A Travellerspoint blog

Berlin: City of Contrasts

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Somehow I failed to mention the early start I was forced to have on my first morning in Berlin. I was woken from a sound sleep at about 5:30 by the presence of two policemen in the room. One of the guys had his laptop stolen, from behind three locked doors, so naturally the most logical possibility was that one of us in the room had taken it. So we all had our stuff examined fairly thoroughly - it didn't seem to trouble the cops that bags smaller than laptops could not hold a laptop - they still got searched. I was a bit concerned about my own laptop - I hadn't left it out like the fellow who lost his, but was still relieved to find it.

I'd have been very happy to spend my whole week in Berlin at the Grand Hostel, even with that incident, but in the interests of seeing different bits had booked a night in a hotel in the very poshest part of Berlin, Charlottenberg, which is out to the West. The main street through this area, Kurfürstendamm, is Berlin's answer to the Champs-Élysées: block after block of high-end brand shopping, venerable hotels like the Kempinski, exotic car dealerships and the largest department store in Europe, the KaDeWe. Kurfürstendamm itself has had a checkered history as it had been where many Jewish businesses were established, and then it took numerous hits during the war. I read somewhere that when the Wall was (accidentally, it turns out) opened, Kurfürstendamm was one of the main thoroughfares used by those coming from the East. It wasn't until I was in Berlin that I ever heard about the accidental opening: the Government planned to open it, but hadn't quite decided when. Some minion was put on TV to announce the plan and when he was asked what the time frame was, he shuffled through his papers, mumbled a bit and announced "now"! Guards on a couple of the gates packed up and went home and the wall was history.

Although I was staying in a posh area, I couldn't really justify the cost of the Kempinski or any of the other nice hotels in the area - I found a cheap room in the Pensione Hotel Funk, on a side street, opposite the grandly named Berlin Literaturhaus, which turned out to be a cafe, not a fancy library. I'm not saying that my room was small, but I had to rent a separate room for my luggage. It was a pleasant enough place to stay, and I liked the honesty system with the beer - it was kept in the fridge with a notepad beside it for guests to indicate their purchases. The outside looked like this
I wandered the streets, found a stationery shop that actually sells writing paper (impossible to find in any of the Scandinavian cities, even in Office-Max type stores): I resisted the temptation to buy any pens, but was not so resistant to ink and made the first of a couple of visits to KaDeWe (where the pens were somehow more tempting, and besides, I'd just bought ink - surely something was needed to put it in). The top floor is entirely given over to food and drink and was awash with people, so I had a quick beer and departed. It was quite dark, so my one photo of Kurfürstendamm is not very revealing.
I was near the Tiergarten, the second biggest urban garden or park in Germany, so popped over in the morning to check it out - pretty wintry, with more trees than actual garden. It is bisected by roads which intersect at the Victory Column, which marks the 19th century Prussian victories that created a unified Germany. It is 67 metres high, above which sits "Golden Lizzie" (Goldelse) although it is actually Victoria, the Roman Goddess of Victory, not the British monarch. All the way round the base, various friezes depict some of the battles. There was a nice wee restaurant in the park, very busy, where I had a hearty sausage and bean stew to keep me going.
Every time I walked past the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, it puzzled me, as I could see that it was obviously broken (it took quite a beating during the war, and really it is just the spire left), but seemed to still be in use. Someone I spoke to said that when they built a new church around it, there were plans to pull down the spire, but the congregation and the general public wants it kept the way it is, as a way of respecting the Kaiser. It is right in the middle of a bunch of new buildings so I could not get far away enough to get a decent photo. I was amused by the juxtaposition with a nearby building in a completely different style.
Berlin has many things for the tourist to see and do, and there was no way I could have seen them all had I wanted to, but I found two things that I really wanted to see. One was these rather innocuous buildings
During the war, the top one was used as a kitchen and canteen, the second was purpose built a little bit later - they are Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison. After the war, the Russians had control of this part of Berlin and, obviously, needed somewhere they could house and deal with political prisoners. So the basement of the top building was converted to small, bare concrete cells - no window, no real access to air, a single small light that would be turned on at random times to create the idea it was day-time, no bedding, no toilet - which would house dozens of people. They called it the U-Boot, or submarine. The Russians were pretty indiscriminate as to who they'd imprison and where they'd put them - so there were old people, young people, men, women, people of all political stripes all housed in the same room. The average time people spent here was 6 months, but one fellow was here for 28 months. The youngest was 4 years old; one girl of 14 was put in because, being a teenager, she thought it would be funny to put lipstick on a photo of a man - who turned out to be Stalin. She had no idea. They were all tried before a court, but the court was in Russia, while they stayed in the submarine and had no idea what was happening. A common charge seems to have been endangering world peace. A lot of work as been done to find these people and ask about their experiences - obviously horrible, but the surprising thing was the way they'd group, despite their differences. There was no subtlety to the way they were treated, or interrogated/beaten to get the "truth" out of them. There is probably no need for a photo of a small, square concrete cell.
The Soviets used this from 1946 - 1951, when the East German authorities took over and built the lower building. Their strategy was completely different - the inside didn't look worse than many hostels I've stayed in, and they abandoned all forms of physical abuse as counter-productive as the results produced could not be trusted as the truth.
The inmates were questioned in somewhat normal looking offices - hundreds of them - and a psychological approach was used, mainly based on rewards - promises of nice things for family members for co-operation, for example. It remained a prison until after the Wall came down - the last inmates were released three weeks later, and no-one told them. The surrounding housing was all occupied by friendlies - prison guards, employees of the secret service, soldiers and so on - and the whole place was off the map completely, just didn't exist. People were brought in in vehicles like this one
Some of the guards still live in the neighbourhood, as do some of the former inmates - so they encounter each other in the streets. Some of the guards go on the tours through Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and have a rather different view of matters. I read of one blogger who went through, a young woman from Russia was on the same tour and couldn't accept what she was being told.

