Berlin Part 3: Checkpoint Charlie, Climbing the Dome, and Getting Harassed

6 October 2015. Checkpoint Charlie was one of those places I had to see. It really wasn’t far from my hotel at all – on the side of Friedrichstraße that I hadn’t been to. So of course I took a walk there straight after breakfast. I walked for about 15 minutes and by 10:30, I saw the actual checkpoint about 20m in front of me. There was quite a queue and I couldn’t quite see what it was for. I wasn’t about to go join it just yet, so had a look around the vicinity and noticed that there was a photo gallery on what appeared to be part of the actual Berlin Wall.

There were captioned pictures of what the area looked like during the war, with tanks and a lot of the area totally destroyed and covered in rubble. One of the pictures also showed an aerial view of the exact point where I was standing, and how there was a road there. It was a little difficult to visualize all the buildings around me not being there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While I was reading one of the captions, this girl came asking for a donation. She looked Middle Eastern, and the thought of her being a refugee crossed my mind, but something wasn’t right about it. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and when I looked around, it was if my radar switched on because I could suddenly see a whole lot of other similarly dressed girls all over the place bothering both locals and tourists alike. I felt bad for her because she was constantly nagging me, and I tried my best to politely refuse. For me, it was a matter of giving away Euros, not South African Rands. Because the exchange rate was about R16 to the Euro, anything I’d be giving away would actually cost me more than I was willing to give away.

20151006_110501

No matter what I said, she just wouldn’t leave me alone. Suddenly I heard a man’s voice behind me telling her in German to go away. When I turned around, it was an Indian man. She listened to him, and he said to me to not give her anything because “they like to target foreigners”. I thanked him and turned back to the caption I was reading, but I could tell that he wasn’t done talking. He then asked for my name and where I was from, and said that his name was Joy. I immediately thought he was probably a Punjabi Indian because they often have names like Joy. Anyway, I still tried to continue reading the captions, but he would not stop talking. It was like he wasn’t taking the hint that I was really not interested in talking to him, mostly because there was something very creepy about his eyes. They did not look honest at all and I could tell that he was not someone who could be trusted.

He continued talking, and I said as little as possible. It wasn’t long before he asked if I wanted to go get a cup of coffee. My adrenaline started pumping because it was a situation I really wanted to get out of, so my first reaction was to say that I was on a very tight schedule and had no time to do anything right now. It took a few tries of “No really, I can’t” to get him to give up. But then he asked if we can have dinner later at Amrit near Potsdamer Platz, since I said that that where I was staying (not the actual hotel of course). The area in which I was staying was literally the only information I gave him about myself. At least, until he persisted so much that the only way I could think of to get him off my ass (other than swearing him, which is what I actually wanted to do) was to get him to send me a private message on Facebook. Thankfully my privacy settings don’t allow strangers to add me as a friend.

20151006_154042-1

I had to let him send the message because there was no WiFi in the area for me to search for him, and I also figured that it would buy me some time to not only investigate who he actually was (because I didn’t believe that his name was really Joy), but also to come up with some sort of excuse for not being able to make it for dinner. I figured I could then block him immediately afterwards so that he’d never be able to contact me again. There was no way I was going to give him my number or any other information, and I really just wanted to get rid of him in the most polite way possible, since I was in public and didn’t want to go all ape-shit while telling him to f*** off. Besides, he had the look of a kidnapper or something, so I thought swearing at him might be a bad idea, because the last thing I wanted was to anger him since I had no way of knowing what his reaction might be. He looked like someone who would follow me if I rejected him too, so I had to be careful how I handled the situation.

Fast forward 7 hours later when I was back at my hotel – his message came through and it turned out that his name was something Sheik. I say “something” because it wasn’t Joy, and now when I viewed my Blocked List, it says that his name is Fatima Sheik. I don’t recall it being Fatima when I received that message almost 1 year ago, and it is certainly an easy enough name for me to remember since I have a close friend with that first name. At the time, when I investigated his profile before blocking him, it was evident that he was also married and had children. Had he been honest, his name would have not only remained the same on Facebook, but he would have also told me his real name. He also wouldn’t be trying to ask out a girl who was not his wife. Moral of the story: trust your gut instincts.

When I was finally free, I went into the what appeared to be the entrance of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I wasn’t that interested in actually going inside, but I think it was mostly because I was still trying to calm myself down after just having a very weird encounter with a man whose piercing, creepy eyes I couldn’t get out of my head. It was not a good thing. Anyway, I had read that Checkpoint Charlie was one of those places where you could get your passport stamped, and saw that there were 2 kiosks where it was possible. One of them charged about €6 for it (madness I tell you), while the other would stamp it in exchange for any donation you were willing to give. 3 years prior, I had paid about €2 to get my passport stamped in Liechtenstein, so that is what I decided to pay for this one, and the guy was happy to oblige for that amount. So basically, when abroad, don’t just jump at the first thing you see when you could find the same thing for much less right next door, under your very nose.

Once I was done there, I figured it was time to go take some pictures with the “soldiers” –  the reason behind the queue of people I had seen minutes before. One of them was extremely good looking…so much so that it was difficult not to stare at him. He was clearly a little nutty, too, and loved the attention. I think it was only because of his perfectly chiseled face that people didn’t mind what he said or did. When I joined the quickly moving queue, I noticed that there was another “soldier” collecting €2 from each person. I had no idea what it was for, but it was a small price to pay for a teeny bit of fun. In 60 seconds, that very “soldier” took 60 photos. This was the result, and I think you can tell which of the “soldiers” I was referring to before.

After I got my photos, I had no particular destination in mind. The more I think of it now, the more I want to kick myself. That one place that I really wanted to go to that I could have easily went to was Legoland Berlin. I still can’t believe that I didn’t go.

Berlin street art

Anyway, I had quite a few hours to go before my Third Reich tour at 2pm, so I thought I’d take a walk back to my favourite place: the Dom. I felt as though I hadn’t taken enough photos of it, so I wanted more. Also, I just really liked the area it was in and I wanted to see it again. It was kind of like how I felt about seeing St Peters Church as many times as I possibly could while I was in Rome.

It took about 1.5 hours to walk to the Dom, mostly because I took my time and made a lot of stops to take photos of random things that I found pretty.

