Off to a great start.
As usual, KLM got us here; no frills, but no hiccups either. And as usual, Viking were right on the money: waiting outside arrivals, coach waiting and into the City without a hitch.
First impressions? Berlin is possibly the first big city I actually like. It’s open, very green with wide avenues, parks and open spaces, not totally clogged with traffic. For Europe’s 2nd largest city, it somehow feels smaller: calm, relaxed and safe. And Clean! But then, aren’t all German cities?
The Hilton is slap bang in the middle of it, on Berlin’s most beautiful square, the historic Gendarmenmarkt, just moments from the French and German Cathedrals and the concert house. There’s a major open air concert this evening. Not going - but with the windows open, who knows - we may get to enjoy it anyway!
We’d heard about a bierkeller/restaurant so thought we’d take a look. Now, anyone who knows me know I have a healthy appetite, but this was a challenge. Who doesn’t love a challenge? I suppose 2 litres of Weißbier helped it go down!
So, all in all a good start. City Tour tomorrow.
Quite a busy day today, made all the more “interesting” by temperatures that reached 30C by mid-afternoon.
The morning was taken up by a guided tour of the City. Strange to say but the largest part of this tour, and the most interesting places were in the old Russian Sector (East Berlin).
After lunch, armed with a U-Bahn (Tube) ticket we set off to explore on our own, and go back to some of the areas we’d visited on the tour.
Ka-Da-We is (sort of) Berlin’s Harrods and an attraction in it’s own right (as is Harrods).
And, like Harrods, the food hall takes your breath away. Hundreds of varieties of anything and everything, and in each section a counter so you can buy the food to eat at the counter with a glass of beer or wine. Prices to make your eyes water! You could buy 5 CurryWürst from a stall outside for 1 (admittedly tasty looking) Bratwürst in the store.
At the Brandenberg Gate, the World Cup Fan park had been set up. From the Gate down a wide avenue about as long as The Mall (from Admiralty Arch to the Palace), open from 1pm onwards. Capacity? Maybe 250K? Large screens the whole length. Do Germans enjoy football? Does the Pope pray!!!
[When we went out to eat just after ½ time (we’d watched on TV until then), we found a table, no problem. Service was a bit tougher - there was a TV on and the Staff were “busy”. Didn’t matter - it added to the fun.]
This is a City full of iconic buildings, from the modern TV tower to the classical architecture of past times. What has to be understood, however, is that at the end of WWII, Berlin was reduced to rubble - all of it. So most (probably all) of these “Classical” buildings have been rebuilt, and in many cases enclose ultra modern hi-tech spaces behind their façades.
One final thought today. Who says Germans have no sense of humour? What about those pedestrian lights!
A quiet day, really. And another hot one. So we decided to visit Berlin Zoo. Reputed to be the largest in Europe, we’d heard a lot about it from our Tour Guide. Why not? It’s been years since we’ve visited a zoo (and that was Bristol!).
What a super way to spent 5 hours. Beautifully set out and landscaped, with large, well maintained animal enclosures, it was like spending time in gardens with wildlife. Definitely worth the time if visiting Berlin.
Tomorrow it’s off to the ship via Potsdam. A sensible 8:45am departure, so no worries there.
Left Berlin today for the ship. Berlin was a real surprise, and we may be back. It has plenty to see and do, but, unlike so many big cities (and it’s Europe’s 2nd largest), it lacks the noise, bustle and dustiness of most others. You can actually relax if you want to!
We travelled via Potsdam, once the border between West Berlin and East Germany (the DDR). A stunt maybe, but nonetheless poignant, we left the bus in West Berlin and walked across the bridge which was Checkpoint Bravo, a journey of a few hundred metres that could not have been made 25 years ago.
Potsdam was the location of the Conference that divided Germany between the Allies at the end of WW2, and effectively created the DDR.
We went into the town for lunch (because you’re not allowed to go more than a few minutes without eating!). A pleasant little place, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The conference was held in the Palace of the original Kings of Prussia. Quite impressive buildings and architecture. The conference itself was held in (I suppose) an annex to the main palace a mile or so away that reminded me of hunting lodges. I’m not completely sure because I turned off my headset as the guide had a really annoying voice!
Arrived in Magdeburg at around 5pm - just enough time to unpack, shower and go to dinner!
Home of Martin Luther, author of the Reformation, this pretty small German town has little else to distinguish it. Add to that the fact that, as Luther’s 750th anniversary approaches (2017), most of the “significant” buildings are covered in scaffold, being made to look their best. So unless you’re fascinated by religious history, it’s just a nice place for a stroll and a coffee.
These formal gardens, just outside the small town of Dessau, were the first “English” gardens in mainland Europe. They are mostly the work of Leopold III, Duke of Anhalt Dessau (1740-1817).
The buildings themselves are very interesting, but to see most of them, you take the most ususual tour I’ve ever experienced. Most of them are spread around the parklands (which are extensive) which enclose a very large lake. In fact, this lake is an inlet from the Elbe river. So, you are taken in a “gondola”, which carries 10 or 12 people, and ROWED around.
