Germany

Aber Scheiss Drauf: Stuttgart

Stuttgart005

Friday 2nd October
Summer had stayed over so that we could travel to Gatwick together but unfortunately since we’d booked the tickets I had moved back to Ealing and due to the departure time I had decided to book a taxi rather than us attempting to navigate public transport. This was to give us an extra bit of time in bed however even so the alarm still went off at an unkind 3am. It did however mean we could just relax and the journey to the airport was uneventful.

We got some food from the airport and boarded the plane where I fell asleep almost straight away causing Summer to get a photo of me however at least unlike in Spain she was kind enough not to wake me up. Arriving in Stuttgard we followed Sina’s precise instructions which even included pictures and headed for the train before Summer realised she’d left her jumper on the plane. We went back but unfortunately as there was little chance that she’d be reunited with it we continued with our journey.

Sina and Christoph met us at the station and drove us back to their apartment where I changed in to Lederhosen that Christoph had lent me and Summer changed in to a Dirndl provided by Sina. Once we were ready we made our way to the Cannstatter Wasen festival site and eventually found a beer hall with some spare benches for us to sit at where we ordered some food including Käsespätzle and obviously some beers.

Despite us being at the early session the guys behind had drunk to much and as they danced on the benches to the music one of them fell on Christoph and nearly feel on me. Those on the adjacent table didn’t look in a great condition either and one guy in particular seemed to spend most of time with his head in his hands. As the music played I also got in the mood especially during the German dance songs Aber Scheiss Drauf and Traum von Amsterdam.

Sina wasn’t drinking beer or feeling that well so we all went outside for some fresh air and as we walked past the rides Summer and I decided to go on the roller coaster which also spun the car around. Whilst I felt fine before we got on, as soon as we completed the first spin a mixture of tiredness, alcohol and general dizziness dramatically hit and by the time we got off I wasn’t in the best state. I tried to pretend I was ok and to concentrate on feeling better but even drinking water didn’t help and ultimatley I only felt settled after using the toilet where thankfully there had been no queue.

After leaving the festival we sat on the grass outside new castle and I looked up at the clouds which were spinning though after a few minutes my brain had adjusted and the dizziness had gone. Summer had decided that she wanted to buy a dirndl and we went to various shops as she tried different ones on. One of the shops offered Christoph and I a free glass of wine however I declined even though I was felling ok by that point.

We caught the train back passing the lights of the festival on the way and got some pizza from a takeaway which was playing Star Wars in German. I know I shouldn’t have found it weird, but I did find it slightly amusing because all the voices were different. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing at the apartment.

Saturday 3rd October
After having breakfast we met Christoph’s friend Alex at the station so that he could join us at the football match between Stuttgart Kickers vs Sonnenhof Grossaspach. First we made our way in to town by train and then we caught the Zahnradbahn (rack railway train) up the hill where got some good views of the city below. The stadium which is the highest in Germany and close to the Fernsehturm Stuttgart (the telecommunications tower) holds around 11,000 people and wasn’t much of a walk from the station.

After getting a beer outside of the stadium we made our way on to the terrace which is where most of the fans seemed to be congregated. There were only around 5,000 people at the match but they created a brilliant atmosphere especially when the players came out on to the pitch as various flares were lit which clouded the view with smoke.

Unfortunately the Stuttgart Kickers who we were supporting weren’t performing that well but at half time they were only 1.0 down. Sina got Summer and I Bratwurst and Maultaschen which was really nice. The second half got off to a bad start and the Kickers were soon 2.0 down before a crazy period of poor defending meant they conceded another two including a penalty. Throughout the match the fans on the terrace chanted but the display of the team was not worthy of such support as they lost 4.0.

After the match we went to the Pauliner restaurant where I had a schnitzel and a couple of beers before we moved on to another bar. Then we saw the Kugel brunnen a fountain which was a piece of granite rock which floated on some water where Summer got a picture pretending to push the rock. Next we saw some slim rubber street bollards which were bendy and we got some slightly tipsy funny photos of Summer and I pretending to look strong.

That evening we watched the rugby union match between England and Australia. Due to England losing to Wales the week before it was particularly crucial they didn’t lose and I was optimistic even agreeing to a bet with Summer that if we lost I would learn the lyrics and sing Aber Scheiss Drauf. Unfortunately it was an awful performance from England and both our fates were sealed. They were out of the world cup and I had some lyrics to learn much to the amusement of Sina’s brother and his girl friend who had come over to visit.

Sunday 4th October
The weather wasn’t particular good the following morning so we decided to have a late start and to play a few competitive games of kniffle a dice game similar to yahtzee.

Gradually the weather improved and as it was approaching lunch time we went to a wine pub called |Besenwirtschaft Escher. Sina and Christoph looked through the menu and picked the items including Maultaschen, Winzerbratenm, Leber und Griebawurst mit Kraut and Bratwurste mit Kartoffelsalat and various wursts. We ended up with to much food but It had been a great feast and the wine had been good as well.

After leaving the pub we parked near the Mercedes museum so called in so that we could see the displays in the main entrance. As we left the others made me do my recording of Aber Scheiss Drauf and Sina continued to try to make me believe I’d have to perform the song as part of the half time handball entertainment.

Next we continued to the handball match to see Stuttgart Wild Boys Vs Gummersbach Young Boys. Handball really is an exciting and ruthless sport being a cross between football and basketball. Every goal that the home team scored was met with a huge cheer whilst every goal conceded was met with groans of despair. I get quite intense about football and I doubt my emotions could handle handball because every attack seemed to lead to a goal.

The intensity and unpredictability is perfectly summed up by the final 60 seconds of a 60 minute match in the ultimate “They Think it’s all Over” situation. With less than 60 seconds to go Stuttgart were losing by one goal and conceded a penalty and it seemed certain that the match was over. Amazingly the Gummersbach player missed and Stuttgart had the chance for one final attack. The away team looked to have closed all the gaps when just as the hooter sounded the referee awarded a penalty to Stuttgart who scored making the final score 37 37. The players huddled and bounced like they’d won the League, the away players desolate. Unbelievable.

After the match we drove up Württemberg hill for the sunset where we also had lovely views of the city especially the lights of the beer festival below. The Sepulchral chapel was located at the summit and was apparently built by Kaiser Wilhelm I as a monument to eternal love. It certainly couldn’t have been located in a nicer area of Stuttgart. We drove back to the apartment where we had a quiet night in and Sina made a delicious Nutella puff pastry.

Monday 5th October
I hadn’t slept that well and unfortunately when I did I ‘breathed heavily’ causing Summer to wake me up because she couldn’t sleep. We all had a lie in before eating breakfast and making our way in to town to have a look around the shopping centre.

We wondered round some of the shops and I brought myself a pair of shoes before we sat down for a relaxing coffee. My Lonely Planet guide hadn’t been overly complimentary to Stuttgart saying it was a great place for those living there but suggesting there wasn’t much for tourists aside from the car museums. I certainly enjoyed my time there but perhaps it helped that I was visiting friends who took me to the sporting events and Cannstatter Wasen.

Finally it was time to make our way to the airport but there was one final treat and as we were all fairly hungry we went to a curry wurst restaurant near the airport. Over the past year i’ve fallen in love with a lot of German food and the curry wurst is probably number one and I would happily have my rains hooked up to the curry sauce.

Summer and I had a walk around the airport and spent a considerable amount of time wondering whether to buy an expensive tankard. Ultimately we decided not to and wondered over to a cafe. A group of Australians arrived and sat down and Summer got chatting to them, and over the next few hours they certainly livened up the journey home, keeping us amused at the airport with their drunken laddish jibes at each other and then on the flight and train back to London.

Unfortunately the flight had been delayed so it was pretty late by the time we got back to London and I was exhausted as I had barely settled after getting back from Greece let alone unpacked my life having moved back to Ealing. Not that I was complaining, I knew within a few days i’d get itchy feet and start looking at my scratch poster which Victoria gave me when she moved back to Australia 3 years ago…

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New Horizons: Wernigerode to London Paddington

Reflecting on the Eurostar

Reflecting on the Eurostar

Saturday 13th June
As we left the accommodation we made one final journey to Wernigerode station. We watched a train depart and then I said my goodbyes to dad and Jenny. It had only felt like a few days and was hard to believe it had been a week. I’d have loved to have stayed and explored more of Saxony especially Dresden with them and I know I’ll feel slightly envious when I hear how the rest of the trip went.

I sat on Wernigerode station and my train to Goslar arrived and left exactly at the scheduled time of 11.20. During May railway staff had been on strike however luckily they were currently in mediation which meant there couldn’t be a strike until the second week of June and I wouldn’t be affected.

My internet booking told me what platforms I needed and which I’d arrive on so when I arrived at Goslar (on time) I saw I had an easy change from platform 5 to 4.  I was well aware a delay on this stage would be unrecoverable so I was thankful it was as easy I’d anticipated.

