This summer, I booked to go interrailing with a few mates, in a bid to cling on to my fast-fading youth (for practical reasons too, getting on the cheaper InterRail tariff). Turns out they had to pull out, but after a little deliberation, I thought fuck it, I’ll just go anyway, and meet people on the way, at least for the odd night. And I must admit, as someone in journalism, albeit the first rungs, the image of carefree, urbane travel writer did, vaingloriously, spring to mind. So I’m writing this partly for posterity and self-satisfaction – writing old school, pen and paper on a train, feels quite liberating – but also in the vain hope someone might one day pay me to do this.
I recognise that people can come across as insufferably pretentious and ‘Gap Yah’ when describing their travels, so I’ve shamelessly tried to ape Bill Bryson’s irreverent humour on places and people in much of it. But then I did see some amazing places so there is some grandiose eulogy in here, which is genuine and, I feel, merited too. And it’s written in the past tense, because writing events that have happened in the present just feels weird.
I have no fiscal or professional links with any of the places or companies I’ve written about, but most of them were very good so I’m happy to pass any other information if people want it. And needless to say, Google is great for information (if sometimes sinisterly so). Especially Google Street View, which I used a few times writing this to jog my memory. Not the same as actually being there obviously – but for travel (kind of) which you can do for free, in a second, in your pants, it’s damn good.
It’s quite long – I have quite a lot of time off with my job, and obviously enjoyed writing it – but I’ve done headings so you can just skip or glaze over. Or you can do a ctrl+f and type in a place. In order, I went to Interlaken, Switzerland; Rome; Venice; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Budapest; Munich; Vienna; Prague; and Berlin. This is the version with all of it, but I’m going to cut it up, adapt a little and pitch it to publications as stand-alone travel pieces on one city/country.
All names of people I met have been changed. Not that there’s anything particularly private or pernicious in there, but it just felt like the right thing to do. A few bits of my trip were just too mundane for me to want to write about – and I’m sure too dull for you to want to read too. (Or, on the other hand, some bits were a bit too interesting for me to tell cyberspace – including my mum – about indiscriminately) So I’ll skip over them, and you can join the dots.
Hope you find it at least sporadically informative, instructional, interesting or amusing…
With that in mind, I’ll begin from the Dover-Calais P&O at about 1.30am (I was on a Megabus to Paris). Ok, so the Dover-Calais ferry is hardly the most exotic and exciting journey in the world, especially for Brits, but the night ferry has a really surreal atmosphere – a brightly lit object floating on – apparent – nothingness (this is from judging the single passing boat). Inside, it was just as odd – a kind of eerie vacuum of formica, leather and insomnia.
In fact, the lateness was natural to me, having come off a week of nights that same morning, but I got some sleep on the road to Paris, and after that on the super-quick TGV to Geneva. It struck me immediately how easy it is to travel round Europe. I was expecting at least a cursory glance of my passport going into Switzerland, as it’s not EU and has a reputation for a sternness, albeit a defiantly neutral sternness, a bit at odds with its location in the middle of Europe (think of the island in our ‘island mentality’). As it was, there wasn’t even any ticket barriers – nor it transpired were there anywhere I visited.
With about 90 minutes to spare, I went out into Geneva, but soon went back to the station due to a combination of not knowing how far the infamous lake was, heavy bag and even heavier prices on everything, right down to the McDonald’s. There’s just something not right when even the Maccy D’s options run into the double figures and the extras into the single digits. OK, so the pound is stronger than the Swiss Franc but not by that much.
Another Swiss stereotype I found, in my albeit limited experience to be completely true is that of efficiency. Everything on my way to Interlaken was clearly signposted, mapped and translated, and the trains ran like clockwork. I had to make two connections, for both of which they told me (in English – isn’t colonialism great?) when the train was coming – both just two minutes – and which platform I needed for it. I could have read it on the train platforms, but it’s nice little touches like this that make international travel stress-free.
I don’t want to sound, by implication, dismissive of British trains. In general, they fared pretty well with our much-vaunted European counterparts. But we mostly have unextraordinary geography to work with. Unlike Switzerland, which makes its train network both so remarkable and spectacular. The first trip, from Genève to Visp, seemed to chart the only available narrow strip of flat land in the country, starting by hugging the northern and eastern edges of the glistening Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), before following the Rhone river. First south, skirting the towering Alpine peaks inland, then, at Martigny, eastwards along the south of the country.
As someone used to the tube and unspectacular suburban England train travel, it was a stark and pleasant change. Which was probably blatantly obviously to the other passengers, many of whom just going about their daily business – chatting, commuting, coming back from lacrosse training – seeming pretty indifferent to the magnificent scenery around them. But then I suppose you would become inured to it if it was your everyday, and came to associate it with routine and work. It’s all relative, keeping up with the Joneses and such. In a way I actually pity the Swiss. To them, their country is probably just ‘nice’ – to me, awe-inspiring. And they’d probably find places like Basingstoke completely intolerable.
On the next connection, Visp to Spiez, I found out what happens when the Swiss can’t go over or round it – they smash straight through it, literally. The line is the Lötschberg line, the ‘highest adhesion and standard gauge railway’ in the country (which I think basically means ‘normal’ train line). Nearly straight out of the station, you enter the nine-mile Lötschberg tunnel, where you remain for a slightly claustrophobic fifteen minutes or so. What makes it even more impressive is that the tunnel was completed in 1911, after a gruelling five-year construction which saw several setbacks, including 13 workers being killed when an avalanche hit a workers’ hotel and a further 25 dying when a part of the tunnel collapsed, meaning a whole new section had to be built.
The next leg, a regional Spiez to Interlaken train, was more spectacular still. It charted the southern edge of Lac Thun, often mere metres from its edge, offering stunning views of the mountains, which rose so dramatically from the lake they resembled (to this infantile mind at least) badly edited sea monsters rising from the sea in some cheap 70s B-movie. Except somewhat more pleasing on the eye.
And so into the Interlaken, where I found my very reasonable hostel for an uneventful night. The city rests pretty darn spectacularly between Lake Thun to the West and Lake Brienz to the Ost, and some fuck-off mountains to the nord and sud. The south especially with several peaks reaching well over 3,000 and even 4,000 metres, including Jungfrau (‘maiden’ or ‘virgin’) at 4,158m. A network of furnicular train rides sprawls over – and under – the whole mountain range, including the highest railway station in Europe, Jungfraujoch (3,471m), often called ‘the house on top of Europe’. Again, the line’s construction is an epic feat of engineering, a long tunnel boring through and up the rock-hard granite of the Eiger, where there is a stop and a viewing platform, and Jungfrau, where a tunnel leads you up to the Sphinx Observatory, offering a stunning panorama of several peaks one way and the 20km-long Great Aletsch Glacier the other. Also nearby is the Schiltorn, setting for Blofeld’s hideout in On Her Majesty’s Service, the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, from which Bond escapes, by ski, killing several henchmen in the meantime (as you do). And, of course, goes on to save the free world. In fact, the restaurant, in dire financial straits before the film, might not still be there were not for the makers’ payment to keep it going in return for filming there.
Alas, I thought the £150 price tag a little steep, so to speak, at the time – though after seeing all the above, I kind of regret it. Instead, the next day, I took the furnicular up to Harderkulm – still very fucking steep geographically, but much less so fiscally (about a tenner return). Indeed, it reaches up to a gradient of 64% – and is another century-plus-old Swiss feat of man-over-nature. As they say, necessity – in this case tourist dollar – is the mother of all invention.
At the top, I followed the trail a little way to the restaurant, which, for views, must rank somewhere (literally) up there with the best in the world.
