Friday 9 January 2009

Then We Take Berlin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

There's often a presumption in travel guides - and the travel industry at large - that people only travel during summer, and to the most popular seaside destinations at that.

But there's a lot to be said about arriving out of season, when the weather's not ideal but has kept the hordes away.

This particular tale of two cities began in Kraków, Poland, where my wife Narrelle and I were living and teaching English some years ago. We had a week or so off over Xmas, so decided to head for Berlin.

This wasn't just another destination to me - I've always been fascinated by German history, studied German at school, and have some German ancestry on my mother's side. So we bought a ticket on the overnight Kraków-Berlin train, with the luxury of a couchette to sleep on.

When we arrived in the German capital, we had our first reminder that it hadn't been long since the collapse of European communism. The train arrived not in the western part of the city, but at Lichtenberg station in the east, the same terminus the train had served in the days of COMECON (the communist bloc's now-forgotten equivalent to the EU).

Our assumption that everyone would speak English were instantly dashed, and I spent a few hours of the first day sharpening my disused schoolboy German with a well-worn "Haben Sie eine Stadtplan?". I like German, it sounds just eerily close enough to English to feel familiar.

Berlin in below-zero December temperatures wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was picturesque. And winter weather was just fine for visiting museums, the star of which was the Egyptian Museum with its bust of Nefertiti. Having moved to Poland from Egypt, Narrelle and I were gradually taking in all of the great purloined Egyptian antiquities of the world, and here was a worthy selection to add to the list.

The gardens of the city also looked great under snow, as did the still-extant but non-functional Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between east and west. The overcast weather seemed to suit the look of the former East German parts of the city, especially the futuristic concrete style of the Alexanderplatz.

And it was near here that we had one of those serendipitous discoveries that are so memorable when you're travelling. A few years before, we'd made a purchase at a shop in Edinburgh that specialised in playing cards. "There's only one other shop like this," the owner had told us. "And that's in East Berlin." And here we were, happening across that shop by accident. Snap!

So what did we take away from that out-of-season experience? That an interesting destination could be even more interesting - certainly more moody - during winter. And that Berlin wore it well.

Any of your own Berlin experiences you'd like to share, whether in cold or warm weather?

(Photo ©

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