Berlin. Just the sound of that name makes me sigh with wonder. It has been a bucket list item for countless years, and even though I have finally ticked it off, there’s still something alluring about it that I just can’t seem to put my finger on.
My desire to make Berlin happen started in 2013 after seeing The Piano Guys’ new music video, aptly named Berlin. It sounds cheesy, I know, but once a song like that gets into your brain, all sorts of things start happening. Even though I had just done a Contiki tour the previous year, it didn’t cover any major German cities, so my need to see Berlin still wasn’t satisfied.
Brooke from World Of Wanderlust is the one who put things in motion for me. She had moved to Berlin for a few months and offered for me to stay with her. So the whole thinking behind this trip was to do whatever I needed to, then save Berlin (the best) for last. Even though circumstances changed and she no longer could keep up residence there, I had made up my mind to do the trip. After all, why should her absence put me off? I’m pretty sure I’m going to bump into her again at some point. I still have to thank her for indirectly influencing me to do this trip.
I woke up very excited on the morning of October 3, 2015. I had already asked for a cab to take me to the main station, so after having my last breakfast on the wonderful Botel Matylda, I gathered my things and checked out so I would be ready to go once the cab arrived at 9:30. My train was going to leave at 10:3o so even though the station was pretty close to the hotel, I wanted to be there early. The cab fare was set at €10, much cheaper than what I had paid the day I arrived in Prague, and considering the hassle it would save me, I didn’t hesitate to arrange for one.
Praha hlavní nádraží
The friendly driver arrived early at 9:25 and loaded my bag into the car. I trusted the hotel receptionist to remind him where to drop me, since I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself by pronouncing “hlavní nádraží” incorrectly. I had become so used to German that I had to consciously remind myself to not say Hauptbahnhof.
There was only one thing I hoped for the morning I woke up to leave Prague: that I’d take one train directly to Berlin. Up until now, getting in between cities was really a mission, especially from Salzburg to Prague. From what I could tell, this was a direct train.
The cab driver didn’t speak much English, but I somehow managed to confirm with him that he was in fact taking me to the main train station. The poor guy sweetly tried to make small talk, so I used as few words as possible to make understanding simple for him. He basically asked where I was from and whether I had enjoyed Prague.
The station was very busy but it was easy to find the schedule, mostly because there were hoards of people standing in front of it. I still had a while to wait – my platform wasn’t listed until after 10.
There were tonnes of tourists around me, all of whom rushed as soon as the platform appeared on the screen. I just had to observe them to know which direction to go in, which, conveniently, was around the corner from where I was standing. I heard something fall in front of me, and looked down to find a palm-sized pink plastic suitcase. It obviously belonged to a child, but there was not a single one in sight. There was a young Chinese couple in front of me, and I know it sounds very stereotypical, but I figured that it might have belonged to the girl because it seemed most likely in the absence of children. I asked, but it was not hers. I decided to hang onto it and keep my eyes open for anyone that might come looking. No one came, and I realised that the child who had dropped it was probably hurrying to their platform and had already left.
I could feel that there was something in it, but didn’t want to open it until the last minute. When my platform eventually showed on the screen, I made my way to it, still looking around for someone who might want the tiny suitcase I was holding. Eventually I decided that the owner was indeed gone, so it would be fine if I looked inside. There were 4 Stickeez in it, each of a different colour. I chuckled to myself because I had heard some ridiculous stories about them being evil. It was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.
I thought about what to do with them, then decided that it would be a good way for me to remember that very moment in time, so I kept the Stickeez and threw away the little suitcase. They are now on my desk at work.
I had a few minutes to wait and enjoy the fresh air of my last few moments in Prague. I was very sad to leave, but knew that this trip wouldn’t be my last.
The Aussie and the Czech
I had booked a private compartment reserved for women, but the train was quite full, and I ended up sharing my compartment with not only another woman, but 2 men as well. I didn’t mind though, since it was a 6 seater. There was plenty of space for all of us, and for my bag too, luckily. The woman appeared to be in her mid 50s, and looked quite dignified and established, and somewhat nerdy. Of the 2 men, the older one seemed to be a local as he didn’t have any baggage, greeted only the other woman (in Czech) and went straight to sleep before the train could even leave. The younger man looked to be in his early 20s, and just had a small backpack with him. He didn’t say anything, but his blonde hair and tall, muscular physique indicated that he might be Australian.
The train journey was going to be at least 5 hours long, and I was slightly disappointed that the woman and the older man had gotten to the compartment first, meaning they got the window seats. Thankfully, the man got off the train after 2 stops, but since the younger guy was on the same side as him, he moved up towards the window.
The woman had started talking to the younger guy before he moved to the window, and as soon he opened his mouth, my suspicions of him being an Australian were confirmed. The woman, as it turned out, was a local. She was incredibly friendly and curious about the guy and I. It was certainly the most fun train ride I’ve ever had, as our conversation carried on for nearly 2 hours.
The guy, Chris, was only 24 and had been cycling around Europe for the past 3 months. He works for a company in London that was closed for 6 months in order to do some major renovations (I’d really like to know which company can afford to close for that long and still be in business). With all the free time he had, he was literally living out of a backpack with a sleeping bag and tent, while cycling through every corner of Europe he could possibly reach. He was living a dream. Well, except for the tent. We asked where he’d been and where he planned to go next, and of course, why he was on a train when he’s meant to be cycling. The reason was both amusing and frustrating: he got delayed by more than a day from cycling through the Austrian Alps, which messed up some of his schedule. So in order to make it to his reservations in Prague on time, he had to take a train there from Dresden. The problem was that that particular train he had booked did not allow bicycles on it. He had to either leave his bicycle behind (locked up on the platform), or stay behind with it. Of course, rather than lost his reservation for 5 days, it was better to just leave his bike behind and go back for it. So he was on my train only until we got to Dresden, where he’d fetch his bike and immediately head back to Prague on another train.
