Berlin Sylvester 2011

 

Authors: Chris Cameron and  Julie Dawson

 

 

 

December 31st 2011

 

To avoid a long drive from the Midlands to Luton airport we stayed overnight at the Luton Travelodge the night before our first visit to Berlin for New Year celebrations. It wasn't too early a start, and much better than leaving Shrewsbury or Wolverhampton at 3 a.m. but it was still dark and pretty grim in Luton when we checked out for the short drive to our off-airport parking. They were very efficient and we were on the move in their minibus within five minutes of driving through the gates and five minutes later we were walking towards Luton Airport departures.

Burger King was our choice for breakfast. Not very classy but after the rather awful 'traditional' breakfast we'd had at Liverpool airport last month we opted for something predictable. We'd thought about buying a bottle of vodka or two in the airport shop to sustain us through the night but the prices seemed higher than Tesco with less choice, so we didn't bother.

The gate came up on the screen - we were at Gate 65 which is probably the furthest away from the departure lounge - just as we were starting to worry that there was going to be a delay. The ground crew were asking for volunteers to have their hand luggage taken on as hold luggage because the flight was full and so we took our Kindles and iPods out and handed them over. As is often the case, when we boarded Julie made straight for the emergency exits seats with extra leg room. We're not really sure what the people who pay extra for speedy boarding have in mind. We always assume that they'll go for those seats but we're usually wrong.

The flight was not very late and 90 minutes later we were descending the steps at Berlin Schonefeld airport into bright sunshine with blue skies and hardly any wind. This was more like it. Getting through passport control was surprisingly slow and I found out that there are no toilets between the plane and the passport desk (or for quite a distance beyond) which was a bit annoying because I try not to use the loos on short haul flights and ended up hopping from foot to foot when Julie got stuck behind somebody who didn't seem to have the right travel papers. By the time we got to baggage reclaim both our bags were going around the carousel, so having them switched to hold luggage didn't delay us at all.

We tried to get train tickets to central Berlin in the airport but the machine we used only seemed to accept Maestro cards and one other type that we'd never heard of and didn't have a slot for cash and the manned ticket desk had a closed sign on it, so we set off walking, following the signs for the railway station. There are ticket machines in the tunnel near the platform and when we'd figured out what we needed (a €3 Berlin ABC ticket that gives two hours of travel) we were sorted. It might be worth noting that the tickets should be validated in the rather anonymous machines on the platform - there was one at the top of the steps on the platform we used. It took us a while to work this out but we had twenty minutes to wait for our train to Alexanderplatz.

The journey to Alexanderplatz was 23 minutes and everything was on time. By guesswork we exited the busy station on the right side but felt badly in need of a street map to help us find the allSeasons hotel. Actually a sign with a street name would have been useful. We eventually found the hotel by a rather circuitous route, using Google maps on Julie's 'phone and having only taken two wrong turns, including a dead-end by the police station.

The allSeasons. Anyone who has ever read our other trip reports will probably realise that hotels are not the most important part of travel for me. Generally if we have a clean place to sleep and somewhere to get clean we're happy. In Germany on New Year's Eve a telly is useful to, but we'll come to that later. Anyway, first impressions were pretty good. The hotel is a short walk from Alexanderplatz, so reasonably central, the reception staff were friendly and the room was bigger than we'd expected for a 3*, with a double bed flanked by two singles, so pretty good for families. I might mention breakfast in a couple of days time.

One advantage of travelling on cheap airlines with hand luggage is that there's not much to unpack and whilst wandering around in confusion looking for the hotel we'd spotted a Christmas market-thingy on Alexanderplatz with food stalls, bars and a skating rink. We didn't have much of a debate about what to do next.

Germany at New Year is the place to be. Forget Sydney, Australia (see later); forget London, England; even forget Scotland. The Germans really know how to have a good time to celebrate Sylvester. They start early, finish late and make a lot of noise in between. This was our fourth German Sylvester and our first in Berlin. We were aware because of our usual minimal research that there was a big party scheduled for somewhere in the region of the Brandenberg Gate (wherever that was) which would be starting at about 8 p.m. and that there was something else going on in the Gendarmenmarkt but as it was still not quite dark we spent a leisurely half hour or so leaning on an outside table with mulled wine and Euro-pop music, waiting for the skating to start. We were still waiting when we'd finished our wine but decided that we should have a bit of a walk around.