All in all, while there was very little to see, apart from the masses of offices still as they were left and a few cells still set up in the modern version of the prison, I was very glad to have done this. For something just a little different, that evening I went to the KaDeWe for a good look round. It was much quieter than my earlier visit, so I was able to sit down for a meal - I'll just finish with some photos - nothing needs to be said, really, except that the lamb chops I had for dinner were from New Zealand.

Posted by NZBarry 16:29 Archived in Germany Comments (2)

And now its off to Berlin I go

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Going by train from Copenhagen to Berlin doesn't look logical, or even possible - the bit of Denmark containing Copenhagen does not connect by land with mainland Europe. There are a couple of long bridges, but the gap between Denmark and Germany is at least 20 km (more than 50 if you go in via Rostock). I guess you could go via Finland and St Petersburg but it would take forever. So there's a ferry but, unusually, passengers don't get off the train to get onto the ferry - the train goes on the ferry as well. It is a 45 minute trip - just long enough to go to the buffet restaurant, make a hurried selection of random bits of meat and vege then eat frenziedly because you don't want to leave a half full plate behind. I like to have a beer with my food, and thought that since i was helping myself to food, I'd just grab the beer from the fridge. The staff had other ideas - one woman actually slapped me! I tried to find out what bit of Germany we landed on but the crew member I asked had no better idea than I had.

After a quick change of trains in Hamburg, I finally arrived in Berlin's main train station just after dark. It is a huge station, about five levels, very bright and quite difficult to navigate. As with all of the stations I've been in Europe so far, there's a charge to get into the bathroom but I had no Euros and, after wandering all five floors, had failed to find an ATM - had to ask for help. Then it was time to work out how to leave - luckily I knew the train I needed and found a printed noticeboard indicating which platform it left from. So, something that should have been a quick transition took more than an hour to accomplish.

