May 26, 2008 in Berlin 2008
The East Side Gallery is one of my favourite places in Berlin. The longest surviving section of the wall, it is covered in some pretty historic murals, originally painted in the heady days of November 1989, and it’s amazing to be able to see what a pathetically thin slab of concrete separated two different worlds within the same city. Sadly the murals are decaying. They were freshened up by the original artists in 2000, and so when I first saw them in 2002 they looked pretty good. By 2004 they were a bit rough-looking, and now in 2008 it was really depressing to see how awful they looked. In a city with no shortage of places to spray a bit of graffiti, I couldn’t understand why so many people would choose to spray it here.
May 26, 2008 in Berlin 2008
The next morning I walked via the Hackescher Markt to Alexanderplatz, then along Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. Beyond the gate, I walked along the giant Straße des 17 Juni to a Soviet war memorial. This was what used to be West Berlin, but throughout the cold war Soviet soldiers stood guard at the memorial. Two tanks either side of the entrance were supposedly the first two Russian tanks to enter the city in April 1945. It had been bright and sunny but today was grey and sombre. I walked on from the memorial up to the Spree, and then along by the river banks as far as Bellevue station. From there I decided to head back east, to Treptow and another war memorial. This one was far, far bigger than the one in the Tiergarten. The huge site was almost deserted, and the heavy skies gave it an atmosphere of sadness. The battle for this city was one of the bloodiest in history, and put an end after six grim years of war to one of the most horrific regimes in history. Berlin today is so exciting and dynamic that it seems impossible to believe what happened [...]
May 25, 2008 in Berlin 2008
I’d gone to the Hamburger Bahnhof last time I was in Berlin. To get there we had to go via the Haupbahnhof, which at the time was just an empty shell – a vast glass roof over bare platforms, cold and empty and dusted by winter snow. The station had been finished in 2006, and today in the hot May sun it was unbelievably different, now that it was full of shops, fast food stands, people, trains, and activity.
May 25, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Any great city has to have a great contemporary art gallery. Berlin has the awesome Hamburger Bahnhof, housed in a former railway station in the north of the city. I’d been there before in 2004, and found most things except the main exhibition of the moment to be impressive. It was the same this time, with huge amounts of space devoted to stuff by Wolfgang Tillmans, which I was mostly indifferent to. Once I found the parts that Wolfgang hadn’t filled with meaningless rubbish, there were some excellent things. One installation that I particularly liked was an almost entirely dark room, with just an incredibly faint image projected onto the far wall. You had to spent at least ten minutes in there before the point of it became clear, and I liked that. Re-emerging into the bright gallery, I needed another ten minutes to be able to see properly again afterwards.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
We’d come into Berlin during the week, hoping to have a bite to eat up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower, but it had been much too busy. We tried again this evening and managed to get in. It’s retro heaven up there, rotating slowly over this amazing city, in a very seventies-looking restaurant. We ate as well as we could afford to, which was not terribly well, and spun around for a couple of hours.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Another new thing since 2004 was the Holocaust memorial near Potsdamer Platz. It had opened in 2005 after years of planning and disputes. On what used to be no-mans-land between east and west during the Cold War, 2,711 sombre stone pillars stand, some small, some large, none identical. We walked among them, and I felt that as a piece of art it was interesting, but it was not much of a memorial, with no signs, names, explanations or anything. It took us a while to find the museum below, and that put things right on the memorial front, with detailed and shocking exhibits about the horrors of Nazi Germany. The more I travel in Europe the more I appreciate what devastation this continent suffered, and how fortunate we are to have peace today.
May 24, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Berlin is probably my favourite city in Europe. I love the atmosphere of the place, heavy with history but so modern and forward-looking at the same time. This was my third trip, and the number of things that had changed since the last time were breathtaking. New buildings had gone up, old ones had come down, most dramatically the old GDR parliament building. The East Side Gallery was much more covered in graffiti than it had been, and the Dom seemed to have lost the very top of its dome. But towering above it all was the familiar sight of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower.