20151006_121411

Once I got to the Dom, I realised I’d regret it if I didn’t go inside. For once in my life I remembered to use the Welcome Card, and I got a bit of a discount to enter. It also gave me the opportunity to climb to the top. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should do it, but when I looked at the time and saw that I had at least 1.5 hours to get to Brandenburg Gate for the start of my Third Reich tour, I decided to just do it.20151006_135552

There were signs every so often warning that the climb was physically demanding, since there were around 270 steps (I thought it was about 400, but Google reminded me of the actual number). I must say, the climb wasn’t that bad at all. As I’ve mentioned many times before, my fitness levels go into the negative, but I was able to climb to the top without feeling as though I was going to die. There were plenty of landing spaces and flat areas to walk to break the climb, so it’s not like it’s one long spiral staircase to the top. I expected it to be a little like Neuschwanstein, but that wasn’t the case at all.

Once I got to the top, I was disappointed by only one thing: the fact that it had started to drizzle. I made ‘friends’ with a Chinese girl for a whole 5 minutes as we offered to take photos of each other with the famous Berlin TV Tower in the background.

Berlin TV Tower

After I got photos of the view, I made my way back down. Also, the Chinese girl had totally disappeared. I didn’t really bother looking for her because I needed to get to my Third Reich tour. The drizzle had dampened my spirits a bit, but I was just glad it remained a drizzle and that I was warmly dressed.

Getting to the Third Reich tour was such a rush because I actually spent longer at the Dome than I expected to, and it was quite a walk to the nearest metro station, namely Alexanderplatz. It was so bad, that by the time I got to the station, it was already 2pm. I figured I’d make it just in time because the actual tour was supposed to start at 2:30pm, so the 30 minute grace period before that would be used to check in for it.

I was wrong.

Once I got to the Brandenburg Gate stop, it was already 2:20pm, because I had to change trains at Friedrichstraße. The signs in the Friedrichstraße station are so bad, that finding where I needed to go was absolutely horrendous. I was just glad that I didn’t have a big bag with me. When I eventually figured out where my train was (I actually think I just winged it and hoped for the best), I got on it and reached Brandenburg Gate just after 2:30pm. I knew all that time that I was going to be late for the tour. Once I got out of the train, I literally ran to the meeting point that was Starbucks. I was too late. The tour had already left at about 2:15pm, so I was really annoyed because they clearly didn’t check that everyone was there. Anyway, there were still people with red jackets and umbrellas waiting to do other tours, so when I asked one of them, they said that it would be okay for me to come the following day since the ticket wouldn’t expire any time soon.

Annoyed that I had wasted my energy for a tour I was definitely going to miss, I got myself a grande cafe mocha from Starbucks. It was the perfect fix for my mood, and went perfectly well with the weather. Starbucks may not know how to do all their coffees right, but they certainly know how to do a cafe mocha. At least, the one in Berlin at Brandenburg Gate.

Amrit

Since I hadn’t eaten at all since breakfast, yet again, I wasn’t sure what to do for lunch/supper. I didn’t want to get more currywurst because that would certainly not fill me for 2 meals. The creepazoid from earlier in the day mentioned Amrit, and it so happened that Amrit was a place that I had found while planning my trip as I was looking for popular places around my hotel. I figured that I could still go there and not encounter that weirdo, since it was still early in the day (before 4pm).

When I got there, I was seated in a bright corner next to some locals. It’s funny how people are attracted to food from a different culture. Besides the staff, I was literally the only Indian person in the restaurant. It was rather fancy looking, and had prices to match. I just wanted something like a tandoori chicken, and managed to find it on the menu at a decent price (I can’t remember what exactly).

I didn’t get what I ordered.IMG_2770

I got a chicken dish of some sort, but it was with gravy. I had ordered the tandoori without the gravy. I don’t recall what it was called, but when the waiter brought it to me and told me what it was, it was something else. Anyway, it was still quite tasty. I obviously paid more than I planned to since it was a different meal. Normally I would have said something, but I didn’t feel really comfortable with the staff…they weren’t particularly friendly. Amrit, I’d give you a 3/5.

Since it was my last night in Berlin, I wanted to go out and see the city at night. One thing Berlin is certainly good at is how it dresses itself up at night. Potsdamer Platz is also a buzzing place to be, so I didn’t want to miss seeing it at night.

After relaxing in my hotel room for a little while, I headed out. It was already dark at about 8pm, and the weather was good. It had stopped raining and there was a fresh, gentle breeze. I was keen on using my F1.4 lens to take some photos, because I thought I had finally figured out how to use it effectively. At least, for an amateur.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hadn’t walked about much, but it had become cold, so I didn’t want to venture far out. I had to get that view of the back of Brandenburg Gate that I had come to see, and this was the only time to do it. I took a slightly different route to normal, which let me approach it from the back rather than from the metro station in front of it, and it was well worth it.

IMG_2793

Before leaving my hotel, I told my friends that I was going for a walk. They all told me to be careful, but when I was walking, I felt completely safe. My mind was completely empty of worries and all I could think of was that it was my last night in Germany and I didn’t want to leave. I was the happiest I had been in almost a year and it was finally coming to an end. There was no better place to spend my last night in Berlin than at Brandenburg Gate. And, of course, the road had been completely cleared of all barricades from the weekend, just as I hoped they would be. God bless the Germans.

20151006_202202

I spent a little over an hour out before heading back to my hotel. By the time I got to the point where I was satisfied with my view of the gate, it had begun to drizzle again. When I got back to Motel One around 9:30pm, I decided to have a local beer in the breakfast area/bar. It was the final cherry on top on my last night.

Advertisements

Berlin Part 2: Charlottenburg Palace and the Soviet War Memorial

5 October 2015. I had no more plans for the rest of my stay in Berlin, so I had plenty of time to just wing it. The only thing that I desperately wanted to do was a Third Reich tour. I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to do it, so I used the Get Your Guide app to help me. I actually had 3 full days to kill, so I booked it for the next day, 6 October – the day before I was going to leave.

Charlottenburg Palace

With the Third Reich tour all booked, I decided to go see Charlottenburg Palace. I wasn’t sure what the entrance fee would be, but I figured I’d at least be able to see the area around it.

I continued on passed the Friedrichstraße station, roughly 2km up the road from my hotel, so I could take in the beauty around the Spree River.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After figuring out which train I needed to take, I got on the S-bahn to he Charlottenburg stop. There was a closer station (at least, one for a bus), but I wanted to walk a bit so I could see the area. It was a little out of the CBD, so I expected it to be a little more laid back and spacious. It was exactly that.

