Train 1 - London to Brussels
Monday morning was bright and sunny, in stark contrast to the miserable night before. After a short walk around for breakfast I packed up and walked the 200m to St Pancras station and found the boarding queue for the Eurostar. Quite a process of queuing, ticket checking, more queuing, security, still more queuing, then passport control. It's all much more complex than when flying because then your luggage is already booked through. Here I had to manhandle the big pack onto the screening conveyor as well as remove my coat, scarf and watch. I got a very thorough patting down by a security guard (female) after I set off the scanner for some still unknown reason. Eventually I could board the train, found my seat and remembered that I’d booked premium ticket - breakfast supplied. Croissant, roll, yoghurt, coffee - very nice!
The train was very quick and smooth, got out of London very quickly and the tunnel came up before I expected it. As soon as we hit France I got a text message about the phone roaming, the same when we got to Belgium and then later in Germany. Changed trains in Brussels. I was a bit concerned that 20 minutes was cutting it fine but no dramas at all.
Train 2 - Brussels to Cologne
The second train of the day was just as smooth. No food provided but I could have ordered and had food delivered to my seat if I chose. Arrived in Cologne 10 minutes late (!) at 4.24 pm but at least it was still light. My hotel is literally next door to the station so locating it and checking in were quick and easy. Headed straight out for a wander around. Had to remind myself that I’m in Europe and they drive on the right...going to have to be careful with that. Wandered through the shopping area and then when I tried to get to the river I came across a Christmas market. It was most entertaining with an ice skating rink, another ice based game - not curling exactly, more like bowling on ice. Very interesting looking food on offer, no idea what some of it was.
Heading back to the hotel via the cathedral I found another market. Different style to the first but just as popular and interesting to wander around in, getting completely disorientated in the process.
The next morning I got up early headed to the pedestrian bridge adjacent to the railway bridge which is famous for all the "love" locks on it. Crossed first on the east side, plenty of locks although it thinned toward the middle. Returned on the west side, absolutely chocka with locks (upon locks upon locks) particularly as you get closer to the north side, nearest the cathedral. They have even ventured further out onto railings on the adjacent plaza. I cannot begin to imagine how many padlocks are on that bridge or what it all weighs but it seems it isn’t an issue.
Next to the cathedral where I paid my 4 euro to climb the 533 steps to the top of the dome. I think I must have been the first person up today, I didn’t see another person until I was just about to head down. It was hard work on the way up, I think I'm moderately fit but I don’t know that I’m ever great at stair climbing. On the way down my left knee and right ankle started to hurt and it made me dizzy.
Train 3 - Cologne to Berlin
Back to the station for the final leg in this part of the journey. I couldn’t find an overall departures board but found the right platform for my train by scanning each platform's sign. Clearly there is no need to arrive any more than 10 minutes before departure, I ended up waiting on the cold platform for quite a while. Tricky to figure out where my carriage would be and which one it was when the train arrived, the carriages were not so clearly marked as yesterday’s trains but once I got onto the right carriage it was all easy.
A straightforward longish train trip. Mostly unremarkable scenery, lots of wind turbines, sometimes singularly, others in great mobs.
It was 3.05 pm when the train arrived and I wasted no time in getting out once I’d checked in to the hotel to make the most of the limited daylight. By 4pm I’d seen the Reichstag and the Bundestag and not much later had seen the Brandenburg gate as well. Walked through areas of BIG buildings, wide streets etc. flash hotels and glamour businesses. Went into the “Digital cafe” only to discover it was part of Microsoft, had a coffee anyway - surprisingly good coffee (the only one in Germany so far!) Went into the Ampelmann store - Ampelmann is the figure on the pedestrian crossings, he seems to be a bit of a thing!
Headed to Gendarmenmarkt square with the French and German cathedrals at either end and the Concert hall on one side. There was a Christmas market on there, I almost didn’t go in as I’d decided I definitely wanted to sit at a restaurant to eat this evening (I hadn’t sat to eat since arriving in Germany except for what I ate on trains) and they charged 1 euro to get in. But in I went and very glad I am too. There was an inside (very warm) section of handcrafted items - the sorts of things you see at the arts centre Sunday market, I made a couple of purchases.
Day two in Berlin and I joined a walking tour. Quite a large group and from all over - England, US, Singapore, Australia, Philippines and Germany. The guide, Phil, is Irish - studied German history at university, met a girl from Berlin and moved here 5 years ago.
Phil gave a rundown of the entire history of Germany in under 10 minutes (he talks fast) which gave a big overall context for much of what was to come. Walked to Museum island where there are 5 museums, I think there was only one that I really thought I’d like to visit. Then to Berlin cathedral which has a tower climb, only half the height of Cologne which I might go back to but I've had a bit of pain in my right ankle and shin since the Cologne cathedral and down steps is the worst so we shall see. We then went past the German historical museum (which I went back to later), then across the road to Bebelplatz where the Nazi book burning took place, there is a memorial in the form of empty shelves for 20000 books under the plaza, visible through a window set into the ground. The plaza is the forecourt of part of the Humboldt University and the Catholic “upside down tea cup” church.
Then to Gendarmenmarkt which is where the Christmas market I went to last night is. He explained the story of the two churches - the French raised money to build their church so the Germans wanted their own, it’s one metre taller, in a case of one-upmanship. From there we had a short break in a cafe and I finally warmed up, pity the coffee was so bad! Only 2C for most of the day, the coldest I’ve been since Glasgow on Saturday.
On to Checkpoint Charlie, stories of the wall going up, taken to the second longest remaining section, to the location of Hitler’s bunker which is barely acknowledged, just one small sign. Apartments were built on the site in the 70’s and the bunkers filled with rubble and covered over, Phil indicated they are under the very nondescript open space/trees (no grass) where we stood.
From there, the Holocaust memorial, which I thought quite impressive, then to the Reichstag and finally the Brandenburg gate.
The German historical museum was very grand and imposing and has a very serious collection. I probably wasn't in the best frame of mind to enjoy much of what it had to offer although the late 20th century section was interesting. I also enjoyed the small, special exhibition on the history of Christmas tree decorations, and it was lovely to be inside in the warm!
I'd booked a visit to the Reichstag dome for 5.45. You assemble in a portable building on the forecourt to go through a very thorough security process, and then each group is escorted to the dome. There is a well organised audio guide that is linked to where you are. It was very pretty at nighttime but tricky to work out which buildings were being discussed at some points, or to see the detail of what was mentioned. Would be better to do in daylight even though it looked great at night. Cold up there. Interesting stuff about the design and how the mirrors on the centre section help illuminate the parliament area below to save electricity.
Finished the day with a bus trip back to Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church - it was badly damaged by WW2 bombing but not repaired so as to serve as a memorial. There was a Christmas market there and I went for dinner - Currywurst and quark balls (basically donuts).
Giselle has joined me today, I'll save today's adventures for my next post.
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I'm off on an adventure to Europe, on my own for 12 days and the remaining 3 weeks with my 17 year old daughter. This is where I'm going to share my adventures.
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