Gullible’s Travels

(Or: How Not to Travel; a true story)

Jonathan was not a small man. Close to seven feet tall and of some considerable bulk, he was not someone built to be inconspicuous. Despite, or possibly because of, his Gargantuan frame, he seemed to have a need, not to mention an aptitude, to draw attention to himself.

Hair appeared to be purely an optional addition on top of his vast head. When it did emerge, it was of a sparse blond nature, hinting at reddish. When it was absent, his head often revealed the dangers of personal head shaving and he took on the aspect of a man who has had a fortunate and very narrow escape from an abattoir.

It is, of course, difficult for very large people to find clothing that comes close to fitting. Stylishness is a near impossibility, even for the most meticulous. However, Jonathan had the uncanny knack of acquiring clothes that were designed (and this allows for a very loose usage of the word) for people even bigger than himself.

One pair of jeans must have been liberated from a circus. They could only have been made for somebody who walked on stilts. The turn-ups were, possibly, the world’s longest, almost reaching to the knee. The waistband was close to the chest. They were baggy and permanently crumpled.

There was also the bright yellow waterproof jacket. Like all of Jonathan’s clothing, it did not fit and in this case, was far too tight and appeared to be on the verge of splitting open. All it needed was for him to turn a deep shade of green during moments of annoyance and he would have provided a passable imitation of The Incredible Hulk, although a slightly scaled-up version.

This particular jacket was worn in all weathers, irrespective of whether there was the remotest prospect of rain. It gave him a somewhat nautical look, albeit a rather scary one. One uncharitable soul suggested that it made him look like the product of an unholy union between Captain Birdseye and a large marine mammal.

While certainly not dim, Jonathan was not blessed with an abundance of common sense. One Friday, he took his leave from the office at lunch time, quite reasonably observing that it was an especially pleasant day and that sunny days in the east of Scotland were comparatively rare opportunities not to be lost. This was all very well, but nobody was quite prepared for the apparition that reappeared in the same office on the following Monday morning.

Having taken the point that hacking away at the top of your own head with a razor is not always the best approach to personal grooming, he had decided to visit a barber to get the job done professionally. Having received a perfect cranial shave, he then spent several hours sitting in a city centre park and exposing his giant – and by now, very smooth – dome to the burning sun (and Jonathan got closer to the sun than most people). The result was inevitable and took those of us of a certain age back to that 1980s Ready Brek advert and the children with their faintly disturbing nuclear glow.

In the confines of an office and kept under strict observation, Jonathan was relatively safe. True, there were several mishaps and those who were privileged to witness his inadvertent head-butting of a low light-bulb and the resultant chaos are unlikely to forget the experience in a hurry. Generally, though, accidents could happen in a controlled environment. It was when he was out and about on his own that more serious danger threatened.

Of course, nobody wants to live in a totalitarian state, but there are certain individuals who should be subject to travel restrictions, purely for their own good, not to mention the safety of others. Thus, when Jonathan announced that he was taking a holiday, there was a sense of foreboding, which would certainly have been shared by the citizens of the places he intended to visit had they been aware of the fact. It was, perhaps, best for their own peace of mind that they knew nothing.

He was not an experienced traveller, though in many ways this was a good thing. Confinement to a small, known area was by far the safest option. New places and new experiences only increased the possibilities of disaster. There had been an ill-fated excursion into Club 18-30 territory, which had ended ignominiously and uncomfortably as the services of a stomach pump were required. The ensuing enforced rest had, at least, spared any further dangers to self or others.

Naturally, work colleagues were very interested to know about his new destinations, if only so they could plan ahead and scrupulously avoid those locations. It transpired that he was doubling the risk by visiting two countries. He would firstly travel to Amsterdam and after that, Hamburg.

One does not require a mind developed in the gutter to realise that these two cities, full of cultural delights as they undoubtedly are, have a reputation for certain activities of a slightly racier nature. It was inevitable that the suggestion be made that this itinerary could, possibly, involve a trip to one or two of the slightly less highbrow spots of these cities.

Jonathan had a propensity for colouring rather quickly when merely faintly embarrassed, even without interventions from the sun’s rays. On this occasion, the transformation was extremely rapid as his face took on that shade of light for which the Reeperbahn is infamous.

Relatively little is known of the Dutch part of the tour, but it is assumed that nothing too spectacular happened, as no war reporters made sudden appearances in Amsterdam on news bulletins and diplomatic relations with the Netherlands remained in place. The German stage, by contrast, has taken on legendary status, with one particular aspect fully deserving of telling and re-telling. It should, in fact, be a compulsory part of travel guide books as an example of how not to do things.