I took a really slow walk because it was still early in the day, and had that feeling again…the one where I was going in the wrong direction. It was the first time that happened since Hallstatt. I was using my map to navigate out of the station onto the main street, but I had lost my bearings after getting off the train due to the layout of the station. Instead of turning right, I turned left i.e. south. I lost myself (literally and figuratively) for at least 3o minutes before realising that the sun was supposed to be on my right, not my left. It was still early enough for me to be able to use the sun to navigate, but I was just too busy taking pictures and enjoying the weather to have noticed sooner. Once I figured out which way was north, I had to whip out my phone just to make sure that I was actually standing where I thought I was, and then to determine where the nearest main street was. I was only about 2 blocks off, so once I got onto Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße, it was straight ahead from there.Charlottenburg

About an hour later, I got to the palace. There weren’t many people around, and my next task was to find the entrance. It didn’t seem very obvious as there was some construction going on. I figured I’d walk around the perimeter to find a way in and it wasn’t long before I found one. I had completely forgotten about my Berlin Welcome Card, which could have saved me quite a bit on the €16 entrance fee. It was because of the price that I decided not to do the palace tour. I felt better by reminding myself that a lot of palaces looked the same, and since I had been to Neuschwanstein, the chances of Charlottenburg being better wasn’t that high.

The palace gardens were massive so my backup plan of exploring them kicked in. I felt like I had discovered another Secret Garden. It reminded me a little of the Nymphenburg Palace gardens in Munich, but it was much more manicured and tame. As for the noise? Non-existent.

Charlottenburg Palace Gardens

The thing I remember most about the gardens was the squirrel I made friends with. While walking through one of the lanes, I noticed a tree stump in the foliage, and it had some cut up pieces of carrot on it. It was when I first realised that the squirrels would come to take it. Since it wasn’t too far in, I decided to take some of the carrot sticks and try my luck, since I had seen a squirrel scurrying about nearby. To my delight, it came quite close to me, so I got down on my haunches and put my hand out, waiting for it to come. And it did.

Having gotten the encounter with a squirrel that I always wanted, I went off to admire the rest of the gardens. There was one particular view of the palace that I wanted, so I went as far into the garden as I possibly could until I eventually got it.

20151005_132738

That for me marked the end of my trip to the palace, so I had to now find my way back into the city centre. I actually thought it would be better to go back to my hotel to have a bit of a break, and also call my friend for her birthday (I promised her before leaving SA that I would). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for the rest of the afternoon, but for now, I needed to find a shorter way back to the city. I also was pretty hungry because I had totally walked off what I had eaten for breakfast, but I didn’t worry about it too much because my meal times had generally become so messed up on this trip anyway.

Richard Wagner Platz

I took a walk all the way to the nearest bus stop, whose name amused me a little – Richard-Wagner-Platz. I caught the U7 to Yorckstraße, which was actually a little out of the way, but it was a pain in the ass trying to read the transportation map because sometimes the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations were the same, and sometimes they’d be across the street or a block or 2 away from each other. It’s good to keep that in mind and plan your route properly in advance. Anyway, getting to Yorckstraße then made it extremely easy for me to get back to Potsdamer Platz because I could get straight on the U2 to Bernau which stopped directly in Potsdamer Platz.

I spent about an hour in my hotel freshening up, catching up on social media and letting my friends know where I was, and finally getting hold of my friend to wish her for her birthday. I mean, how often do you get a chance to call a friend from Berlin?

Brandenburg Gate

After I spoke to her, I headed out again and decided to go to Brandenburg Gate and meet up with a guy I had chatted to a little. He was also on holiday for a couple days in Berlin and happened to be leaving that evening, so we literally had about 30 minutes to say hi and walk around the area a bit. Don’t ask about how I was chatting to him, but you can probably guess. I had made it clear that I was on holiday and was not interested in any funny business if you know what I mean. I’m always open to meeting new people so thought one more friend or connection couldn’t hurt.

When I got to Brandenburg Gate, there were, as usual, hundreds of people around. Fortunately though, it didn’t take me too long to find him. I felt like a complete idiot for asking if he could take a photo of me with the gate in the background, but it was only because people I had asked on the previous day were so completely useless, that I just didn’t have a decent photo. Thankfully, he managed to get one after several failed attempts of trying to get the woman behind me to move…one who was completely oblivious to her surroundings. We eventually gave up, and this was the result.

Brandenburg Gate

When I look at the picture now, I’m just glad I’m not the guy in the background who is completely missing the point.

After I said bye to my new acquaintance, I walked behind the gate towards another familiar area that was the Reichstag. There was a wurst stand that I had noticed the day before, and I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t eaten since the morning and it was nearly time for supper. I decided to get a currywurst, since I was a little too tired to go looking for another place. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to sit while I could, because there was too much left of the day for me to just go straight back to the hotel.

After eating, I went by the Reichstag again and suddenly remembered that I actually wanted to get myself a German Tshirt of some sort. There were a number of little shops opposite the Reichstag so I perused through them until I found one that I liked. It was actually a soccer jersey which I thought was awesome, and not a bad price of €15. From there, I wandered off in the direction of the prettiest looking streets, not really caring which way that was or how far I was going. Although, I did keep my general bearings in mind.

The Soviet War Memorial

After walking for a little while, I saw a really large statue peeking out over some hedges. It was obviously a soldier, but I was curious to see what it was for. As it turned out, I had stumbled upon the Tiergarten, and this happened to be the Soviet War Memorial. It was literally down the road from Brandenburg Gate, and I could have actually just walked straight from there to get to it. But just as well that I didn’t, because it was closed off from the road because of the falling of the Berlin Wall celebrations that had happened over the weekend. The road was almost entirely cleared out, so pretty much only the barriers remained.

There were some photographs with lengthy captions nearby which I enjoyed reading, as they were mostly from late 1945. The large statue of the Soviet soldier was actually hoisted on top of the monument – I would have loved to have watched that.

Soviet War Memorial

There was also an artillery on either side of the monument, and a tank. It was a little surreal.

Even though it was still a little early, I was actually pretty exhausted from all the walking. Now that I think of it, I was a complete idiot because there was one thing I wanted to do so badly while I was planning my trip, but I had completely forgotten about it when I actually got to Berlin. I will say what that was in my next post.

There was one other thing too, and that was to get a photo of Brandenburg Gate from the back. Had the barriers not been there, I would have gotten it then and there. All I could hope for was for everything to be cleared out before I left. The following night would be my last in Berlin, and I was pretty confident that the roads would be clear and ready for me by then. After all, Germans are very efficient in everything they do.

Berlin Part 1: Hot Rods and a Favourite Place

There’s something quite magical about waking up in a new city. I didn’t need much help from my alarm that morning, as I had slept like a dead person the night before. I was also really excited because I had 2 things planned for that day – the Hot Rod City Tour at 11 and SeaLife Berlin at around 3pm.

