Tag Archives: train travel in Europe

Stage Six – Moscow – on the way overland UK to NZ

Each metro station is different but all I encountered are quiet and orderly
Each Moscow Metro station is different but all I encountered were quiet and orderly

Find Stage One of this travel saga or, if you’re brand new and want to read about the whys and wherefores in planning this trip, here’s Part I.

The Moscow Metro is similar to other metros in my experience. You buy a ticket. (There’s often an English speaking window at the station.) You wave the ticket at a machine. You find your line. You get on the train. You get off and change to the next line. You get off at your stop. You find your way to the surface, point in the right direction and walk towards your destination.

BUT! Moscow Metro IS different! The stations are the People’s Palaces! They are GORGEOUS!

The history of Russia told in mosaics (and some screen advertising)
The history of Russia as mentioned by Stalin told in mosaics (and some screen advertising)

Advertising came along with the World Cup. The video screens were put into each train so that it would be possible to see every game even if you were commuting. In fact, you could sit in the warm trains and watch if you wanted. Now there are ads. And funny cat videos. And screens are appearing in the middle of the platforms in the People’s Palaces.

Not all metro stations are labelled
Not all metro stations are labelled

The station names were unfamiliar and written in a different alphabet. I was deeply grateful that underneath the Cyrillic the familiar (to me) Latin alphabet spelled out those words or I do not think I could have found my way to my hostel. The streets were quiet as I walked the 10 minute stroll, houses and buildings set back from the road. Little traffic. Autumn leaves clinging on. People in warm coats, scarves and gloves. October. It was nearly winter. Nearly dusk. Mid-afternoon.

Ostentatious signage for Moscow!
Ostentatious signage for Moscow!

Strawberry Duck was a lovely building. Like the city I had experienced so far from the Metro, and the little park on the way, it was quiet and orderly. The interior designers had been given free rein and the flavour was elegant, quirky Prado.

Glimpse of the clean lines of interior Strawberry Duck, Moscow
Glimpse of the clean lines of interior Strawberry Duck, Moscow

Deep blue walls transitioned down the long hallways into mulberry, then into a kind of mustard, giving an impression of opulence and soft dignity. The art pieces scattered around were light-hearted, an origami duck lampshade, a collection of watercolours showing inviting places to sit with your friends perhaps and many prints and paintings featuring ducks in amusing poses.

Strawberry Duck downstairs common room
Strawberry Duck downstairs common room – no Wifi – you had to chat to each other!

Downstairs, the kitchen and common areas were hard-hit-back designer brick inlaid with cool shapes and atmospheric dim lighting.

As well as the deep colours throughout there were wallpapers of bold florals that matched the decorative noveau splashbacks in the bathrooms. You could pay for 45 minutes of private bathroom but the shared spaces were cleaned regularly – in fact there was no time when I didn’t see a cleaner somewhere nearby. The reception staff were very kind to me – the oldest woman they’d seen in Strawberry Duck ever, I imagine! Most of the girls in my shared room were young and, as I went to bed, they fussed over their make-up and outfits preparing for a night on the town. The beds were curtained off with a deep green faux velvet, adding to the quiet style. Everyone had a locker but many of the girls seemed to be between houses, bringing suitcases, hangers and boxes of clothes. There was a lot of packing, repacking and some emotional phone calls going on. But quietly. Real owl and sparrow divide. Definitely in the sparrow tribe, me. Though, solitary. Just an unidentified LBB, then.

Sad dried flowers in hostel. Which girl do they belong to? Can you see him leaving in the background?
Sad dried flowers in hostel. Which girl do they belong to? Can you see him leaving in the background?

Next day dawned. First things first. Get onward travel organised. Find Real Russia. Ah, happy memories of London! Was this going to be straightforward?

Unprepossessing entrance to Real Russia in Moscow!
Unprepossessing entrance to Real Russia in Moscow!

Thought I was lost for a moment. I walked around their block, not making sense of the map and their street not coming up on maps.me. I asked one lady who pointed me off in the wrong direction (we were actually just near the building) and another who steered me correctly with lots of words but we nodded and smiled and I said, ‘Spasibo’ a lot. Another young woman looked at my crumpled piece of map and, fearing I wanted money, I suppose, cut me dead and steered away. Made me think how I have treated people in need in the past.

