Bicycling Through Berlin – A Guest Post by Calum

The fourth of our guest posters, brings another slice of German life.  This time…the incredible city of Berlin.  Calum, a friend and former colleague of mine, is a well-travelled Scot, who is not only possessed with a great sense of humour, but a with a love of travel that has taken him to various destinations across Europe; along with recent adventurous trips to India and Vietnam.  With the help of his friend Silke, a local, Calum was able to take ‘The Home Advantage‘; utilising the knowledge of a native to show him the best that this magnificent city has to offer!  I hope you enjoy reading about Calum’s trip and his thoughts on Berlin.  Remember to leave your comments below for the wee Scot!
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Berlin. Where all the tourists go. The Bundestag. Brandenburg Gate. And Alexanderplatz.
I’ve really loved Germany since some friends were kind enough to host a visit to Mainz Carnival, or Fassenacht, six years ago. I learned a lot about the country on that trip. I learned how to love ironic 80s rock, shoulder strap keyboards, singing 99 red balloons by Nena, and pubs where tables hung upside down from the ceiling (I’m sure I saw it more than once). Prior perceptions of Germany were influenced by old ‘Monty Python’ episodes and ‘Fawlty Towers’. A stiff, serious bunch. But how wrong I was.

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Contrast expectations of Germany on the left, a la ‘Fawlty Towers’, with the real thing (source – Calum)

Earlier this year I had an opportunity to meet up with my friend Silke in Berlin. I expected a lot from the city. On my previous visit to Germany I’d found people were incredibly welcoming and on this occasion things were no different. I was first to experience this immediately after getting off the train from the airport at the Zoological Gardens, central Berlin, where a super-helpful taxi driver took time out to give me walking directions to my hotel. It might not sound much but in London, or Paris, this sort of thing really doesn’t happen.

Different cities have different names for their underground systems – in London The Tube, Paris le Metro. In Glasgow it is the Subway but in Berlin we have the U-Bahn below ground and S-Bahn above. I’m normally pretty good at navigating metropolitan railway lines but I found Berlin tricky – lines look similar, numbered U1-U9 and the stations seem a maze of platforms and escalators to me. I did eventually seem to get to where I wanted – perhaps through luck more than anything else.

I’d arranged to meet up with Silke outside the Bundestag at 9am. There are a few activities that are mandatory on a first trip to Berlin: visiting the Bundestag is one, and another is to photograph the Brandenburg Gate. Luckily the Gate is just around the corner from the Bundestag.

Providing you book ahead, free tours of the Bundestag are available, allowing access to the walkway that winds up inside the glass dome with an audio guide (booking for visits to the Bundestag – http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/besgrupp/index.html). Views over the city are spectacular and a small museum provides information on the history of the building: the Reichstag fire that boosted the Nazi Party in 1933, the dome’s reconstruction and even the concert Michael Jackson gave outside in 1988 (http://concertsgalore.net/file/michael-jackson-at-platz-der-republik-berlingermany-on-jun-19-1988-concert-bootleg-download-37035.php).

The Bundestag on the left, essential Brandenburg Gate pic on the right (source - Calum)
The Bundestag on the left, essential Brandenburg Gate pic on the right (source – Calum)

Berlin to me seemed open and spacious in feel. Traffic is calm considering the size of the city and even the U-Bahn isn’t too cramped. A few people had recommended a cycling tour of the city. Rather than sign up to an organised group we decided to do it ourselves. Berlin is incredibly well suited to bikes, much more so than London in my view. We stopped at Museum
Island, passed by the Rotes Rathaus, Berlin City Hall, before crossing the city to find the Eastside Gallery, a good hour or so away. This is a 1.3km stretch of the old wall that still stands, with artists across Europe invited to paint sections. I’d recommend visiting this above all else I managed to do. There were some great little coffee spots on the way and later in the
evening we cycled through the Tiergarten Park alongside the river, passing through a small zoo on the way! This was a great way to see a quieter side of the city – a side of the city I may not have thought to visit without some local knowledge (thank you, Silke!).

The East Side Gallery running down the street. See Fernsehturm in the distance (source - Calum)
The East Side Gallery running down the street. See Fernsehturm in the distance (source – Calum)

Another attraction we visited earlier in the day was the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz – a large TV tower originally constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and apparently modeled after Sputnik. The tower is visible throughout Berlin, with a revolving restaurant and gallery up top. I’m a sucker for tall buildings – if it’s there I have to climb it – so I couldn’t possibly pass up on this; despite the slightly expensive ticket price at €12.50. Parts of the tower seemed very dated, from the dull concrete walkways and walls outside to the slightly aged decor within, but the views of the city were truly stunning. With such a vantage point it’s still possible to see distinct differences between parts of the city – large wide roads and housing blocks to the east, and much more colourful and organic city planning to the west. Of course the differences are beginning to fade away.

On the left, cake – it really was as big as it looks. View from Fernsehturm on right (source - Calum)
On the left, cake – it really was as big as it looks. View from Fernsehturm on right (source – Calum)

Visiting a city is always a much richer experience in the company of someone who knows it well. I’m most grateful to Silke for showing me around. If you ever fancy a tour around Glasgow, my home town, get in touch!

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