In the UK a 9 minute transfer would have been tight and risky if not reckless especially as bookings do not state in advance which platform a train departs from so you are entirely at the mercy of Sods Law. I’m sure this information could be provided and if not it really begs the question why. Is there really no routine to which platform a long distance train will arrive and depart from and does our network therfore run on organised chaos and chance? When it comes to trains in my recent experience Germany wins handsomely.

The train to Hannover was also on time and quite empty. I was pleasantly surprised to note there was an electric socket so I could add a bit of juice to my tablet which still had to last another 10 hours. I had a break from writing and had some of my lunch and snacks. I finally finished off the pretzels I brought enroute to Wernigerode and which had served me well for 5 days when I’d been peckish. I don’t normally opt for pretzels, in fact I never have and I don’t really know why I had on this occasion but they had certainly done what was required.

At Hannover I had no difficulty finding the platform but felt more anxious than on the previous journeys. On the regional trains I hadn’t had a seat reservation and could sit anywhere as they were relatively empty however for my train to Koln I did have a seat reservation and the platform was heaving. Whilst I understood in theory which carriage (32) and seat (window 62) I had reserved when the train came in I had no idea where to actually go as there were no numbers on the side. All I knew was to stay in the back half because it appeared the front was going to Dusseldorf.

Luckily the station porter was able to explain and I made my way to the second to last carriage. It was chaos on the inside with suitcases everywhere and people that had got on the wrong carriage blocking the path as they stood confused looking at boards. Eventually I was able to make my way to my seat and as a bonus it was by the luggage rack.

Someone was in my seat so I took theirs because I wasn’t overly fussed about being by the window and they’d taken their shoes off and clearly made themselves at home. I wrote a bit of my blog before slowly dozing off and I woke up with a start realising the guy next to me was standing on his seat trying to check his bag. I offered to get out but he refused and so I dozed off again.

By the time we arrived at Hagen Hbf (station) we were running slightly late though I wasn’t overly concerned as I had 30 minutes before my train to Brussels from Koln. As we approached Wuppertal I looked out for the schwebebahn and whilst I saw the route briefly outside the window opposite I didn’t catch a final glimpse of any of the trains.

When we finally arrived in Koln we were over 10 minutes. I couldn’t see an information board showing my train to Brussels but thankfully found an information desk. Ironically the platform I needed was the one I’d just come down from so I made my way back up. This time I found my carriage straight away as they were more clearly labelled and took my seat by the window which had a electric socket.

The German trains had been fine but the Thayls which wasn’t run by DB somewhat predictably ground to a halt 15 minutes outside of Achen with an accompanying announcement stating “no further information about this delay is available”. It was slightly unnerving when we had stopped but I knew whilst I had to check in 30 minutes before departure I had allowed an additional 50 minutes just in case. When there was finally an announcement in a mixture of French and broken English I became slightly concerned when I thought it said the delay would be 50 minutes due to the line being closed. However fortunately shortly after we left and I realised it had probably said 15 minutes.

I had relied on 5 train changes but as I pulled in to Brussels I knew I was well and truly homeward bound. I had been on the train for just over 7 hours and 30 minutes and the fact I was only 18 minutes late didn’t seem that bad. As I made my way to the Eurostar I debated in my head which language I should say hello. By now I was quite used to attempting to speak German but I was in Belgium with a arrow ahead clearly saying “To the UK”. I decided on a cheery bonjour and in a rather surreal way they replied ‘Ello in a typical friendly cockney accent.

At baggage control I got overtaken by a group of over excited adults of my parents generation as I calmly ensured I’d removed everything that would cause the machine to bleep. Not heeding my actions they then delayed everyone behind as each one caused it to bleep and for bags to be taken to one side. They received a glare and a tut off me, not that I was in any hurry but it was the principle.

I still remember when I travelled on the Eurostar to Waterloo from Paris on my first and only journey in the late 1990s and how modern it felt. The first thing I noticed this time more than 15 years later is how much the carriage I was on had aged. I suppose I had been spoilt by the larger German trains but I was amazed at the lack of leg room and space. I’d booked my tickets quite late and I was probably lucky to even get a seat considering the Brussels to London train isn’t that frequent but for the price I’d paid I expected more than what the carriage offered (not even an electric plug). A refreshing complimentary glass of champagne in a gold goblet would have gone some way to making amends but I assume this isn’t available to cattle class.

I caught up with my blog and contemplated reading my new book but in the end I decided to relax with my music. It had been quite a hectic build up to the holiday as I’d left my home of 5 years the week before and moved to a new flat share in Balham. I hadn’t seen much of my new housemates in my first week and as I entered the tunnel I knew I was quite excited to properly be starting my next chapter in London. Recently I have met some great mutual friends that share my sense of adventure. Unfortunately one of them is due back to the ‘Land Down Under’ soon and all it’s done is reinforced my belief you just have to make the most of life’s experiences whilst you can.

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All or Nothing: The Harz Region

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One of the steam engines approaches the top of the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz region

Monday 8th June
As we travelled from Goslar to Wernigerode we caught our first proper glimpse of the Brocken. The Brocken is the tallest mountain in the Harz region and besides its height is unmistakable due to the antenna placed on top by the soviets in the cold war when the region fell under East Germany so they could use it as a listening point.

We arrived in Wernigerode however the one way system was slightly tough to navigate. Whilst “Tina” held her nerve I lost mine and misunderstanding the instructions caused us to take a 5 minute detour. Eventually we arrived at our self catering accommodation and collected the keys off the owner who showed us around. We then walked to the Lidl across the road where we picked up sandwich supplies and food for a couple of dinners.

As we’d had a big lunch we had a quick bite to eat before I got my first opportunity to explore Wernigerode. For about 4 years my camera and I have been inseparable when on holiday because you never know when you will have an opportunity to snap the elusive “perfect” picture. Not everyone has that mentality, I have at least one good friend that is the total opposite and he tells me to take a photo with my eyes. As it was I made a conscious decision to leave my camera behind and as soon as we entered the market square I felt a sickening feeling of regret.

The “Rathaus” (town hall) was beautifully lit up by the sun which was slowly setting creating pinkish clouds in the horizon. We carried on the walk around the town and caught our first glimpse of the famous Harz Mountain Railway which we planned to use to explore the region over the following 4 days. Whilst I knew I would have ample opportunities to photograph the steam engines making the trip up to the Brocken I still felt mildly irritated at myself for missing the first opportunity.

It seemed a pleasant though quiet town and after passing through the centre we saw the “West Gate” of the old towns fortifications before continuing towards the smallest house (kleinist haus) where just around the corner there was a fantastic view of the castle (Schloss). Having walked around the town it seemed a good opportunity to find a beer house and we eventually settled on one where I had a Hasseroder schwarz-dunkel (stout).

That evening I noticed a framed newspaper cutting on the place we were staying. Whilst Google translate struggled to work it all out it appeared we were staying in a building with plenty of history and which had been a hospital at one point. Unfortunately all this caused my imagination to work in over drive so when my bed side light flickered (probably due to a dodgy wire) I immediately assumed my room was haunted.

Tuesday 9th June
I woke up earlier than planned the following morning perhaps because I was eager to start the day and explore an area my dad and Jenny had told me a lot about from a previous holiday. Dad and I walked to Wernigerode station and I was very impressed when he was able to speak to the person at the ticket office in German. Having brought a pass to last us 3 consecutive days we returned to the house and with Jenny walked back through town.

The Market Square was much more active than the previous night and there were a number of different market stands. We heard a distant whistle and the road barriers come down so we watched another train departing for the Brocken before walking back to the station. It was finally our chance to have a ride behind the steam engine and our plan was to travel from Wernigerode in the Northern Hartz region to Nordhausen in the south. The distance was about 60km however the journey there and back including a few hours to explore would take most of the day.

The train wasn’t as busy as I had expected considering it was the only one of the day where an easy connection to Nordhausen was possible. Whilst we were technically sat together I spent most of the time on the balcony taking in the views and dodging smuts thrown out from the locomotive as it powerered up the hillside towards Drei Annen Hohne. I am used to the little narrow guage trains of North Wales which are painted in different colours, have names like ‘Prince’, ‘Welsh Pony’, ‘Dolgoch’ and ‘The Earl’, look like models due to the way the Welsh mountains tower over them and therefore in my opinion have a certain romantic charm about them.

The German stereotype is to strive for efficiency and it is no surprise the engines follow that trend and regardless of type all the engines are black with perhaps a bit of red on the wheels. Even the oldest don’t have names and are referred to solely by number which also designates how useful it is. Whilst the engine that hauled us was both powerful and practical it didn’t have the same Welsh charm but it did make a fantastic sound and from a technical point of view it was probably a train enthusiasts dream.