May 19, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Five months into 2008 and I was onto my fifth trip of the year. I went to Potsdam for a week to learn how to analyse a certain type of astronomical data. Unfortunately the weekend before was the Miglia Quadrato, London’s fantastic all-night treasure hunt. I spent a Saturday night driving around the City of London hunting for clues until 5am, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and then headed to Stansted for a flight to Schönefeld. I got an S-bahn into Berlin, then another S-bahn out to Potsdam, finally arriving at my hostel at 1am. Each day’s work for the next week started at 9am, and it took me until about Thursday to recover from the weekend. Working in Potsdam was pretty awesome. Each morning I would get up at 7am, wander up through Babelsberg via a bakery to buy breakfast and lunch, meet a friend from work who was also here for the week, and then walk up through fields and narrow lanes to the Astrophysikalisches Intstitut. The peacefulness was amazing, and I thought it was great for the week that I was there, but by Friday I was missing noise and bustle. We headed for Berlin.
Dec 20, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to West Berlin on our last morning in the city. The west got a bit of a raw deal when the city was divided, with most of the most historic and impressive parts of the city ending up in the East. We walked down the Kurfürstendamm from Zoo station and didn’t find too much to detain us. But we did pass the Gedächtniskirche. I’d seen it in 2002 but only from a distance when I’d got off the train from Warsaw at Zoo station. This time we walked right up to the bottom of it. It’s a pretty shocking sight – the ruined shell of a church, left unrepaired since it was bombed in 1943. On that sombre note we headed back east. We stopped at Hackescher Markt for a coffee and cake, and even in the middle of winter the square was busy and lively. This was the dual personality of Berlin – on the one hand you can’t get away from the fact that it was the epicentre of the most destructive war in human history. And on the other hand it’s hard to find a city more dynamic, progressive and exciting. I hoped I would [...]
Dec 19, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art gallery. To get there we had to go to via Lehrter Bahnhof, still under construction as Berlin’s new main station, and eerily large and empty. It was snowing heavily as we arrived. The gallery had some amazing things, and some stupid things, as is the normal way with contemporary art. Its main hall was filled with junk, literally and figuratively, but other parts had worthwhile installations. I liked the two large blocks covered in mirrors.
Dec 18, 2004 in Berlin 2004
The Rammstein gig was fantastic. Anticipation built up hugely before the start, and there was a massive roar from the crowd as five people with torches came on stage. Was this the band? No, it was just the roadies, hyping things up yet further. They wandered off stage as a bass note began to play. Then, a curtain dropped, fireworks exploded, and Rammstein appeared. It was a stunning start, and the rest of the gig was all flamethrowers, fireworks, and immense tunes. The next day we got up late. We had no particular plan in mind, and ended up going to the Dom. In the evening, it looked pretty impressive. Nearby was a Christmas market, where lots of hot food was cooking. We felt like a snack, and we found the mother of all snacks at a stand selling half-metre bratwursts. This had to be tried, and between the five of us we ordered a ridiculous two and a half metres of sausage. By about 20cm in I was feeling pretty full, and by the end I felt grotesquely stuffed. I didn’t eat again until the following evening.
Dec 16, 2004 in Berlin 2004
We went to the East Side Gallery. Two years ago, graffiti was beginning to cover the murals, and now it was a lot worse. But still it was an impressive place, and so strange to think that this thin piece of concrete divided a nation for so long.
Dec 15, 2004 in Berlin 2004
I’d passed through Berlin in the summer of 2002, on my way back from China. It had been hot, and amazing. Now I had to go back, because Rammstein were playing, and I had got hold of tickets. I knew what their live shows were like, and I was very excited. I had bought my flights months ago. It was freezing in Berlin when we arrived. Mist covered the city, and from the ground, the low sun was casting a shadow of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower onto the sky above. We went up the tower and saw the sunset shining through the haze. It was good to be back in Berlin.
Nov 16, 2003 in Hamburg 2003
I had an early flight back from Lübeck so I spent a night there. Hamburg had had an atmosphere of things happening – Lübeck had an atmosphere of nothing having changed for decades or perhaps centuries. I wandered around the streets of grand old buildings, and on a nicer day I probably would have quite liked the town. But it had been grey all weekend, and rain was now beginning to fall heavily. There was not much to do on a winter Sunday evening in Lübeck in the rain.