Lena and the two girls gave me my ticket with a small ceremony. ‘Do not bend the ticket!’ And they let me charge my phone. I would not bend the ticket.

Now to find my way out again!
Now to find my way out again!

Back to a little cafe near my hostel

Moscow: When the staff let you in to use their bathroom
When the staff let you in to use their bathroom

and a walk around the pond.

Chistyye Prudy (Clean Pond) is lit up with different colours at night
Chistyye Prudy (Clean Pond) is lit up with different colours at night.
It’s also the name of the metro station line 1. Turgeneveskaya is line 6 but the same stop. Remember ‘A Month in the Country’?
Who made the air vent?
Metro air-vent
Resurrection Gate and Chapel
Resurrection Gate and Chapel featuring the double headed eagle

There were beggars, people with their hands out in the shopping strip and in the tourist area, just by Resurrection Gate. This is modern Russia. I gave some coins to a man with no feet and there was a strange circular place like a coin fountain, where if you threw money over yourself, presumably depending on where it landed, you would get the wish of your dreams. A random man picked up some of the coins with a collecting stick. He wore no badge of accreditation. Could just have been his turn.

On our walking tour we heard the story of a young woman who did just that, and as she stood and contemplated her wish, a young man, bearing an armload of long-stemmed red roses raced to kneel before her and propose. ‘Of course,’ said the guide. ‘We can only hope she knew him beforehand.’

Irena fires up her tour over looked by Cyril and Methodius, inventors of the cyrillic alphabet
Irena fires up her tour over-looked by Cyril and Methodius, inventors of the cyrillic alphabet

Our lovely Free Tour of Moscow guide, Iryna, happened to be late. I spotted her preparation at the bus stop in front of the meeting place, the sculpture of the two fellows who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. She put on her red scarf and microphone and bouncy stage presence. Then made an entrance as she swept up the steps and called us all together into a group with such merriment she sounded like she was twelve, giving an Eisteddfod speech. She was well into it by the time her assistants arrived with the red umbrella. Perhaps she was on edge because everyone had chosen to be late that day?

I found it difficult to engage for some reason. It might have been my state of mind, the tone of her voice or even the subject. Russian history in a nutshell was incredibly hard to digest; overwhelming and unsatisfying. I guess it was me. We went up to see a beautiful swirl of green, white and red old church that is usually unavailable for tourist viewing. But today the street was open.

Holy Trinity Church in Kitay-Gorod (China Town - but not)
Holy Trinity Church in Kitay-Gorod (translates as China Town – but not – could have meant built by the city walls.)

Then over to Saint George which stands proudly at the entrance of the new Zaryadye Park.

Old St George's church by the new Zaryadye park
Old St George’s church by the new Zaryadye park (for my nephew)

This site has been haggled over ever since Stalin wanted to build the Eighth Sister there. (Guess he settled for Warsaw?) Now, after years of debate, it is a place for the people, entertainment, museums and cafes.

Zaryadye Park and tour group looking towards Kremlin
Zaryadye Park and tour group looking towards Kremlin

We walked through the roof garden to the observation bridge that is not a bridge. It is a lookout, a hang out, a stretch over the River Moscow that does not go to the other side.

One of Stalin's Seven Sisters in Moscow
One of Stalin’s Seven Sisters in Moscow

We looked at one of the Seven Sisters that looks exactly like the Palace of Culture in Warsaw and then we turned to look at the Kremlin and St Basil (which is a clump of nine chapels squashed into one).

The Kremlin from the overhanging almost-bridge
The Kremlin from the overhanging almost-bridge and suitable tourists
St Basil's Cathedral is nine churches in one
St Basil’s Cathedral is nine chapels

Irena told us of the Romanoff Museum and the Moscow History Museum side by side in the little valley and assured us a visit to either of these small places would be very rewarding. Next time. There is a LOT to see in Moscow.

Red Square, showing Kremlin wall and remains of Gastronomic Fair
Red Square, showing Kremlin wall and fencing remaining from Gastronomic Fair

Once in Red Square, the tourist area felt unreal and arranged so conveniently it was difficult to take seriously. I began to feel I was in a theme park or a film set. It’s possible I have been a tourist too long.