From there, I decided to investigate further up. It was pretty easy at first, becoming progressively steeper and narrower, with some ‘don’t look down’ sheer(ish) drops. So the roadside-esque sign of a man stepping of a sheer cliff wasn’t the most comforting sight. Worth it at the top, though, where it turned out the sign was – rendering it a bit pointless really, as it could only serve to put off people who had done already braved some mildly treacherous path from going a further 10/20 metres to reach the summit, and the enjoy the resulting views and self-satisfaction. And what a view it was – a full 360 of a winding valley to the north, the aforementioned peaks of the Bernese Alps to the South, and Interlaken laid out like a toy town between the majestic lakes below. I appreciate this will sound unbearably pretentious, but looking out over that, with the strains of Ben Howard in my ears, all kind of felt right with the world. I even got signal up there. Which kind of sums Switzerland really – beautiful yet still functional.
I walked down by a circuituous route, sustained by the beautiful views and super-clear spring water from the mountain springs, helpfully piped into taps, and emerged near the foot of Lake Brienz. After a failed bus journey round it – unbeknown to me, the bus went on for two minutes, stopped and turned back – I found myself at Interlaken West, and spontaneously jumped onto a train to Grindelwald. But it was a private train, not covered by my InterRail pass, so not risking paying an exorbitant fee, I got chucked off/chucked myself off.
I could have chosen a worse place to get chucked off, though, than Zweilüschinen, the point at which the Weisse Lütschine river meets the Schwarze Lütschine, from the Lauterbrunnen and Lütschine valleys respectively. Incidentally, the Schwarze Lütschine is apparently so named because, historically, the people of the Lauterbrunnen valley said the people who washed in that river were so dirty it turned the river black – and these people retaliated by saying people from the Lauterbrunnen valley never even washed so the other tributary remained perfectly white. Lauterbrunnen valley especially comprises some spectacular rock faces and waterfalls (the link is a video, with the start and end showing Lauterbrunnen). Alas, I didn’t really know that then, so I turned back. And in fairness and I had walked quite a bit that day already – if you’re at least moderately fit and adventurous, exploring this area by bike would be a good option. Still, even if not quite as amazing as the Lauterbrunnen valley, the walk wasn’t half bad – along a mountain bike path following the river back to the Interlaken…
…For a well-deserved Rugenbrau, I thought. I joined a bloke I soon learnt was Ben, a Brit-turned-Aussie (with a lot of travelling in between), who was in Interlaken for a metal festival at the disused airstrip, having just been back home near Blackburn for a week. (He said, living in Australia, a flight to Basel and an hour’s train ride just felt like popping downtown.) Scenic, summery Switzerland didn’t seem like the most appropriate setting for Rammstein and co., but there you go. We soon joined a Brit who’d worked in the army and was now enjoying a quieter life (doing what, I couldn’t tell); a Canadian girl who’d played field hockey for Canada and was on hockey scholarship somewhere in Florida I think; her seemingly mute friend; and an American lad also on a summer college vacation (and who seemed obviously interested in the Canadian. Fair play, she was quite fit, and I saw them leaving to Grindelwald the next morning, although with the mute too it be said).
I was off to Rome, a fairly ambitious leg of the journey in one day, and so it proved in Italy. First, back on the regional train past the Man City-blue Lake Thun to Spiez. Then on the train South to Brig, which must be one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. The line actually runs in pretty much the same direction as the Lötschberg line, but stays largely overground, partly to serve smaller stations, and partly it seems just to show off engineering prowess. It starts off by carving a route along valley floors, then turns a full 180 to attack the side of a mountain, alternating between open air, half-tunnel and tunnel until it smashes right through the mountain. When you exit the tunnel, you are greeted with a spektakular vista, and slowly descend the mountain’s side into Brig, which isn’t half bad itself, sitting as it does in kind of near bowl, sloping up and watched over by majestic Alpine peaks. Such journeys can really remind you that train travel – divorced from routine, repetition, work, loud music and, in London, strangers’ armpits – can sometimes be an end in itself, rather than a mere means to one.
Next, as there was no direct train to Milan for a few hours, the train to Domodossola, as the Alps proper became foothills and Switzerland became Italy. The following train, to Milan, started out rather wonderfully, idling out of the last foothills and skirting the edge of the Lake Maggiore, near and similar to Garda. But then the scenery petered out into flat, dull farmland and the train’s tendency to stop at anywhere with so much as a milk bottle, as the Germans so wonderfully put it, started to grate. And really so when the train started crawling, at seeming jogging pace, between stations. I later learnt it’s a not uncommon problem in Italy, caused by having no free lines. But it brought out the indignant London commuter in me. Although not everyone else, who carried on with their reading and conversations as if an unexpected, unexplained half-hour delay was totally par for the course. A delay of even five minutes in south-east England causes a near riot – albeit a very British one full of tuts, apologetic phone calls and disgruntled letters to newspapers.
Anway, we arrived in Milano Garibaldi, eventually, where I had a fucking mare trying to get what I learnt was just two stops on the metro system to Milano Centrale – a saga which included two tickets and getting the train in the wrong direction (thanks to a local’s advice) and which lasted the best part of an hour. The mapping and signposting was shit too. Call me a geek for noticing, but next time you’re on the tube, especially if an untried route, consider how easy it is to get around.
Milano Centrale is very palatial, and suitably so for a city nicknamed the ‘Moral Capital of Italy’. Still, to indulge in more egregious stereotyping, it is Italy, so the departure board was littered with delays, several 10-20 minutes and a few much more. One train was 75 minutes late. I had wanted to get a slower train along the coast, partly for the presumed scenery, partly for price. But as it was nearly six and I still needed to travel, as the crow flies, about three times the distance I had all day, I decided to jump on a fast train. And fuck me was it fast. The speedometer on the info board was constantly wavering around the 300 mark (km/h but still). As much as Italy’s public transport leaves much to be desired, we could do worse than copy its high-speed trains for HS2 – Milan direct to Rome – around 360 miles – in just 2 hours 55.
The speed was particularly welcome at the start because the landscape of north-central Italy is, frankly, very dull. Then in the second hour the train seemed to spend longer in tunnels than not. The final third of the journey really was rather beautiful, though – an absurdly bright sun setting over the rolling Tuscan and Umbrian hills, and the train seemingly racing against the setting sun to get to Rome (or maybe that’s just because I kind of was).
At Roma Termini, the noise that greets you really is something (or anywhere, any time in Rome, really, except the Vatican). Car horns, revved engines, shouting – all employed very liberally on Italian roads – taxi-hails, passionate chatter, and European house from the cars of glamourous young, twenty-somethings. All of these noises fight to dominate the aural space. It wasn’t unwelcome, but a bit of a shock having just come from serene Switzerland.
I worked my way across the mayhem to the 105 bus – more mayhem, it transpired. I found it packed full of people – but no driver, a pretty crucial part of the whole bus concept, really. And still no driver after a further ten minutes. God knows how long some of them had been waiting, but the strange thing was that, again, people seemed to treat this as the most normal occurrence in the world. In London, there would probably be (polite) demands for an armed coup.
At the hostel, I realised, embarrassingly, I was meant to be there two weeks ago. But they were very good about it and, thankfully, given it was nearly ten o’clock, managed to squeeze in for the night, and see about tomorrow. My roommates for the night were Craig, a Canadian architecture student, and Chris, an Aussie recently graduated in history and trying to find himself and/or a vocation (he was off on a year-long working holiday in Japan after this jaunt round Europe). Went for a wander with him, to a studenty bar area, where he said no to the idea of a drink, quite possibly becoming the only Aussie ever, at least on holiday, to do so (some weak excuse about still feeling rough from the night before). Still, we got a very good pizza slice, from what looked like, to Italians at least, a bog-standard pizza joint.