The hostel I chose was fantastic - a classic old building in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin - where the staff greeted me with a free beer. The lounge area was among the best I've ever seen in a hostel. The law firm next door had an interesting feature in its atrium.
Kreuzberg is quite new in Berlin history - built to house workers in the 19th century, it was a pretty poor area through until the 1970's (and quite industrial before then but took quite a hammering during the war). It was a bit cut off from the rest of Berlin because it was enclosed on three sides by the Wall. Through the 1960's, this was one of the places to be - it became ground zero for the German punk scene:this is where David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the like came and hung out, thanks to the legendary SO36 club. It is likely that the Berlin that formed in my imagination from reading about this period was actually Kreuzberg. More recently it has had a flood of immigration, mainly Turkish, and because it is cheap, lots of artists, hippies and musicians have moved in. Now, apparently it is very on-trend. It is an area I should have explored more thoughtfully - done some research and made a plan. I was given directions at the hostel where to find the beating heart of Kreuzberg, but took several wrong turns and never found it - unless they meant the "Sports Bar" I came across with three old men crowded around an old CRT TV.

So I just wandered to see where I'd end up. One of the first things I noticed was that, despite beer and bars being so much cheaper than Scandinavia and despite it being really rather cold, lots of people were drinking in the streets - they'd randomly form little groups at the side of the footpath, and upon departure leave a little cairn of cans and bottles. My walk took me north to Potsdamer-Platz and across to Checkpoint Charlie (quite accidentally, and since I was just looking for dinner, I had no camera with me). I'm convinced that somewhere in my wander I saw one of the few pieces of the Wall still standing but when I went looking for it in the daylight, I couldn't find it.

Just along from the street, there's an enormous museum, the Museum of Technology, which is where I spent my first day in Berlin. It is an old industrial site and goods yard - the old buildings have lots of trains - so many that I actually lost a bit of interest, partly because they were crammed in so tightly and had such bright lighting I couldn't get decent photos.
There is also a historic, functioning brewery (closed when I visited, unfortunately) and it features various technologies, including printing, textiles and photography. My parents had one of these cameras - the Kodak Instamatic - and I enjoyed a linger in the printing room. Quite coincidentally, I'm reading Arnold Bennett's Claymore at the moment, and it presents a glorious (and very funny) account in a Victorian printery (it is a little known fact about me that my preferred career would be to be a Victorian printer).
Kodak Instamatic

Kodak Instamatic

There is also a main, quite new, multi-storey building featuring computing, boating and aircraft. Looking at the computers, I'd have no clue how to make them work, but I bet they'd not be capable of much.
There were a few boats, although only a couple caught my eye. I don't think I'd have liked being in the sub (a "Biber") very much - not just because they are so small, but they went into production within six weeks of being ordered and had a few "technical flaws" - almost impossible to steer and to maintain trim, an unusable periscope, plus there's the petrol engine the pilot had to share the space with. No wonder the navy fed the pilots speed to keep them alert. The speedboat looks more fun.
Although they called the exhibit aerospace, the theme of aircraft collection is subtitled from ballooning to the Berlin airlift (no Zeppelin, but there was an advertising reel of one in action). The only balloon was a model of something I suspect would not fly. Otto Lilienthal is a big name in early German aviation - not powered flight, but gliding machines, inspired by birds.
Of course, there were lots of German aircraft - these are the ones I had some vague knowledge of
Heinkel He 162

Heinkel He 162

Focke Wulf A 16

Focke Wulf A 16

Lufthansa Junkers Ju 52

Lufthansa Junkers Ju 52

Messerschmitt Bf110

Messerschmitt Bf110

Two aircraft deserve special mention - neither are German, neither are unique, but both had a story attached to them. The first one is a Dakota/DC3 - quite a popular aircraft in its day. This particular one was used in the Berlin airlift (more on this next time). The Cessna 172 is the biggest selling aircraft ever made (even I have flown one), but this one is famous. In 1987 Mathias Rust decided to take it on a bit of a trip - through Finland and Iceland. But on 28 May 1987 he, ah, landed it in Red Square, in central Moscow, which is more than 500 miles inside the former USSR. It was no idle prank:

I thought every human on this planet is responsible for some progress and I was looking for an opportunity to take my share in it. I was thinking I could use the aircraft to build an imaginary bridge between West and East to show that a lot of people in Europe wanted to improve relations between our worlds."