The technical information is lost on me despite my love of fire and coal which it appears I’ve had from before I can really remember. My interest really came to the fore when half way up Mount Snowdon I burst in to tears and no matter what my parents did I wouldn’t stop until at the summit I suddenly went silent. I was certainly under 4 but still clearly remember the experience as do they as I believe I was often quite placid. We had been taken to the top by a evil diesel (reference to Thomas the Tank Engine which I was obsessed with as a child) but at the summit I’d seen a steam engine.

Back to the Harz where at Drei Annen Hohne our engine was taken off to take a train up the Brocken. The engine that had been at the back of that train was then transferred to the front of ours. It looked identical and I may not have noticed had it not been pointing a different way. It was also at Drei Annen Hohne that the few people that were on our carriage got off to transfer to the train going to the Brocken.

We carried on up the line and I carried on standing on the balcony until we reached a station called Ilfeld which I later realised was the settlement on the edge of the Harz. We didn’t have time to explore and instead immediately boarded a diesel railcar to Niedersachswerfen Ost. We were the only passengers and may have accidentally upset our driver when we tried to ask (in German) if we were going in the right direction.

Once we arrived in Niedersachswerfen Ost we had just over 30 minutes to walk around though it was pretty small with little to interest tourists and everything including the entrance to the station appeared closed. Having walked up to a church we returned and boarded a modern looking tram to Nordhausen. This was fairly busy however it was apparent most were locals and we were the only tourists exploring this stretch of the line.

With a few hours to spare we found a cafe where I had a refreshing Wernegrunger Pils. Refuelled we walked from the lower Stadt to the “Alt Stadt?” (Old town) at the top of the hill. Tragically in April 1945 20% of the towns population were injured or killed in an air raid attack and most of the old town was destroyed as a result. There were a few nice buildings including the Rathaus (town house). Ironically the oldest building was a church from 900AD which I’d initially I’d dismissed it as a point of interest because it looked fairly modern.

We returned back to the tram station and saw a steam engine arrive at Nordhausen Nord the official end of the Harz as our tram back to Niedersachswerfen Ost arrived. We thought we’d have to change again at Ilfeld but instead the driver (the same one from earlier) confirmed the railcar would took us all the way back to Wernigerode. We had pretty much the entire carriage to ourselves and whilst we mostly sat behind the driver it was a long journey so I did occasionally walk to the back as it had an observation window which provided great views.

It had been a long day and we finally arrived back in Wernigerode at 8.30 having completed the Trans-Harz Route in full. Once we were back home Jenny kindly cooked us all some pasta and mince which was lecker (delicious).

Wednesday 10th June
I woke up early again and so spent 20 minutes using Duolingo (an app recommended to me by Victoria) to help me learn German. After we had all had breakfast and were showered we walked to Wernigerode station so we could catch the steam train to the Brocken.

I hadn’t initially planned to stand on the balcony until Drei Annen Hohne where the route splits with one branch to Nordhausen and the other to the Brocken. Despite it being colder than the day before I couldn’t resist the temptation and by the time we arrived at Schierke it was was so busy I was given the ultimatum of stand or sit. I opted to stand which meant I got some fantastic views once we finally burst out of the forest on the final climb to the summit.

I was surprised at the speed we continued to go as we hugged the mountain side, looping round the outside on a steadily steep gradient. Slowly the antenna came in to view and then grew taller and taller until finally we were at the highest point of the Harz. It was as cold as I’d expected from summer trips up Snowdon and we had a bit of a walk around the top. Whilst it was cold the sky was initially clear so we had some good views and even when it became cloudy above the summit itself remained clear.

The original plan had been to walk from the summit to Schierke but the path was a lot longer than we had anticipated. We had been led to believe that one of the oldest engines on the line would be hauling a special consisting of the lines oldest carriages so we decided to wait for that before travelling back down. The engine wasn’t one of the mallets that the line is famous for which was slightly disappointing because they are quite unique and rare but it was still a good sight with the Harz region in the distance.

We caught the train back down to Wernigerode and as it wasn’t very busy I was able to move between a seat and the balcony when the views appeared interesting. It was warmer down the bottom so we decided to visit a miniature model village we’d seen a sign for. The walk was a bit further than I calculated but we eventually arrived.

I had recently been to Bekonscot model village with my cousins and nephew and even as an oversized child I still found it fascinating. Despite this and the description I approached this model village with low expectations hoping to be pleasantly surprised and I was. There was amazing detail on the buildings, quite a few of which we’d seen over the previous days. The highlight for me was the railway section where a miniature train travelled to the top of the Brocken, the engine uncoupled, ran round and took the train back down. Equally impressive was a model of Wernigerode Castle and a church we hadn’t visited that towered over me. By now the sun had come out and it was a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

We returned back to our accommodation where we had dinner before heading back out for a drink at the Kartoffelhaus which had looked interesting when we’d walked past on the first night. This time I did take my camera so I got a picture of the Rathaus and market square. The interior of the restaurant was quite unique and whilst it didn’t look original it would have been nice to understand the plaque which gave a history of the building. I was still attempting to have a different beer at each bar so this time I had the Hasseroder premium pills before we returned home.

Thursday 11th June
As with the other mornings I’d woken up earlier than expected which to me didn’t make sense because we were an hour ahead of UK time so I was actually waking up even earlier than usual. It would be nice to think I could keep the new sleeping pattern up when I’m home but I know from experience that I’ll quickly slip back in to my normal routine.

After two whole days of not requiring a car it was strange to set up the SatNav again and to resume my duties. There were however no issues in getting to Quedlinburg and “Tina” had no issues in getting us to the car park requested. The problem was the car park we’d set it to was only for an hour. Luckily whilst the second carpark we tried wasn’t overly convenient in terms of location there was a cafe and dad was able to ask (in German) for advice. Not only were we directed to a car park by the train station but the kind man gave us a map of the town.

The old town of Quedlinburg is also UNESCO listed and almost as soon as we started the walk up a steep path to the castle/church with a dramatic fortified wall to the right I admit I was almost instantly snapping away on the camera. We walked up to the old castle, now the site of a church but didn’t go in to the museum. Instead we went back down the hill in to the Market square which had another delightful Rathaus and sat to have a drink outside as it was already a hot day.

We had almost 3 hours in Quedlinburg before our train to Hasselfelde which had felt a good amount of time without feeling rushed even though at one point I realised dad was rushing us a bit because he thought our train left an hour earlier than it did. Instead we ate our sandwiches in a park before returning to the station. We had expected the section from Quedlinburg to Gernrode to be a diesel but because it was a Thursday it was steam.

At Gernrode we changed trains and were hauled by a locomotive known as the prototype because it is the one of its type as the war stopped construction of any more. This train took us all the way to Hasselfelde and as we were in the back carriage I spent the time on the back balcony. This gave great unobstructed views of where we had come from and when we went round corners good views of the loco working hard.

We passed other trains at Alexisbad the main base of operations on this route before arriving at Strassberg where a big party of school children got on. They got off a couple of stops later so I assume they were local to the area. Eventually we arrived at Stiege where we stopped a brief time before continuing to Hasselfelde. There wasn’t time to explore so instead we just stayed on the platform where we noticed a Welsh flag. I had heard about an agreement between the Ffestiniog Railway I used to volunteer on and the Harz railway so I assume it was to do with that.

At Hasselfelde the train moved to front and took us to Elsfelder Talmuhle. Initially we thought we were going to be stranded at Stiege for 50 minutes before it was confirmed we could stay on the train we were on as it would eventually return to Quedlinburg. Now we were at the front of the train so I only stood on the balcony for a few minutes because it was noisy, dirty and the view was blocked by the loco. It was still a rather unique experience though.

At Elsfelder Talmuhle we waited for a train heading towards Wernigerode and a diesel railcar heading towards Nordhausen before the train again changed ends to take us back to Stiege. Reaching Elsfelder Talmuhle meant we had only missed out on 3km of the whole Harz section which was quite an achievement from 3 days travelling. At Stiege the engine was again moved to our end and we eventually arrived back in Quedlinburg at 7.30.

After the road we wanted to take was closed and we missed the diversion sign and this delayed us back to Wernigerode by almost 10 minutes. It wasn’t until after 8.45 that we made our way to a pub / restaurant dad had spotted the previous day. Fortunately whilst Wernigerode had been quite a sleepy town the Hotel Altora was still serving food so I had a Harz style goulash with a Radeberger pilsner.

The drinks arrived in a way I never expected and instantly made the child inside me come out and decide there and then that if I ever have the money I will do something similar. As we sat talking we suddenly heard what sounded like a model train and as we looked over to the bar we saw one trundling down the tracks next to our table which we’d missed (or at least I had). But it was what the little train was carrying that impressed us because standing in the wagons were 2 beers and an orange juice. The bar staff were smiling. They’d obviously seen our type of reaction before. The food was delicious and I ordered a second drink so I could get a video of the train. Obviously Germans have a reputation for being efficient but this took it to a new level.