The hotel supplies free maps (the flat, tear-off paper ones). A magnifying glass would have been handy because Berlin is actually quite big, but we found a route that took us past what looked like some interesting sights to the famous thoroughfare of Unter den Linden and from there to the Gendarmenmarkt.

A feature of Sylvester in Germany is fireworks. I don't mean just the big, showy display fireworks that you can see from miles away. All kinds of fireworks from hand-thrown crackers to little ground based Roman Candles and similar. People just set them off in the streets, even in broad daylight. We hadn't been off the train for long before we heard the first explosions and as the day progressed the bangs became more numerous and rockets began to appear in the gaps between tall buildings. So, dodging the occasional banger, we set off down Karl-Liebnecht Strasse.

As we expected to be out until early in the morning we had a minor shopping requirement and we soon found a glamorous looking shop called Koch's which was very busy. Dozens of people were stocking up on champagne and good German sparkling wine (we like Henkell) but a glass cabinet at the back had what we were after - several shelves of vodka, ranging from less than €10 a bottle to an eye-watering €170. We were pleased to find a bottle of chilli vodka, having had some that we bought in Latvia or Estonia a few years back that we rather enjoyed and we supplemented that with a bottle of Moskovskya. We were pleased that we'd baulked at the airport shop prices because these were cheaper and there was a much bigger range.

Continuing down Schlossplatz and over the first of the Spree bridges we stopped to enjoy the bells ringing out from the squat and blocky Collegiate Church and admire the 'sails' of the Humboldt Box whilst giggling at the idea of the Lustgarten. There was no lust in evidence this evening. Onto Unter den Linden which was being used as a race track by an expensive looking sports car and left onto Charlottenstrasse and we were soon paying our Euros (one each) to get into the prettily laid out Gendarmenmarkt.

Those in the UK familiar with German Christmas Markets (the one in Birmingham in 2011 was a rather splendid example, although for us the most interesting product on offer was the UK-produced horseradish vodka available as shots from the mulled cider bar) will probably get the idea of what this was about. The layout and the setting were good enough to justify the Euro entrance fee and there were a wealth of interesting smalls, sounds and sights. We first noticed it on-line when we saw that the Sylvester celebrations there included a live version of 'Dinner for One', about which more later. There was no chance that we would still be here for that, but we came to have a look anyway. From memory the entry fee for the night was €10 and that included a full programme of entertainment on the main stage.

There was a stall specialising in soup and they had a pork goulash and a lentil-based soup on offer which we eagerly purchased, along with a glass of a decent German sparkling wine. Both the soups were delicious, though not cheap and our mood was brightening by the minute.

It was getting towards time to get ready for a long night out so we meandered through the streets back to the hotel where we checked the schedules for 'Dinner for One' because spending the last day of the year in Germany and not watching this strange institution seemed almost unthinkable. We opened the chilli vodka to help pass the time whilst showering and changing etc. and flicked through the channels on the TV until we found what we were searching for.

"Dinner for One" is an 18 minute comedy sketch featuring Freddie Frinton and May Warden and filmed in 1963. I can't do it justice so it might be worth reading the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinner_for_One if you want to find out more about this record breaking world-wide (but not in Britain or the United States) broadcasting phenomenon.

Suitably entertained and with a handful of catch-phrases to use during the evening, we set off into the night, already noisy with the sound of numerous exploding fireworks. In the covered area off Alexanderplatz a group of people where setting off firecrackers every few seconds because the 'tunnel' amplified the bang in a satisfying way. There was already a huge amount of litter (see the first video on this page) from the crackers that had already been used and boxes more waiting their turn.

So, back down Karl-Liebnecht Strasse and Schlossplatz toward Unter den Linden, thinking that the entrance to the main Berlin celebrations would be at the Brandenburg Gate but we didn't get far before we and thousands of others were being directed left away from the park to follow diversion signs. It was quite a long diversion, probably over a kilometre and there was one in the other direction as well. The crowds got denser and the reason for the diversion became obvious. there are so many people that to have them all entering at the same point with only one direction to go would have been dangerous and difficult to manage.