Kazan Cathedral next to sparkly decorations for GUM department store
Kazan Cathedral next to sparkly decorations for GUM department store

St Basil, of course, the speakers’ platform, the Kremlin walls and tops of buildings therein, the State History Museum and the massive GUM shopping centre. I am sure it would be possible to spend a week just seeing museums. I was looking for the post office …

The square itself was packing up what had been a gastronomic festival, many little stalls and bright pot plants were folded with a bang and pushed away towards trucks. Beside the super shopping centre full of high level labels is a street already decked with sparkling Christmas twinkles, getting ready for the winter markets I suppose.

Facade of State Historical Museum, Moscow
Facade of State Historical Museum, Moscow

Stalin was removed from Lenin’s mausoleum. There’s now a bust nearby. Our guide made a couple of daring remarks about Stalin that would have had her arrested for making them and us arrested for hearing them. She showed us the unbalanced front of the Four Season’s Hotel, the architect apparently too frightened to check which design Stalin had signed off on. Now either side of the building is noticeably different. (But you can’t really tell from the photo below!)

If you're feeling hungry while visiting Kremlin surrounds ...
If you’re feeling hungry while visiting Kremlin surrounds at least you’ve got a choice.
That’s the Four Seasons BG to the right.

She added the tale that when the Metro Engineers met with Stalin to discuss the different options the lines would take he left a coffee stain on the map. Which is why there is a brown circular line.

Moscow metro map
Moscow metro map – is the circular brown line a stain from Stalin’s coffee cup?

It may be a joke but the terror he inculcated was certainly real. They say not to speak about Stalin to a Russian for you do not know what their family stories may be. That sounds like Franco in Spain. At least there has been a reckoning with Stalin – Moscow has been de-Stalinised.

Red Square is surrounded by history and story and I found it really is overwhelming to be there.

Monument to Marshal Zhukov - Victory Day 1945
Monument to Marshal Zhukov – Victory Day 1945 – the horse is treading on the swastika
Federal Assembly - the Duma - or Russian Parliament seen through Aleksandrovskly Gardens
Federal Assembly – the Duma – or Russian Parliament seen through Aleksandrovskly Gardens
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Kremlin Wall - Aleksandrovskly Gardens
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Kremlin Wall – Aleksandrovskly Gardens – see any tourists?
Sponsorship alive and well at the Moscow Manege
Sponsorship alive and well at the Moscow Manege – we met near here for the Metro tour

I was keen to join the Metro tour. As a train afficionada – or at least a fan of tågskryt – I felt my journey onward should be my focus rather than history. We all had receivers with ear pieces which meant our guide could speak quietly and keep us all connected without having to wave flags or chickens on a stick. Of we went, down into the metro system to hop on and hop off the trains.

Alex showed us photos of some of the murals that used to include Stalin. The big Mother Russia with a plea for peace around the world is impossible to imagine with Stalin up in the middle of that, where the big MUP is now, don’t you agree?

Mother Russia at Novoslobodskaya station
Mother Russia at Novoslobodskaya station – has been de-Stalinised – he was in profile where now there are MUP standing for world peace for everyone.

The Moscow Metro was one of the last to be built in a major city. Mainly, according to Alex, because the people were religious and superstitious. Why would you choose to dig down closer to the devil? Finally, there was a dramatic day of gridlock in the city. No horse, tram or car could move so it was decided to build the People’s Palaces. Read this excellent blog post for more information.

The tunnels were built just in time for WWII. Each station was used as a bunker and each had a different purpose. The first one Alex showed us, Bibliotecka Lenina, was used as a library. He showed us pictures of people sitting at desks, studying or attempting to continue with their work while the bombing raged overhead. The economy does not stop with war.

Family sculptures in Revolution Square Station Moscow
Family sculptures in Revolution Square Station Moscow
Rubbing the shiny pup's nose will bring you good luck in your studies
Rubbing the shiny pup’s nose will bring you good luck in your studies – better if you get off your train, run to each of the four dogs on the platform, and run onto the train returning. That way you are sure to pass.