Friday 12th June
I woke up feeling slightly sad that my last full day in Germany had already arrived. We’d packed a lot in and no doubt Jenny and dad had slightly regretted bringing me along because I know I like to cram in as much as possible in to the time available. During the morning we planned to explore Wernigerode castle before joining a tour of the locomotive workshops for the Harz Railway.

On our way to the Schloss we stopped off at the tourist information centre in the Market Square so we had a map of where we needed to go. It was already feeling the hottest it had been certainly since Wuppertal not that it had ever been that cold (besides the top of the Brocken). The climb up the steep hill was also our first proper workout because despite a fair amount of walking much of it had been on fairly level ground through towns. My calf muscles were set to give way by the time we reached the top and I had to accept my fitness levels have plummeted since my 8km gorilla run in September.

We could have brought an audio guide for the castle but instead got a detailed guide book which gave the necessary information for the two tours. The castle had once been owned by Otto Von Bismarck, responsible for German unification in 1871 and whose name was ultimately used for the famous flag ship of the German navy in the second world war. The castle was also visited by various German Kaisers including the last Kaiser Wilhelm II who was forced to abdicate after defeat in the first world war.

The castle and Wernigerode were located in East Germany so after the war the castle was included as part of the soviets land seizures (war repatriation). Whilst it had already been opened as a museum before the war it had obviously closed and didn’t reopen until 1949. In recent years a number of the rooms had been restored to original condition as it was when owned by Count Otto when married to (his direct cousin) Princess Anna. The tours of the rooms were shorter than I expected but informative and well presented.

Leaving the castle we returned back to the town to enjoy a drink in the market square before making a quick visit to the tourist information so we could plan something for the afternoon. Fortunately the girl behind the desk was very helpful and advised us to go on a 3km walk to the Kaiserturm. First though we walked to Wernigerode Westentor (West Gate) so we could join a rare behind the scenes tour of the railway.

As we had expected all of the tour was in German however we weren’t the only people from the UK and a gentleman from North West Germany kindly translated some bits and explained soviet occupation meant Russian not English was still the second language in the region. A lot of the information was probably quite technical and I was almost relieved I could switch my brain off and wonder around just taking the pictures I wanted without pretending to listen. Inside we saw one of the mallets and another engine where he spent a good 15 minutes pointing to different parts. When we emerged outside he spent quite a bit of time talking and I made an effort to try to capture some phrase but gave up and went back in to photography mode. I was however glad to have had the chance to go inside and my dad gave me a brief synopsis afterwards as he’d spent most of the tour listening with our west German friend.

Leaving the railway for the final time we started the walk to the Kaiserturm. A group of children were ahead and appeared to be on the way to the most organised picnic ever as 3 of them pulled a cart of food up the hill and others carried blankets. I was deeply impressed and wondered how German efficiency would surprise me next. After over 2km walking up the hill my legs for a second time in a day were ready to fall off so we had a mini break before continuing our journey where we reached Waldgasthaus Armeleuteberg. Here I had a quick beer refuel opting for the Wolters pilsner before we walked the final 400 metres.

It turned out we could climb to the top of the Kaiserturm for free so we did and were rewarded with arguably better views  than at the castle. I went down first to get pictures of dad and Jenny at the top before we made our way back to the town. Jenny cooked some dinner whilst I lay on the sofa nursing my knees and attempting a bit of packing. After dinner dad and I returned to the Hotel Altora so we could enjoy one final beer and see the model train again. With that drink my holiday was over except for my 12 hour journey home (with 5 changes just to reach London) which so long as it went as planned I was excited about.

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

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Make it Last: Lennep, Wuppertal and Goslar

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One of the trains passes the people below on the famous Wuppertal Schwebebahn

Saturday 6th June
“John. Bathrooms fee.” I awoke with a start then looked at my watch 5.49am. The alarm was set for 5.50 so I’d had a minute of sleep taken away all because dad had also woken up one minute early. He runs a tight ship when going away and I suppose it isn’t a surprise I ended up being similar in my planning and ensuring I always allow plenty (not just a bit) of time to spare.

We left shortly after the official departure time but I sensed that we were still well ahead of the schedule. The journey to Dover was uneventful and thankfully there were no delays on the motorway. Arriving at Dover there was a queue of cars and if we’d been running late it may have been a bit nervy but as it was we were at least 30 minutes earlier than the recommended time. I saw a Contiki and a Topdeck coach and thought about how they’d be feeling. First day nerves mixed with excitement, tiredness and probably a slight hangover.

Once on the ferry I made my way to the stern (back) of the top deck so I could get a final look of the white cliffs and some photographs as it was a beautiful sunny day. One truck had difficulty parking but eventually the road lifted in to the air and the gate at the back of the ferry was closed. I hoped for a dramatic blast of the horn to announce our departure in a scene reminiscent of Titanic and for at least one person to be waving us off but there was nothing.

Once we were underway it became quickly colder so once we were beyond the surprisingly narrow harbour walls I headed back in side. Dad Jenny and I ordered a early lunch before seeing if there was a view from the front. Whilst I would never try and recreate that “I’m the king of the world” scene (don’t pretend you don’t know) I had at least hoped the top deck of the bow (front) would be open to the elements. It wasn’t, It was a fully enclosed fancy looking restaurant (as far as the ferry goes anyway) with a beautiful panoramic view of France that only those dinning were allowed to appreciate.

Once off the boat I as chief navigation officer did what any modern navigator does and set up the SatNav. That duty fulfilled I then looked at the paper maps supplied but already I had put blind faith in to “Tina”. I had every faith the system had improved from the days when it took people in to abandoned tunnels and besides one of the maps in front of me had been published when I was still at university, before Watford were last in the premiership.

I think Dad suffered a bit of mistrust especially when I realised shortly after Brussels that it was taking us through the Netherlands. By now I had an in depth know knowledge of Belgium’s road network because I had been intensely studying the map. This was purely to try and stay awake because I’m hopeless at doing so in a car (or train) as dad knows from last weekend when I just fell asleep without warning after he’d helped move my stuff by driving me to Balham from Ealing. As it was the SatNav was of course correct.

At one stage we were on the E14 Motorway through all 3 countries but the style and infrastructure changed in each which seemed quite amusing at the time (it had been a long drive). The Belgium section was slightly uneven and in need of some tlc, the Dutch section was well maintained and had trees along the side with a nice hedgerow up the centre, whilst the German section had road works every few kilometres however somehow it didn’t cause huge traffic jams. The German section also had an unlimited speed restriction and it was quite an experience to hear the roar of a super car (it was so quick I didn’t see which) shoot by as we trundled along at a modest 77mph.

Ultimately the journey had been uneventful and we arrived in Ramsceid only slightly later than initially estimated despite two quick stops. Once checked in to the hotel we agreed to meet up about an hour later for dinner. My plan was to nap and shower but I got distracted by the free WiFi and feeling no fresher I went to our meeting place. Jenny had decided to have an early night so just dad and I headed out alone in the search of food.

We walled through the outskirts of Lennep from the hotel and eventually came to a bar. It didn’t serve food and looked a bit seedy from the outside so we carried on. Unfortunately being a Sunday and in a small town in a slightly less touristy area it meant the signs were ominous unless we just wanted a kebab or pizza. Instead after a failed attempt to buy train tickets to Wuppertal due to a rarity German inefficiency. One ticket machine wasn’t working and then the second would only accept exact change. We were 50c short so we knew we’d have to come back.

We followed the street round and came back to the pub we’d started at. By now I just wanted to sit down anywhere so we went in and as they were showing the build up to the champions league realised we’d actually struck gold. We tried a number of beers including Bitburger, Frankenheim “alt” old from Dosseldorf, Fruh – kolsch and Warsteiner. The bar man was Italian and very friendly though I most of the conversation was with my “papa”. We stayed for the first half of the champions league before returning to the hotel.

Sunday 7th June
When I was younger my grandad had a cinefilm of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn and even though it wasn’t a steam engine I was still captivated by it. I admit I therefore had a child like excitement when I realised we would have a day to explore the town and to ride the Schwebebahn. We caught the main line train to Wuppertal from Lennep having finally obtained “the exact amount”.

I think I had (unreasonably) expected Wuppertal to be frozen in time as I imagined it from the family home videos. I was therefore slightly disappointed to see a lot of modern construction work was taking place and realised it was actually quite industrial. I had hoped to ride the Schwebebahn Kaiserwagen, the historic carriages from those home movies but it was quite expensive (even though it included brunch) however ultimately it wasn’t possible because the tourist information centre was closed and we couldn’t buy tickets online.