The next morning, after some generous help in finding a place for that night, I dropped my bags off at that hostel and set off for the Coliseo. A few friends and family haven’t been so keen, thinking it too touristy and too much, but I found Rome thrilling and fascinating; an ongoing war between history and modernity, a city struggling to be both home a faithful preservation of a great ancient civilization and also a forward-looking 21st global capital. To wit, their metro system has only two lines, and the two other proposed ones are regularly delayed by having to tread carefully around all the city’s history (and, I hear, political and union wranglings – the bus drivers were also on strike this day). For my money, history usually wins the battle pretty convincingly, and for the better. But the conflict does give the place a thrilling, restless tension.
Not least on the roads. In this sense, the best way to describe Rome is a massive game of driver/rider/pedestrian chicken. It’s not just individuals’ attitude either; the green man will stop vehicles haring right into you, but that luxury isn’t extended to cars turning right (i.e. inside turn), which at the start left me either doing that stupid crossing-the-road half-run and, later, looking at the (obviously confused) drivers while indignantly gesturing at the green man. (I learnt this green man thing is common across Europe actually, but other countries’ drivers generally treat the situation as a negotiation rather a conflict).
I think it must be a thing about honour, because, as I’ve suggested, I don’t think order, discipline and punctuality, quite British virtues, are particularly valued in Italy. But woe betide anyone commits transgressions on matters of the heart or those going against an Italian’s integrity, like cutting up an Italian driver even a little bit, criticising their food, or so much as glancing at an Italian man’s girlfriend. How else would Berlusconi – a man responsible for quotes like “we could not field a big enough force to avoid this risk [rape]…we would need so many soldiers because our women our so beautiful”- be so popular?!
If you can stay alive to see it, though, Rome is a stunning city. Obviously everyone knows about the Vatican, Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain, but you’ll just turn a corner and there will be some amazing building or artefact, preserved almost perfectly from thousands of years ago. I hardly even knew about the Pantheon, or noticed it on the tourist map, until I stumbled into it, such is the wealth of incredible architecture in Rome.
In the afternoon, I found myself at the Parco Urbano del Pineto, which offers a postcard-perfect panorama of Rome below, sloping up into the distance. It’s here that the brilliant colour of Rome really hits home; a beautiful patchwork of pastel colours, marble white and muted yellow, orange and brown. Even the McDonald’ses looked stylish.
The park leads onto the Vatican, so I ambled over there to see what all the fuss was about. And I have to say, I went into St. Peter’s Basilica as an atheist………and came out an atheist. Maybe an even stauncher one. But it was incredible, and I could see how it could be so conversion…ary (?), although I couldn’t help thinking, why believe in a supernatural being when man can create something so immense? And hundreds of years ago at that (construction on this, the new building, began in 1508 and was completed in 1626). Surprisingly it was all free, largely of any extra moral and fiscal bothering too. Which was good, because I didn’t want to be guilt-tripped into donating to an institution with what could generously be called a dubious track record on morality. (The helping the vulnerable is good, but I’m not so keen on all the child abuse, calling homosexuals second-class citizens (or worse), and denying condoms to Aids-ridden Africa.)
The building is just vast, which you don’t quite get a sense of from pictures; huge arched ceilings and incredible sculptures, art and stained glass windows adorning every wall. I paid the (very worthwhile) €7 to take the elevator then steps to the dome. You climb up increasingly narrow, winding stairs, ingeniously squeezed into the building, until you’re basically climbing a curved ladder. The vista from the top, which stretches out maybe 30 miles from every side, is definitely worth the effort though.
Back at the hostel, I met another eclectic mix of people – Andreas, a German who, due to his accent and introduction basically naked from the shower, reminded me of Bruno; his South Korean friend he’d met on a university exchange; and Sarah, an American girl who nicely confounded the British stereotype that Americans don’t do wit or self-deprecation. Within an hour, we were heading out to a club, which was good. That’s what’s great about doing the hostel travelling thing; everyone’s really friendly, up for going out, and got at least a mildly diverting story about how they got there, directly and in terms of life in general, to sustain at least an hour or so’s beer converstation. And, sleeping six to a room while living out of a backpack usually roots out any airs and graces. (I was going to say pretensiousness there, but chose not to because of the obvious “Gap Yah” thing, which there is a bit of but it doesn’t bother so much when you are both kind of doing the Gap Yah thing. I wasn’t, and only actually took a week off work – I do a week on/week off – which was quite nice to say to all the ‘finding themselves’ youngsters, but maybe I was Gap Yah-ing in spirit a bit.) So it’s a bit like freshers week really. Although, unlike freshers, you have the benefit of knowing that if you don’t like someone you can quite easily never speak to them again, as they will probably be in another country, if not continent – not at your romanticism lecture or tennis social.
I set off for Venice the next morning – a much less eventful journey, in scenery as well as ease, but thankfully so as I was somewhat worse for wear. Any lingering hangover disappeared, however, soon after seeing the view from Santa Lucia station; a wide Italian square opening up onto a grand sweep of Grand Canal – surely a contender for best view from a train station.
In fact I spent probably half as long getting to the hostel-cum-campsite after working out directions to the shuttle bus from the station and a long wait there. I wouldn’t have been so British in demurring the one remaining seat to a Yank – living up to his nation’s reputation for assertiveness – if I’d known the next one wasn’t for another hour (three seemed to past in 15 minutes).
Turned out this place was a good ten miles outside of Venice. It was strange kind of place – a mix of families on budget holidays and young travellers in sort of high-quality tarpaulin huts, all sharing communal facilities. Mind, not many places you’ll get a swimming pool for just over a tenner a night.
Set off on the shuttle the next morning for Venice, which I soon found to be just as impossibly scenic as Rome. If in Rome modernity puts up a fight against history, in Venice it just submits to history’s romantic advances. Too right too, because, to be blunt, Venice serves no practical purpose other than just being; looking pretty. And of course earning shit loads of money from this. To wit, can you think of any other city of such renown where around 90% of the main city is completely devoid of any form of transport other than one’s feet – and, of course, boat? And as a measure of how prominent tourism is in Venice, around 60,000 people visit it every day – about the same number as permanent inhabitants in the city centre (a further 200,000 plus live in its metropolitan area). Indeed, many claim it is becoming too popular for its own good. And a recent death of a German tourist after a water bus collided with a gondola he was on has strengthened calls for greater safety measures on the city’s packed waterways.
But Venice does nothing in particular very well, what with being so beautiful an’ all. And my god, do the Italians produce some stunning specimens. It’s as if they round up all the ugly people and put them in a pen, or at least ship them off to the suburbs for the summer.
I ambled around for a good seven/eight hours, soaking up the atmosphere. Venice is a great place for walking because everything is packed so close together that you can walk the whole width of the main city in about an hour and the length in just 20 or 30 minutes. I did all the usual highlights – the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs and Piazza San Marco – as well as some free, fringe art stuff that was there as part of the Biennale (mostly pretentious modern art, including one video I think intended to convince readers to become environmentalists on the basis of a camera panning over a sea).
After returning to…camp, I suppose, and swim, shower, shave, shit and surf (the net), I had a beer with the other bloke in the hut, a Portuguese bloke doing random excursions around Europe having taken (semi-voluntary) redundancy a while back. Still popped back to Portugal, though, to stay eligible for his welfare payments, though. Can’t see many of his countrymen, suffering from unemployment and austerity, taking too kindly from that. But, hey, it’s not my life or tax money and he was alright, if a little negative (e.g. “there are so many tourists here,” only said semi-ironically).