Revolution Square Station features sculptures notable for their shiny patches. Each group of sculpture was repeated four times across the platforms. There was the family, the sports people, the man with the dog – and each one had a part to rub to bring good luck – the dog particularly. Before I heard this I carefully patted the mother’s shiny shoe. This would bring either love or heal a broken heart. Perfect.

The shoe to mend a broken heart!
Mother!

Apparently when sitting exams, students must exit their train, pat each of the four dogs over the platforms and enter the train going the other way and they will pass their exams. For sure. As we admired and rubbed our bits, the commuters definitely did reach out and pat the dog or rub the golden rooster, everyone smiling as they did so. It was not that they were superstitious! They did it for fun, for habit and maybe … Alex pointed out it paid to be careful which bits you rub. Some might bring you bad luck. Not superstitious at all, then.

Monument at Revolution Square Station
Monument at Revolution Square Station
Novoslobodskaya Station is known as the Cathedral Station
Novoslobodskaya Station is known as the Cathedral Station – you can see the self-portrait of the architect who designed this one in the circle.

I am sure these magnificent spaces must influence regular commuters. I loved the peace and tranquility there. Apparently buskers have to undergo a strict audition process. Once granted space, they have that time to themselves. There is no competition setting up amplifiers nearby and they are unmolested in their performance. Is that the best way for cut-and-thrust, the best will rise above, life-hurry-scurry and bustle? Or does it show respect for the artist’s value?

Art Deco at Mayakovskaya Station
Art Deco at Mayakovskaya Station – sometimes used for orchestral concerts – after the last train has run – for the fine acoustics

We finished the tour near the theatre district. Unmissable. The Bolshoi.

The Bolshoi with flying horses
The Bolshoi complete with flying horses

I found it hard to believe I was in Moscow! And next, on to Beijing. Wow. That idea felt fabulous and awe-inspiring. It felt like I’d entered the portal of hard-drug travel. Went through the gate in Warsaw, I reckon. Comfort zone got a bit smaller. Went back to hostel. Time to get organised.

Cleaning up the Strawberry Duck - performance face!
Cleaning up at the Strawberry Duck – performance face!

Tatiana, my Warsaw-Moscow train companion, WhatsApped me to ask what else I intended to see in Moscow. I told her I’d done the walking tour and the Metro looksee and added I didn’t really feel the urge to run around and see everything. She asked, then what was the point of my visit? I said, ‘To get to the other side’. My main aim was to stay calm, make everything as easy as possible for myself and get to the train on time. Moscow was the first place where I hadn’t managed to find a post office, nor post cards. Signage outside shops was indistinct. I think it would probably be worth a few language and cyrillic lessons before visiting next time. But for two days sight-seeing? I made do.

Moscow street art?
Moscow street art?

I did a load of washing, fed myself and aimed to finish two blog posts before I left the land of wifi. Poor young lady from Korea, just arrived and bleary lonely and tired, wanted to chat. Turned out she had recently been to Taichung, one of my impending destinations. She showed me her photos where she looked happy and alert. She did not seem happy now. I said I was very sorry but I really had to push on with my work. She listlessly turned away but kept drifting around. I typed, uploaded and corrected as fast as I could. Sorry for the mistakes that got by!

Ladies bathroom in a modern restaurant - I let the ladies wash their hands before I snapped!
Ladies bathroom in a modern restaurant – I am on the street. I let the ladies wash their hands before I snapped!

I managed to extend my hostel stay by half a day. My train left at 23:55. I could stay in my room, have the use of all the facilities (shower, wifi) until 21:00 at which point I packed up and went to reception. I took some time to observe the beautiful full moon. How auspicious was that? Dasha remembered to give me the all-important form to show the police where I had been staying. And I remembered to get her to print me the little hand-drawn map of my hotel in Beijing. She then wrote out her phone number and email and invited me to visit her and her family in Saint Petersburg! What a darling. We exchanged Instagrams so I hope to see her in that platform. Once I leave China, of course.