I was up at 7 and took my time getting ready. I was quite hungry since I hadn’t really eaten much at all the previous day, so I was eager to get breakfast. The restaurant/bar was on the 2nd floor (I think), and was actually really cool looking. It was very relaxed, and quite busy already. As I walked in, the entire left side was occupied. I had no idea where to sit because the tables with single seater couches around them were really small, so it would have been awkward sharing one with a couple strangers. My salvation lay towards the back, right next to the second buffet area and coffee machine. It was a long, high table with at least 14 bar stools around it – perfect for people watching.

Motel One Berlin dining area

I put down my bag and removed my jacket then went over to the buffet area closest to me. It was a continental buffet so they had the usual things there. I wanted to eat a proper breakfast because I didn’t know what time I’d be able to get lunch, or where from. The coffee machine made whatever coffee you wanted at the push of a button – of course I was going to get a cafe mocha. Normally I have instant coffee in the morning, or a cappuccino once I get to work, but since I was on holiday, why not get the alternative I usually only turn to once a month at most?

A couple other single women came and sat around me. We didn’t speak to each other but I think we all found a bit of comfort in the fact that we weren’t the only female solo travellers in the hotel.

Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz

Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz

I had a little less than an hour to get to the Hot Rod tour, which was plenty time. My plan was to get the Berlin Welcome Card which basically covers all transport and most attractions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting tickets every time. I took a leisurely stroll to the Potsdamer Platz station down the road and tried getting one there, only to find out that the ticket machine only accepted Mastercard (I had a Visa card). I only had about €22 in cash with me, so I wasn’t sure what to do since time was now a becoming a problem. I tried various other machines in the station but none of them accepted anything other than Mastercard. I knew that if I took a bus to the main station, I’d have no issue acquiring the Welcome Card or getting to my destination.

As I approached the exit of the station, I heard a man shouting and got a little scared because he was clearly angry, so I didn’t know what to expect when I went round the corner. When I saw him, he was shouting at the ticket machine, and I mean really shouting, as if he wanted to kill someone. He banged the machine with his hands and kicked it several times while shouting “AAARRRRGGGH, WORK DAMMIT!!”, not to mention the profanities in between. He was obviously experiencing the same issue I had. Some locals were walking close to me as they had just arrived from their journey, and I heard the guy in front of me tell his girlfriend (I assume) that the man was shouting at the ticket machine. They were visibly amused.

A family of 4 bought some tickets inside the train station but left 2 behind, so I handed it to them as they started walking away. The father thanked me profusely in what sounded like Russian, before exiting the station. I didn’t know where the family was going; I assumed I’d never see them again. After realising that the only thing I could do was take a bus to the main station, the bus stop was where I decided to go. I assumed that all busses went to the main station, but I just had to make sure that I was standing on the right side of the road. When I got to the bus stop, there stood the family yet again. I couldn’t understand them much at all but I tried to somehow figure out where they were going, which sounded like the Hauptbahnhof. There were already less than 30 minutes left before 11, and my tour was nearly 7km away, so there was no way in hell I would have made it there on foot. My gut feeling, not to mention a suspicious looking sign next to the bus stop, told me that the bus was not operating that day. When the bus failed to come after 10 minutes, I made the decision to call for a taxi. There was no way I was going to get to my Hot Rod tour in time otherwise, and €22 should be enough to cover a 6.5km trip. At least, I hoped.

There were many taxis passing the bus stop I was at, so I easily flagged one down (I’d never done that before so I was chuffed). The driver flashed her lights at me to acknowledge that she had seen me. When she pulled over, I asked roughly what it would cost to get me to my destination, and she said it’d be around €15 depending on traffic, give or take a Euro or 2. I told her how much I had so I was praying it wouldn’t come to more than that. She assured me that it shouldn’t, so I got in.

We appeared to be heading into a slightly dodgy part of the city, and I wasn’t so sure I was in the right place. The buildings were dilapidated with tonnes of graffiti on them, and the people were dressed like street thugs. For a moment I questioned what I had just gotten myself into, but I figured I’d find my way out if something got wrong because I knew which general direction to head back to.

The Hot Rod Tour

The driver turned into a quiet street and stopped outside my destination: Revaler Straße 99. I could see the number 99, but there was just a high brick wall on either side of it and the entrance seemed to head down onto an open area covered in sand. There was a guy leaning against the wall, smoking. I felt like I was being dropped off at some kind of drug hole. For those few minutes I was in the car, I trusted the driver, so I knew she hadn’t taken me to the wrong place. When I got out of the car, I went through the entrance and turned left towards what appeared to be a flea market. Only, it was for hipsters and goths (no offence to them). I felt very out of place.

I came across another entrance to my left and saw two cops having a coffee next to their car, so I decided to go up to them and check if I was in the right place. They told me to go back in and carry on walking left, and that I’d eventually see it. Thankfully they were right – there was a big sign painted on the wall that said Hot Rod City Tour, just as I had seen it on their site. There were a couple other people there, and some guys showing them around. The cars were parked just outside.

Hot Rods

I told one of the guys that I was there for the tour at 11, since I was 15 minutes late, and he promptly took me into their office to confirm my booking and to give me a bandana and helmet. He also asked me if I wanted to pay the €250 cover fee for insurance, otherwise €10 that somehow covered some things. There was no way in hell I was going to pay an additional €250 on top of the €55 I had paid for the trip, so I opted for the €10 option, which I was still a bit annoyed to have to pay because the tour charge should have covered it. I didn’t want to complain, however.

Since the other 5 people were already briefed on the basic safety rules by the other guy, myself and 2 guys were given individual talks since they spoke German. After that, we were all told which car to sit in and how to operate them.Revaler Straße parking

They weren’t like usual cars, as you can see, so the brake and accelerator could not be operated by the same foot like we’re used to. They were kind of like go-karts in that way. We were told to always have our foot on the brake to remind ourselves that it was there, in case we felt the urge to accelerate instead of braking. The indicators also had to be manually switched off – something I forgot to do quite often once we got on the road. The rest of it was pretty standard.

Hot rod selfie

We then drove our hot rods into the flea market’s dirt road parking area so what we could practice the formation we’d have to maintain once we took to the streets. We had to stay in a zig-zag formation behind the leader, with me leading, and stay in the same lane since 2 cars could fit within one lane. The back wheel of the car in front had to align with the front wheel of the car behind it, whenever we stopped. Otherwise, the usual traffic rules applied. For everyone else it was fine, but I was stressing out a little because I had never driven on the right side of the road before. Thankfully I had someone to follow, so that gave me some comfort.

Once the guide was happy with the way we were handling ourselves, he lead us out of the car park and onto the streets. The guide mounted the GoPro on the back of his car which was a bonus for me because it meant I would be in the entire video.