Set off the next morning for Ljubljana, starting with the regional train to Gorizia. Here, I took a bus to the other part of the town, and in the process found myself slipping without even noticing into Slovenia. Again, it all seemed remarkably easy – not even a ‘you are now entering Slovenia’ sign, let alone a passport check and stern look from an officious man. Enough to make Nigel Farage go into a coma. I can just imagine him in semi-astonishment on the bus to fellow passengers: “it is that easy to go into a completely different nation?! I could be any old lunatic…well I suppose I am in a way,” then proceeding to chortle at his own statement and pull ridiculous faces. In fact, I went through seven borders (excluding Vatican City) before being asked to produce my passport, in Germany, the only place where I was asked except England/France. In this respect, I think the ease of movement InterRail affords, and all the resulting exchange of culture and resources it facilitates, is generally a great point in the EU’s favour. Although, I realise making a few middle-class kids’ summer holidays slightly more convenient should not be the dealbreaker in one’s opinion a political system as huge and frequently exasperating as the EU.
Anyway, back in Slovenia, I soon realised I was in a type of country Farage might deride as backwards and despise being in alliance with. The bus gradually emptied out in Nova Gorica, the Slovenian part of the city, until I was the only one who exited at the station, a big baroque building with a dozen or so lines which, I soon found, belied the fact that nothing actually happened there. No ticket office, no announcements, no signs and only two passing trains in the hour or so I was there. In fairness, everything in Slovenia on time; it just felt a bit like going back in time half a century compared to the other stations I’d visited and Clapham Junction back home. I boarded this poky little two-carriage train, graffitied all over – like I learnt a lot of Slovenian trains are – which gave it a cool effect. Raging against the machine – literally.
In keeping with the whole atmosphere, someone just decided the train would go on for one more stop, meaning I didn’t have to make a connection. And they even told me this personally. At Divaca, I eventually worked out that, yes, that narrow metre-wide, 30cm-high strip of concrete standing between platforms 2 and 3 was the platform where everyone was to board a big intercity train to the country’s capital. Really, there was no need for a yellow caution line; the whole platform was well smaller than most of those spaces on plaforms here. I jest. Because, thinking about it, it shows an unfussy, just-getting-shit-done attitude and an indifference to idiocy often absent from our ‘elf and safety culture.
I reached Ljubljana, and, it seemed, the 21st century, about 90 minutes later. Wasn’t the most spectacular entrance it must be said – just a load of anonymous buildings in a business district. The scenery improved a little on the way to the hostel – a lovely converted three-story house called Vila Veselova – but I did question if there was a good reason why Slovenia remained a relative backwater.
I soon found it there isn’t. The historic centre of Ljubljana is stunningly pretty under the lights, lending the yellows and peaches of the buildings a weird sort of luminescent glow. Especially the castle – the focal point of the city which sits up on a hill in the city centre, affording a ludicrously picturesque 360 of the city and surrounding area, especially at sunset…
The next day, I’d booked on a sLOVEnia tour through the hostel. So I took off in a minibus with Jenny, a Brit (the accent really becomes noticeable abroad) on a gap year; Tom, a nice if slightly vapid Aussie/Singaporean having just finished an exchange term in Holland; and Sandra, a 30-something American woman, who was frankly a bit boring and moany. The previous night she spent a good half an hour relaying her reservations about the tour to the tour guide, Rika. I thought, just go or shut up, love. As a testament to the the tour guide’s good nature, though, if he even was thinking the same, he didn’t once give indication of it. And he seemed to know everything not just about Slovenian history but about that of all the Balkans too.
We set off on a motorway to the south-west of the country, into the Karst region – defined by woodland and large, flat plains, former salt lakes, pockmarked by tiny hills jutting up and back down, former islands on the lakes. First stop was Predjama Castle, an imposing white fortress with an intriguing history, built into a cliff face. A rebellious knight called Erazem Lueger took up camp there in the 15th century when Austrian emperor Fredrick III, enraged at his insubordinance, had commissioned the governor of Trieste to kill him. Erazem remained besieged in the castle for a year and a day, baffling his enemies, who thought there was only one access point, by surviving on supplies he gleaned by a complex cave system which allowed him to travel to a nearby village. These included cherries, some of which he used to pelt his attackers with. Alas, Erazem met an inglorious end when one of his servants, having been bribed by attackers, placed a small signal flag by a toilet when Erazem was there, and the attackers launched a cannonball at him – literally catching him with his pants down.
From there, we travelled to this spot, the name of which escapes me, where you have this great view across Italy (Trieste and the narrow strip it sits in), Croatia and Slovenia, including its small bit of coastline. According to Rika, and contrary to what I’d found, there’s a lot of hostility between Italians, particularly those from Trieste, and Slovenians, stemming from the city’s messy history – in which it swung between Italian, (Nazi) German and Yugoslavian rule – and propagated by stereotypes on both sides. And that’s before you even get to the stereotypes within the Balkans. Which are, if I remember correctly, Croatia – shifty and incompetent; Albania – backwards and shiftier still, being governed by mafia and old-fashioned concepts of family; and Montenegro – lazy and stupid (sample joke: “where are the best places to hide money from a Montenegrin? Under the shovel or in a book” – and, according to Rika, “they’re too stupid too even think of a comeback”).
Slovenia sits above these – in status as well as geography, I learnt from Rika. He told – in a proud, patriotic way, rather than a smug nationalist way, I thought – of the country’s proud, independent character, borne of its turbulent recent past (it has only been independent for 22 years). And of how it cares for the environment and makes up for a relative lack of natural resources with a well-educated workforce and well-developed infrastructure. Which I took, and sensed, to be largely true, and which to be honest made me feel a bit bad about jumping to say it was so backwards. He neglected to mention the current financial problems and, according to Wikipedia, the price for this forward-looking society being high taxes and a lack of competitiveness. But it was nice to have to someone be so openly proud of his country without it coming across as overly superior or territorial – something I found quite common across Europe (Although admittedly some of that may just be down to me, a tourist not used to the daily grind of domestic news media and pub rants, imbuing that sense onto people, many of whom of course have a vested interest – tourist dollar – in bigging up their country.) This is something I think English people, myself somewhat included, find difficult, as our imperial past, coupled with a general sense of reserve and consideration, often renders uneasy such displays. Either on the person expressing it, the one seeing or hearing it or both. Take for one the hand-wringing over St George’s flags during major football tournaments. Even the left-wing Democrats’ political speeches in America are full of flag-waving and references to American exceptionalism (“this great nation”, “we”, “our”, “indominable spirit”, “shared history and value” etc. etc.).
Anyway, the next and main stop on the tour was the Škocjan Caves, probably the largest cave system in Europe, with an explored length of 6,200m and comprising a weird and wonderful selection of rock formations. Sounds really anoraky when put like that, but I defy anyone not to be at least mildly impressed by cascading rock pools, huge 20m towers of coalesced stalagmites and stalagtites and caverns as big as cinemas. The River Reka (literally ‘River River’) runs underground for just over 20 miles, including 3.5km along Hanke’s Channel, which is 10 to 60m wide and over 140m high, often expanding into huge chambers, including Martel’s Chamber, considered the largest in Europe. When we were there, the river ran well below, but still created a cavernous echo-y sound, and you could see the marks on the walls from where it had reached a good 50/60m above its current level. Alas, you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside – a rule to do with preserving the flora and fauna which was unfailing obeyed. (Indeed, the whole thing was very environmentally-conscious, being a UNESCO world heritage site and only allowing 150,000 people in a year, whether that figure is reached in December or September.) So you will have to Google them or look on the website. Here are a few of the area just outside, though…
From there, we went to this horse sanctuary place, apparently world famous in horsey circles, for the quality of its horses and for its ‘Michael Jackson’ horses which go from brown in childhood to white in adulthood (my joke, albeit very obvious). Other than that it didn’t move me too much, being a bloke, but the women really enjoyed it – and uber-happy Tom. We were all amused, though, by the tour guide’s story of how an American tourist once asked him, in all sincerity, “where do they keep the unicorns, then?” (His blunt response: “unicorns are a mythical creature”).
