Category Archives: Germany

Berlin on a bike – a guided tour of Germany’s capital

Germany was the only country in Europe that I went to where I had nobody to visit. I toured those other countries because I was meeting friends living in Europe. But I just couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to visit Germany when it was just a bus ride away (a very long bus ride, but a bus ride nevertheless).

Since I would be on my own in Germany, I looked at online guides and tips on how to go around the city. I chanced upon an advertisement about a bike tour in Berlin. I really had no idea what to expect so I just decided to book the tour, since my Germany trip was all about spur-of-the-moment decisions. The tour costs 20 euros, which I pre-paid and booked online (I learned there was really no need for reservations and you can also pay after the tour, it makes no difference). The instructions told me to be at the Alexander Platz TV Tower by 11 am on the reserved date.

On the day of the tour, I was running late for the 11:00 am meeting time since I unknowingly booked a hostel that was so far from the center. I know Germans are very punctual, and I was afraid I was wasting my 20 euros by being a few minutes late. But I shouldn’t have stressed over it, I arrived at the meeting place at around 11:10 and they were still gathering the tourist participants. There were around 30 or more people, which they divided into groups of around 15 each. We were told to pick a bike from the many bicycles parked outside their office.

I chose Black Sabbath, a nice blue bike with a cute yellow  bee horn.

Our tour guide’s name was Charles, but he said we can call him any variation of his name that we like so I decided to call him Charlie, from Checkpoint Charlie (more on that later). He is from Berlin but he spent some time in the States (the tour guides are all native English speakers). He started to introduce Berlin and its history, and I absorbed the information with enthusiasm.

We were showed a lot of the construction going on in Berlin. I was really surprised to find that some of the buildings’ facade are made of tarpaulin! Tarpaulin! (I just had to repeat it to myself, it was unbelievable the first time.) Even their Victory column is still covered in tarpaulin. I hope they finish construction soon 🙂

We visited Bebelplatz, which is known for being the site of the Nazi book burning. (History lesson: In 1933, the Nazis burned around tens of thousands of books that were ‘un-German’.) Today, there is a memorial on the floor of the square — a glass plate with a view of empty book cases. I was really moved by the memorial. I love books and I have a a dream of building a personal library, so seeing all those empty bookshelves on my feet broke my heart a little. There is also a line from the German poet Heinrich Heine that translates in English as, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people also”.

The next memorable stop that we had was at Checkpoint Charlie. Charlie (that’s why I’d like to remember him with that name) explained to us how the Berlin wall came to be with his interesting chalk drawings.

Checkpoint Charlie was the third wall crossing checkpoint, the first two being Checkpoint Alpha and Bravo, respectively. The checkpoint was a real tourist attraction. You can have your picture taken with the dressed-up soldiers or have your passport stamped, for a fee of course. I was amused to see a McDonald’s cafe at the Allied side of the checkpoint. You can’t get more American than that. Haha.

We then rode our bikes adjacent to the Berlin wall and checked out the Deathstrip watchtowers, while Charlie told us about the few successful attempts at escape from the East side to the West Side of the Wall. He also talked about the unsuccessful people who risked their lives to cross the wall, but failed.He also told us about the secret of the Berlin wall souvenirs, how they are all part of the original Berlin wall but that the graffiti side of the souvenir rock were machine-cut and painted. That made sense, since they have been selling the wall pieces for a long time now, and the supply is seemingly endless! Of course, I bought one for my rock collection, even though it was not a real rock.

The next stop was the site of Hitler’s bunker. This was said to be the place where: Hitler married Eva Braun, where they committed suicide, and where their bodies were burned. At present, it is an apartment complex, complete with a playground and parking lot. Apparently, the German government did not want the place to become a neo-Nazi shrine so they made the place as inconspicuous as they can. Before the FIFA World Cup 2006, they put up a simple plaque to identify the place.