The drive was loads of fun. The only downside was the fact that the cars were so low – it meant going over any bumps was a little sore and would make the car shake. The hard steering wheel required the grip of both hands, too.

We drove all the way to the Berliner Dom (at the end of the video) before turning around and heading back. I think it is evident from the video that I was really happy to see the Berliner Dom. The actual street drive lasted about 30 minutes in total. I expected it to last longer so I was slightly disappointed, especially because it was so much fun. Many locals and tourists alike took photos of us, and at one point these 2 guys from India took turns to take pictures with me. It was hilarious!

When we got back to the flea market, we got out of our hot rods and parted ways. I of course wanted a copy of the video, so I went into the office and asked for it. They charge €12 for the flash drive and the video, which I considered a bargain. I was very thirsty by then so bought myself a bottled water and a Red Bull while I waited for the video to copy. Once we were done, I asked the guy where the nearest ATM was, which, thankfully, was down the street towards the train station and away from the dodgy flea market side of the road.

Back to the City

I drew enough cash for the next 2 days then walked to the train station. It didn’t matter what station it was, as it would most certainly be going to the main one and that’s all I cared about.

Until I got to the bridge from which I could see the Warschauer Straße station, I still felt as though I were in a dodgy area. Warschauer Straße station was basically just a platform with a ticket machine and a bridge which I had to cross over to get to the correct side of the platform. The bridge had some street vendors selling random items and snacks. Even though I was hungry, I wanted to get out of there.

One of Berlin’s signature yellow trains arrived and I happily got on. I had about 6 stops to get to the Hauptbahnhof, but I wasn’t really counting because that was the train’s destination. I passed some familiar-sounding stops like Alexanderplatz and Freidrichstrauße. As I passed the Berliner Dom again, considered stopping at Freidrichstrauße so I could go back, but I needed to get that Welcome Card from the central station since I was familiar with where to get it from.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

I felt good when I arrived back at the central station, because I knew where everything was. I went straight to the place where I could buy the Welcome Card and stood in a fast moving line. The office was jam packed with tourists, but there was order in the chaos. I got the 3-Day pass, and the guy told me to validate it on my first train journey and it would start the counter from there.

I had some time to get something to eat, so I went to the food court to check what was popular. There were lots of takeaway places there including Pizza Hut and Burger King, but I didn’t want something I could get at home. There was another place which had a special with currywurst and a 0.5L beer for something like €4.10, so I went for that. After all, currywurst on its own is about €3, so €1.10 for a draught of beer was a bargain.

Sea Life and the Aquadom

I checked my map while I was eating and decided to take the train to Alexanderplatz, since it was one of the closest stops to the Sea Life aquarium. It was a little difficult to find even though I had the address on hand. I expected bolder signs, but I guess I was on the wrong side of the road for a reason – to get another glimpse of the Berliner Dom.

Berliner Dom

Once I crossed the street, the aquarium was right in front of me, not to mention an open WiFi spot. Since I was about 20 minutes early, I lingered outside a bit and caught up with my friends at home before going inside.The AquaDom

It was like any other aquarium so I breezed through it in less than 3o minutes. My main mission was to get to the Aquadom – a 25m high glass aquarium filled with a million litres of water. I was given a separate ticket for it when I entered the aquarium, and had to give it to the lady in front of the Aquadom, who, as it turns out, was the one doing the tour as we went through it via the lift.

Nemo inside the AquaDom

The lift is quite wide and has 2 levels, so you can stand on either one. They only allow around 15 people in at a time, so it’s not too crowded and you can see in all directions. The ride up was quite an experience, and the guide alternated between German and English so that everyone would know what was going on.

The ride up and back down lasted about 20 minutes, so we saw quite a lot. I didn’t expect it to go on for that long so I was pleasantly surprised.

Once the tour was over, there was nothing else to see in the aquarium, so I was literally in and out of it in less than an hour. That was what I found a little disappointing.

My Favourite Place

If you haven’t already guessed it, my favourite place in Berlin (before even leaving South Africa) is the Berliner Dom. Since it was literally a 5 minute walk from the aquarium, it was the most obvious place for me to go to next. I had the entire evening free so I could glare at it for as long as I wanted to, and that’s exactly what I did for over an hour.

Since I had been walking for hours, my legs were pretty sore, so I sat on a bench a couple metres in front of the entrance. This was my view.

My view of the Dom

To my delight, there was open WiFi there too. Let me just say that it was damn fun being able to immediately post that picture on Facebook and check in at the Berliner Dom. Some friends of mine said that they wanted to live my holiday through me, so I should check in wherever I could. That is exactly what I had done on the entire trip. I also used some time to charge my phone – power banks are a lifesaver when you’re on holiday and can’t get enough photos.

While I was sitting taking in the general splendour of the architectural beauty in front of me, a local man suddenly came and sat on the other end of my bench and immediately started chatting. He reminded me of Stephen Hawking not only because of his face, but the nerdiness too. He was very friendly, and I don’t mean in a forward manner. At first I thought he wanted something or was going to try to sell me something, but he actually just wanted to chat to someone that clearly looked like a visitor.

We ended up speaking for over 30 minutes about things ranging from where I’m from to why I came to Berlin, and even about the refugee crisis. His view on the refugees was totally different to the Czech woman I had met on the train the previous day in that he thought that it was a great thing for different cultures to get together and learn from each other. He even encouraged me to come work in Berlin because he felt the city needed people like me to improve its diversity, among other things.

Once again, the awesomeness of Germans was revealed. They really are some of the nicest people in the world.

After we said goodbye to each other (poor guy, I don’t remember his name), I went further back to get better views of the Dom. I simply had to go up the stairs of the museum next to it so that I could see it from the same perspective that The Piano Guys had seen it from when they shot their music video for Berlin.

The Dom from the Altes Museum

I tried asking 3 different people to take photos of me with the Dom in the background, but all of them failed miserably. The photos were either askew, or they’d cut off part of the Dom. You’d think all working-age people would know how to operate a camera phone, but apparently that is not the case.

My Other Favourite Place

I took a stroll to the Freidrichstrauße station and decided to head back towards my hotel. But since it was not quite dusk, I still had time to see more. Instead of going back to Potsdamer Platz, I took the train to Brandenburg Tor (Gate), after doing a lot of running around trying to figure out whether to take the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn, since they have different stations for each, and consequently different directions that they go in. That for me was the biggest pain in the ass in Berlin, and cost me a lot of time in the days to come. I constantly wished it was as easy to navigate as Munich’s train system (not to mention everywhere else I’d been) where there’s just one station per stop and all had ample signage. Anyway…

The Brandenburg Tor station comes out right in front of Brandenburg Gate, and it was only about 1.4km from my hotel, so I could easily walk back. As I mentioned before, it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, so there were tonnes of celebrations going on on the other side of Pariser Platz. I assumed that one would need tickets of some sort to get in, so I didn’t join. I kick myself for not doing it now because I should have went to see what was going on. It’s not everyday that you’re in Berlin for such a historic event.