Nov 15, 2003 in Hamburg 2003
My flight to Lübeck was so early that my best option was to sleep at Stansted. My plan was that this would be a little bit less tiring than getting up at 3am, but then I met a fun bunch of people on the last train to Stansted, we played cards all night on the airport floor, and I was destroyed by the time I got to Germany. I stayed in a hostel in St. Pauli, overlooking the docks. It was grey and cold, and an icy wind was blowing off the Elbe as I looked over the huge expanse of cranes. The bracing conditions at least woke me up a bit.
Aug 22, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The last thing I did in Berlin was go up the Alexanderplatz TV Tower. It is almost identical to the CCTV tower in Beijing, but 35 metres shorter. I had a snack in the rotating restaurant, watched Berlin go by far below, and felt like I was almost home. I had a ticket for the night train to Paris, and so in the morning I would be just two hundred miles from London, and five thousand miles from Beijing.
Aug 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
The Reichstag, burned down in 1933 and used as a pretext for Nazi repression, had been restored in the 1990s, and three years before I arrived it had become the parliament of Germany at the same time as Berlin had become the capital again. In many cities throughout the world, if you want something glassy and modern to be built, you call in Norman Foster, and Berlin had done just that when they needed a new cupola for the Reichstag. The dome he designed was spectacular, and soon became a major attraction for tourists in Berlin. It was a blazing hot summer day when I decided to go and have a look at it, and I queued for about an hour to get in. I hadn’t used Euros before this trip, and I was still getting used to their value. Under the glass of the dome it was incredibly hot, and there was a stand selling ice creams and cold drinks. I bought an ice cream an an orange juice for six euros, and I actually thought for a few minutes that this was a reasonable price.
Aug 21, 2002 in Beijing to London 2002
I got a train to Berlin. The six hour journey went by in a flash, and I barely had time to notice the countryside. What I did see as we crossed into Germany was the Oder River looking scarily swollen and fast flowing. I had heard that there was severe flooding in countries to the south of me. I liked Berlin straight away. It had the same atmosphere of a place heavy with recent history that Moscow had had. I grew up hearing about the Berlin Wall all the time on the news, and remembered watching the fall on TV when I was 11 years old. The first place I went to in Berlin was the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the wall. After the fall, various international artists painted murals all along the stretch. What seemed most amazing was how thin the wall was. I always imagined it would be several feet thick, but a couple of inches of concrete was all that had physically separated East and West Germany. Some of the works of art on the wall were very famous, like the picture of a Trabant bursting through, and of Erich Honecker and Leonid [...]
May 27, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
After a dreadful night’s sleep at the noisy youth hostel, I went back to the station to buy a train ticket back to Paris. Having booked myself onto the overnight train again, I had the whole day to explore Munich again. The day had dawned bright and very warm, and seeing as it had been so pleasant the day before, I went back to the Englischer Garten. Sadly, by the time I’d got out of the U-bahn, there were clouds in the sky, and it was getting cooler. Soon it had started raining. I thought I’d walk on through the park, in the hope that it would soon stop, but in fact just as I got to the point furthest from any shelter, the rain started really lashing down.By the time I got out of the park, I was absolutely sodden, and considerably less cheerful than I had been. However, the rain had stopped, and so I carried on wandering. I wandered back to the Marienplatz, which is where all the tourists seem to congregate. It’s dominated by the wildly overblown gothic monstrosity which is the town hall. Nearby, the Viktualienmarket is a good place to pick up a bratwurst, [...]
May 26, 2000 in London to Munich 2000
I managed to get a reclining chair on the overnight train to Munich, and so slept tolerably badly. When I went to sleep I was the only person in my carriage, but when I woke up I was surrounded by commuters, who looked as if they felt far too respectable to be sharing a carriage with a shabby backpacker. After a 10 hour journey, we rolled up exactly on time München Hauptbahnhof. I had absolutely no idea what Munich was going to be like at all until I walked out of the station. For all I knew, I could have been arriving in a German Birmingham, but thankfully Munich is actually a really nice, clean, pleasant city. I wandered around town until I could check into the youth hostel at 1pm. Once I’d checked in and slept for a couple of hours, I went back into town, via the super-efficient U-bahn. I headed for the Englischer Garten, a huge park stretching along the east side of the city. It proved surprisingly difficult to find, and after some while wandering up and down Leopoldstrasse, I ended up in the Hofgarten instead. There was a sudden heavy rainshower, and I took refuge [...]