Back at the hostel, we had the welcoming drinks, with Rika, a very nice, homespun touch that I didn’t really encounter at other hostels. It did double as a chance to sell his tours – there were about six other similar ones – but it’s not exactly hassling or a conflict of interest to sell tours to tourists. We carried on the drinks in the garden – a disparate group of the aforementioned three (though the American bird, predictably, left after twenty minutes, moaning about something or other), one trio and one pair of male Canadian friends, a young couple from Taunton and a more typically cheery American woman. All nice people and at least fairly interesting. And the Canadians had an impressive knowledge of football – certainly enough to know to call it ‘football’ – a sure-fire way to gain a Brit’s approval. Indeed, North Americans in general surprised me with their knowledge of ‘soccer’.
After a while, we decided to see what Ljubljana had to offer in terms of nightlife. Not much, we found as we entered the honestly-named Disco Bar, where we were genuinely the only punters there at 11pm. OK, so it was a weeknight, but a summer one, and at a club in the country’s capital. At least we hadn’t paid for the privilege, so went back outside to the grand Zvezda square, where there was a good atmosphere; the kind of cosmopolitan drinking culture we at least tried to emulate with the introduction of 24-hour drinking eight years ago. So we sought opinion on the best place to go from locals – or as it turned out foreign students celebrating the end of term – the result a lukewarm consensus for Parliament. While not exactly Fabric or Ministry of Sound – it felt like a pub with chairs and tables taken out to make a dancefloor – it was decent enough. But not good enough to tempt me into having just three or so hours sleep, so I went back to get a semi-decent night’s sleep to get up for my 8:06 train, the only really feasible one.
Next morning, that train to Maribor, Slovenia’s second city in its north-east corner, through some pretty if unspectacular scenery. Then onto Wien, or Vienna, through some surprisingly very dull Austrian landscape, which became gradually more impressive – a bit like Switzerland’s slightly less popular and attractive younger brother.
From Vienna, a Railjet train to Budapest. And I have to admit, my first impressions of Hungary were not overly enamouring – mile upon mile of uninspiring, washed out farmland – a vision of grey Eastern Bloc drabness (to the first impressions of an ignorant Westerner anyway). Budapest, when we arrived after a replacement bus for part of the track affected by the floods, was a far more welcoming sight – a palatial building fronted by a grand glass arch, in keeping with much of the rest of the city, which really does make one feel like a king. Partly because of the a general regal air the place has, and partly because it’s perfectly normal to walk around with a 5,000 Hungarian Forint note (about £17) in one’s pocket. (Although I didn’t feel particularly big or clever when I ignorantly tried to buy a metro ticket with euros).
The next day, I went out exploring the city – with its multitude of religious and political institutions, a vast and impressive testament to the manic history of the place, which includes the Celtic Empire, the Roman, the Ottoman, The Austro-Hungarian, monarchy, communism, and, since the fall of the Wall (more later), a confident outward-looking capitalist democracy (my limited impression anyway). All of this is set to the stunning backdrop of the Danube, which dissects the city into two – historically, the administrative centre of Buda to the West and the economic trading centre of Pest to the East. And to Buda castle, dating all the way back to 1265, and overlooking the Danube and Pest and the rest of the city.
Got the Railjet back the other way to the Munich the next day…or at least I’d planned to. Because, for some reason, the train decided to stop halfway, in Vienna, meaning I had to get a train to Salzburg and wait nearly two hours there because, in a very un-German way, the next train to Munich firstly was due to go in around an hour and was cancelled anyway. And there was more issues in Munich. I asked a traveller-y looking girl – in my courteous but shit German – left or right from the metro station (I had a map, just didn’t know which way I was facing). Turns out she was going to the same place and had GPS on her phone so I followed her. After ten minutes, of what the hostel’s internet page said should be four, I got sceptical, so we asked a pair of locals the way. Or rather she did, being a German – down south for a socialist conference – who naturally spoke perfect English. Confident as their answer was, we followed that for another ten minutes or so until it felt wrong, and asked another a pair, a middle-aged couple, who completely shattered any of those Sun or sun-lounger stereotypes of Germans as efficient but cold people.
For they clearly didn’t know the way, as I gathered after about 30 seconds, but seemed absolutely determined not to let this fact hinder them in helping us. My newly-found German accomplice clearly couldn’t see their (well-meaning) uselessness, as she continued talking them for near 20 minutes. My favourite bit, which I could not help but laugh at, was the bloke saying: “I know where it is…but don’t know if this way *pointing*…or that way *pointing the other way*…”. Brilliant. After about three times I attempted to leave a few times, only for the guy to take offence that I wasn’t taking his useless advice, we finally, after about an hour, resolved to go back to square one, the metro station, and work from there. Where – just like another well-known, if rather less friendly, conflict between Britain and Germany – the Yanks eventually came to the rescue – Sarah, the American girl from Rome, who I knew was coming but I thought a fair bit later. Her rather better GPS got us to the hostel…near 14 hours after I’d left Budapest for what should have been one simple train journey. But, hey, all things considered – minor inconvenience and delay to a middle-class Brit gallivanting around Europe – it was a first world problem.
First thing the next day was the Lions’ first test. I’d gone travelling at this point, largely so I wouldn’t be missing much important sport, but the Lions I did want to watch. And in hindsight I’m glad I sought out places to watch them – even if Germany wasn’t exactly a rugby hot bed. So we went to a sports bar first, with Sarah gamely giving rugby – undeniably the finer version of people pummelling seven shades of shit out of each other – a shot.
However, the first bar we went to didn’t look particularly sports-orientated – about three families eating, no TV on and and they seemed completely nonplussed by my combination of pointing, gesturing and broken German (“Du hast die Lions…*throwing imaginary rugby ball*… zum fernseher?” ). Anyway, after a drink – seemed rude not to when the manager spent five minutes looking for it – they directed us to an Irish bar nearby, restoring my faith in German reliability in the process. Worked out ok in the end, as we got there for the dramatic conclusion and the Lions won. Even Sarah, used to American football, was (mildly) won over – or at least had the decency to feign interest.
So I set off around Munich in good spirits. Nice place, with a very relaxed, cosmopolitan air; wide, tree-lined streets, unhurried people and generous greenery. One park even had a proper game of cricket going on; a sign of metropolitanism if I ever saw one. For good and ill, a world away from Rome, with all its manic energy.
After wandering, we stumbled into the Hofbrauhaus, which I’ve since learnt is globally known (how many pubs have a gift shop?!) and has perhaps the greatest history of any pub in the world. It was built way back in 1598, by Bavarian Duke Maximilian I, moved and remodelled in 1897, and then bombed during the World War II, only being rebuilt in 1958. I suppose they did target important buildings. I jest. But only in part because, among its history, Mozart has claimed to have written opera Idomeneo after numerous beverages at the Hofbrauhaus ‘fortified’ him for the task; Lenin reportedly frequented when living in Munich between the wars; and it has been heavily involved in Nazi Party history. It was one of the beer halls used to hold functions and announce policies, including the twenty-five theses which saw the German Workers’ Party reformed as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, increasingly just abbreviated “Nazi”.
