8th, 9th and 10th June
The journey from Poznan was ok, but the quality of the roads wasn't all that great. The border crossing at swiecko was a strange one. The road on the polish side goes from single carriageway to dual close to the border in order that you can get in the correct lane for the type of vehicle that you're travelling in, but it was a nightmare to get up to any speed on it, as the inside lane is severely tram-lined and rutted, caused by all the heavy lorries using it. At one point, it actually felt quite dangerous to drive on; there was such a significant step on the road surface that the wheels would just get caught up in it as though one was on rails. At the border, the Poles and the Germans share the same checkpoint and the Polish border guard checks the passport then hands it to the German guard, who decided to come into the van for a cursory check over inside. Once formalities were cleared, I was on my way into Germany, on a perfectly surfaced Autobahn. It was bliss. The kilometers ticked away in no time, and soon I was in the outskirts of Berlin.
I found the parking spot easily enough. It's not a campsite, more of a camperstop with showers thrown in for 15e a night, but it's dead handy for town, right next to an U-bahn station at Reinickendorfer Strasse, that's only about 6 stops into the centre of Berlin. I was given a map of the u and S-bahn system and so I headed in to the city, unfortunately no street map, so i found a net cafe and checked things out on the net and on google maps and marked the various stops on my map. First port of call (completely by accident!) was Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous Allied powers' crossing point to and from East Berlin. There's a really interesting gallery installation next to it, with photos and text telling the story of the wall and it's demise. It felt quite humbling to read the description of how people had to survive and attempt escape back in the days of communist rule. The actual checkpoint has been rebuilt to resemble the original and for a small fee, an 'American soldier' will stamp a visa in your passport....ahem. There are also folk hawking Russian hats and the like, but minus the tack aspect, it's a very interesting place to stand and think back. I'm not sure if it's because of the age I was when the whole system was falling apart in East Germany, but I can quite vividly remember some of the images from TV at the time; the 'wall woodpeckers' chipping away at pieces of the vast concrete structure. Most of the wall has disappeared of course, but a section has been preserved as a monument, and all along the route that it took, 2 rows of cobble-stones in the ground or road mark it's course.
I walked around for a bit but to be honest, without a map, was a bit lost as to where things were, so I headed out of town a bit and wandered around the Schoneberger area, with it's streeet cafes and bars. Very pretty and very pleasint to stroll around in the warm late afternoon sunshine. I strolled back up through a park area and eventually found a U-bahn station again. The city seems to be quite a strawl, with the centre and txen various stand-alone neighbourhoods that each have their own buzz(about them. I returned latev that evening and sampled a0few beers and chatted to some Americans. Things don't get busy until quite late and I was surprised when I walked out of the pub and into the dawn. So I slept in late that day; well until about 1pm, then began day 2.
The public transport system is impressive, and Berlin is a really easy city to get around, day or night, which has made the stay all the more enjoyable. I bought a 'tageskarte' day ticket which covers all the modes of transport, bus, tram, train and metro within selected zones and it cost 6 euro for all day which isn't bad value at all. Germany certainly isn't as cheap as Poland or the Eastern countries, but I wouldn't day that it's expensive either. Beer is about 2.50 a bottle or half litre and eating out is reasonable outwith the really tourist parts. I stopped and had lunch at a small restaurant and ordered the large chicken salad, including a drink - 4 euro.... happy days. The next area visited was Prenzlauer Berg, just beyond the centre and again a neighbourhood with it's own distinct feel, not as pretty as Schoneberg, but lots of shops, bars, take-aways, cinema etc. There's really just about all you would need in each of these districts without having to venture into town proper. It was a really warm day, temperatures were in the high 20's from early morning, but happily, later on when the sun set, it cooled down a bit and a few beers helped sooth my aching body and feet! I headed back to the van tired but having had a good poke around. I still hadn't really scratched the surface of this city yet though, so I made up my mind that I would go on one of the sight-seeing bus tours next day.
So, Sunday and I got up bright and early, mainly due to the already ramping up temperature inside the van. I had the 2 fans on constantly to try to keep things cool, but by about 10am, the thermometer was hitting 34c inside Hermione and with no shade to be had on the camperstop, I bailed out and headed into town. I jumped on to the Berlin City Tour bus at checkpoint Charlie having taken the U-bahn to Stadtmitte station and eased my feet for a bit, flip flops not being the best walking footwear anyway, but it was just too hot for anything else. The guide was very knowledgeable as he pointed out all the sights. It's amazing how so many of the old important buildings that were destroyed or seriously damaged during WW2 have been rebuilt or repaired. The old memorial church has been left in it's damaged state as a reminder and a monument. It's incredible to see the amount of damage inflicted, but hard to guage what the whole city must have looked like after the amount of bombing it took. The majority of the city is new though, and it has a very modern feel to it. Legacy's of the former east Berlin remain; the shell of the Palace of the Republic stands grimly near Alexandersplatz, the steel skeleton now only remaining and it will be torn down. The city has plans to rebuild the former Royal Palace that once stood on the site, but was torn down by the Communists in 1950. The Brandenburg gate was what I wanted to see, but I actually thought it would be larger than it is. The TV tower is quite a sight to behold, but I didn't spend the 8.50 to go up it, instead, I ate 'Currywurst' and drank beer below it!
The shiny, new railway station looks amazing; a super structure of glass and steel. Lots of really good modern architecture, mixed in with remnants of the old, but it all holds up well, without looking like too much of a mish-mash. I'm left with very favourable impressions of Berlin, but really I know there is so much more to see. It's definately a place that I'll be returning to, cheap flights and hostel or whatever to try to see more of it.