Brandenburg Gate

Since I wasn’t about to go looking for anything to eat, I decided to get a cup of coffee from the Starbucks at Pariser Platz. €4.70 (basically, an arm and a leg) got me a tall cafe mocha. My Starbucks cafe mochaI didn’t want to waste my time by having their cappuccino again. Their cafe mocha however…that was a different story. It was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was the perfect temperature too. They also spelled my name in a way I’ve never seen it spelled before, and trust me, my name has been spelled in many different ways.Behind Brandenburg Gate

It was dusk at this point, my favourite time of day, and I wanted to stick around the area more. I walked towards Brandenburg Gate to somehow get a glimpse of what was going on behind all the barriers, and little did I realise that the Reichstag lay just around the corner. It really was by chance that I stumbled upon it, as I had not checked the map to see exactly where it was.

There were queues of people outside it, and dozens inside the dome at the top. I enquired about tickets, but was told that I had to have booked in advance and that I could try getting tickets from the offices across the road, but the queues would take hours. It’s such a pity I didn’t look that up when I was planning my trip. I instead did the stupidest thing of assuming I could buy tickets at the door. Tip: Never assume!

Reichstag

I was quite exhausted by then; I had walked nearly 13km that day according to my S Health app. It still wasn’t close to the 18km I had walked in Prague a few days before, but it was a lot. I still wasn’t tired enough to use the train back to my hotel though. Walking isn’t something you get to do much at all in Johannesburg, so I wanted to use that opportunity to the fullest.

I did so by taking a different route back to the hotel, one that passed the Jewish memorial. I didn’t walk through it because it had started to drizzle and I figured I’d be back if I succeeded in booking a Third Reich tour.

Jewish memorial

There were quite a few people hanging out in and around it, something I didn’t expect. I thought it to be a bit disrespectful for people to be sitting on some of the blocks, but it appeared to be acceptable.

I just knew the general direction in which to walk so I kept on going until I reached familiar territory – the Mall of Berlin. It was early, but dark. I was starving because I had walked off whatever coffee and food I had consumed that day, but wasn’t sure where to get something.

I went back to my hotel and eventually decided to take a walk around Potsdamer Platz and the other side of the Mall of Berlin which seemed to have some cool lighting around. After walking around for at least an hour, I gave up looking for something to eat. I didn’t want a big meal so I wasn’t about to go sit in a restaurant. It ended up being one of those days where lunch had to suffice!

I went to bed watching more news of what was going on at Brandenburg Gate, as well as some British news – I had actually missed hearing English. I didn’t have anything planned for the following day; I was free to wander. Not that I was complaining.

Prague to Berlin

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.

Train schedule at Prague Central Station

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.

Dresden HBF

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.

Berlin HBF

20151003_151809

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.

Berlin HBF

Motel One

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.

Motel One, Berlin

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.

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.

Bavaria Part 3: Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein was a massive bucket list item of mine, and since I wanted to do non-mainstream things on this trip, I decided to do a Mike’s Bike Tour of the area. Their offices are easy to find if you know where the Hofbrauhaus is, as its pretty much around the corner from there. Natalia and Alec were our guides, who were fantastic. Natalia is Bulgarian and Alec is Australian, and both live in Munich. I found it odd that Natalia was wearing at least 4 layers of clothing, so was wondering what I had missed since I just had a top and rain jacket on.

There was beer, water, and snacks on the bus which we could buy at any time. Being Bavaria, beer is so much part of the culture that you can pretty much have one at whatever part of the day that you wish. Natalia said that “If you don’t drink beer, you seriously need to reconsider your lifestyle”. I couldn’t agree more.

IMG_1801

It was about a 2 hour drive to Hohenschwangau, the quaint little town that is the home of Neuschwanstein. We did get to travel on the Autobahn, something I had been wanting to do for a very long time.

Neuschwanstein1

The bike tour was amazing, and although it drizzled almost all of the time that we were riding, it didn’t make it any less enjoyable. The tour group consisted of around 36 people, so Alec rode in front and Natalia at the back, in case there were any straddlers. The trail was 9km long and lasted about 3 hours, and it was mostly flat. We stopped many times to take photos and absorb our surroundings. The views were out of this world as we went through open fields, around a lake, and through some forest. For someone whose fitness level is in the negative, I didn’t have any trouble at all except at the end where the gravel incline was a bit much to handle. I chose to walk it, along with a handful of others, as it was the last little stretch before meeting everyone else at the restaurant, Bistro Ikarus, that was next to where the bikes were to be stored.

KaaspatzenLunch was not included in the tour, and everything was cash payable, so we could order anything we liked from the restaurant. I had a great spot to sit, where I could see the castle through the door to my left. I sat with my new Belgian friend, Camille, whom I sat next to on the bus to Hohenschwangau. We were joined by a newly married American couple from Washington D.C, and a Canadian guy who was taking a short break from his teaching job in Dubai since everything was closed for Ramadaan. We all had a beer, since we now believed that we were Bavarians, and I chose to have a dish that Natalia recommended, called kässpatzen. It is basically a Bavarian macaroni and cheese with fried onions on top, although it looks and tastes a little more sophisticated. The pasta isn’t macaroni either. I washed it down with a König Ludwig Weissbier, a perfect accompaniment.

After lunch, we then went back into the middle of town in order to do some souvenir shopping and take a quick walk to the Alpsee Lake before being given the choice of either walking up to the castle or taking the bus. The bus costs €2 which is worth it if you’re tired from the bike ride. It arrives only a few minutes before those who do the walk up, so the walk might not actually be too bad.

Close to where the bus stops, there are breathtaking views of the peach-coloured Hohenschwangau Castle, and the Alpsee Lake.

IMG_20150923_222341

You do have the option of visiting the Hohenshwangau Castle as well, and will need to pay an additional entrance fee. I was not really interested so waited in the bus as Alec and Natalia explained the itinerary to the few that were. Note that the Neuschwanstein Castle tour price is not included in the tour, so you would have to pay the Mike’s tour guides and they will obtain the tickets for you.