We emerged into the park, having managed to retain the vodka that we'd decanted into plastic bottles and the two small bottles of fizz as well. there are signs up prohibiting glass bottles (and fireworks) but there seemed to be no prblem with our plastic ones and we'd forgotten about the sparkling wine.

It was hard to know which way to turn. With the benefit of hindsight it might have been best to head back towards the Brandenburg Gate, where the main stage was, but at first we made the assumption that the ferris wheel was where the entertainment finished and didn't realise there were 100s of thousands of people on the other side of it.

There were 100s of thousands of people on our side too and many more arriving by the minute. There were stalls and rides and stages down both sides of the main walking area and people seemed in the mood to enjoy a party. A stall with a man with a top hat and tuxedo and a cheesy sign which seemed to be about bowls of fire and a big container of something alcoholic looking and steaming caught our eyes and we parted with four Euros each for what was probably the best mulled wine of the trip and indeed of 2011. It was good enough to warrant a second cup (CC had a measure of Amaretto in his) and when it had cooled slightly it wasn't harmed much by the addition of a shot of Moskovskya.

In the hour or so since we arrived the numbers kept increasing as more and more people piled into the Tiergarten so walking down to the big wheel, where we thought the main stage was located took some time. When we got there the main acts could be seen on the big screen (Eurovision favourite Johnny Logan was just starting up) but there was no stage to be seen, so we walked back up to the far end. Another gluhwein was well overdue so we addressed that issue and started talking to a British/Canadian couple who explained to us that there was more at the far side of the wheel and that we had no chance of getting there because of the crowds. We like a challenge, so we had a go.

to be honest, for 20 minutes or so it wasn't that pleasant. There was only one entrance/exit by the big wheel and there were colossal numbers of people going in and out. We thought we'd seen the densest crowds ever at Tarragona's Baixada de l'Aliga but this was even more tightly packed and not helped much by people all going in different directions and a minority not really caring who they stood on or pushed out of the way. Successful 70s, 80s and even 90s group Hot Chocolate were performing as we reached the arena, giving me another opportunity to sing along ... "I believe in Malcolm ..." and we got through the tightest crush and into an area where there was enough space to turn around without knocking three other people over just in time to see Kim Wilde performing "Kids in America". Oh the memories. There was so much on the programme that there was only time for two songs from each performer, but the biggest roar of approval was reserved for veteran German rockers The Scorpions.

I'll be honest, I've heard of them but I don't know a single song that they've produced. The queues for the gluhwein went down a bit whilst they were on though and the locals seemed to be enjoying it and after all, it's their party.

There was a big countdown to midnight and to our surprise the fireworks display that we had expected would be focussed on the Brandenberg Gate was actually off to one side and we had a more or less uninterrupted view of it. There were also a few fireworks near the gate but the main display was excellent and a fitting start to a new year.

We uncorked our 1/4 bottles of champagne and drank them quite quickly because they were a bit too warm and then found someone from the UK to sing "Auld Lang Syne" with, although diverse nationalities round and about also joined in.

Some of the remainder of the evening is something of a blur. There was an entertaining band who performed "I Will Survive" (funny how you know all the words when you've been drinking) and had the whole crowd jumping up and down to an Irish-style tune that involved everybody singing "Diddly diddly diddly diddly". Priceless. When the bands had finished a DJ took over and helped everybody keep warm with random shuffling, jumping and so on.

Although the evening had been fine and the temperatures unseasonably high, cloud had gradually built up and the fireworks seemed to stimulate a bit of light rain but thankfully it didn't last long and wasn't enough to dampen everyone's enthusiasm. We got talking to the "Auld Lang Syne" chap who turned out to be a railway worker who was on the last day of a holiday taking in several central European countries who claimed not to have spent a night in an hotel, having used overnight trains and station platforms. Alexanderplatz station seemed well set up with showers so this sounded like an interesting if slightly unusual way of seeing the world.

By about four in the morning the crowds were beginning to thin out, although random fireworks going off frequently reminded us that there were still plenty of people having a good time. We set off on the long walk back to the hotel. At least the diversion was no longer in place. The top of the radio tower was shrouded in low crowd and looked quite eerie.