From the start, Jonathan and Germany did not seem to hit it off. There was an inevitability that things would go spectacularly wrong somewhere along the line (quite literally along a line in this case). There had been warnings of things to come. The altercation with a nutritionist in a supermarket was not a good sign. The young woman had simply pointed out that the selection of foods in Jonathan’s basket had not, perhaps, involved the healthiest options available. Jonathan, in turn, had taken this as a personal slight, an infringement of civil liberties and a bad reflection of Germany and the German people as a whole.

It was, though, the train journey that proved to be either the zenith or nadir, depending on which way you want to view it. Even to this day, there are questions, mysteries and puzzles that quite simply cannot be answered. The great minds of science and philosophy could be gathered at a week-long convention and would still be hopelessly bamboozled. Nobel Prize winners would be reduced to shaking their heads and wandering away to contemplate easier questions, such as reversing climate change or curing all known forms of cancer.

In short, our hero decided that there were no more interesting sights to see in Hamburg after a couple of days. Eventually, after searching though myriad leaflets, booklets and maps, he settled upon Hagenbeck Tierpark, the city’s zoological garden. This would not have been everybody’s choice, but some people like these kind of things and we should not be too critical on that score.

Arriving at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof station, Jonathan found himself rather overwhelmed by the number of platforms and destinations. Stations, of course, have useful objects such as timetable boards showing departures and arrivals, but these did not appear to help his cause. “They were,” he said rather sniffily and with a certain degree of hurt, “all in German.”

Something else that all large railway stations have is information points and staff who are there to help people. Anyone who has visited any large city in Germany will be aware that a goodly proportion of the population speaks English to some degree (and quite frequently seem to speak better English than the monoglot British tourists that ask silly questions). However, since the supermarket incident, Jonathan appears to have preferred to avoid any form of personal interaction.

He didn’t need to purchase a ticket because he had bought one of those passes that allow one to travel on all public transport within the city. The zoo was comfortably within the distance allowed by the pass, which meant that he’d not need to spend any extra money.

Eventually, after much wandering around the station concourse and considerable deliberation, he was satisfied that he had identified the platform and train that were required. Having boarded, he settled back for what would surely be a ten or fifteen minute journey. The train duly departed within a few minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Jonathan began to have doubts for the first time. Should he not have arrived by now? Also, the train had not stopped anywhere and seemed to be travelling pretty quickly. Was he, he wondered, on the right train after all?

A few minutes later, a ticket inspector appeared. Jonathan dutifully showed his Hamburg pass. The woman stared at him for a moment, probably somewhat in awe of the sheer physical size of the giant in front of her eyes, a common occurrence for those encountering him for the first time.

“Where are you travelling to?” she asked in perfectly good English. Jonathan told her. If she was in any way amused, she had the courtesy to hide it very well. “This train,” she said, “is for Berlin and it does not stop.” Jonathan stared back, partly in disbelief and partly in shock. “I am sorry,” the woman said apologetically, “but you will have to buy a ticket to Berlin.”

Of course, a trip and ticket from Hamburg to Berlin necessitated a further trip and ticket back from Berlin to Hamburg. This meant a return ticket and extra cost, as the ticket had been bought on the train rather than at the station before the start of the journey. An hour later, Jonathan stepped off the train deprived not only of a visit to the Hagenbeck Tierpark, but also of 180 euros. For somebody economising by staying at hostels and travelling on budget airlines, this was a rather expensive lesson in the perils of inadequate planning.

There are some very obvious questions that arise from the adventure. Why, for one, would you go to the main railway station for an overground train when the nearest station to Hagenbeck Tierpark is a U-bahn (underground) station of the same name? Why would you board a long and sleek twelve carriage train when you were intending travelling only a few miles? Did it not occur that it was unlikely that such a large and lengthy train would stop at a group of little suburban stations? And, perhaps most intriguingly of all, why would you want to broadcast to all and sundry about your stunning boneheadedness when you got back home?

None of these questions provide easy answers, unless one knows the character of the person involved. People who think logically and rationally simply do not do things like this, and even in the unlikely event that they do, they are not about to announce it to a wider population or, indeed, anybody at all.

One hopelessly lame explanation provided by the man himself fell into the ‘everything was in German’ category of excuses provided earlier. This, not surprisingly, failed to impress anyone a great deal. The train was going to Berlin and did not stop anywhere else. The German for ‘Berlin’ is, to the apparent surprise of only one person in Europe, ‘Berlin’.

Paranoia had also set in, possibly as a result of the incident in the supermarket. There were dark mutterings of a conspiracy, as though the entire German population had worked together surreptitiously to ensure that a bumbling Scottish tourist was kidnapped and robbed by a complicit Deutsche Bahn.