His plan was to head further south and end up somewhere around Istanbul. There was a bit of trouble there at the time, so I hope he made it safely. His only deadline was to be back home in Australia to spend Christmas with his family. I’m sure he made it.
The woman, whose name I didn’t really catch, was going to be with us for less time since she was going to the house that her parents left her in order to tend to the rock garden. How often does one hear a story like that? She lives in Prague and is involved in several things, one of which is being the secretary general of some organisation that helped underprivileged children. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it or what it entails exactly, but I remember being fascinated. She was also involved in other things that sent her all over the world to lecture and set up facilities in places from Kenya to Vancouver, and she had also lived in the US for several years while studying her Doctorate. She was certainly someone to look up to, and I regret not asking for her contact information so I could keep in touch.
The Refugee Crisis
Chris, the woman and I spoke about many things including the refugee crisis, and it was very interesting getting her (i.e.: a local European) opinion. As we all know, the Czech Republic was not open to the Syrian refugees, and the media feeds us a lot of stories that we as outsiders tend to believe. She was not speaking on behalf of all Czech people. but her personal opinion was that she did not want the refugees to come into her country as from what she saw happening in some of the other European countries, the refugees were demanding things from the locals.
Even though they were in desperate need, they did not accept food and water from a certain Christian organisation as the items they were distributing had the symbol of a cross on it. According to her, they went as far as emptying the water bottles and throwing the food away. That to me was horrifying, and certainly not what I expected to hear. She said that if you are going to someone for help, you should take what you can get; you should not be fussy about what they offer you. I do agree with that, but it saddens me that in some (I’m sure not all) cases this is not what has been happening. She also felt that by them coming in, cultures and traditions would get lost, and she was too proud of being Czech to want that mixture to happen.
It was a very interesting conversation indeed.
Dresden to Berlin
The woman said goodbye and wished us well as she left the train at the last stop before entering Germany, leaving me with Chris. After she left, I changed seats and moved to the window next to which she had sat. We had about an hour to get to Dresden, so Chris and I decided to have a bite to eat. The woman had given me half of her sandwich, after much persuasion. It was incredibly kind of her, and I was very grateful because I hadn’t bought anything to eat before leaving Prague. The only food I had with me was a pack of Oreos which I decided to keep for later. The sandwich was enough to keep me going till after Dresden, and I figured I’d get something upon my arrival in Berlin.
We passed incredibly beautiful towns (or rather, villages) on the way to Dresden, the majority of which lay alongside a river which I assumed was the Rhine. Turns out it’s actually the Elbe. Chris said it was such a pity he hadn’t had the chance to stop at any of them. He was on a midnight train to Prague the night before and everything was pitch black, so he had no idea what he was going passed.
As we approached Dresden, I was surprised at how big it was. I was expecting a town, not a city. How naive I was. I asked Chris about it and he said it was wonderful, and that there was so much to do. I did consider doing a day trip out of Berlin, but figured I didn’t have enough time in Berlin to spend a whole day going back in the direction I had just come from. Ideally, I should have spent a night in Dresden and headed to Berlin from there. Oh well, now I know!
I had the next hour to myself to enjoy the peace and quiet, not to mention the scenic rail route I was on. I took my iPod out again for the first time since the woman had started talking about 30 minutes after leaving Prague. I had a theme song for this trip, and it has now become my motto:
“One day you’ll leave this world behind, so live a life you will remember.”
When I arrived in Berlin, I was shocked at how massive the main station was. I had seen pictures of it from the outside, but I didn’t realise it would resemble a shopping mall on the inside. There were several levels and escalators and lifts all over the place, not to mention shops and restaurants.
Once I left the train, my next step was to get a ticket to Potsdamer Platz, where my hotel was. It wasn’t long before I found a ticket machine, however finding the right platform turned out to be a bit of a mission as I thought all the trains were on the same level, when in fact the local trains ran a few levels up from the level I had arrived on, not to mention perpendicular to them. Luckily there are tonnes of friendly people to ask. It was also a mission to find a map of the network so I’d know which direction to go in. Thankfully the station had WiFi, so I was able to look it up.
I arrived at Potsdamer Platz within about 10 minutes, and because I had studied the area on Google Maps and Street View, I knew which direction to exit the station from. The station was about 100m from my hotel, and there were escalators going up, so it was very easy for me to reach my hotel from there. I had definitely picked an awesome spot to stay.
When I arrived at the Motel One, check in was seamless apart from the fact that I had to make my payment. It was one of 2 destinations on this trip that required payment upon arrival. I was then handed my check in confirmation, which included my unique WiFi password. It was the biggest hotel I had stayed in on my trip, and I was excited to be checking into a place that chic. I was on the 7th floor so I thought I’d have brilliant views, but the direction I was facing wasn’t that desirable, although I was directly above the glass ceiling of the Mall of Berlin.
I was completely exhausted that evening, and even though I was starving, I spent the rest of the evening hibernating in my room. I thought of going out to find something to eat, but I just wanted to stay in bed.
The next few days were going to be busy, so I needed all the rest I could get. Since I had a decent tv in my room which automatically turned on when I put my room key card in its slot, I decided to watch some local tv to find out what was going on. Turns out it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and that there were major festivities happening at Brandenburg Gate. I considered taking a walk to see what was going on, but my body was just tired. Brandenburg gate was only about 1.2km away, so I figured I’d just take a walk there the following day.
I had much to look forward to as I crawled into bed, as I would be doing a Hot Rod tour of the city the next morning. I was finally in Berlin.