And as he rows, he talks! These gondolas are not small things.
They are made of very serious thick wooden planking. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could row these things empty for a few 100 meters, let alone when full of tourists for 45 minutes per tour, and making 6 or 7 trips per day. You wouldn’t want to argue with these muscles!
The gondola just ahead of us was being rowed by a 63 year old guide. I feel embarrassed by the comparison with my fitness levels!
Bonus day today. Because of low water on the Elbe, the ship has been unable to sail on from Wittenberg and, because coaches are faster than river cruisers an extra day appeared out of fresh air. And so, they added a day out in Leipzig.
And what a bonus. This city is amazing. Architecture new and old, “Soviet” and western, classical and modernist. History up to its eyeballs. The home of composers (Bach, Wagner, Schumann, Mendelssohn), writers (Goethe, Schiller) and lord knows how many cultural giants. The largest and oldest German University. The major manufacturing home of both Porsche and BMW. The place where Napoleon’s stampede across Europe was stopped - and the biggest memorial I’ve ever seen to commemorate it.
We had lunch in the City’s most prestigious restaurant, where all the writers, composers and intellectuals met to talk and drink coffee. The guide suggested it to be the 4th most famous restaurant in the World (although I’d never heard of it). It deserved its build up, however. Magnificently flavoured local Sachsen (Saxony) cuisine.
The city is quite simply delightful. Not only is there all the culture and history, it also has a vibrant, busy and varied shopping and café quarter. And little tourist trap junk either. A centre for local people who clearly enjoy a pretty good lifestyle.
The city is also criss-crossed by elegant shopping arcades.
I’d never thought of Leipzig as a place to visit. Now I wished we’d had a few days to really explore it.
Nice job, River Gods.
Today we set off to change ships, joining the Schumann in Dresden, about 2½ hours away by coach.
We travelled via Torgau, the site where the Russian (Ukrainian) forces met the US Army in 1945, effectively completing the occupation of Germany.
From there we travelled on to Meißen. The porcelain however is spelt Meissen; why - no one knew.
We had lunch in a very traditional restaurant that served Sachsen food. The oldest inn in Meißen. It differed from the Leipzig traditional, perhaps having been influenced a little to it’s nearness to the Czech border. Even higher calorie count!
Meißen is a small, pretty Sachsen town with narrow streets and open squares. The sun came out and we had a short time to explore before going on to the Meissen porcelain factory.
Trabants: The luxury vehicle of the Communist DDR was spotted parked in a side street en route.
At the factory, we had demonstrations of the manufacturing processes and of how the porcelain is made, justifying (?) the exceptionally high cost of Meissen items. And I mean high! Coffee cup and saucer in a “basic” pattern and shape for around €250. They had jewellery pieces in excess of €25,000. Problem is; I could see how beautiful it was, but it seemed no more beautiful than Wedgwood bone china, which is (perhaps) a third of the price.
From there we travelled on to Dresden to join the Clara Schumann and at last begin actually cruising the River Elbe.
Although flattened during WW2, Dresden’s centre looks as if it has remained untouched for hundreds of years.
At every turn, there are the most impressive structures, palaces, gardens and streets. Of course, there are places where the rebuilding has been redeveloped as modern buildings, but even these are architecturally attractive and interesting.
You can walk the palace walls to have an incredible view of the city and the palace.
Our final day before travelling home tomorrow.
We had visited Prague about 10 years ago. Nothing’s changed and everything has changed.
Still the same beautiful buildings, the same crowded streets and squares, the same buzz and beer. And still the same desire by every Czech involved in the tourist industry, to overcharge, to add odd items to bills, to provide service with a frown and generally take the shine off their beautiful city.
The changes are a shame but inevitable: the unstoppable arrival of American chains: Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds, et al.
The horse and carriage rides are still there; their upgraded version is quite innovative. Old Skodas
We had a great time, but I wouldn’t go back again. The constant stream of tourists has done nothing to improve the experience; it has been interpreted as more lambs to the slaughter to be taken in at each and every opportunity. Count your change, check the bill item by item and read the very small print about cover charges, services charges, etc. before ordering, agree any taxi fare before getting in, if paying in Euros triple check the exchange rate, etc., etc. Even check if the price of street food is per portion or per 100g. Such a shame!
Still a beautiful city, full of atmosphere and a busy place to pass the time.
You read books, watch films & documentaries, but nothing prepares you for having the horrors of the Holocaust explained where they happened. Terezin wasn’t an extermination camp, but still tens of thousands died in the camp of disease and malnutrition. It was a transit camp and thousands more died whilst being shipped onward to Auschwitz, Belsen and other extermination camps. Maybe 5 or 10 per thousand of those dispatched arrived alive.
For Jews, 70 people could spend over a week in a room this size - no furniture or sanitation except a bucket that wasn’t emptied - waiting to be registered.
It is a valuable experience, but you leave confused by your emotions.
We spent a short time in the township, a charming place; such a contrast.