Reception desk at Moscow Strawberry Duck
Reception desk at Moscow Strawberry Duck – Dasha’s behind the computer
Avocado Cafe, 9 mins from metro, open til 11pm
Avocado Cafe, 7 mins from hostel, 9 mins from metro, open til 11pm

Luckily, the Avocado Café, just around the corner, was open to 23:00. Back I went for poppy seed rolls and mango coco icecream with a double espresso to keep me on my toes. I gazed happily at the pretty coloured lights changing over the flat Clean Pond before heaving up the packs and strolling ten minutes up to the number one metro line, Chistye Prudy, three stops to Komsomolskaya, the nearest to Yaraslavsky Train Station.

detail ceramic exiting metro Komsomlskaya nearest Yaroslavsky Station
Detail ceramic exiting metro Komsomlskaya nearest Yaroslavsky Station

It was almost too easy. I congratulated myself on clever hostel booking.

Waiting by Yaraslavskiy Station
Waiting by Yaraslavskiy Station. You can’t see the full moon

Quite a few folk in the waiting area. I surreptitiously interviewed them in my mind. Was she going to China? Would I have to share a compartment with him? Did she look like an intrepid traveller?  As soon as my platform number was announced, I left the stinky banana on a chair and whisked off to platform three and Pekin!

Waiting room - getting excited
Waiting room – getting excited
Platform 3 Moscow to Beijing
Platform 3 Moscow to Beijing train is waiting – bleary-eyed – nearly midnight – that’s it!

First impressions. Cold. Coal dust. I’m the first one in my carriage. The beginning of six days, one hour and four minutes on the train.

Chinese compartment number 5, train 004
Chinese compartment number 5, train 004, berth 9 – lower to the left.
That’s me for the next week sorted. Wonder who will come next?

There was no keycard.

Stage Three – Berlin – on the way overland and sea UK to NZ

Memorials – how to remember? Or how not to forget? Writing this blog? To remember? If you’ve forgotten or you haven’t been there, see Stage One and Stage Two. Or you could start way back with planning, Part I

It was 10:30 am on the train from Hamburg to Berlin when a young chirpy woman’s voice presumably welcomes us to our journey in German, before adding, clearly, ‘Good afternoon’. A loud laugh from the man near me gave notice there were not too many English speakers on the train. She said no more.

There was no ticket inspecting, as compared to Spain, where any intercity train journey is accompanied by a security check and close analysis of tickets at every opportunity. No-one ever checked tix in Hamburg. Does anyone even buy tickets apart from tourists?

As for my carefully reserved seat, there weren’t even any numbers on the walls or the chairs. The man, so kind and genuine, selling me the tic in his comfortable uniform and urging me to make that extra payment of four euros fifty to reserve a seat, said, ‘Hamburg to Berlin is our busiest route. It’s normally full. But, you must wake up in time. If you miss it you must pay again.’ All so jovial and such a big, fat lie!

I didn’t miss the train. Walking to the train station was a joy. It was a beautiful sunny morning in my leafy suburb and the fallen leaves, crisp and crunchy the day before, had already turned to sludge in the soft rain. The glowing autumn colours shone through. Those old trees spoke eloquently of change and time passing. The grey mist enhanced the mystery.

On the train I found my Jess-made sewing kit and fixed my pockets and zips, particularly the wallet pocket zip. Definitely a case of a stitch in time. Could not afford a uniform malfunction in the wallet area.

The renowned Trabant outside hostel
The renowned Trabant outside hostel

Arrived safely in my cheerful Happy Bed Hostel in Berlin and thought to seek delicious German fare.

Main dining room Unami
Main dining room Umami, Kreuzberg

All the world’s cusines are in Berlin!

Buddha Rolls and Rose Tea @ Unami, Kreutzberg
When in Berlin try the Buddha Rolls and Rose Tea @ Umami, Kreuzberg

Wednesday began in Kreuzberg, with the simple idea of getting my ticket printed and doing a tour of Berlin, taking in the Spree Gallery in the afternoon. I figured the ticket might take half an hour. I began at the U station, Hallesches Tor, near my efficient hostel.

I bought a daily ticket which no-one asked to see, ever. I put it in the machine to get it stamped. Who buys tickets in Germany?