As we hadn't eaten for a while we went to check if the kebab place on the junction of Karl-Liebnecht Strasse and the 'tunnel' from Alexanderplatz was still open. It was and it gave us a flush of national pride to realise that at least half of the clientele were English. Trust us to find the quality places to eat. Actually the kebabs weren't much good but it was nice to have somewhere to sit for a few minutes as we'd been on our feet for the best part of nine hours and we were beginning to feel it. The bottles of pop helped ease throats worn out from cheering and singing and so on. It was only a few minutes back to the hotel and we hit the mattresses about 23 hours after we'd woken up in Luton.

 

January 1st 2012

 

Ouch.

Usually when on holiday I'm first out of bed and eager to be out and doing things but at about 10 a.m. Julie woke me up to remind me that we'd paid for breakfast. The hotel was very decently serving until 11 presumably to give those of us who'd had a late night the chance to have a few hours sleep. I couldn't face it so suggested that Julie should go down on her own and leave me to suffer in silence. After about 2 minutes she was back to tell me that it was 11 a.m. and she had enjoyed her breakfast. I didn't really feel much like getting up but we were in a new city and it was daylight, so I gathered my courage and stood up.

When you're travelling hand luggage only you try to pack only what you'll need (well we do, anyway) but we'd had a debate about whether or not to bring some waterproofs. The weather forecast had been a bit uncertain so at the last minute we managed to squeeze some in. Looking outside we were quite glad of this because it was raining quite steadily.

Being out in the air improved my demeanour somewhat and I started to feel like eating something. There were numerous reminders of last night’s festivities. We went to have a look at the areas we'd seen by night in the daylight, hoping to find some sort of cafe that wasn't a corporate coffee shop or global fast food franchise. We had a look around the area near Hackescher Markt station and found a place on what I think was Garnisonkirchplatz where I had a jolly good piece of plum cake and we both had coffees. Walking near the railway line we were astonished to hear loud music coming out of a night club door that opened to let several revellers who clearly were still enjoying the night before out into the daylight. That's what I call commitment, but rather them than me.

Hundreds of people who clearly had not had as much vodka as us overnight went by on an organised run that looked admirable but we weren't tempted to join in.

The rain persisted but we weren't ready to give up so we went to have a look around some of the monumental buildings on the island in the Spree. The Alte Nationalgalerie caused us to dally for a while because there was a reasonable amount of shelter and some statues to photograph. The Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) also caught our eye. This is now dedicated as the "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny." and contains a memorable sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz entitled Mother with her Dead Son. This is in the centre of the building which is otherwise unadorned and as it is directly underneath the open oculus it was exposed to the rain which made it even more sombre.

The Brandenberg Gate is one of Berlin's most well known monuments and we had so far only seen it by night so we continued up Unter den Linden to see it in daylight. To be truthful, the daylight wasn't up to much. The rain increased to the heaviest that it had been all day (or at least any of the hours that we'd been out in it) and we spent too much time dodging the umbrellas of the gormless. Surely the day of the umbrella is long gone. Modern waterproof fabrics are much more effective and you don't have to hold them over your head (at about my eye-level, incidentally) and they keep the wind out too, instead of blowing inside out when somebody down the street sneezes. Do us all a favour and get a kagoule, guys! The rain and the cold that came with it didn't tempt us to linger for long at the Brandenberg Gate and we had been in Berlin for about 24 hours without seeing the Berlin Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, so we dodged the puddles and the brollies and set off down Wilhelmstrasse.

It's not surprising to find out that there's not much of the wall left but there are still a few sections. It's the banality of it that makes the most impression. It's just a rather shoddy and cheaply constructed wall. Every expense spared, probably and yet it symbolises so much. It's probably best viewed in the rain.

By now my appetite was beginning to return properly, the sugar in the plum cake having done the trick. We found a cafe called Kobes not far from the wall were we received a warm welcome and a couple of even warmer and delicious bowls of soup. There was live music too and it was pleasant to while away an hour or so and warm up somewhat.

The rain had pretty much stopped when we left and the day and our moods were definitely brighter, so Checkpoint Charlie was next. This has to be one of the most disappointing tourist attractions we've ever seen. It's tacky and a bit cheesey. You can pay, if you want, to have your photograph taken with a man in military uniform with a choice of hats (we didn't) and there are plenty of shops nearby where you can buy down-market communist memorabilia (we didn't). I'm sure we'll return to Berlin but I doubt that we'll bother with Checkpoint Charlie again.