And it certainly seemed like some Mecca for drinking – a grand main hall, courtyard and several balconies, capable of holding around 2,500 (nearly 10,000 when transformed for Oktoberfest). And of course, replete with those brilliant German stereotypes of long tables, pretzels, meat, busty women in lederhosen, and, best of all, beastly two-pint glasses (which one very talented waiter managed to carry six of at once). They’ve got – or had – their faults, but the Germans sure know how to do gastronomy.
Sarah and I headed off to Vienna the next day, on the same line that should have got me to Munich, but thankfully with less hassle this trip. In fact, by far the easiest journey so far. The accommodation was another Wombats (I’d stayed in one in Budapest) – a clean, well-maintained place, if missing a tiny bit of… je ne sais quoi, that there was at the Slovenian hostel for instance. We wandered about looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a quiet, unassuming little place serving…well, I didn’t quite know what in truth. Because armed with undue pride in my German and a desire not to appear the ignorant Brit I pretty much am, I went for a lucky dip with the ‘naschemark’, which turned out to be a decent little plate of ciabatta along with humus, cucumber and salad, and named after the famous market nearby).
Back at the hostel, we met Pieter, a South African travelling around Europe, it transpired, as much if not more for tax purposes as pure enjoyment (he worked four weeks on, four weeks off on a rig offshore Brazil). We headed down the hostel bar, where I came to find he had this odd demeanour – everything said with wide smile and enthusiastic tone. The type of thing I might have said of many Americans before meeting quite few on this trip and finding they’re largely pretty reasoned, reasonable, intelligent, even quite droll people (the ones who managed to get out anyway). On the plus side, he was easy to talk to, but I always felt a laugh was required for even ordinary stories and observations. And it made listening to his firmly-held, slightly right-wing views on South African politics quite odd.
The next day, pummelled as it was by rain veering between apocalyptic and merely British, Venice looked rather less majestic and pretty than the day before, bathed in summer evening glow like in Before Sunset. (Though I had little cause to complain, given the weather I’d had – not a drop of rain, 35 in Venice and Rome and 30+ in Slovenia and Budapest. Too hot if anything.) Partly as a result, partly because of general reputation, we alighted to the Museumsquartier – one of the biggest cultural areas in the world, with around 30 buildings showcasing everything from history, art, photography, dance, film and new media.
We plumped for the (nearly-very-rude-sounding) Kunsthistoriches Museum – museum of art history. It was quite impressive, but to be honest I’ve never been that into art and don’t even exhibit any sings that I’m growing into it, like I have with, for example, architecture (the Vatican, for one), nature and Neil Young. Sure, I recognise skill and endeavour in art (what I deem proper art, not wanky modern art) but it rarely moves me to great emotion or reflection.
To wit, I have realised whenever I’m in a gallery I find myself moving about five times quicker than nearly everyone else, moving between pieces of art like: that’s pretty good…that’s pretty good…that’s amazing…meh….that’s pretty good…that’s pretty good, little quicker than you just read that. I’m sure some of that is down to not understanding context, composition and such, but that stuff, you know, requires study and work, and there’s so many other good time-consuming things competing for my interest, like football and Breaking Bad. And, even if they didn’t necessarily come first, as Peter Griffin says in preferencing his TV over his kids, they are easier and more likely to be discussed at the pub.
That said, it was diverting enough – mostly portraits of royals and classical frescoes (As evidence of my artistic philistinism, I just Google Imaged ‘frescoes’ to check I had the right word. I think I do; think of Da Vinci’s famous one of man touching God, The Creation of Adam and you get the picture.) There was, though, a cool bit on the Egyptians, who are always good, and appeal to the kid in me (weird shit like mummifying people), the Age of Empires-playing teen (death and destruction) and the sophisticated adult (great achievements like medicine, education and architecture). And all this was there.
After that, partly thanks to the rain and partly thanks to a general overload of touristy and cultural stuff, we went to see Monsters University, which was thankfully in English (as nearly all films are) and, I later learnt, strangely out a good month before in England. Good film it was too; a funny little satire on university life. Then we went in search of food, specifically schnitzel that the area is renowned for. Being quite a traditional place with no translation, I tried out the ‘lucky dip’ technique again. Well, sort of – nearly everything still contained the word ‘schnitzel’ (which, for those of you living under a gastronomic rock, is a slab of fried meat covered in flour and bread crumbs). Turned out to be some tender pork, I think. Whatever it was, it was delicious, as was the remaining bit of Sarah’s I hoovered up.
Went out with that night with Mr Excitable, Pieter. First to the hostel bar, then, on good recommendations, a club called Flex. It was basically the archetype of Germanic nightlife – underground, in an industrial-y space, with even more grungy, hardcore, industrial techno. But there was hardly anyone there, which meant it didn’t really work. I quite like lyrics in my music now and then. Germans’ love of heavy rock is perplexing to me, given the generally straight-laced nature of their society (I ignorantly bunch together Germans and Austrians in many senses). But maybe it is precisely because of that reason. Just look of Japan’s love of weird shit.
The straightforward Vienna-Prague train made apparent just how bad the Danube flooding was, as the water still, two to three weeks later, was submerging park benches and nearly reaching the train. When there, we decamped, alas not at the brilliantly-named Czech Inn but at the (reasonable) St Christopher’s Inn, and went to explore Praha’s eating and drinking and establishments, settling on a great little restaurant where I had some superb roasted camembert thing, then some bar. Wasn’t as dirt cheap as I’d been led to believe – the Czech crown has such an awkward exchange rate it’s hard to tell exactly in truth – but it was all very nice.
We went for a free walking tour the next day. These are tours, at most main European tourist cities, advertised through hostels where students, teachers or just interested people give a whistlestop tour of the city and politely ask punters to give whatever they can spare/think the tour deserved. A very admirable business model, and the guides seem to do relatively well out of it money-wise. I’d yet to go on one, through a combination of lack of motivation – due to circumstance, thinking they’d be a bit dry and wanting to do my own thing. It was very good, though. It was run by a Greek chap on an Erasmus year in Prague, and he told us the stories, mostly of medieval gore or the Iron Curtain, behind the city’s grand gothic and baroque buildings.
It started at the Powder Tower, the gate to the Old Town, and proceeded down the area’s winding streets to the famous Staroměstské náměstí, or Old Town Square, which houses the astronomical clock tower, which, dating from 1410, is the oldest still standing in the world. Every hour on the hour, a large crowd forms by to see a small trap door open and Christ march out ahead of his disciples, while death’s skeleton tolls the bell. The tour guide thought it was really naff and a great big con for tourist’s moulah, but I thought it was alright. Had a bit of novelty.
The rest of the tour mostly went around the Old Town and Jewish Quarter, taking in various beauties and oddities including a brothel in a converted church and a church where someone’s foot dangled from the ceiling, a relic from a medieval feud.
We ended up at the courtyard next to Mánesův Most, a grand bridge over the Vltava, looking out to the majestic Prague Castle on the other side, which, after giving coins and thanks to the guide, Sarah and I went to explore, up the very steep hill. The castle itself was impressive, although a little bit of overkill given the amount of old buildings I’d seen and you can only really go downhill in this respect after seeing the Vatican. There was also some fairly diverting, very death-y, Games of Thrones-like things dotted around the site. One exhibit, for example, looked like a collection of instruments that would be used in a medieval version of the Saw franchise. On a brighter note, the castle affords a great view across Prague, sitting majestically the other side of the Vltava.