Instead we decided to watch the Kaiserwagen however after a few stops we realised we were heading in the wrong direction. The Schwebebahn is a way locals travel around the city however I was still surprised at how busy it was especially as it was only a Sunday. We crossed over to the opposite platform and travelled to the station near the zoo where we saw the Kaiserwagen.

We then continued to Vohwinkel where we could see the workshops. This part of the town seemed nicer than the area around the main train station and we were able to find a coffee house. Some food revived me and by the time we saw the Kaiserwagen return I was over any initial disappointment at not riding it or at the town not appearing like it was straight out of a early 20th century history book.

Next we travelled the full length of the line and as we were first on had a seat right behind the driver. The first part of the route travelled above the main street before travelling above the river Wupper. It seemed quite a bulky construction but ultimately probably caused less chaos than the construction of the underground in London and is no less an achievement. Whilst monorails normally travel on a track the Schwebebhan hangs down and therefore sways quite a bit. I was beginning to feel the effects of this when we reached Oberbarmen (the other end of the line) 30 minutes later.

We walked through a park which ran parallel to the Schwebebhan and contemplated carrying on to the next station before we realised it would be better to get back on at the terminus. It was still only early afternoon and we weren’t entirely sure how to spend the rest of the day. In the end as it was a sunny afternoon we decided to visit the zoo however realising there was a football match on we jokingly considered seeing Wuppertal SV (ultimately they lost 1.0 and threw away the chance of promotion to the league above).

The zoo was actually very impressive and had a wide variety of animals including some I hadn’t even heard of such as the Drill where Wuppertal is the main breeding programme of the 4 zoos in Germany where they can be seen. Other highlights included numerous penguin species, lions, tigers, orangotangs and gorillas which all seemed to be in good condition and in decent sized spaces for their size and number. Unfortunately it was probably to hot for the polar bear so he remained hidden as did the wolves and the other bears. In all we spent a few hours and managed to cover most of the vast area.

There was a restaurant opposite where we all opted to have a snitzel and I had a Benediktiner weissbier wheat bear. The portion was absolutely enormous as dad had predicted but we all found the required space. I had partly hoped I’d lose weight on this trip but the portion size and the amount of beers I wanted to try were suggesting this would be wishful thinking.

We caught the Schwebebhan back to the main station in Wuppertal before boarding the main line train back to Lennep. On our way to the hotel we stopped off at the pub from the previous night to have a quick drink and to console the bar man on Juventus losing to Barcelona. That evening I watched a bit of the women’s world cup and saw Germany beat Ivory Coast 10:0 though the gulf in class meant it wasn’t an exciting game despite the score.

Monday 8th June
I woke up earlier than planned but rather than getting up and being productive wasted time on the free internet. However once my alarm actually went off I felt incredibly time efficient as I let a coffee brew whilst I showered. The coffee tasted disgusting so that ultimately saved time in drinking it and I was just about ready when dad knocked on my door a few minutes before the designated 9am departure time.

Once we were ready to go I set up the SatNav for our first destination Goslar a UNESCO world heritage listed town. The route was direct via the motorway however dad suggested going a scenic route and cutting out a corner of the motorway. I plotted a path and when we did ultimately disobey the SatNav it tried everything to get us to turn around. Eventually it gave up and fell silent and appeared to have begrudgingly accepted our new route.

Once we eventually arrived in Goslar We started off by walking to the market square to get some lunch at the Butterhanne. I ordered my favourite German meal; curry wurst mit ein beer. I started with Radeberger before I realised they had a micro brewery. I therefore felt I had to have a second and at least try their self produced Gose Gold.

The old town of Goslar is UNESCO world heritage listed and whilst I admit I hadn’t heard of it before the holiday my expectations were quite high. Dad loves reading a map so he plotted our walking route through the town. We started off following the ruins and path of the old fortification however in most areas there was no evidence of there existence.

Unfortunately in a town which is apparently so picturesque our walk initially took us past a shopping centre and an area where in truth there wasn’t as much to see. Eventually we did rejoin a path that took us along the famous cobbled streets, past an old watermill and towards the mediaeval Kaiserpfaiz. I later read it was only listed due to a nearby mine and its ancient water management system which perhaps explained why my expectations weren’t met

I set up the SatNav for our final destination Wernigerode which it turned out was under 45 minutes away and we departed Goslar. It was certainly a pleasant place to break up a long car journey and to spend a couple of hours but I won’t be back to explore.

The UNESCO listed old town of Goslar

The UNESCO listed old town of Goslar

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Another Brick in the Wall: Berlin

Monday 9th February
When you are at school the key to survival is fitting in. Luckily for me I had a love for football, for Watford football club specifically. That meant I ‘couldn’t’ be bullied because a) I liked football, b) I supported the team all the Arsenal, Man United, Spurs and even Chelsea fans (this was pre Abramovich) felt sorry for (I.e we were no threat) and perhaps c) I wore glasses. You can never hit someone with glasses. It also helped that I was a pretty fearless goal keeper in 5 aside where my short height had no impact so back then I wasn’t even last picked.

I suppose as you get older you do accept there is perhaps less shame in any geeky tendencies you may have tried to keep hidden. One of mine is history and perhaps a rather irritating habit of remembering the most minuscule of facts as though it happened yesterday. But then perhaps the latter is a natural result of the former. I do love history and feel great pathos at the way man kind enacts the same actions with the same results again and again. Anyway I digress, where am I going with this? Well for someone that studied modern history there is only one city that encapsulates the power struggle of the 20th century. Athens, Rome and Istanbul are probably the European cities Ancient historians want to visit but for a graduate in modern European history Berlin is (to me) of equal if not greater importance than St Petersburg and Prague.

Flying from Heathrow I felt much less anxious than when I left from Gatwick for Morocco. Having sped through bag drop off and through security (no interrogation(s) this time) I treated myself to breakfast. After i finished and watched everyone rushing off in different directions I sat and let out a content sigh. No rushing for me, it was 8.35 and boarding wasn’t for a whole 5 minutes. Then it struck me. I wasn’t at the gate I was in EAT so I had no choice but to join those rushing in different directions. I still arrived on time and because I was flying so out of season I got a row (if not the whole final 1/4 of the plane) to myself for the 3rd flight in succession. I’m going to feel sad when I have to share a row again.

I know Germans have that reputation of being efficient but Berlin airport took it to another level. We landed early, got off the plane early and then I realised having gone through the walkway from the plane I was already in the queue for passport control. Even better the baggage carousel for my flight was just the other side. No potential confusion about which bay to go. Then stepping through the customs door I realised I was at the exit of the airport for the bus. I’ve been through Heathrow queues quickly but it’s a maze and requires lots of walking. Not Berlin. In my head I had allowed an hour to leave the airport but in reality it had taken under 15 minutes to get from the seat of the aircraft to the seat of a bus.

After getting off the bus I caught my glimpse of the Berliner Fernsehturm the TV tower built in 1969 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who controlled East Berlin. My hostel wasn’t far away from Alexanderplatz so it was useful to have the tallest structure in Germany as a landmark. I arrived at the hostel but couldn’t check in but my rucksack already had everything I needed for a day of sight seeing. Unfortunately by the time I’d put my bags in storage I’d just missed a free walking tour which may have been a good introduction to the city.

I’d already got a list (yes I’m one of those tourists) of where I wanted to see on Tuesday and Wednesday but Monday had been blank. The Stasi museum based in the old head quartets was not on the list because it was out of the centre and I didn’t think I’d have time. But with time now on my side, thoughts about the film “The Lives of Others” and a morbid interest in understanding how they operated I soon found myself outside ‘Building One’. Standing outside its soulless character felt quite sinister and I felt a shiver or two up my back. The museum had been closed a number of months and had only just reopened. The displays were really interesting (with English translations) and each section contained a different theme of the Stasi story. The second floor contained the offices of Erich Mielke in restored condition and it was quite chilling to think what decisions had been made there.

It was fascinating to hear the view points of some of the 8000 people that worked for the “Ministry of State Security”. Most believed they were acting in good faith however I was surprised a minority still refuse to believe they were acting against the population still believing this to be ‘propaganda’ of the West. There was a display on the different techniques used to observe the population but perhaps most chilling was a audio display about those observed. One phycologist committed suicide because the agents would enter the house and move a few objects around. Her friends didn’t believe her and she ended up believing she was going mad. It was only after the collapse of the GDR that the truth came out.

I returned back to my hostel checked in and met my room mates. A student from Esperance on the South West coast of Australia (he was astounded I’d not only heard of it but visited on my Nullabor trip) and an Italian from Venice. Having got changed I made my way to meet up with my friend and old housemate Victoria. I’d always wanted to visit Berlin so when she’d told me she was visiting for work it was a case of “just try to stop me”.