The castle tour itself is pretty short – about 20 minutes, which is why its advisable to make a whole day out of visiting the castle if you’re staying in Munich. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos of the interior, as I expected. Usually in places like that, copyright laws are what stop you from taking photos, however we were told that it was because they did not want to make the tour any longer than it should be because of having to wait for people to take photos and consequently have to catch up with the group.

Neuschwanstein's courtyard

Neuschwanstein’s courtyard

The castle interior is like nothing I have ever seen. I don’t know if it was because I was still getting over the fact that I was literally inside Neuschwanstein, or because it was that spectacular. Nevertheless, I was in complete and utter awe of the place. What I remember most is the Royal Bedchamber with its Neo-Gothic style bed, and silver-plated washbasin with the spout in the shape of a swan. My other favourite and most remembered place was the Throne Room, which gave me goosebumps and cold shivers all over upon entering it due to its high ceilings, Byzantine chandelier, and marble staircase that went up to where the throne would have been but which was never completed (such a shame).

I must give fair warning – there are a heck of a lot of stairs to climb when you’re on the tour, at least 4 floors, and they are the narrow spiral staircase kind. So if you’ve got any health issues or are claustrophobic, take that into consideration before doing the castle tour, as you can ascend only in single file.

I did take a photo while I was inside the castle. However, it was not of the interior itself, so I guess I was technically allowed to do so. It was the only place where I found a completely open window, so I could not pass up the opportunity to take a photo from inside the castle since the only pictures we ever really see are of its exterior. I also wanted to capture what King Ludwig would have seen in his time, so I got this:

Ludwig's view from Neuschwanstein

Once the tour was over, we descended dozens of stairs to the bottom where we were met with a long, wide tunnel-like passage leading outside. The tunnel was had a rather chilly draft. There is also a gift shop at the bottom, which I had a quick glance through, but chose not to buy anything since I had already done by shopping in the town itself.

Alec and Natalia

We were met by Alec and Natalia, who waited at the exit as we came out, in order to show us where to grab a bite and meet for the walk down back to the bus. This was a little after 5pm. When I saw Natalia, she had put her body warmer jacket back on and I realised that she had actually been to Neuschwanstein so often (up to 5 times a week) that she knew exactly what kind of weather she’d be experiencing. Or rather, how many seasons she’d be experiencing in a single day. I had seen her with a tshirt on and then a few minutes later, the hoodie. I found myself feeling slightly envious of the fact that she could experience such beauty so often that it had become almost like routine for her to pack that many items of clothing for a single day. If only it were possible to just drop everything and travel for a living!

After chatting with Natalia and Alec for a while, I headed down to the little cafe next to the castle and Pretzel and bier at Neuschwansteingrabbed a pretzel and a Hofbrauhaus beer while waiting for the others, and joined the newly weds I had had lunch with. The pretzel was so filling that I did not eat anything else for the rest of the evening.

The walk down was actually quite exhausting as the incline was rather steep, so there was a lot of pressure on the knees. One of the men on my tour walked backwards a few steps to get some relief. I should have done the same, but I was still struggling to finish my rather large pretzel while 20150923_173537holding an open beer, so I had enough things to concentrate on already. It was a very scenic walk though, as we were going through a pretty thick green forest.

What else can I say about Neuschwanstein Castle? Not much except for how much I think everyone needs to go see it. It is the castle that inspired the Disney castle, and it really is like something out of a fairy tale. Walk around the area and see as much as you can. Take a walk to the Alpsee Lake. Have a pretzel or two. In Bavaria, you can never have enough pretzels or beer.

Magic does exist, and it is at Neuschwanstein Castle.

 

Bavaria Part 2: Oktoberfest

On my second day in Munich, I attended Oktoberfest. There really is no better time to visit Munich than during this time, and I think it is something that everyone should do at least once in their lives. I joined a tour called the Size Matters Beer Tour which started at 9am and continued till 4pm. The only reason I joined a tour was because I didn’t want to go to the world’s largest drinking event alone, especially in a foreign country where I barely knew the language.

Cape Town, Hamburg, Seattle, and Johannesburg celebrating Oktoberfest as one

Cape Town, Seattle, Johannesburg, and Hamburg celebrating Oktoberfest as one

The tour started off with some history of Munich itself as we walked to our first stop for our traditional Bavarian breakfast. For those who don’t know what that is, it is basically 0.5L of Weiss bier, 2 weiss wursts, and a pretzel. It was something that was included in the tour.  I had never had beer that early in the morning before, and it was pretty damn good. It is amazing how well that particular weiss bier goes down with a pretzel at that part of the day. The weiss wurst tasted far better than it looked, although it can’t be eaten the ‘traditional’ way since the skin is too chewy to actually eat, so you need to somehow peel it off without making a mess.

On a side note – bratwurst was always something I wanted to try, but I was very disappointed by it. Currywurst and weiss wurst are far better.

Breakfast1

After breakfast, we were taken to one of the world’s largest beer gardens, namely the Augustiner Keller beer garden, which can seat up to around 7000 people.  After we were taught some history about it and the reason for the white gravel, we proceeded inside for another 0.5L of beer which was slightly stronger than the one we had for breakfast, but even tastier. The owner’s wife is actually South African. Gary, who was on tour with me from Cape Town, shared a proud moment with me when we found that out.

We made our way to the Hofbrauhaus tent at Oktoberfest from there, where we had a table in the balcony that overlooked the entire tent. 2L of beer was served to us there, along with half a chicken each, and a snack platter for the table. The chicken is very well cooked, and even though it didn’t come with any accompaniments, it was perfectly fine to eat on its own. We had the table until 4 but managed to hold it for almost a full hour afterwards before deciding to part with each other.

3L of beer was consumed that day…the most I had ever had in my life. Thankfully it was over the course of  around 7 hours, so I was still standing at the end. Do not underestimate the power of pretzels – they are made specifically for water retention (so you don’t need to answer to nature’s call so often) and to absorb the beer so that you can drink more (that’s why they’re so salty). Thanks to those pretzels, I literally required the use of the restroom only 3 times that day. Beer drinkers will know that that is practically impossible after consuming that amount of beer.

20150922_130504

The restroom facilities in the Hofbrauhaus tent were immaculate and not busy at all. Ladies will know that you have to wait in line in at least 90% of public places – I did not have to wait even once. I do however owe it to the fact that we attended the festival during the day on a weekday, so it was not as crowded as it would have been after 4pm when the locals get off work, or on weekends. As a single woman, it was the ideal time to go.

Security is quite tight at the festival and attendees are monitored even though they don’t realise it. I witnessed a man being escourted out of the tent by 2 burly guards, as he was clearly over his limit with alcohol and could barely walk by himself. The guards also check if anyone is trying to walk out of the tent with a beer mug, so if you want to sit in the tent’s beer garden outside, you need to tell them that that’s where you’re going with your glass.