We're both great believers in tourism by wandering around. We don't eschew guide books and we always try to have maps which often contain nuances and hints about things that might be worth seeing in addition to specific tourist information. For example we're often attracted to parks and green spaces in towns and cities because they can sometimes be havens for wildlife and provide a different perspective. We did a bit of wandering around after Checkpoint Charlie. Initially this was aimless wandering because we set of along a road thinking we knew what road it was and where it went but we're too lazy or arrogant to look at maps too regularly and usually assume that we know where we're going. After twenty minutes or so of not seeing anything of significant interest and not seeming to see anything that we'd expected we relented and got the map out to discover that we'd set off down a street perpendicular to the one we wanted and were now heading out of central Berlin and into residential districts. We're also too arrogant to easily admit mistakes, so retracing our steps was out of the question and we picked out an alternative if slightly complicated route back to the central area. We referred to the map more frequently than usual over the next half hour.

However, as they say, every cloud etc ... If we hadn't gone the wrong way (no, we didn't get lost!) we probably wouldn't have come across the rather excellent "Balancing Act" sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol. This commemorates the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Axel Springer publishing house in 1959, right up against the boundary with the Soviet zone and very soon after, the Berlin Wall. The building and publishing house have been described as a “lighthouse of the free West”. The sculpture itself incorporates parts of the wall and the symbolism is obvious. Definitely worthy of a slight diversion or even, as in our case, a long one.

One negative aspect of getting up late, especially in the depths of winter is that there's not much daylight and with the dense cloud cover it was beginning to get rather gloomy. We continued northwards towards central Berlin, crossing the river on Fischerinsel. We paused for a few photos on Muhlendammbrucke, having taken our chances with the traffic to cross the wide and busy road and then entered the attractive  albeit rather tourist-oriented area around the Nikolaikirche. Much of Berlin is 20th century or dominated by monumental public and private building, broad boulevards and open space, but this small area feels very different with narrow streets, traffic restrictions and a surprise around every corner.

Somewhere to eat in the evening became a priority. We drifted around taking photos and happened upon Kartoffelhaus No 1 on Poststrasse, a restaurant specialising in potatoes. What could be better. We decided to come back later. Outside the Brauhaus Georgbreau, a much grander-looking place than its name suggests (we were expecting a brewery-pub) and overlooking the Spree there is an excellent statue of St. George battling a rather fearsome looking dragon.

On the way back to the allSeasons we called in for a quick one in the temporary bar on Alexanderplatz by the ice-rink, where we'd had our first gluhwein the day before. although presumably prefabricated and put together like a big three dimensional jigsaw, the prevalence of wood and beams gave the place an authentic atmosphere and we might have stayed for a second drink had it not been for the awful braying woman several tables away who wanted everyone to hear what she had to say, even though she had nothing to say worth listening to.

After ablutions and a change of clothes back at the hotel we set off in search of dinner. We found the Kartoffelhaus but were told that they were fully booked for the night which we had suspected as soon as we walked in because the few empty tables all had Reserved signs. We weren't too bothered because there were a number of other places nearby. One that had looked nice from the outside was Ephraim's on Spreeufer. It was hard to tell from outside whether they were busy or not, so we looked at the menu, saw that there were plenty of dishes that we might like and walked in.

The interior was a delight. Stylish and understated with not much of the 21st century on show and precious little of the 20th either. http://www.ephraims.de/ Best of all, they had tables free, although there were several groups already dining. Julie ordered a soup with a small sausage (see photo if you're not sure what a small sausage is - apparently our perception was somewhat inaccurate whilst I had goulash and for the main course Julie had Eisbein and I went for the goose leg. All was excellent and I can see Ephraims being on our itinerary next time. The price was reasonable, too, given the opulence of the surroundings and the staff were welcoming and friendly.

By now we were quite tired, having walked perhaps 15 miles over the two days on not much sleep, so we went back to the hotel for an early-ish night.