I met up Victoria and her brother Richard and we asked the reception for some tips on where we could get a drink and for me to get some food as I’d inadvertently missed lunch. We were soon joined by two colleagues she had worked with and were at the same conference. I was looking forward to a curry wurst but apparently the Munich themed restaurant we were in didn’t sell it so I chose the first thing that I saw which contained mustard, sausage and mustard. To say it wasn’t what I expected is an understatement as it was just a bowl of warm water, containing two white sausages floating around. It looked small and not overly appetising but looks can be deceiving and it was actually just the type of stodge I needed to go with my stein of beer.

It was obviously a lot of fun meeting Victoria again but it was also nice to meet Richard as well. It wasn’t long before he had to leave to make his way to the airport for his flight back to Sweden but not before I asked for some tips on when to visit. By now the others were hungry so we went to another bar / restaurant. I was still peckish so I ordered a kids sized portion of Kasespatzle (similar to mac and cheese) which I had in Munich. It was a lovely evening and it was nice to spend a bit of time with Victoria before I got my train back to the hostel. Luckily the light was still on when I got back so I didn’t need to crawl around in the dark.

Tuesday 10th February
After an uneventful but fulfilling breakfast at the hostel I made my way through Alexanderplatz to the Berliner Fernsehturm tower. Considering it was a week day on a cloudy day in February there was quite a big crowd to get in and i was glad I’d booked my ticket in advance. The commentary in the lift up was in German and I felt quite pleased I got the gist of what was being said. I reached the viewing platform 203m high, perhaps not the tallest I’ve been to in the past year but it must be one of the most historic. Despite it being a cloudy morning I got quite a decent clear view of the city below but I was eager to get back down and explore the streets.

Making my way down I headed to the train station so I could get the ‘S Bahn’ towards the East Side gallery, the longest open air gallery in the world. I walked the full 1.3km of the longest section of what remains of the Berlin Wall but it may have been nice to have had a local guide to draw my attention to some of the art. I still stopped to appreciate some but unfortunately I’m not the best art connoisseur and I felt I’d probably missed out on some human stories behind the graffiti.

Seeing the wall covered in bright graffiti it didn’t have the cold sinister appearance I had expected (obviously the intention of the artists). If I wanted to appreciate how the wall was I knew I’d have to visit the the Memorial to the Berlin Wall. This includes a section which has been rebuilt complete with watch tower and death trap. When the sculpture was built it was quite controversial but personally I think it’s important there is a proper reminder as it is a way of dealing with the past. It was only possible to look down on the section (which was quite small) so I still felt a bit separated from the emotions as to how it must have felt when the city was divided. Perhaps weirdly what had more of an impact was a block of flats which had remained in situ both before and after the wall and had therefore seen so much history.

It had gone 13.00 and I was starting to feel hungry. I noticed I wasn’t far from a vegan restaurant Victoria had recommended but when I arrived I found out it was closed. Putting hunger thoughts behind me I carried on up to the underground station to take a trip to Check Point Charlie one of the most famous border crossings due to it being the place where JF Kennedy had given his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech. Despite the sign telling me I was leaving the America sector and some men in American military uniforms at the check point the street itself had changed immensely. I meant to look at the pavement to see where the wall had been but forgot.

The Museum on the Topography of Terror was also in the area and whilst I wanted to have a look around the Check
Point Charlie museum I decided to go to the Topography of Terror whilst it was still light. The outside area contained a section of Berlin Wall in its original location but my main reason for going was because the museum was located on the site of the headquarters of the SS. The building had been levelled but there were some archeological remains of a building that had such a notorious history.

The exhibition itself detailed the atrocities of Hitler towards Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and anyone else he deemed unable to contribute towards Volksgemeinschaft (folk community). I had studied the Wairmar Republic and was reminded how the unpopularity of the government had been partly responsible for the Nazi party being able to rise to power relatively unchallenged. Obviously it sounds shocking in hindsight but the Great Depression meant most were just trying to survive and the rise should be a reminder how ‘facts’ can be used to mislead and stir hatred.

I was a bit drained by the end so I decided to try and get a particular brand of vodka Victoria had asked me to try and pick up for her. A big shopping centre was near by and whilst I checked all over “Kaisers” they didn’t stock it. I left and headed back towards Check Point Charlie but first I was distracted by a giant Nutella sign. Finding out it was free I had my name put on the sign and my picture taken. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to modelling and it meant I got a nice free souvenir.

I returned back to the Check Point Charlie Museum which was located in a building used by photographers and press during official visits because it allowed them to look in to East Berlin. It went in to a lot of detail and there was arguably to much for my brain to take in. It didn’t even seem that well laid out so I couldn’t easily skip certain sections but the subject matter was interesting. The origins of Cold War including the global political landscape, lots of stories about the Wall and how people tried to escape and in amongst all that a general sections on the modern abuse of human rights.

By the time I was ready to go I was drained, both mentally and physically. – Dragging my legs and feet I navigated to the fairly nearby U2 underground station so I could check out a authentic Curry wurst outlet not to far from my hostel. “Ich mochte zwei curry wurst mit pomme frits und ein Berliner Pilsener bitte” The two curry wursts came chopped up smothered in ketchup and curry powder with chips and a refreshing local beer. Having not eaten since breakfast it wasn’t a bad reward.

I returned to the hostel and I was in two minds about going on the hostel pub crawl. If it had been to authentic beer halls or if I had more than one more night remaining I may have been more keen but despite the “free shots” advertised it didn’t really interest me. Next I contemplated travelling to Die Berliner Republik a bar where the price of beer was determined by a stock level system. We had something similar in Aberystwyth called “Bar Footsie”. My roommates weren’t keen on travelling to that so instead we went to a Munich themed beer hall nearby.

Outside it was disappointing to realise it was just a modern building but inside I could have fooled myself in to believing I was back in Oktoberfest. There was a toilet sign which also randomly pointed to Dubai. Obviously the most obvious drink to have in a German Beer Hall is beer and I saw what appeared to be a selection of different beers in taster glasses. The waiter looked a bit confused when I ordered them and it was only when they arrived they were strawberry and rhubarb shots of an unknown spirit not beer.

Shortly after after downing the second I got a message from Victoria inviting me for a beer at her hotel. I quickly drunk the remaining shots and made my way. Luckily it was just one train and when I arrived at Wittenbergplatz Station I congratulated myself on how easily I was finding my way around and remembering the way. A few minutes later, rather predictably I realised I was going the wrong way. Eventually I arrived and after ordering a beer we had a bit of time to catch up alone before I made my way back to the hostel.

Wednesday 11th February
Luckily I had sorted everything before going out the night before but I still had a fairly early start because even though I’d paid for late check out it only covered me until 1.00. As a result I had to put everything in a locker and in hindsight the late check out was of zero benefit. Victoria had recommended a bakery a 10 minute walk from hostel so I decided to go there for breakfast. Victoria had recommended the cinnamon buns but as I couldn’t see any I ordered two things I unfortunately don’t know how to spell or say. At the time I went Ich mochte ein *point* / ‘mumble'” I took a chance on both but wasn’t disappointed. One was a croissant filled with what I assume was cream cheese and salad and the other was a dough bread with bits of chocolate. I’ve not done justice to either with my description.

It looked a fairly simple journey by bus to the Reichstag so I thought as I had so much time I’d be able to go via Bebelplatz and the Brandenburg Gate. Unfortunately my travel plans unravelled in spectacular fashion and even with Google maps a 25 minute journey took about an hour. 1st I couldn’t find the bus stop and then when I finally did a police car suddenly pulled a car over and blocked the road. I therefore saw the bus I was waiting for turn off on diversion metres before my stop. I am not a fan of city buses I just don’t find them as regular as a train. This itself wasn’t much easier because I went via the new Berlin train station which made Kings Cross look simple to navigate.

Arrived at Reichstag 5 minutes later than I had been advised to and feared German efficiency would see me left behind. Fortunately as i handed in my invitation letter I was told my timing was ‘perfect’. As I made my way through I saw some audio guides and asked how much they were. In the UK they probably cost a small fortune but they were free. I couldn’t get mine to play so I went back to the desk. I felt like a dinosaur when I was told it would start automatically depending on where I was stood. I have to admit I was amazed.

Then I saw the Dome and I was amazed again! It really was quite spectacular and I slowly made my way up the ramp where at various points I was told facts or to stop and appreciate the view of Berlin below. On the inside the Reichstag looks incredibly modern and functional but on the outside it has all its Gothic charm. It’s basically Canberra and Westminster (the only other two parliament buildings I’ve been in) combined.

Leaving the Reichstag I made my way to the Brandenburg Gate and in the middle of the road that ran in front I could see where the path of the Berlin Wall had been marked. It was built in 1791 as a sign of peace on the site of a former city gate and it has therefore become a symbol of Berlin especially after the wall was built.

I carried on down the same road and eventually arrived at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe ” and had some quiet reflection time. I’m not great with interpretation of modern art and sculptures but to be it appeared to represent some kind of dystopian cemetery and walking towards the centre the blocks got larger and eventually towered over me.