Do not take a backpack to the event (I mistake that I made) as you will not be allowed into many of the tents. Some tents searched mine before letting me in, where others refused outright.

The Hofbrauhaus Tent at Oktoberfest 2015

There really is no experience like Oktoberfest. Beer fan or not, it is an absolute must do. The Hofbrauhaus beer was awesome, and although the locals claim that it is just a tourist attraction and that there are better beers around, I really did not mind being the tourist that fell for the so-called trap. In terms of price, I didn’t notice much of a difference. Also, there is so much history attached to the Hofbrauhaus itself that I saw no harm in being drawn to it.

Prost!

Prost!

Bavaria Part 1: Munich

My trip is actually over now and I can’t really believe it. I left with many bucket list items and am happy to report that all were ticked off.

The truth is that when people asked me if I’m excited about my trip, all I could think of was that I felt like I was going home. It was a strange feeling considering I was going to places I had never been to before. I had never experienced such a feeling before, and it was probably the most at peace that I’ve ever felt.

So what exactly did I get up to in Munich? Here’s a breakdown:

Accommodation

I used AirBnB for my stay in Munich as it was the only affordable accommodation close to the city centre, at least, for that time of year (since Oktoberfest is the busiest that Munich gets). I stayed on the south east side of the city, about a 10 minute walk away from the Giesing metro station.

My host was a 40-something year old man named Klaus, who was friendly and welcoming. Now I know what you must be thinking…”A single girl being hosted by a single man? That can’t be safe!”. Relax, I did enough researching before I made my booking, and only did so after I saw that a fair number of other single women had stayed with him before and had nice things to say.

There were 2 things that were off with Klaus, however. The first was that upon my arrival, he asked if I enjoy cooking, to which I replied yes. Because I had mentioned that I wanted to go to the Viktual Market, he said that I should get groceries from there so I could cook that very same evening. I was not impressed as not only was it my first day in a totally foreign city, I had also just traveled for 17 hours and had not slept, so the last thing I wanted to do was have to cook, especially when I was on holiday. I tried my best to politely refuse, but he just wouldn’t take no for an answer. In the end, he threw in so many different spices into it that it the end result was a disaster. At least, for me.

Odeonsplatz

The second thing about Klaus was that something he said to me not long after I arrived: “If any of the neighbours see you and ask who you are, just say you’re my friend and are staying with me for a few days”. This was something I had read about where tenants’ landlords are not aware that they are sub-letting the property. From the moment he said that to me, I prayed that I would not see any of his neighbours. Thankfully, I didn’t. So to avoid possibly getting kicked out, make sure you know enough about who you’re staying with.

Overall, I had a pleasant stay. I did not see Klaus much at all after my first day, since he was either working late or visiting his daughter far out of the city. I always left early in the morning before he could wake up, so there was practically no interaction with him until it was time to leave.

I would probably use AirBnB again, but since I prefer the privacy of staying alone, I would look at something where I have the place entirely to myself. Homestay is another option that I heard of recently, so I will probably try that next time.

The Viktual Market

The Viktual Market is an absolute must-do when in Munich. It is a bustling market that not only sells great food and the most amazing fresh produce, but also has a world-famous beer garden. It was here that I spent my entire first afternoon in Munich, since I had to try to find something to cook that evening.

BeerGarden2

BeerGarden1

Since I hadn’t tried German beer or curry wurst on my first 2 trips to Germany, I made sure I got both on my first day right in the Viktual Market itself. The beer garden is always busy, so the beer keeps flowing. They do not pour the beer when you order it; instead, they pour it into the various sized glasses and you pick up the one you want. This keeps the line moving quicker since you don’t need to wait for what you want.

I found a standing table near some locals, and they were only too happy to take photos not only of me, but with me too. I exchanged the favour of course, but it was lovely experiencing that German friendliness and warmth again.

Marienplatz

Marienplatz is the centre of town and was my favourite spot in the city. Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful, but the atmosphere is simply electric. There is also free Wi-Fi called M-WLAN Free Wi-fi, which is strongest at the entrance to the S-Bahn closest to the Viktual Market end. The Wi-Fi is so good that I managed to make a crystal clear Skype call, 10 minutes in length, to a friend back home in South Africa.

Marienplatz

I found myself using Marienplatz as the main starting point for anywhere else that I wanted to go, and would walk hours and hours from there, only to return to take the same route back to where I was staying, which brings me to my next point.

TransportationMunich metro plan

Munich’s transportation system is by far the most convenient and easiest to navigate from all the cities I went to on this trip. There is one station per stop (which I will elaborate on when I write about Berlin) so it is a breeze to get around. I’ve used a number of metro maps before, and Munich’s one is without a doubt one of the simplest ones I’ve seen. There is an S-Bahn and a U-Bahn, which are very easy to find. Getting around the stations is seamless as they are clearly marked in both English and German in most places, so if you don’t speak the language, you’ll be fine if you have common sense.

I wanted to visit Nymphenburg Palace while I was in Munich, so Klaus advised me to take the S8 to the Hauptbahnhof then to get onto tram 17 which would take me right to the palace. Following directions was so painless and hassle free that it was impossible to get lost. I have never felt so comfortable in a foreign city the way I did in Munich.

Nymphenburg Palace

This is another place that is a must see. The palace gardens are humongous, and they took me around 2 hours to walk around the inner pathways, although I did spend at least 30 minutes sitting at the lake. The gardens are lush and green, and made me feel as though I had stepped into the Secret Garden. It is not everyday that you get the feeling that you’re walking in a forest, but these gardens are so big and the trees are so thick in some areas that apart from the rustling of the leaves in the wind, there is no other sound. I particularly enjoyed the silence at the lake, in the company of ducks and swans. The last time I was fully alone with my thoughts like this was back in 2012 when I was being pulled up the side of Mt Pilatus on a toboggan. It is a rare pleasure that we all need every once in a while.

Nymphenburg Palace

Munich was my favourite city from this trip. I have never felt that at home in a foreign place before. If there is one place I could see myself living in, its there. The only thing I regret is not having spent at least another day there; so if you’ve never been before, I recommend staying at least 5 days in Munich as there is tonnes to see and do, and plenty of beauty to take in. The culture is what got me hooked to it more than anything else. The locals are Bavarians first, then German. They are extremely proud of their heritage and it is visible everywhere you go. If you really want to see the culture at its best i.e. when they’re in traditional wear, go during Oktoberfest. It is like nothing you have ever seen.