There's a story on DW news with actual footage of the 'plane careening between the cars:

Road transport is in a separate building, mainly cars, with a few oddities, such as the wee car that looks the same from the front as the back, and the NSU Ro 80 which was so unreliable that when drivers of these cars met each other on the motorway, they'd hold up some fingers - one for each time they'd had to replace the engine. There were a few motorbikes, of sorts - nothing normal like a BMW road bike. The taxi is typical of what you'd see in Berlin at the end of the 19th century.
large_IMG_0337.jpglarge_IMG_0341.jpgMaico Mobile

Maico Mobile



There were a few handsome vehicles as well - a Benz, a NAG Protos (result of a joint venture between AEG and Siemens), and the indestructible Mercedes 190D.

Posted by NZBarry 17:09 Archived in Germany Comments (0)


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Maybe I was tired when I got to Copenhagen, a bit jaded after nearly six months on the road, or maybe it was the greatness of Stockholm and Gothenburg, but I didn't really take to Copenhagen, couldn't summon up any enthusiasm to see any of its attractions. I walked about the city a fair bit: I imagine its centre is as old as Stockholm's but it has not been preserved in the same way, is instead a pedestrianised shopping area, bright and glitzy.
Shopping Street

Shopping Street

I was impressed with the number of bookshops - one I spent at least an hour in, checking out its stationery and English book collection, and came out clutching several completely unnecessary pens and a marked down copy of Murakami's 1Q84. Just as well, as I finished the Game of Thrones on the train from Gothenburg and couldn't quite face the next one, which is lurking in my bag. Little did I know that not long into 1Q84, I'd be facing an assassin, although she's more Stieg Larsson than George RR Martin.

Outside the centre, I found the buildings to be quite cold and unwelcoming - a lot of grey, or very straight-edged brick buildings - but I did find a couple of things to amuse me as I wandered: a cheerful Christmas market, a factory making an unusual product.


Best of all was Paludin Cafe - just around the corner from the central public library, it was an antiquarian bookshop started in the 1950's which had a relaunch in 2000: most of the books are gone, but the bookshop still operates, with the space opened up turned into a flourishing cafe, open from some hour in the morning I don't even like to think about until 10:00 at night. It was always busy and getting a seat among the books was a mission, but I made several visits. The food was good, the coffee was certainly OK, the beer was slightly less than eye-gougingly expensive and the staff were nice.
Speaking of food, I found a very traditional Danish kitchen/pub near my hostel (the biggest in Europe - the hostel, not the pub, which was half a dozen tables) and found that at least one of their traditional dinners was not a whole lot different from a New Zealand one: roast pork, roast potatoes and veges although they added in a red cabbage pickle and these wizened up sugared potatoes. I also found another restaurant with woeful service: my server was cheerful and delivered my meal promptly, then went home and I was forgotten. After I finished, I sat waiting to be noticed for about ten minutes, very ostentatiously put my coat and bag on and lingered at the deserted bar for another while, stood outside for at least five minutes - no-one paid me any notice, so I ended up stomping off. Of course, then I started to panic about the level of security cameras in Copenhagen (it turns out they trialled them but the Chief of Police decided they were a waste of time) and was even more perturbed to find a police car outside the hostel.

Opposite the Paludin cafe, there is a grand brick building, through the windows of which I could see very high wooden bookshelves and old leather-bound books: I so hoped it was a library, and indeed it had been, but is now research space for graduate students. The public library was nothing special and totally packed - to the point I needed to retreat to the cafe to work at one stage.
Old University Library

Old University Library

I was staggered by the number of bicycles in this town - many buildings had a line up similar to the one outside the public library. Of course, that was not the only library in town, and if it hadn't been for the Paludin, I'd have abandoned it after my first visit. Apart from a couple of grumpy library staff and the amount of noise some made walking (boots on hard floors are not a good combination if you want a silent environment), the Royal Danish Library was a fantastic place and just around from the hostel.
Royal Danish Library