Not far from the memorial is a site which is not commemorated with anything except a notice board to say what it once was. I had mixed feelings about trying to locate the FuhrerBunker but ultimately the historian and tourist in me were curious to see where one of the 20th centuries most notorious murderers met their fate. Thankfully it didn’t look like the site had become a shrine but I think it’s right it does have an information board because to avoid history repeating you sometimes have to face up to events of the past.

I carried on to another site I was interested in visiting more out of intrigue. Bebelplatz. It was here in front of Berlin university that the Nazis burnt books that were ‘ungerman’ or presented a way of life which was different to their ideology. I remembered studying it on my course and I was a bit disappointed when after spending 15 minutes walking around the site the actual spot was behind the walls of a construction site. Apparently the Opera House is being rejuvenated and the memorial is it appeared therefore outside of public view. Apparently it is an empty bookshelf engraved with the following quote from a play in the 1800s: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

By now my visit to Berlin was nearly over but there was still one more place to visit which I was combining with lunch and to see Victoria one last time before we both went home. Kaufhaus des Westens is probably Berlin’s equivalent to Harrod’s though perhaps the building is less grand on the outside and inside. We wondered around the food hall and nothing was immediately jumping out saying “eat me” except the delicious looking chocolates. Eventually I made a decision and got a curry pastry/omelette/tart thing. As usual I enjoyed it but wasn’t really sure what it was. After a quick selfie on the elevator down it was time for a final hug goodbye until the next time.

I returned back to my hostel for the last time and collected my bag and waited for bus which was 20 minutes late. Then the journey seemed to take longer both than I’d remembered it taking coming in to the city and than it was meant to. Luckily I had allowed a bit of flex in my timings and the Berlin airport I used was small. My gate was also the check in desk and passport control so whilst I wasn’t early I wasn’t in a rush. I had a wonder in duty free and saw they did Victoria’s vodka but all I got for myself was a giant bag of haribo sweets. I’d seen them in every shop for 48 hours and it was only in the final minutes I broke and gave in.

This will probably be my last trip abroad before I turn 30 in March but all the best things get better with age and I’m not done yet…

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We Are Young: Munich Oktoberfest

Friday 26th September
As my mobile phone played its relaxing melody I knew it was time to wake up. It felt like I’d only just gone to bed which in truth I probably had because it was 4.40am and I’d got back from seeing Lee Evans at the o2 with Caroline at gone 12. Still after 5 years of it being on my bucket list I was finally off to the legendary Oktoberfest in Munich.

A quick shower barely revived me and I don’t really recall getting ready or the walk to South Ealing. When I arrived at the station it seemed the underground was still sleeping, the station was totally deserted and there was a maintenance train on both tracks. I looked at my watch and calculated I still had 2 hours and 30 minutes before I would be on the plane and therefore able to have a nap.

The maintenance train moved off, my train arrived and after 30 minutes I was back at Heathrow. I’d already checked in but I still had to collect the ticket and luggage label. I clicked reference number and went to enter the code which included a number. There were no numbers on the keyboard so I asked the nearby steward “how do I enter numbers?” I probably sounded irritable but he was incredibly understanding as he explained “you only have to enter your name sir”. I looked again. First name. Last name. Oops. There was only one retort to save face “good job I’m not R2 D2 then”. After the words left my lips I realised this was not witty and I hung my head in shame as he turned his back on me to help someone who actually required assistance.

The flight was uneventful; no engine failures this time. I did however miss breakfast snacks being brought round but the attendant  kindly got me something as I think she could see the sadness in my eyes when I realised. Arriving in Munich, Germany seemed as efficient as I had expected and the only thing to hold me up were fellow tourists who couldn’t use the ticket machine even though options appeared to be in any major language you can think of. Ticket purchased I made my way to München Hauptbahnhof.

The journey took longer than I expected and it was very busy though no worse than the tube from Heathrow and certainly not at Moscow or Beijing levels. I got slightly lost in the station concourse but eventually found Chris and Ben. I quickly got changed in to my lederhosen and then left my bag in the secure baggage area before we headed for the world famous Oktoberfest site.

It was only a 10 minute walk from the station and as we arrived at the site my mouth probably hit the floor. I’d not ever really seen pictures of the site but I had a level of expectation yet the scale of the temporary buildings, the number of stools and the number of rides blew them away. Wow. It really was an adults playground.

Paul found us, apparently he had been at deaths door a couple of hours earlier after a heavy night but a beer had clearly revived him. He was his usual chirpy self and wasn’t surprised when rather than asking how my flight was instead said “don’t laugh at me John-boy because you’ll be dead in the morning”. Throughout Russia it seemed his objective was to destroy me and here I was at a place where the objective seems to be to get wrecked in as fun a way as possible.

He led us to our beer hall where Claudia (who Clare and Paul had met in New Zealand) had reserved us all a table. We sat down and it wasn’t long before the Steins of beer arrived. Claudia’s brother was also there and he ordered us all some authentic bavarian food including some giant pretzels.

It was shortly after the 2nd stein that dancing on the chairs began and having got a souvenir picture of Claudia, Clare (hung around my neck) that I began to lean the phase “zucke die da frauan?” Which I learnt in case I got lost and needed to ask someone to help me find “these girls”.

The beer flowed the Steins clinked (a lot) and each time with slightly more force. Some of Claudia’s brothers friends joined us and I tried my best to introduce myself in German but my fake lederhosen worked against me and I ended up with the name Robin Hood.

Eventually we all left and as Chris Claudia and I turned around realised Ben wasn’t following. Instead a guy forever known as ‘Canada’ started chatting to us and followed us around a bit. Clare and Paul appeared from nowhere and we were able to get a beer from one of the outside areas (not that I needed any more).

We went on the dodgems and a load of random girls appeared from nowhere and asked to steer which was fine by me. Then we went on the double shot tower – one of those rides that shoots you up in to the air. Perhaps the alcohol had removed my fear but it seemed particularly tame and whilst Chris agreed the surrounding screams suggested we were alone in that view. On the way home I got a currywurst and then at some stage lay down so Paul could stand triumphantly over me as I admitted defeat.

We were back for an hour or so (it was still only about 10pm) when the door buzzer went and as I opened it realised it was Ben. All reunited we set up the air bed and with a trusty glass of water went to sleep.

Saturday 27th September
I expected a huge hangover next morning but it seemed we were all fine. Still it took us a while to actually leave the house and by the time we did it was edging towards lunch. As a result we grabbed some food from a cafe at the metro station. It was only as we finished we noticed the rat traps and that a rat must recently have been caught in one of them.

We made our way to the English Garden looking for the surf area (apparently there is a wave in the middle of the river) which we never found. We did however spot a guy sunbathing nude which is perfectly normal and us being in clothes were the ones making a fashion faux pas. Soon we came across a beer garden. Totally unplanned but totally typical of Munich. It seemed rude to pass up the chance so we sat in the sun whilst we planned what to do next.

There was only one logical suggestion a traditional German/Munich beer hall. So we headed over past the Residenz and through old looking winding streets. We briefly got distracted from our mission when we saw a fox holding a gun in a shop and it seemed a perfectly natural reaction for Paul to pose with it.

We entered the beer hall which was huge on an epic scale and each table was packed. We went up the different levels and it was by total chance that a group left just as we we’d given up hope. The waiter came and 4 beautiful beers were soon on the way. I was feeling quite peckish so ordered some food at the same time.

Whilst we did some shaky face pictures and were in good spirits I don’t think any of us felt that drunk. It was however still only 4.30pm in the afternoon. We crossed the street and headed to Hard Rock Cafe but as we got to the entrance the bouncer blocked our path and turning to Paul announced “We only have one rule, you have to approach by walking in a straight line”. It was a interesting way to say we were to drunk and rather surprising considering we were in Munich where it seemed the whole city, especially during Oktoberfest is geared towards being merry. Saying that the Hard Rock Cafe was near empty despite it being a early Saturday afternoon so it’s possible the bouncer was doing his job slightly to well.

We found another restaurant and as we drank another stein Paul wrote an email of complaint to Hard Rock Cafe explaining how much of a loyal customer he and Clare had been on their travels. I made a few edits but between us we were fairly confident we had the perfect email and fully expected to be rewarded with at least a free drink for the miscarriage of justice we has suffered.

It was still early when we got home and the plan was to quickly get changed before heading back out for dinner. Clare had given up going out I was getting hungry again, hungry being an understatement if I’m honest and my usually care free manner was announcing I’d eat Chris if he didn’t hurry up.

There was however a hilarious moment when me and Ben were introducing ourselves to Claudia’s housemate and Chris announced his arrival walking in wearing just a pair of boxers. After a few seconds, which felt longer, he realised we weren’t just talking to Clare and Paul. In the end I gave up up waiting and I went to the local Chinese Pizza takeaway round the corner and tucked in like a monster that hadn’t been fed for a week. Chris Ben and Paul soon caught up but as I was being a bit indecisive about whether to join them they headed back in to town without me.