Our next stop was  the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It consists of thousands of concrete slabs on a sloping field. If you walk inwards towards the maze of concrete, it will look like you disappeared from somebody watching outside. Charlie said it sort of represents the Holocaust, when people just disappear without notice. This place really had an impact on me. I couldn’t help but be affected while looking at all those concrete slabs. It kind of looked like a cemetery to me, so I couldn’t help but think of all the people who died from torture during the Holocaust 😦

After that, we had to lighten things up a bit so we proceeded to Brandenburg Gate. The Gate was built during the Prussian Kingdom’s reign and serves as one of Berlin’s symbols. It is right next to Pariser Platz, where the American and French embassies are located. It is also the location of Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson dangled his son from one of the windows. Really rich history, eh?

One of my favorite parts of the tour was riding our bicycles across the Tiergarten Park. I enjoyed watching the colors of autumn on the trees while cycling. We  rode to the beer garden, where I had a wonderful lunch of- what else?- German sausage and beer! German food, FTW! 🙂

After lunch, we were shown how much the Germans value transparency in governance. We biked to the Chancellery building, with its postmodern design of concrete and glass. We also visited the Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament and a valuable part of German history. The glass dome on top provides a view not only of Berlin but also of the parliament at work inside the building. Unfortunately, I was not able to enter because of the unbelievably long line! 😦

Our last stop was Museum Island, where -you guessed it- the museums are located. There was the Old Museum, New Museum, and three other museums. Berlin Cathedral is also located in the museum complex, and its blackened exterior and bullet-scarred walls stand as proof of the many wars and struggles Berlin has experienced.

Finally, we cycled back to the Alexander Platz Tower, where the tour started. I returned my borrowed bike, my head buzzing with all of the new information I learned that day. I think the bike tour made me appreciate Berlin better than if I just toured the city on my own. Berlin is one of my favorite cities because of its rich history, and I am glad I biked my way to know the German capital better.


Day trip to Hamburg: of kiddie meals, free tours, and coffee shops

The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (official name) is the 2nd largest city in Germany. Being Germany’s biggest port, Hamburg is a welcoming place for adventurers and travelers.

I traveled to Hamburg using the night bus, so I arrived very early in the morning. It was 4:50 am, too early and too dark to go anywhere. I was utterly disappointed to see that the McDonald’s in the bus station was closed. I went down to the nearest subway station, hoping to find a cafe where I can sneak in a nap. I was looking at the Hamburg map in the station when one of the guards asked me if I need help (at least, I assumed that was what he said). I told him I only speak English. He called out to three other guards, asked if they can speak English. They were just shrugging. I tried to ask where a cafe was, he just stared. I repeated, “cafe” and he understood (i think), pointing me to the other end of the hall. I did see a small cafe, but it had tall seats, not really inviting. I saw a sign that says “traveler center”, and i just followed the arrows, hoping there would be some open cafe where i can stay warm until it’s late enough to wander about. The arrows led me to the Central Station… and there it was–an open McDonald’s!

I was so relieved to see my ever reliable, worldwide fast food chain. You can count on McDo to be open 24 hours, anywhere. Unfortunately, they don’t have a breakfast menu (boo!), and I didn’t feel like devouring all that oil from their burger and fries so early in the morning. Thankfully, they had garden salad (hooray!). I  ordered that and orange juice. The very nice girl in the counter told me it would be cheaper to order the happy meal instead. For a cheaper price, I would have the salad, the juice, a cheeseburger… “plus a toy!”, she added cheerily. So I relented, and chose a pink coin purse with a pony embroidered on it as my “toy”. In all fairness, I’m using it now to keep my Euros in (it’s hard to have different currencies in a single purse).

