The trip to Berlin did not begin auspiciously. Getting to Gatwick on the Tuesday felt like hitting every red light in London; Tower Bridge was open to let a big Norwegian ferry through as I tried to cross, leaving me out in burning sun for fifteen minutes. Somewhere around East Croydon, the train was held up for three quarters of an hour thanks to someone jumping in front of a train. Most unhelpfully, just as I was getting off at Gatwick station, I got a sudden email from Easyjet saying that my plane had been cancelled.
Their website offered me a reschedule to Southend airport the following day – hoping I could negotiate, I queued to see the single solitary man at the Gatwick customer service desk. He – looking dispiritedly at an increasingly long queue of angry Germans – offered me a transfer to a flight on Friday. I took what the website was offering.
The following day, after a considerably earlier start, things went better. The trains to Southend ran smoothly, and on approach I noticed a – the – Vulcan bomber out on the tarmac, cockpit shrouded in green tarps like a falcon’s hood. Moving in on foot through the car park to investigate, I made the happy discovery of a small greasy spoon called “The Lancaster”, and had a very nice sausage-bacon-and-chips brunch there, although I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward looking around at all the Bomber Command themed decor knowing that I was headed to Berlin. Security was a breeze, the person booked in next to me cancelled so I got a window seat, and Easyjet have finally realised that flight mode actually does something and let you use it rather than insisting that everything be switched off. Eighty minutes after takeoff, we were descending over Brandenburg’s dark green woods, broad fields, and sweeping autobahns, the patterns of suburbia below broken by huge communist apartment blocks.
I got out at Schönefeld airport ten minutes ahead of schedule, immediately able to tell that this was once the GDR side of town; big windswept plazas with weeds growing between the tiles, and a railway station slightly too huge and slightly too bare to have been meant for humans. A terribly attractive dungareed workman on the train I boarded confirmed that it was indeed the RB14 headed for Alexanderplatz, and I was off. When we arrived, I looked up the correct phrase on my phone, and carefully wished him vielen Dank fur ihre Hilfe. He smiled and said no problem, have a nice day.
Bill met me at Alexanderplatz station, a block of shops topped by railway lines all under a huge sweeping glass arched roof, and I had my first Berliner currywurst, €2.20 for a bread roll and a tray piled with sausage and gloopy curry sauce. In the packed city square from which the station got its name, I munched them down, looking at the slowly turning World Time Clock, admiring the vast space-age spike of the Fernsehturm and watching a mechanical dragon rear up and breathe fire. We took the U-bahn to Bill’s sublet on Provinzstrasse, via an Aldi for necessary supplies: 1) gin and 2) tonic.
Having unpacked and had a drink, we hopped back on the U-Bahn and set out to wander Berlin in the gloaming. We took in the Gendarmenmarkt, its huge neoclassical Konzerthaus flanked by the gorgeous Französischer and Deutscher Doms, a pair of cathedrals matched in overall layout but differing in the detail; we’d missed the open hours of Fassbender & Rausch the chocolatier, but looked in some wonder at a chocolate Titanic, chocolate Reichstag and chocolate Brandenburg Gate through the window.
The overall architecture of the centre of town is very nice, lots of large imposing buildings and a decent overall standard; few hugely attractive buildings, but few eyesores either. At Checkpoint Charlie, information posters described the post-war history of Berlin; I knew plenty about the Airlift and the Wall, but it filled in a few other blanks. On the way to the checkpoint, we had spied an interesting looking building down one of the wide streets there, and took a long detour to examine it, taking us past a big open parking space with a whole rainbow of Trabants-for-hire. One, painted a happy leopard-print scheme, sported the vanity plate “TRABI SAFARI”. The building turned out to be the Museum für Kommunikation, an aggravatingly long German compound word picked out in LEDs on its facade, and its glorious Kaiser-era facade just that; most of the building behind the huge baroque face with its statue of Atlas had been blown away in the war, replaced by a functional but uninspired modern structure.
We ate reasonably priced noodles at a little place near Checkpoint Charlie and, getting a little footsore but still up for more exploring, headed off to Unter den Linden as the dark sky finally started spitting rain, and before taking the U-bahn home witnessed Brandenburg Gate, lit up gloriously against the rain-dark sky.