Ultimately I decided to head back for an early night as I had to be up early next morning to see Finja. There was however two issues I had not bargained with. The first was I didn’t actually know how to get back. I was wondering around the vague area, looking for the block of flats with a traffic cone outside. All of a sudden in broken german someone tried to talk to me. “Spreche sie English?” I replied and the person speaking went ‘damn you’re English, I’m trying to find my friends but I’m not sure which street they live on, do you know the area?”. I don’t think I was talking to myself but I guess there was a chance. I explained I was in the same situation and it was as I turned the next corner I saw the traffic cone. Hopefully he also found his friends…

The second issue I had not contemplated was that Claudia’s housemate and her boyfriend would be rightfully sitting in their living room which unfortunately for me happened to be my bedroom. There endured a rather awkward hour or so where I sat in the corner watching YouTube clips and they watched a film I couldn’t understand.

They finally went to bed and so did I but I’d been asleep less than 5 minutes when my phone rang. Paul was back but had come out the wrong station exit and lost so I went to find him. I thought I knew the way but it seemed I still didn’t and after 15 accepted I was lost again. Paul phoned me and just by total chance he was standing the other side of the road. I was able to lead us back to the park and he led us to the traffic cone.

I went to sleep again and was perhaps asleep for 2 hours when Chris and Ben got home. It turned out that at 11pm the Oktoberfest site closes with Chris describing it as ‘someone suddenly turning off all the electricity’.

Sunday 28th September
My alarm had been set early as I’d agreed to meet Finja for a coffee before she started work and didn’t want to be late. I actually woke up before the alarm which felt rather unfortunate because I was tired. I got ready and made my way to the station questioning how I got lost twice the night before.

It turned out we were meeting in the centre of Munich but as it was still early most of the streets were deserted. I saw what looked a giant church spire so as I was early went to investigate. Loads of tourists were staring at the Neues Rathaus Glockenspiel clock tower and as I looked at my watch I noticed it was one minute to 9. I think we all expected to see the figures move and we were all a bit surprised when nothing happened and it was all very anti climatic. An American announced they’d wait because “something is bound to happen soon”. They will have been waiting a few more hours as Finja later told me it only operates at 11am. Oh and it wasn’t a church but the New City Hall

I headed back to Starbucks and Finja arrived shortly after. It was great to catch up but neither of us actually drank coffee (though there had been a time in Australia when I’d become a consumer) so we both got a hot chocolate instead. After that we went on a stroll around the still empty streets that would later be heaving with probably mostly tourists. We went as far as a water fountain but it was a cold, damp morning so there was no incentive to go closer than we had to.

Finja gave me some ideas on how to spend the Monday I had to myself but unfortunately the two hours we had to catch up went to quickly for my liking. Still it was lovely to catch up with another of my friends I’d met travelling.

I met up with the others and after a quick beer we met up with Claudia and her boyfriend before going back to Hard Rock Cafe. This time we got in though throughout the time we waited for a table I expected the bouncer to put two hands on Pauls shoulders to kick him out for his email. Unlike the day before my appetite had deserted me so I ordered a couple of sides.

When mum and I had done to Hard Rock Cafe with Paul and Clare in Sydney I was slightly jealous when she was able to buy the souvenir hurricane glass. Despite already having a stein from the day before I still wanted to expand my personal collection of vessels that can hold alcohol so there was no hesitation this time.

After leaving Hard Rock Ben had to catch his flight home so we went to the station and put our souvenir glasses in the locker had been using. Then after he had gone, Chris Paul Clare, Claudia and I headed to the Oktoberfest site. Paul won on one of the shooting stands and we then each watched the oldest ride that has been in operation at the festival.

The premise was that people had to stay on a spinning roundabout as long as possible before being thrown off. It sounded easy but then the organisers started using ropes to catch people and swung a big ball to knock people off. I was tempted to have a go but never got near the front and even if I had would probably have been crushed by the number of bodies trying to clamour on.

We left and went to a bar at the back of the site where I ordered a drink that was half coke cola and half beer. I did this because my body was beginning to rebel and I thought it sounded different to the usual radler (Lemonade and beer). The first taste or two seemed alright and I began to wonder why they don’t sell the combination in British pubs. A few more sips later and I began to decide it didn’t actually taste that great and that cola and beer perhaps aren’t drinks that should be mixed. Lemonade makes it refreshing but cola just gave it a odd taste.

We tried to get a group picture but where ever I stood the sun light blocked me out and then almost to sum up how much or a failure the idea had been I dropped my camera on the floor. Luckily it was undamaged even though the lens had been out. We left the bar and I brought a toffee apple, which worryingly was my first bit of fruit or veg in 3 days and then a commemorative Oktoberfest stein. This meant my hand luggage would just be my 3 glasses and my camera and considerably more heavy.

We went back to Claudia’s and got changed in to our lederhosen for one final time before returning to the Oktoberfest site for one last time as a group. We went in to one of the beer halls but there were no seats so we sat outside and soon had some Steins on the way. After a couple we moved inside again and found a table buy the party was winding down and we couldn’t find the person serving our area. Still this didn’t stop us joining in with the singing.

Realising there was no chance of beer we headed to our trusty bar at the back of the site. As it was close to last orders we got two beers so we wouldn’t make the same mistake as at the beer hall. Eventually they began to start closing the site and they started to use a spray hose to clean the bar we were at. The hose seemed to have a dual purpose at being a water cannon to remove those who had not finished their drinks.

It seemed the site was pretty much closed so we began to make our way home stopping at McDonald’s. There was no where to sit so we decided to sit on the floor and eat it at the station which we dubbed our McDonalds picnic. Chris and I also found it quite funny when we saw some police buying doughnuts.

We arrived back at the house and the others tried to have a quick nap before their flight and I stayed up to wait for them to leave. My flight wasn’t until 9pm on Monday so I knew I’d be able to catch up on sleep after they’d gone. The house felt very quiet when they bundled out of the door to get the bus and I finally went to sleep.

Monday 29th September
I still wasn’t really suffering hangovers but the lack of sleep had caught up with me and I so any plans to cram as much in as possible went out of the window. I wasn’t going to overdo it. I spent a couple of hours having a quick clean around asking the Leeds lot various questions as by now they were back in the UK on the train home. The one thing I never did find was the community bin or the place to recycle all the bottles we had somehow accumulated.

I eventually left with a plan of action which involved finding the haribo store so I could buy a life time supply and to climb the church Finja had recommended. Going to the Olympic Park and the tall tower would have to wait. I never did find the haribo store, Google had been little help and even tourist information had no idea what I was talking about. Instead they told me to go to a ‘Bears & Friends’ store.

I made my way there instead and whilst not on the scale of the mystical haribo world I was still pretty impressed. Next I headed towards the church and climbed St Peters Church steps to the top. Each time I thought I was there, I wasn’t and my legs were suffering when I got to the top. It was hard to believe just a week before the same body had been capable of running 8km in a gorilla outfit. It is fair to say I am need of a detox but with the Camra beer festival at Ascot, the Rugby League Grand Final, a 30th birthday and a rugby union match at Twickenham taking it easy isn’t an option in the foreseeable.

The view was however probably worth it and I was glad to have done something vaguely cultural besides drinking. After taking in the view and searching out where the Oktoberfest site was in relation to where I stood I headed back down.

I wanted to look for a Steiff bear and whilst there wasn’t a special store I was told to go in a department store. I eventually found what I was looking for but nearly collapsed when I saw the price so instead I took a photo. Next I had a walk around the food hall section as I’d been told to get mustard in a tube and I thought I could buy some chocolates. Leaving the store with enough money for a beer and some food I went in search of the oldest beer ha in Munich.

Fortunately I found a table and ordered the German equivalent of sausage and chips in curry sauce. It was also nice to have one final beer, and one I hadn’t already had though it wasn’t the same alone. I was feeling tired and just wanted to be on the plane but I still had some time to wait. After finishing my drink and paying the bill I collected my bag from the locker at central station and headed to the airport.

The time at the airport was a blur, I got hungry again and craved a McDonald’s but sadly for me there wasn’t one after security. Instead I spent my remaining euros on a can of red bull, chocolate and a bag of haribo sweets. Eventually it was time to board and I inadvertently fell asleep and this time I missed the dinner snack. Again a kind attendant found me something and again I went back to sleep.

Landing back at Heathrow I was expecting a challenging journey home similar to when I got back from Portugal with Carissa and Sophie. Instead it was a breeze and I was home and in bed less than an hour after I had landed. Oktoberfest had nearly destroyed me but it was worth every minute and I am so glad I can finally say I have been and I survived.

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