Since it was only six in the morning, and it was still dark out, I tried sleeping at my booth. I just leaned my head against the wall, using my jacket as a pillow and holding my phone in one hand, and pretended that i was reading and just inadvertently fell asleep. I did this until 8:00 am, and then I decided it was time to go out and explore Hamburg. It was still a little dark, and the tourist office was still closed. I found a map on the opposite side of the station, took a picture and decided I’d check out the sights that the map said was significant. I was wandering around for an hour, but then I was feeling cold and sleepy again. A night in the bus isn’t exactly what you would call a good night’s sleep. I wanted to sleep again so I looked for a coffee shop, where a comfortable couch would be waiting for me. I looked, and I found Starbucks. It’s like McDonald’s for me: worldwide, readily available, and familiar. There are no Starbucks coffee shops in Sweden, so I was very glad to see a familiar face… Actually, it was really the couches that I’m after. The other coffee shops that I checked out only had stools and stiff chairs. Starbucks was my best option for a comfortable nap. And so I ordered my favorite warm caramel macchiato. While they were preparing my drink, I saw some brochures in the place where they keep the sugar and napkins. The “New Hamburg FREE TOUR” caught my attention. So I grabbed one brochure before claiming my drink. As I read through the brochure, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was a free walking tour of Hamburg! Well, the brochure said the tour works on a tips-only basis and they won’t pressure you to tip. The tour was under Sandeman’s New Europe Tours, a company that offers free tours to some of Europe’s top destinations. That sounded alright to me. The tour starts every 11:00 am in front of the Starbucks across the Rathaus (Hamburg Town Hall), which was one block away from the Starbucks I was currently in. I got really excited. I won’t be wandering around Hamburg aimlessly anymore! It was only 9:30 that time so I took my nap in the homey Starbucks couch while waiting out the time.

After my nap, I went across the Rathaus and saw a good number of people loitering around a placard that says “Free Tour”. I came up to them and told them I wanted to join the free tour. They said that was great and we would just wait for a few more minutes to see if anyone else will show up. At around half past eleven, the tour guide introduced himself. His name was Craig, he’s Australian but is now residing in Hamburg. He started the tour by making us sit by the stairs of the harbour beside the Rathaus and told us a little bit of Hamburg’s history. He also pointed to the swans in the water and told us that swans are considered lucky by the Hamburgers (the people of Hamburg). They were said to be the reason why the city prospered. There was a law (it was a long time ago, I can’t remember the year) protecting the swans in Hamburg. You could lose your life for insulting or hurting a swan! During the winter, the swans are collected and put in a shelter somewhere so they wouldn’t suffer from the cold. They are returned to the docks during spring. They are some lucky swans!

Craig also told us to bear in mind the year 1842, the year of the Great Fire, when most of Hamburg was burned to the ground. This means that most of the buildings in Hamburg were younger than they supposedly were, and were rebuilt after the fire (if not bombed during the war).

The Rathaus (Town Hall) is one such building. It’s not even in its original 
location. During the Great Fire of 1842, the officials had a brilliant idea on how to stop the fire. They thought of blowing up the town hall to starve the fire of oxygen. Good plan, but it didn’t work. They purposefully blew up their town hall for nothing. But they rebuilt it, and made it into the magnificent building it is today. The grandeur of Hamburg’s town hall is a testimony to the wealth of the city. How did they become so rich, you ask? Because for a long time they did not pay any taxes! A very wise forgery of documents in the 1200s allowed Hamburg to prosper as a major port, tax-free! 

After the town hall, we next visited two of Hamburg’s most famous churches: St. Petri and St. Jacobi. Hauptkirche St. Petri has the distinction of having Hamburg’s oldest door handles. It was strange that during the Great Fire, the door handles were the first thing they thought of saving…On the other hand, I found St. Jacobi interesting because it is part of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Every year, pilgrims on foot, who come from Norway and Sweden pass by this church, which is 2,500 km away from the pilgrimage site. That’s a really long walk!After that we checked out Chilehaus, the second sharpest corner in Europe (the sharpest when it was made). It is an office building built in the 1920s for a merchant that made his fortune trading with Chile (thus the name Chilehaus). The design was made to look like a ship (or at least that’s what most people think). Interesting architecture! We also visited the commercial building where they developed Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used for killing the people in concentration camps. My heart felt heavy as I remembered how many people suffered and died during the Holocaust. We also went to visit the original site of the town hall, now the office for the Patriotic Society of Hamburg. Beside it was Trostbrücke (Trost Bridge), where two statues face each other. One statue was of St. Angsar (the founder of Hamburg’s cathedral, representing the Old Town) and Count Adolf III (founder of the merchant’s district, representing the New Town). The translation of the bridge’s name was the Bridge of Solace, since this was the last bridge that criminals cross before they were tried at the Town Hall and then sent off for hanging.

