Hello to Berlin

It had been far too long – nearly 15 months – since I last visited Berlin. It was high time for a revisit. So on 8th October we boarded a flight at Manchester Airport for the hop across Europe to Germany’s capital.

This time I had my boyfriend Ben in tow, for his first visit to mainland Europe (and his first time flying Ryanair – talk about a baptism of fire)

Ben boarding a Ryanair flight via the rear stairs

I get nervous when introducing people to Berlin. I rave about the place so much that I worry the place will not live up to the high expectations I have set.

As usual, I needn’t have worried. Ben was just as entranced by the place as I am.

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Babble on Berlin (#Amsterlin Part 6)

Large statue of a yellow bear, with "I love sausage - do you?" emblazoned across its chest. Berlin was in the midst of a mini-heatwave, the temperature nudging past 30C every day we were there. It was perfect weather for a spot of nude sunbathing in the Tiergarten (not that I did that… ahem) but otherwise, much of our time was spent darting from one shady spot to another, to keep the fierce sun off our backs. Still, we crammed in plenty of sights while we were there.

We availed ourselves of the famous 9-Euro-Ticket. First made available in June for a three month period, this ticket gives unlimited access to all local transport across Germany. The ticket is subsidised by the German government and was meant to offset increasing transport costs for commuters, but seems to have been largely used by leisure travellers, with resultant overcrowding on tourist routes as Germans headed to the beach en masse. Even for us, staying in Berlin for just three days, it saved us money (a standard day ticket for just Berlin costs €8.80).

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Three Pessimists Tour Europe (#Amsterlin Part 5)

We were back at Amsterdam Centraal bright and early (well, early, anyway) the next morning. Our time in the Dutch capital was at an end, and it was time to continue on the next leg of our tour, to Berlin.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it in passing, but I like Berlin, and I was looking forward to showing Mark and Peter some of the highlights. But first, we had the small matter of a train journey.

There was just time to stop and appreciate the splendour of Amsterdam Centraal station, before heading for our train.

Interior of Amsterdam Centraal station, showing high ceilings and arches

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The Avanti Aversion (#Amsterlin part 1)

It was a trip over two years in the making.

Way back in January 2020, I was busy planning another European train adventure in conjunction with my friend Mark. The central plank of this trip was to be Eurostar’s new direct London-Amsterdam service. After a couple of days in the Dutch capital, we would travel onward, again by train, to Berlin, for a further few days.

We were almost at the point of booking it. The only problem was that booking for the Amsterdam to Berlin train had not opened for the dates in the summer of 2020 that we wanted to travel. We waited impatiently, refreshing the Deutsche Bahn website several times a day to see if the trains had gone on sale.

Then, the world went mad. COVID swept across Europe, borders were closed, and train services were deemed off-limits to all but essential passengers. I continued to make plans, fully expecting all this to blow over in a few weeks, in time for the summer holiday period. After all, locking down for months on end would be ridiculous, right?

We did not go away in 2020.

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Berl10n

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate

Today marks ten years since I first set foot in the city of Berlin. Since then I have banged on about it regularly at quite some length, to anyone who is prepared to listen (a list which grows shorter with every passing day). And on this momentous anniversary, I’m afraid I’m doing it again. I won’t stop until everyone I know has visited at least once, so hurry up and get on with it, people!

My first visit was with my aviation geek friend Andrew, who wanted to see the new airport that was due to open that summer (ha!). So, if you ever get bored of me going on about Berlin, blame Andrew for introducing me to the place.

First impressions were not brilliant. We landed at the old Schönefeld Airport, which seemed to have been run-down in anticipation of the new airport opening. The attached railway station had zero customer-facing staff, just a row of ticket machines that accepted only cash or German debit cards, with very little explanation to the many arriving visitors of what ticket to buy or what train to catch.