 

January 2nd 2012

 

It's always nice to have a list. Or even a few. Some birders are almost obsessive 'listers', maintaining life, year, country, county, garden and trip lists amongst others. I once met a birder who claimed to have a list of species that he had witnessed in the process of relieving themselves. I more or less stick to life and year lists. My life list is pretty good actually, heading for 2,000 species worldwide but there are some really dedicated people (probably wealthy, too) who can claim 4 times that number.

Our first bird of 2012 was a Robin. It often is because this is a species that sings at night time throughout most of the year in much of Europe. As they are accomplished singers, at least to human ears, they are often mistaken for Nightingales which are much more elusive in many areas and only sing in Europe in late spring and summer.

By the end of 1st January I think we were up to 4 species, perhaps 6 because I'm sure that we must have seen a House Sparrow and a Blackbird. It was time to remedy that a little.

http://www.birdforum.net/ is a pretty good place to go for birdwatching info and I'd posted a request for details of any sites reachable by public transport for a New Year's Day walk on the German forum. New Years Day came and went with no attempt to see birds but we had a reasonable amount of time before our late afternoon flight so we decided to mix some sight-seeing with birding.

I managed a respectably early start this morning and even made it down to breakfast which was perfectly acceptable although the behaviour of some of our fellow guests was a little less so. There's nothing I like better than having somebody I don't know lean right across me to get to something that was neither going to disappear nor evaporate whilst I'm trying to serve myself. It's almost as nice as watching somebody's breakfast churning around in their mouth because they've stuffed so much in they would suffocate if they didn't breath through said mouth whilst chewing.

There are left luggage lockers in Alexanderplatz station at street level.  I think it was 6 Euros for a big one which was plenty big enough for our two holdalls so we dumped our bags there and bought a U-bahn ticket for the westbound trip to Sophie-Charlotte Platz from where it is a short walk along Schlossstrasse to the Charlottenburg Palace. We had been told that the extensive gardens here are home to a pair of Middle-spotted Woodpeckers, a species that we had seen only once previously. The weather hadn't improved much from the day before but the forecast was for a slight improvement so we put on out waterproofs and put up with it.

Birdwatching aside, the palace is worth a visit for anyone with time in Berlin. Construction was started at the end of the 17th century and it was built for Sophie Charlotte, wife of Frederick III the Elector of Brandenburg. It was built in the baroque style and burned to the ground during World War II so what we see today is a reconstruction.

The interior contains an art gallery but the gardens seem to be open to all without charge (we didn't see any charges, anyway). The main gardens are behind the palace as approached from the Sophie-Charlotte Platz station and are very attractive. The area nearest the palace is formal with lawns and structured hedges whilst the more distant parts are a little wilder with tall trees and ornamental lakes.

The rain continued as we wandered around but birds were quite active, mainly common woodland species. We found a couple of woodpeckers that got a fair amount of scrutiny but they were the much common Great Spotted Woodpecker.

At the far end of the garden, away from the palace is a railway line and the railway bridge also carries a footbridge over the river. We took this because we fancied a few minutes out of the rain and thought we might find a cafe over the other side. There was one within a hundred metres or so, the Cafe am Belvedere (there is a Belvedere at this end of the park). We ordered coffees and a piece of a very tempting chocolate cake which was even better than it looked, although incredibly rich which meant that we didn't quite manage to finish it.
 
The rain had almost stopped when we went back outside so we returned to the park where the birds were more active and in greater numbers. Over by the mausoleum Julie decided that a pigeon in the top of a tall tree looked 'different' and through the binoculars we could see that it was actually a Goshawk! The tree was taller than I thought. Julie was just about to get a photo when it flew away. There's a pair that breeds in the park so it might just be a good place to go to see what in the UK at least is a rather elusive species.

Nearer to the palace we saw a few non-descript birds sitting motionless in the trees. We checked these out as well and found six Hawfinches, another species that is often tricky to see in the UK.

We needed 30 minutes to get back to the city centre and another 30 to the airport and we hadn't bothered to check the airport express times, so we started our journey back, walking back to Sophie-Charlotte Platz and marvelling at the huge number of spent fireworks still left everywhere, despite the efforts of the city's cleaning team.

There's not much else to say. Getting back to the airport was nice and easy and the flight was on time as well, although this time we had to take our holdalls on with us, but we still got some extra leg room seats.

Here's looking forward to Sylvester in Berlin 2012.