Across eastern Europe
Yes, I know this is out of sequence, but I’d initially decided not to write this blog entry at all. Then I changed my mind.
goeuro.com says it’s 517km from Warsaw to Berlin. And for the ridiculously low rail fare of €29.90, it’s a bargain, much better than a ride to the airport, check-in, security, waiting for the flight, an hour aloft and a back-to-front repeat of the process on arrival.
This is our first experience and already, it’s clear that Europe’s rail system is fantastic. Six hours, minimal border checks, no luggage restrictions, almost zero security, 220V electricity, free wi-fi and a (reasonably) comfortable seat with a fold down table. What’s not to like?
The landscape passing the window is flat with almost no relief. I find myself imagining Hitler’s Panzergruppen rampaging across these flat expanses, with little or no regard for anything save reaching Poland and the grab of as much lebensraum as fast as possible. There is certainly no natural barrier that could have slowed their advance.
Berlin is no warmer than Warsaw and the couple of hundred metres from the Hauptbahnhof to our hotel is fast, easy and means that we arrive damp from the falling sleet, but otherwise ready for city two.
We’ve been here before, the city leaving us both indelibly marked with it’s history and the willingness of its population to air their transgressions, largely in (we assume) an ongoing attempt to cleanse both their stadt and themselves of the ignominy.
FYI; Berlin has a huge public transport system, but until arriving, neither of us had realised that the tram system really only serves the eastern part of the city.
Doh! Guess why?
There are any number of ways to get anywhere though; bus tram, U-Bahn (underground), S-Bahn (overground) and of course, taxi, Uber and so on. Curiously, the public systems never seemed to reach exactly where it was that we wanted to go. For example, a bus seemed to be the best method of reaching the German Museum of Technology, but alighting at the designated stop, we were left with a 700m/800m walk to the museum.
It’s an excellent museum, BTW.
A visit to the Brandenburg Gate? The tiny two car, two stop U-Bahn service from the Hauptbahnhof to Brandenburger Tor is fast and deposits the traveller within 500m of the Gate. Half a kilometre doesn’t sound far, except when it’s -2C and sleeting.
Likewise, the newly opened DDR Museum. Bus, walk – surprisingly far.
I’d wanted to see what had been the Communist controlled part of the city, the ugly concrete architecture and photograph what it might have been like. But, like the damage wrought in WW2, the brutal cement has gone, plastered over, or simply demolished, replaced with more modern homes and commercial buildings, bright colours and double glazing. Like Warsaw, the older parts of the city are mended with an eye to the city’s pre-Hitler history and similarly ersatz; appropriate, correct and all too facsimile-like.
The weather improved a bit towards the end of our stay, but despite the approaching Spring, copious cups of hot chocolate were consumed to stay the chill.
Berlin – Munich on the train, another six(ish) hour journey. More interesting than Warsaw – Berlin because there are towns, cities and lots of landscape to see. Deutsche Bahn is as efficient as you’d expect and despite a delayed departure, 600km later, the train pulled into München on time to the minute.
Once again, we’re staying close to the station. It’s deliberate of course, once off the train, we’ve only a couple of hundred metres to walk with our bags.
The weather is much as we’ve encountered elsewhere, although Spring is palpably on the way.
Like many other German cities, Munich has repaired the ravages of the war, developed and grown into the bright, modern capital of Bavaria, home of beer and BMW. We don’t have a sightseeing agenda and choose to walk the Altstadt, Viktualienmarkt, Rindermarkt, parts of the inner city, past the Art House (museum) and to our utter amazement, spot a surfers’ paradise next door on the Eisbach River.
The Eisbachwelle is fed by what I imagine is snow melt, the river is throttled, it’s pressure allowed to build, then released to create a more than passable wave, at least sufficient for the crew of neoprene-clad board riders on the icy wave, entertaining the watching crowds.
A visit to Munich is never complete without a visit to the Hofbrauhaus, home of the Oktoberfest. At 11:00 on a stone cold Saturday morning, it would be hard to expect much beery high-jinks underway as you make your way for what you expect to be a quiet pint. Nope. It’s not quite NO’s Bourbon Street on a busy evening, but the place is rammed nonetheless, the oompah band in full swing and the signs of alcohol-fuelled misbehaviour everywhere. From the colours and enthusiasm on display, I’m guessing there’s a big footie match on today (I discover later that Bayern Munich beat Dortmund 6-0). The city’s pedestrian precincts are heaving with shoppers and a few tourists. The bars and restaurants are cashing-in for all they’re worth. We leave.
It’s doubtless a great city and a good place to live and work. A bit soulless though.
An SNCF TGV carries us to Paris in what we now expect to be comfort, speed and efficiency. Our chosen Hotel Ibis opposite the Gare de l’Est is but a few steps and within minutes we are settled, awaiting the arrival of friends (Steve and Martina) who are en route from West Wales to join us for the week.
The absolute pleasure of old good friends can’t be overstated. We’ve known each other for more than two decades and are entirely relaxed in each other’s company. We travelled the Orkneys with Steve and Martina last year and established an easy routine, which we resume within minutes of our first sip of Parisian wine together.
We walk the north central suburbs together and then south to lunch at the truly spectacular Le Train Bleu upstairs in the Gare de Lyon, avoiding the rail strikers, locked out of the restaurant’s revolving doors by a quick thinking maître d’.
Another day sees us meander over the Seine and lunch in a centuries old stable, converted into a roast chicken destination eatery.
On our penultimate day and feeling the pressure to be real tourists, Steve, Martina and Di take an Uber to visit Versailles, leaving me to aimlessly wander the 10th arrondissement, Quai de Jemmapes and south west to the Porte St Denis, a splendid hamburger lunch at PNY (Paris/New York) and a couple of hours with my feet up before they return, cultured-out and ready for yet more food and wine.
Like so many European cities, the area around Gare de l’Est and the next-door Gare du Nord is awash with what appears to be semi-vagrant immigrants, mostly of Franco- and Italian-African origin. There is an air of impermanence and one is left to imagine theft, pickpocket and exchange rate scams are legion. Walking the streets is uncomfortable and I am glad that when buying, I specify my outerwear with pockets large enough to conceal a camera of some kind.
Fortunately, we don’t fall prey to the street hasslers, but it’s best to be aware and take precautions nonetheless. I wonder what Europe’s governments will eventually do with/about these largely unwelcome visitors?
We are awash with plans of places to go and things to see, but settle for our own pace, happy enough to leave some things for next time.
All too soon, Steve and Martina leave on a bus for Charles de Gaulle and we walk the 500m or so to Gare du Nord. We’re all irritated at our hotel; the lift had been out of service for three days and every enquiry as to its restoration was met with the expected (IDGAF) Gallic shrug, guaranteed to inflame even the calmest of visitor.
I complained to Hotel IBIS via Twitter, but got much the same response, albeit a more corporate shoulder hike. A pity, we’ve spent many, many nights in these otherwise excellent hotels – only to have the experience spoiled by what really amounts to little more than piss-poor management.
Eurostar sped us to St Pancras. A couple of minutes to cross to platform 11 and six minutes later, we exited, 30m from our hotel, looming over the International Station at Stratford. Laura and Zach live on the other side of the Olympic Park, some 20 minutes walk away. Julian a little further. The craft brewery downstairs is as good a meeting place as any and within a couple of hours of arriving, we’re a family once more.
We’d travel across Europe any time to do that.
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