From there I caught the train to Warschauer Strasse station. Then I had to change to the S-train. I asked the only staff member I could find who was hiding in a booth and didn’t want to come out. He didn’t speak any English and the jutting of his whiskery chin made it plain he didn’t like the idea of English. After I indicated my desired destination by jabbing at my map, he pointed to the exit. I came out of the U and looked around the streets for the S. Where was S? I started to feel I was in an ep of Sesame Street. There was considerable building, scaffolding and blocked pathways around me. I was about to cross the street to find a café with a human who might know something when I looked up. A sign!

Where is the S? Or the U? The answers reign on high
The answers reign on high

When I got to the S I could not find a train that went to my station. It only went to Nölderplatz. You might think this is petty but when you are trying to organise ongoing travel arrangements these things can get stressful. If I had made this trip the next day when I wanted to catch the train to Warsaw, I would have missed it. So the dry run was turning into a sweaty run. But I took deep breaths. Planning ahead is good.

Back in the corridors of train world, I asked a couple of men in orange high viz and they shrugged. I figured it was better to get close to where I wanted to be and caught the train to Nölderplatz. There seemed to be no ongoing to Lichtenberg. I asked a couple of charming smiling women in high viz orange and they pointed across the suburb and waved and danced the information that I could catch a bus two streets over. Schliststrasse? Schillerstrass? So I wandered out of the station, into a nice park, saw a bus stop that did not list Lichtenberg and wandered two more streets, past a skateboard park with no graffiti and a man in his fifties practicing his skate moves in his dark blue raincoat. The yellow leaves made sharp contrast with the grey concrete curves.

I saw a promising orange bus. It did not list my name so I went to the other side, just missing another. Then I returned to ask a oncoming driver of the first side. He pointed at the other side. Why did I cross the road? To make sure I was facing the right direction. Finally a bus arrived. I asked for my station. He shook his head, staring ahead. Oh, dear. But then, in the nick of time, he remembered! Yes! Get on, get on, so I did.

The couple in front of me looked worried and turned back to examine me. Lichtenberg, they muttered to each other and shook their heads. I had no-where else to be but time was ticking on. I would get somewhere. I looked out of the window at the grey day. The blocks of flats were either grey or cream or off-white or taupe or beige and the paint was flaking but the parks were always present with their glowing gold and orange tints growing bolder through the greenery. People in the streets wore olive green, brown, black and navy coats.

We arrived at a large carpark with a small bike-stand array (why are there so many cars in Berlin?) and there was Lichtenberg station.

My ticket out of there
My ticket out of there

It was quiet. Shops were shut. Informative signs in German guarded the stairwell. I found my ticket machine, chose the Union Jack and looked for a pre-paid ticket option. I patted and tapped all around the choices open to me. I couldn’t find it. Luckily, I was standing right next to the information desk. I went to stand in the queue stretching out into the hallway. There seemed to be an invisible forcefield around the workers’ counter. Only one person could fit into the shop in this queue. At least two metres separated our first contender from the desk. Purposeful German chatter filled the air as the two assistants organised tickets and directed people. I took deep breaths.

I got the old guy with a white beard. I apologised for speaking only English and he stood up, as if to go, and on second thoughts towered over the printed information I offered him. English? What is English? Reluctantly, quickly, he read my journey details and told me to go to platform 16. I indicated no, not now, tomorrow. And tried to explain I needed to print the ticket. He shouted, ‘Machine! Machine!’ and pointed with vigour at the place from whence I’d come. I said, ‘But I can’t … ‘ He said, ‘Machine!’ and turned to go.

He swung back to look at the next person in the queue. You can bet I was saying Bitte and Danke all I could but, really, this guy was working in the information desk? In Berlin? In an international station? Are all their patrons German? I went to look at platform 16. At least there were no barriers across it. I took deep breaths and headed to the WC for extra calming. A little queue in front of the shut doors looked worried and held money and one guy at the front had even managed to print a ticket. But it was closed. A large woman wearing a floral scarf around her neck and a taupe jacket stretched across her front marched to the machine and talked to the young man commandingly. Perhaps he had broken it? No? That was that. She had enough and left. The WC, the entire station, was not functional today.

Considering my options I thought the best thing to do was return to a place where I had once found kindness so I returned to the air and went to find U. Finally, worked out how to get to Alexanderplatz on my path to return to Berlin Hbf (of which I had fond memories). Alexanderplatz is where that big tall landmark tower is.