That night, kind of getting lost on the way to The Church – the club one, not the brothel one – we settled on a good, little English bar in the main square, where a slightly grizzled old fella was playing his way, reasonably enough, through some dad rock – Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd and such. I would say it was nice to have to small taste of home but, aside from the fact that I was only away for a couple of weeks anyway, that’s the thing about travelling round Europe as a Brit in the 21st century – you never do feel like your a million miles from home. (Unless, that is, you’re a Daily Express-reading fruitcake). It’s really easy to get online, English papers are sold in most places, there are MacDonaldses everywhere, everyone knows the same football players and, through some combination of globalisation and imperialism , nearly everyone speaks conversational English or better, at least in touristy places.
The language thing made me feel a bit of middle-class English guilt in many places – but I can’t deny it was useful. I could go in to exchanges speaking French or German – or any other language I looked in the guidebook at – knowing there was a very good chance they had good to brilliant English to save the exchange when, almost inevitably, my Franglais, or what I’m coining as ‘Deutschlish’, was found wanting. Which was usually as soon as they replied. Often they just replied in English straight away, presumably because the opening gambit sounded fucking shit. I think there was only three people I spoke to where it was clear I could speak their language better than they could mine, including a 70-something-year-old Austrian woman, but not including a pre-teen French boy, whose English was already slightly better than my French. There was one up side, though. My German – B at GCSE, largely unused and forgotten since – was at such a level where I was competent enough to have an admittedly basic, and largely gesticulated, exchange, yet not advanced enough to know that, to native speakers, probably this like sounded I. Anyhow I’m starting on this Duolingo thing, to – hopefully – become more a little more cosmopolitan an’ that.
A hassle-free journey the next day, straight from Praha, brought us to Berlin station – an amazing modernist piece of architecture looking like something out a sci-fi film set in the near future; an open-plan glass labyrinthe of a building where, just to show off presumably, the metro system is at the top and the trains are the bottom, with everything else in the middle. Speaking as a first-time visitor, it works not only on an aesthetic level, but a practical one too – often even from two storeys and 50m up, you can see physically see where everything is and just head there without even having to bother to read the signs.
And the subway itself was very efficient – in truth, just like the tube but cheaper and less crowded – and, this time, there was no uncharacteristically useless Germans at the other end to get us lost. The hostel was reasonable and friendly. I joined the owner and others in the cafe-cum-reception where they were streaming the (dull, it turned out) Confederations Cup semi between Italy and Spain.
The next day, we went on walking tour around Berlin, through SANDEMANs. Ours was through a slightly eccentric Brit, an expat school teacher by trade but so in interested in the city, its history and wanting to share that with “young minds” that he guided in summer holidays. It showed too, as he told, with varying enthusiasm and solemnity, of the many horrors of Nazi Germany and the grimness of a separated Germany. Berlin is, of course, a particularly interesting case in this because it was the only city to house both sides of the divide so starkly in just one city; a microcosm on the great political divide of the 20th century.
After the war, the country was divided up along lines roughly matching where the different nations had invaded. Britain took around a quarter to the north-west; America a large section in the south; France two relatively smallish pockets to the south and west. These were merged, as the Federal Republic of Germany, in May 1949, and the USSR took control of what became known as East Germany. However, Berlin, geographically in East Germany, was so strategically important that Britain, the US and France were unwilling to relinquish it, so all the allied forces agreed to carve up the city in a similar way to the rest of the country. Political tension ratcheted up between the two, as East Berlin, with around half the population, began losing many talented people, until 1961 when, with thousands of soldiers under the cover the darkness one August night, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall. (This first stage was ‘just’ barbed wire, but, ignoring the politics and ethics of it for just a second, in one night this was still obviously a mighty impressive operation. By its fourth and final stage, it stood as 11/12 feet of thick solid iron and barbed wire. And it worked, as escapes dropped 75% after its construction.)
This history is all strikingly evident in the city today. The tour started at Pariser Platz – depending on one’s priorities, either home to the majestic Brandenburg Gate or the place where Michael Jackson dangled his baby out of a fifth-floor window, at the five-star Hotel Adlon. From there we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – or ‘Holocaust Memorial’ – an odd, harrowing piece of architecture; hundreds of grey concrete slabs of varying height, arranged in a grid pattern on an undulating surface. The architect behind it, Peter Eisenman, was intentionally vague about its symbolism – so that, admirably, viewers of all creeds, colour and ages could bring their own thoughts and emotions to bear on such an important, tragic issue. Having walked through it, my own is that the scale of and difference within the blocks represent how Jews (and others) were dehumanised, like dull concrete blocks.
Nearby is the spot above where Hitler shot himself – a nondescript grass verge in the car park of some flats, left as such so Hitler is not actively commemorated. We then followed a similar line to the Wall, including the former Luftwaffe HQ – in a similar vein to the car park, now just a large tax office. Then onto Niederkirchnerstraße, one of the few remaining bits of two miles or so of wall left standing. As a gesture of remorse, political co-operation and progress, other bits of have been donated to various governments and institutions around the world. By this, is the frankly-named Topography of Terror, documenting the horrors of the Nazi regime – and in pretty graphic detail according to the tour guide (“Recommended, but you’ll need a strong stomach”). Again, it is managed commendably – a stark, uncelebratory building, with no fanfare, and free entry so there is no possible profiting from such evil.
Nearby is Checkpoint Charlie, a major strategic access point between East and West, so named because it was the third checkpoint and ‘Charlie’ designated ‘c’ in the NATO phonetic alphabet. It now stands as a busy junction, where a small brick line on the road marks out where the wall was, and a military-style checkpoint stands in the middle of the road. Here, there is a pole with a picture on one side of a stern-looking American casting watch over the East Berlin, and on the other a Soviet soldier sending an ominous glare over West Berlin. And a sign informing people, in English, Russian, French and German, one side that they are entering ‘the American sector’ and on the other that they are leaving. Needless to say, it was more for political front than tourist information. For you couldn’t just wander into the West, as some of stories and museum connected to the place attest. The total number of East German refugees since the Wall’s erection was 616,000, and although around half were through official permits, there were around 164,000 escapes through other countries and 40,000 direct escapes. This was in spite of the draconian punishment meted out to failed defectors. Indeed, an estimated 136, or even more, died while trying to flee.
Out of the desperation, though, come same amazing and amusing stories of determination and human ingenuity, chronicled around Checkpoint Charlie and in a museum there. These include: smashing through a Checkpoint Charlie gate (just after its erection – it was soon reinforced); slipping under a car barrier at the last second in a low-topped convertible; using meat hooks to scale the Wall; swimming 28 miles (Rostock, Germany, to Lolland, Denmark); using an air mattress to cross the Baltic; 14 people hiding, Bear Grylls-style, in various animal carcasses in a refrigerated truck; hot air balloon; and, perhaps most plucky of all, little cardboard boat. Of course, one shouldn’t dwell too long on such stories, for they represent less than 1 in 20 escape attempts, and an estimated 136 or even more died in the process. The tragic thing is some may have even considered these people the lucky ones, given the situation and the draconian punishment meted out to unlucky Republikflüchtigers (‘Republic-fliers’, or ‘deserters’). This act carried a standard imprisonment of three years, and often even more – longer sentences or execution in/deportation to the Soviet Union – if convincted of espionage on top of this. And people who aided and abetted escape were deemed ‘human traffickers’ and, as I’m sure you can guess, in for just as grisly punishment, if not more. In total, 75,000 people, or seven a day, were imprisoned for failed escapes.