Royal Danish Library

The library is on the river which runs through Copenhagen: beside it, is the "Dome of Visions" - they built a house, of sorts, and put in a bunch of plants and then put a dome made from perspex panels over it. Apparently this is the way forward for sustainable living: when I saw it, I thought it an idea that won't catch on, but have actually seen similar things in my subsequent travels. Behind the library, you have the Royal Library Garden and then the Parliament.
Just a couple of random photos - the Round Tower was built in 1642 as a combined church, library and observatory, and now houses a cafe and lets people climb laboriously to the top to get a slightly elevated view. I think my favourite building in Copenhagen is the old Stock Exchange, which was actually built at the same time as the Round Tower, was used to trade various things for a couple of centuries and is now a function venue. The spire is apparently a good luck charm - the nearby Parliament has often caught fire, but never the Stock Exchange. The last tow photos? No idea, sorry.

Posted by NZBarry 18:06 Archived in Denmark Comments (1)

Gothenburg - Cafes and Libraries

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Cafes and libraries are what make me tick on this journey: I need the latter as a space in which to work and the former to give me the sustenance to work. Although I never actually made it into the central shopping area of Gothenburg until my last night when I thought I should at least see it (and immediately wished I'd spent longer there because it did seem, unusually, quite delightful), I found plenty of the good stuff elsewhere.

My walk in from the hostel would take me along a street called Andra Langgatan, a semi-bohemian area with three record shops (one of which had a shabby-genteel coffee shop run by grand-parents), lots of cheapish places to eat, some funky clothing shops, a couple of live perferomance venues and half a dozen bars. I was amused to see the Kings Head and Queens Head side by side, one packed and the other deserted - pubs really are all about the vibe. As I said in my last post, I found a pub which spoke to me, the Rover, which was on this street.

After a kink, I'd then walk along Haga Nygata, one of Gothenburg's oldest streets, which had been workers' accommodation but has undergone quite a transformation: mainly nice wooden buildings, it is a mix of good cafes and boutique shopping. A couple of the side streets running off it were classical in their lines.

I became a bit confused by some of the cafes - they had piles of food, mainly sweets, laid out haphazardly, as if I was supposed to help myself: it looked a bit like the Italian aperitivo but with cakes, I didn't quite know how to navigate this experience so opted for cafes with more traditional cabinets - I could still try a different cafe on Haga Nygata each day.
Haga Nygata

Haga Nygata

My first couple of days, I then had a fairly long walk along Vasagatan - the main public library and university library were at its far end. Gothenburg University is pretty strange, in that it has a very small campus, but many buildings strung out along Vasagatan.


large_270_IMG_0113.jpgGothenburg University

Gothenburg University

Up near the public library, I found a great cafe - the coffee itself was a bit average, but they had nice cakes and people, and had a big pile of fresh bread and butter you could help yourself to (at least, I HOPE so) but best of all, lots of brocaded sofas I could cosy myself into with my stolen bread and a book (still going with the second Game of Thrones, although the violence wearies me, and I wonder how someone can write so casually about rapes, murders, beatings and pillaging) - Eva's Paley. While it can trace its history back 70 years, the cafe had a complete refit just last year.
Eva's Paley

Eva's Paley

I'd walked past a building which intrigued me, way back at the other end of Vasagatan.
Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I had a good old nosey - I could see books inside.It turned out to be the Economics library of the university - I took up residence here for the rest of my stay.
Near the end of my stay, I went up to the Volvo museum - while I was trying to find the right bus stop (had to ask three people), I noticed a nice looking cafe, so nice that I made a bee-line for it when I returned from inspecting Volvos. Criminally, I failed to record its name, because I loved the vibe of this place, including the wall covered in records (behind glass, so I couldn't get a decent photo).
There are so many more places I didn't see here, so yes, Gothenburg is another of those places I'd love to come back to.

Posted by NZBarry 17:07 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Gothenburg - Not Gothic but Volvo Central

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I really knew very little about Gothenburg, just had ideas about gloomy, stone, spikey people, no I meant churches, well maybe people as well, and that my train was going through. I hopped off for a five night stop, and it is a great city - helped by the fact that, curiously enough, the sun was out most of the time I was there. I did see one shop which sold goth-related gear and there was a club which had a goth night, but that was about it. I saw lots of record shops (i.e. selling actual vinyl records), but they were more likely to sell Neil Sedaka or coffee and cake than Fields of the Nephilim. The churches were largely cheerful brick buildings. Not far from where I was staying, in a former jail now hostel, the Rover pub made me very happy - 32 beers on tap, the ones I had (including an IPA from famous Danish brewer Mikkeller) were fantastic.