On my way to find the S I saw an information booth and stood in a queue there. After a while the lovely smiling woman showed me a photo-card of the correct options in the machine. You have to choose ‘All Offers’ and ‘Bahnof tickets’ and then you are given a choice to put in your number or voucher. Job done. It had taken me nearly two and a half hours to print my ticket.

There were a lot of people sleeping rough, especially around the train stations.

I won’t go into the struggle to find a café, although there was one, my decision to head towards the Brandenburg Gate to take a tour regardless of lagging vim and joyfully, on the way, by chance, finding a brand new café called ‘Beets and Roots’ where they really do treat you like a rock star (my name was Bradley Cooper) and the food is delicious. I sat outside in the silvery sun and had an ongoing discussion with three kamikaze wasps. I believe all three survived in the end. Greedy things.

Beets&Roots on the way to the Brandenburg Gate fresh tasty fare beside a park
Beets&Roots on the way to the Brandenburg Gate fresh tasty fare beside a park

How much of Berlin’s landmarks were blasted by allied bombs? 80% of the city.

First glimpse of Brandenburg Gate
First glimpse of Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate was familiar from much film and tv. The lady with the chariot and prancing steeds was apparently once called ‘Peace’ but after Napoleon stole her away to the Louvre and the Prussian return, she is now known as ‘Victory’ and carries the German Eagle to show her people fresh resolve. (How did Napoleon and indeed, the Prussian victors, get her on and off the gate? Were there cranes?) It memorialises war, victory and ownership.

My guide was called Susan Grouchy. She had a masters in archaeology and had returned to uni to study memorials. Berlin is the obvious place for such an endeavour. She was not originally from Berlin but urged us to find not only physical memorials but people who lived here. They would be sure to have some interesting stories. What do they remember?

The Mourners @ Brandenburg Gate
The Mourners @ Brandenburg Gate

As well as the roads steeped in history, from 1250 onwards, there was a group of vibrant red Extinction Rebellion protestors gathering, silently swaying, palms skywards, flags fluttering, white faces grim, making a bold statement against the grey imposing structures around them.

XR info point Brandenburg - good flag
XR info point Brandenburg – good flag

Can such a people-based movement rise up once more in this city of peaceful protest? When the Berlin Wall came down thirty years before hundreds of thousands of suppressed people took to the streets to come and see for themselves if the travel restrictions had been lifted? And the guards did not open fire. There were not enough bullets to shoot everyone and the time had come for the German people to come together again. The walls came down.

The climate crisis is here
The climate crisis is here

Now the fight is not so tangible. You cannot see climate change. You cannot smash it or break rocks from it. You cannot paint it with colourful visual poetry. Is the time right for people to see a change in how corporations use fossil fuels? Can we shoot the typhoon headed for Japan?

Directly under the Brandenburg Gate
Directly under the Brandenburg Gate

In this German, Berlin, backdrop, the Rebellion took on a resonance that it had not had in Brighton. I did not see cheery dance classes or breast-feeding women blocking streets here.

Memorial to Jewish victims of Nazis
Memorial to Jewish victims of Nazis

Susan took us to the great and sombre grey block Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are other memorials to different minority groups singled out for extinction elsewhere but this Jewish memorial is imposing, belittling, awe-inspiring. I can see how politicians might feel when they take a break from the nearby Reichstag, with its glass dome to symbolise transparency, and visit this neighbour. You must interact with it. You must consider the shapes and individuals and be overwhelmed by the height of it. Lost cities. Lost dreams.

Who was just there?
Who was just there?

Our guide, as student of memorials, encouraged us to consider these effects. She explained what the artist Peter Eisenman stated; that it was designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and not stated; that any numbers or shapes were symbolic in any way, in his presentation to the city.

Ghost City
Ghost City

In the end each individual’s response is personal and how I wish everyone in the world in power had to come to this place to consider their responsibilities. People making, negotiating and dealing in missiles, arms of any kind and tanks with a view to harm and destruction should come to this place. The humans on the UN Security Council, they should come here.

The Berlin wall seems so flimsy now
The Berlin wall seems so flimsy now

Marching along the remains of the wall, so weak and thin, she told us of Amplemann and obeying the pedestrian signs, or else.