Incidentally, there was some movement the other way, though nowhere near the same number (around 300). Unsurprisingly, the East German authorities were keen to paint these migrations as the moves of enlightened souls escaping political tension, escalating lawlessness and worsening economic conditions in the West. West German research, however, found more prosaic reasons; marital and family problems and homesickness. And some Allied military officials defected to avoid criminal charges or for political reasons – or just to get their end away. According to the St Petersburg Times, “girl-hungry GIs were tempted by seductive sirens, who usually deserted the love-lorn soldiers once across the border.”
I knew (a little) about the darkness of the Cold War before, but, being in Berlin, it really hit home how, though it seems a world away from my experience in middle-class capitalist/democratic Britain, the darker aspects of the Cold War were (just about) still happening in my lifetime – and probably yours too. And, no less, in a country just a few train rides away which I barely had to show a passport to get in, and whose open, democratic culture is now envied by many.
But that is what’s great about Berlin; it lives and breathes its history. Tales of medieval knights and stuff are interesting for sure, but don’t feel that directly relevant. Berlin is basically a living monument to Edward Burke’s infamous quote (attributed to others too): “Those who don’t history are destined to repeat it.” Germans today realise the horrors of Nazism (and much of the Cold War), but, bravely, don’t flinch from acknowledging it. As such, it now has an admirably socially progressive culture. As Boris Johnson says: “The most serious public order problem [in Berlin] at the moment is the tendency of Berliners to pursue the logic of their Freikörpeskultur (Free Body Culture) by actually fornicating in their many magnificent parks; and such is the climate of political correctness that they decided to means-test the fines. So if you are caught in flagrante in the bushes, and you have a job, you get fined 150 euros – but only 34 euros if you are unemployed. If that isn’t broad-mindedness, I don’t know what is.”
The then and now may seem paradoxical, but I’d venture that Germany is the way it is now precisely because of its history, and the wise, compassionate way Germans have dealt with it. Indeed, are dealing with it. Because, as the tour guide concluded, summing up why he loves Berlin by quoting the last line of a book (the details of which escape me), “Paris is always Paris – but Berlin is always becoming Berlin.”
The tour, thankfully, got a little lighter after that, aside from the square where the Nazi book burnings took place, taking in some grand political and religious buildings a wonderful chocolate shop, the wartime red light strip (now a fairly normal business strip) and other buildings, and ending at the imperious cathedral and Museum Island. Here, partly because the heavens just opened, we went into the Pergamon Museum, a collection of relics of the ancient world, particularly Egypt and Arabic. Most impressive were the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate. The former is named after the ancient city where it was built, marking out its acropolis, the important, elevated part of the city. It’s a mammoth construction around 35x35x20 metres, including a grand, wide stairway leading up to a pillared corridor and entrance, and raised sides depicting, in sculpture, the battle between Giants and Olympian Gods on its frieze. Ishtar Gate is, or was, the eight entrance the inner city of Babylon, and is shaped like a gate to a stereotypical old English castle, but striking for its magnificent blue colour embossed with gold animal engravings, notably lions. Being part of the Walls of Babylon, it was one of the seven wonders of the world, and with good reason, until it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the 3rd Century BC. In fact, this version, which stands at 14 metres high, 30 wide, only represents the frontal part of the double gate – the bigger back part, which is in storage, being considered too big to fit into a museum. Both amazing structures have were meticulously excavated and reconstructed in the museum at the start of the 20th century – this new version of the museum was actually built to house the Pergamon Altar as the previous one was not structurally sound enough for its epic size.
Some light relief was definitely in order after a day of Nazism, Cold War and wonders of the ancient world, so luckily Berlin is just as good for revelry as it is for history. Well, I must admit I say that largely from reputation and bar crawl promo leaflets as from actual memory, because triple shots, which were the order of the day (or night) on our bar crawl, aren’t the most conducive to good memory (nor respectability). What I remember was good, though. And slightly disarming – for the foreigner at least. Because the Germans are very liberal about prostitution. Even at 8.30 on a normal, main road there was two Stricherin casually – though judiciously, in fairness to them – going about their…business. What’s more, they were attractive and looked healthy of mind and body too – not the drug-addled, psychologically damaged women of prostitute stereotype. Not that I acquired their services.
So a little worse for wear, I dragged myself out of bed to the station to say goodbye to Sarah (she was off to Amsterdam, where I couldn’t find a hostel for a night). and watch the Lions. This time, in an Irish bar from the start. A disappointing result, but – even given that it indirectly screwed up plans significantly – for the chance it would be anything like the following week, I don’t regret it. I was headed to Brugge for the night, but train to Cologne got in an hour after my train timetable said it would, so I missed the last connection to Brussels and was stuck there. I found out the cheapest available hostel was about €60 for a night, and it wasn’t even that highly rated. So I booked on a night train to Munich – just to have somewhere to sleep that night that wasn’t a park, though I think in some circles that’s considered bohemian when travelling – and went for a small wander around Cologne.
On the train, some arrogant tosser from the States took the fact that he was one of the only people in his country to speak German to upbraid me for mine, in a very superior, non-joking way, after he heard me speaking to the ticket inspector. Of course he was right, but my language ability is something for me and friends to mock, not strangers. He then asked if I was a student and went on to criticise my job, and I replied that he can think like that if he wants but that I’ve got a 2.1 from university (important to him as he was a classics lecturer, though he didn’t know what a 2.1 was which I told him was idiotic for an international academic), got a decent job which pays taxes and my way in life, and that I didn’t feel I needed to answer to him anyway. In hindsight, I wish I’d said something like: well, at least I earn my money in the real world, rather than get given it by a government, or rather taxpayers, to teach a load of teenagers how to masturbate over metaphor. But then the best lines of argument are always thought of in hindsight, TV shows aside. And I don’t really believe that anyway – I did a philosophy and religious studies degree, after all, so it would be a bit hypocritical.
The journey passed without event apart from that, as I got as much fitful sleep as my body allowed on an upright chair, on a stopping train. Thankfully got more sleep on the Munich-Paris TGV, though, which flies to Paris in about six hours. I couldn’t get rid of my heavy bag in Paris and I’d been there before, so I mostly just sat about waiting for the overnight Megabus back to London, reading (Will Self’s Umbrella – very odd and not recommended). Not the most exciting way to end the trip – though the White Cliffs and the bright sun dawning over and reflecting off the English Channel on the ferry was pretty breathtaking – but it had been a great trip.
Loads of people speak about how travelling ‘opened their minds’ or ‘broadened their horizons’. It didn’t for me, but then nor was I looking for it to. I’m quite happy with my moderate, centrist views, and I certainly wasn’t looking for god or any substitute therefor. (Besides, I was only travelling to Europe for three weeks, not the other side of the world.). I just found had confirmed my idea that most men, aside from really important stuff like work and family, just want to watch/play sport, get drunk and get laid; and if combined, even better (women – god knows).
One thing I did take back, or have reinforced, though, is to try and appreciate where one lives, because the grass is always greener and all that. Looking at some places, I thought well, London has some amazing places and great culture too, and that I and others often, not unreasonably, half forget it as we see it with busy commuters’ eyes and associate London with routine and work. Whereas tourists see it at their own pace and afresh, through tourists’ eyes. So I’ve resolved to remember, even if I’m on a packed, sweaty tube train, how lucky I am to live in such a great city – and country. Of course, we’ve got flaws, but it’s hard, if not impossible, for things to be perfect for everyone. And as societies develop so do expectations, so, somewhat paradoxically, things often seem worse, as, naturally, people remember the breaks from the norm. To wit, how many people remember the nine out of ten train journeys in the UK which are on time and don’t crash? Besides, as I’ve said, even Germans today fuck up occasionally…