Fortunately, things could only get better, and we had a splendid time wandering the city, visiting museums, riding the U-Bahn and spilling out of gay bars in the early hours of the morning (ahem). By the end of the trip, I was completely enamoured with the place.

Berlin 2012, blogged: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

Remnants of Berlin Wall on a street in the city centre

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Berlin’s station with no trains

Look into the history of Berlin’s railways and you will inevitably uncover a trove of information about the Geisterbahnhöfe or “Ghost Stations” that existed during the Cold War era. These stations were unfortunate victims of geography; situated in East Berlin, yet served by lines that mostly ran in West Berlin. After the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, these stations were closed; for the next 28 years, trains rattled through without stopping.

Thankfully such nonsense is in the past. However, for the past decade, Berlin’s transport network has had a ghost station of a different kind. This is the story of Waßmannsdorf station, whose first train arrived on 26 October 2020, a full nine years after it was built.

Waßmannsdorf Station Platforms
(Photo by Global Fish – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38739583)

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Clockwise

After seeing the Baumhaus, a quick glance at Google Maps revealed that I was quite close to the station at Ostbahnhof, so I walked there.

Ostbahnhof is a station which I have visited multiple times, although I have never hung around for long, preferring to head straight for a train. I had some time to spare (I thought) so mooched around for a bit, thinking I could maybe grab some lunch from one of the many food outlets. I didn’t get anything to eat, but on the concourse, I discovered yet another coin-operated model railway. Naturally I had to put in a couple of coins to watch a train go round in circles for a few minutes.

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Baumhaus is a very very very fine house

Mid-afternoon is probably the worst time for a flight. Too late in the day to head straight to the airport from the hotel, but early enough that you can’t do anything too ambitious because you constantly have one eye on the time. My Monday morning in Berlin was an example, with my flight due to leave at 15:45. I would have to watch the clock carefully, and ensure that I was at the airport by 2pm.

As it turned out, I actually didn’t keep an eye on the time when I should have, but more of that later…

I decided to stick with the Berlin Wall theme, and headed to Nordbahnhof. This station is on the Berlin S-Bahn’s North-South line, and between 1961 and 1989 was one of the many “ghost stations” on the city’s transport network. The line started in West Berlin, ran through East Berlin for a few miles, then crossed back into West Berlin. All the stations in the East Berlin section were closed, and the entrances sealed. Armed border guards patrolled the dimly-lit platforms – anyone using the train tunnels to escape ran the risk of being shot.

Exhibit in Nordbahnhof "Border Stations and Ghost Stations in Divided Berlin"

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Brücke-side

On Sunday morning I arrived at Zoologischer Garten station with a Berlin ABC day ticket in hand, ready to travel west to Wannsee. I could have boarded an S-Bahn train, but instead opted for the faster DB Regio service. This had the bonus of travelling on one of DB’s brill double-decker trains, always a novelty for an Englishman constrained by a restrictive loading gauge.

Photo of DB Regio train at Zoologischer Garten

I had decided to continue with the Berlin Wall theme of my visit. Why did I get off at Wannsee? Because there was something nearby I wanna-see. Do you see?

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Another Prick at the Wall

Even teletext got in on the Berlin Wall celebrations. ARD Text broadcast a series of pages reporting the news from thirty years ago, emulating the look of their text service in 1989. Can it get any more 1980s than that?

The centerpiece of the Mauerfall 30 events was a huge free concert to be held at the Brandenburg Gate on the evening of Saturday 9th November. Since I was in Berlin for the 30th anniversary, it seemed logical to attend.

Security was extremely tight. I had been on the Unter den Linden boulevard earlier in the day, and the whole area of the concert was enclosed in a ring of steel. On the platforms of Brandenburger Tor S-Bahn station, DB security staff with loud hailers were directing passengers to a specific exit – all the others being locked. The Brandenburg Gate itself was behind a security cordon with stern Polizei blocking access. Necessary measures, no doubt, but slightly ironic, considering what the city was celebrating.

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