I also had one of the best meals of my trip while I was in Gothenburg - I'd noticed a restaurant (Rustica) with a daily special of beef bourguignon and thought that would be nice. What I didn't know was that instead of cutting the fat out of the beef or even cutting it up, they just cooked it very slowly as one large chunk: delicious. One table of fellow diners intrigued me. For a start, they didn't dine - one of the three fellows nibbled at the hard bread put free on the table, on one of his rare pauses from talking. He looked like he was lecturing - very intense, gesturing, deliberate. Another fellow, green jersey matched with horribly bright orange trousers, took notes. The third fellow, very natty, complete with bow-tie, questioned. When the note-taking one took a break, the other two went for their smart-phones, every so often sharing screen with the other. Maybe it was a job interview, maybe an oral examination or maybe they just had an odd way to socialise.

My big touristic endeavour was to go up to the Volvo factory. Way back when Volvos were big, chunky, square cars, I really wanted one but they evolved and even with my eccentric approach to car purchases think that the old ones are getting a bit long in the tooth to be a sensible acquisition. I had actually hoped to go on quite a special tour of Gothenburg: a fellow has a small fleet of Volvos from the 1950's, and lets people drive them in a bit of a convoy, but he'd stopped for the season. So going up to the factory was the next best thing - it took a couple of buses to get there,
large_IMG_0117.jpgthe second one went right in to the depths of the site, past all sorts of buildings- a bit like a really big, industrial looking university campus.
There wasn't actually a tour inside the factory to see the cars being made (which would be cool), just a museum showing off the company history. It started out as a bearing manufacturer, SKF, which is still going - Volvo was the name of one of their products. At the start, it was a two man (Larson and Gabrielsson) company with one desk - they kept this desk the whole time they were together, and would stamp on the floor or bash it with a broomstick to communicate with the workmen down below.
Their first car was a bit of a botch-up: they installed an important part of the gearbox backwards, and that was the direction the car would go. 14 April 1927 was the big day for their first public display - not bad looking for a first effort. Within a year, they had one with a roof, the PV4, and sold 700 of them. Top speed was a credible 55 miles an hour. Then came a 6 cylinder version, the PV651, in 1931, a wee bus and a 7 seater taxi that was "impossible to wear out".
First Volvo

First Volvo





large_IMG_0137.jpgUnstoppable Volvo Taxi

Unstoppable Volvo Taxi

In its first twenty years, Volvo was only selling its models in the hundreds - to succeed, it needed a hit. Post World War II, it produced the PV444, a "little black hump-backed car" (sounds SO appealing), planning to sell 8,000 - but ended up selling a staggering 200,000 of them. I don't know why they planned to sell 8,000 as they had pre-sales of more than that. I can't say I like the look of them, but this is the model that the fellow who runs tours around Gothernburg uses - I would have had a go at driving one given the chance. In the early 1960's, it had another success, with its P1800 sports car: Roger Moore drove one in TV Programme, The Saint. He (or the production company) didn't look after it very well: it was found in 1982 in a paddock in North Wales, engine on the back seat and in a very sad state. Nearly 40,000 of these were made.




If you look on trademe, or see Volvos on TV, you might be forgiven for thinking that they only make station wagons, and yet they didn't even start making them until 1953. This one was bought by the Volvo employees to give to the boss on his 60th birthday. Coming into almost modern time, the Amazon was made until 1970 and then we finally get the first of the boxy Volvos, the 164 and the kind of Volvo I'd really still quite like to have.


Volvo 164

Volvo 164

Volvo 262

Volvo 262

Volvo don't just make cars and buses - there was a big exhibition of their machinery and of their trucks, and of a stupid looking concept bus where the driver sits in the middle, and finally, a Volvo made from Lego.

Posted by NZBarry 18:34 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

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