it was too.
If we were to visit Berlin again this would be a good area to base oneself as there are many places we have not seen, a good selection of restaurants and you are just across from all the big museums situated on the island formed by the River Spree. There is also the option of boat tours as they all seem to start from here.
But it was now time to get back to the Hauptbahnhof station, pick up our luggage and catch the airport express back to Schönefeld.
We both enjoyed our Berlin trip and I forgot to mention the birthday girls dinner at the excellent Spanish restaurant La Caleta. Sue mentioned it was her birthday and was presented with a glass of Cava to celebrate.
Easyjet wafted us back to paradise...er...no mate, Luton Airport and we avoided those Milton Keynes roundabouts by returning to Cheltenham via the M25/M40. Longer but quicker.
Our next overseas adventure is to Thailand in February.