The next place we went to was the ruins of St. Nikolai’s church, the second tallest building in Hamburg (now an elevator can take you to the top for a nice view of the city). It was destroyed by air raids during the Second World War. Operation Gomorrah (the air raid’s name) lasted for a week, killing and injuring tens of thousands of people and damaging most parts of the city. Bombs after bombs were dropped by thousands of planes. The spires of St. Nikolai’s church served as the aiming point, but it survived the bombings. The damaged church now serves as a memorial of this bombing.

We also went to the place where the Great Fire of 1842 started, in
Deichstrasse. The story goes that the Great Fire was an arson, that somebody purposefully sent a merchant’s building on fire, but then he has some tobacco and spirits in the building, so a great fire ensued for four days. Until now, nobody knows who started that fire.

Next stop was the Speicherstadt, the Warehouse District. This is where trade for carpets, coffee, cocoa and other products are handled. Some museums can also be found here. The Warehouse District is part of HafenCity, a new development project that would be the new happening place in Hamburg. Apartment and office buildings in this new quarter costs triple the price of one average-sized house. It is also where the Elbe Philharmonic Hall is being built. They plan to make this concert hall a rival of the Sydney Opera House, and to be Hamburg’s new landmark. Unfortunately, the government is having some problems with the costs (their cost estimate for the building were all spent on the design), so this project might not be finished soon. However, they did have a small replica of what the building is supposed to look like on the other end of the harbor. It was a “gift” from the architects. It also had some music coming out of it. It was a very unique experience, putting my ears beside those things jutting out of the box (I don’t know what to call them!), listening to opera music and performances.

That was the last place that we went to, and then Craig told us an entertaining-but-true pirate story as the end to the tour. We gave him tips for the very informative and entertaining three-and-a-half -hour tour. After that, I went for coffee with some of the wonderful people I met on the tour. We went to a coffee shop and ate franzbrötchen, a sweet bread baked with butter and cinammon. The locals said a visitor of Hamburg should never miss out on this pastry. We had a nice chat over franzbrötchen and coffee (but I only had water, since I already had coffee that morning). It was too bad that I had to leave them in the coffee shop to catch my train to Berlin.

I really enjoyed Hamburg, even if it was just for a day. I got to experience eating a German Kiddie Meal, I joined a free tour where I learned tons of new things, and I got to meet wonderful people. It was truly a day well spent!

Night bus in Europe: the Eurolines experience

On a spur-of the-moment decision, I booked a bus trip from Sweden to Germany. I was free that weekend and I thought that Germany is too close to Scandinavia for me to ignore. Since it was only a few days before my “scheduled trip”, the plane and train fares were already sky-high so I decided to take the bus. I wasn’t afraid of long trips. I’ve already experienced long bus trips in the Philippines, and they weren’t what you would call comfortable, so I was ready for anything.

I booked online through German Eurolines website (booking online requires a printer), although you can also buy at the bus stations in Germany (or wherever there is a Eurolines office). So here was my itinerary:

Departure –  22:25 Malmö, Sweden/Arrival –  05:15 (next day) Hamburg, Deutschland

I decided to spend a day in Hamburg and then go to Berlin. So going back to Sweden, I came from Berlin

Departure – 22:15 Berlin, Deutschland/Arrival – 06:50 (next day) Malmö, Sweden

I asked around for the bus stop in Malmö, and found it to be a five-minute walk from the Central Station. When I arrived at the bus stop, people were standing outside in the cold while waiting for the bus. It seems the offices that sell the tickets were only open during office hours. It was a good thing I wasn’t too early, I hate standing around in the cold. Our bus arrived on schedule. Apparently, the bus route was from Oslo, Norway to Paris, France (a 26-hour trip… now, that’s really long!).

The driver does not speak English. I wasn’t sure if he was Swedish or Norwegian (the language sounds the same to me, unfortunately). He was just pointing and muttering, good thing I lived in Japan and am a self-proclaimed expert on charades. As soon as I gave the ticket to the driver, I climbed up the bus and chose a seat.