Berlin green person - the Amplemann
Berlin green person – the Amplemann
Red Amplelmann - no doubt this is a stop sign
Red Amplelmann – no doubt this is a stop sign

She took us to the car park over the bunker where Hitler ended his life. She showed us the work-places of Goebbels and Himmler. The great grey sideways skyscraper where the Lufftwaffe was based, now the taxation office. She took us to the cheery tourist ridden Checkpoint Charlie, overlooked by KFC and Macdonalds and other brazen honeypots. She showed us the cobbled reminder of the wall but she did not point out the small brass squares, brightly (recently) polished that we walked past.

KFC and Macdonalds Checkpoint
KFC and Macdonalds Checkpoint

The German and French Cathedrals (copies rebuilt by the East Germans to show what Berlin used to look like) stand on opposite sides of the Konzerthaus. Nice they are brought together by music.

Koncerthaus red carpet
Koncerthaus red carpet

And the Konzerthaus had a red carpet pleated up the tall stairs to the grand entry. Exciting events during the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down.

Luther looking at Berlin pointy things
Luther looking at Berlin pointy things

All is building, barriers, perhaps in preparation for a thirty-years party – or the Festival of Lights – but many buildings under construction or renovation and of course, the S-train is to be improved. About time. There is surely room to improve the signage! Many police officers and cars in evidence – if it was for the Extinction Rebellion they were over-prepared. The people had not come to the streets in any great number. Why not?

Berlin pointy things, traffic and barriers
Berlin pointy things, traffic and barriers

We ended up in the Bebelplatz facing the Humbolt University Law Faculty which used to be the library. This is where an angry mob burnt 20,000 books. Books written by Jews, homosexuals, non-Aryan … The memorial was a deep bunker of empty white bookshelves in the middle of the plaza. Then Susan led us to a corner to sit and told us the story of how the wall came down. She managed it with aplomb and shivers went through my spine as she described those Berliners watching Gunter on tv turning to each other in disbelief. What did he say? And the walls came down.

Berlin wall remains art gallery
Berlin wall remains art gallery
A sense of the death strip between the walls
A sense of the death strip between the walls – and some of the ongoing building projects in the background

She told us the quote, ‘History may not repeat, but sometimes it rhymes.’ Could be Mark Twain.

Dancing to freedom painting on the wall
Dancing to freedom painting on the wall

Never made it to Spree but my taxi driver in the morning was a Berliner. He spoke English extremely well, having grown up in the West. He’d visited Australia when he was a kid. He said he feared he was a rare oddity in this international city. I assured him there were plenty of old white German men who did not wish to be part of the tourist flood, most of them working for train stations.

He remembered when the wall came down. He was twenty and ready to party. He hated David Hasselhof for stealing the moment. He thought Paul Weller should have come. He was still waiting for Paul Weller.

Walls come tumbling down

You don’t have to take this crap
You don’t have to sit back and relax
You can actually try changing it
I know we’ve always been taught to rely

Upon those in authority
But you never know until you try
How things just might be
If we came together so strongly

Are you gonna try to make this work
Or spend your days down in the dirt
You see things can change
Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down

Governments crack and systems fall
‘Cause unity is powerful
Lights go out walls come tumbling down

The competition is a color TV
We’re on still pause with the video machine
That keep you slave to the H.P.

Until the unity is threatened by
Those who have and who have not
Those who are with and those who are without
And dangle jobs like a donkey’s carrot
Until you don’t know where you are

Are you gonna realize
The class war’s real and not mythologized
And like Jericho you see walls can come tumbling down

Are you gonna be threatened by
The public enemies number ten
Those who play the power game
They take the profits you take the blame
When they tell you there’s no rise in pay

Are you gonna try an’ make this work
Or spend your days down in the dirt
You see things can change
Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down

Paul Weller

Speaking to another young Berliner, she said, ‘It is a city to make memories in.’

Another of the questions Susan asked us to consider was, ‘Why are so many Berliners DJs?’

I was sitting next to a young fellow on the train on my way to Warsaw. He was editing some music on his computer – listening intently to his headphones. Maybe I’ll ask him.

I’m heading to Poland!

I’ll read this on the way.