I sat beside the window, and reclined my seat. The lights went out as the bus started to go. The down jacket I was wearing proved to be very useful as an improvised pillow. It was very soft and comfortable (well, if you can say that sleeping in a bus is comfortable). I started to drift off to sleep despite the loud giggling of the girl in front of me (she was flirting with the guy seating beside her).

I was in deep slumber when my seatmate woke me up. She said we had to leave the bus for 45 minutes. I got up groggily and went out. I was too sleepy to care about where we were and why we had to get off the bus. We were in some sort of underground parking and had to take the elevator to the restaurants and restrooms. I went to the restroom and when I came out, it dawned on me that we were in a ferry! Of course! Haha. We had to cross the Baltic Sea from Denmark to reach Germany. The travel time was for 45 minutes, so I ordered some tea to try to take the chill off my bones. They have a cafeteria, where you can order some snacks and drinks. After 45 minutes, we got back on the bus and I slept until we reached Hamburg, my destination.

My Berlin to Malmö ride was a bit different. I waited for the bus at the ZOB (Central Bus Station) in Berlin. There was a proper lounge, with vending machines that sell water and chips, and ticket booths that was open until 9pm. I was able to nap on the chairs while waiting for the bus.

When the bus arrived, I already knew the drill so I showed my ticket to the German-speaking driver and climbed up. It was a “business class” bus, so it had sockets! I was able to charge my iPhone, perfect!

This time, there were fewer passengers so i was able to lie down, using the two adjacent seats for my torso and then the seat across the aisle for my feet. I had a makeshift bed! There was one time a guy at the back came forward to talk to the driver. He was trying to be discreet while stepping over my legs barricading the path. But I woke up while he was stepping midway, so I suddenly moved and there was one awkward moment when my legs were stuck in his! I apologized profusely and then went back to sleep curled in the two seats, making sure my feet were no longer in the way.

This time, i was prepared for the ferry ride. I woke up just as the bus was about to enter the ferry. I had some tea while waiting out the 45-min ride at that godforsaken hour (it was around 2:30 in the morning). I also took a better look around and took some pictures. There were some slot machines and video game machines.

There was also a duty free shop. If you want to buy tobacco though, you have to ask your driver for a coupon, I don’t know why.

Oh, here’s a tip when riding a bus that goes into a ferry: remember where the bus was parked! It was a good thing I remembered the sector where we were parked, and it was better for one other passenger following me. She had no idea how to get back to our bus, she was so lost. The parking area inside the ferry was pretty big, and the trucks and buses were arranged side by side so it’s easy to get confused. She was very thankful as we boarded the bus just as the ferry was docking at the port in Copenhagen.

And then comes the bad part. At around 5:40am, the German bus driver dropped us off at the bus stop in Copenhagen, and told us, “Change, change” and made us all get out. The German people asked him where we should go and he pointed to the spot behind the bus and told them the bus was coming and we should wait. So we did. Now the bus stop for Eurolines in Copenhagen was just a long lane on the street where the buses can park. No lounges, not even a roof for a waiting shed. There were no number slots for parked buses or any organizational scheme of some sort. It was a major stop and they didn’t bother with a proper bus stop!

We were waiting for the bus that was bound for Oslo in the sidewalk. I was shivering while I stood there (there were only one bench near us) with the other passengers. At around 5:55, there was a bus that came from the other end of the bus lane and the sign in front read, “Paris-Oslo”. One lady shouted, “That’s our bus, I know it!” Yeah, it was our bus alright. It was parked at the other freaking end of the bus lane and left without us. Really sweet, eh?

I was very lucky I was getting off at Lund, a 45-min train ride from Copenhagen. I pity the people going to Oslo. I took the train and left them there, standing in the sidewalk in the cold early morning. They would wait another two hours before the next bus came.

All in all, it was good to experience taking the bus Europe-style.  You just have to make sure that you check the buses carefully when they change. It takes you there longer, but it’s much cheaper than taking the train and you would save on accommodation (though you would have to sleep on a chair). I would repeat this experience if I had to, but not without checking for cheap air fares first…