In fairness, it probably didn’t help that some office wag had written ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ in large letters on a board behind Jonathan’s desk. True to form, he had failed to notice it and when he did, duly apportioned all blame on a completely innocent person. The message was quite splendid in its double meaning, as it could easily have been interpreted as ‘I am a doughnut’ in the way that President Kennedy’s famous line was misconstrued. Either way, there was something pleasingly apt about it.

Jonathan continued to present himself as the unwitting victim of an evil superpower. No amount of reasoned argument could persuade him otherwise and he would not accept any culpability. This, he said darkly, would never have happened in Scotland.

Some weeks later, he travelled to Glasgow for a concert. This would entail catching the last train, which leaves Glasgow at half past eleven, to Edinburgh. Everything went smoothly. He saw the end of the concert and reached Queen Street station with plenty of time to spare.

Congratulating himself on his perfect planning, he sat back for the journey. At the back of his mind was the fiasco he’d endured in Germany. This, however, was Scotland, his home territory, and there would be no such mishaps. He felt himself dozing off, but was unconcerned. The train was going no further than Edinburgh, so it really didn’t matter if he fell asleep. Ideally, he wanted to get off at Haymarket, at the city’s West End, but the final stop at Waverley was only at the other end of Princes Street and it would be nearly as easy to get a bus home from there.

As the train stopped at a station, Jonathan woke up. This, he thought, was even better. He had not slept all the way through and could get off at his preferred stop. He jumped from his seat and off the train just before the doors closed behind him. The train departed on the remainder of its journey and Jonathan suddenly realised that the platform on which he was standing was one of only two.

Haymarket station has four platforms. With some trepidation, he slowly raised his drooping eyelids and looked at the station sign in front of him. It read ‘Linlithgow’.

Olympiastadion – Berlin

Berlin’s present Olympic Stadium is the second such building on the same site. Both were destined to be ill-fated. The original was intended as the venue for the 1916 Olympic Games. These games, of course, never took place. The second stadium was used for the 1936 games, an event with the dark shadow of Nazism hanging over it.

The stadium has had a more agreeable existence since then, primarily as a football ground. Three matches were played here during the 1974 World Cup and six in 2006, including the final. The Olympiastadion is also the venue for the German Cup Final and is due to host the 2015 Champions League final. Hertha Berlin have occupied the stadium since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.

The stadium was reconstructed in 2000 and feels impressively modern with its updated seating and giant roof. Walking round the exterior, however, provides a slightly unnerving experience, as there are still discernible features of the 1936 Olympic Games. The neo-classical sculptures of muscular athletes are typical of the Nazi era – indeed, the stadium is reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, though it has a rather more spartan feel to it. The Olympic Bell, complete with (partially eroded) swastikas, sits outside the stadium, separated from the tall tower that once housed it. The Olympic rings are plainly visible above the eastern gate at the stadium’s entrance.

Olympic gate

Olympic gate

The stadium is part of a sports complex. The outdoor swimming and diving pool is located to the north of the stadium and there are several sports grounds dotted around the site. One of them, Maifeld, used for equestrian events during the 1936 games, is home to the Berlin Cricket Club, so those looking for something a bit different can say they have watched cricket in Berlin.

The Bell

The Bell

The stadium can be visited at any time and guided tours are available, but is best appreciated when there is a match taking place. Even though the Bundesliga enjoys huge support, getting to a game is easy enough. The capacity of the Olympiastadion is around 77,000, so it’s not too difficult to get a ticket for most matches. When Duck Holiday visited the stadium, the visitors were Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s best-supported clubs, but we were able to buy tickets at the ground about an hour before kick-off.

Sporting heroes

Sporting heroes

Buying a ticket in advance is not a bad move, though. Germany has a rather more enlightened attitude towards football fans than some countries in Europe and if you are possession of a match ticket, it will cost you no extra to travel to the ground on public transport. Even if you haven’t got your match ticket, a Berlin Card will cover any transport within the city. There is a U-Bahn station (Olympia-Stadion) which is on the U2 (red) line and you can also get there by using overground trains (S-Bahn line S5).

Olympic flame stand

Olympic flame stand

Those used to football in the UK may feel an element of surprise – though the surprise is pleasant – on arriving outside the ground. Beer stalls abound and fans of both clubs mingle and chat over jars of pre-match libations. This is indeed civilisation.

Blue: Hertha Yellow: Dortmund

Blue: Hertha
Yellow: Dortmund

Overall, there is an awful lot to be said for football in Germany. Ticket prices are far from exorbitant, there are no travel costs (other than the minor detail of getting to Germany), public transport is excellent, the stadiums are largely very impressive and the quality of the sport is high. Combining a visit to a museum in the morning with the footy in the afternoon and following that with a meal and a nice little variety of German beers in the evening makes for a thoroughly rewarding day. It might not amount to the cheapest day out you’ve ever had, but try doing something similar in, say, London and check the price difference.

Here they come

Here they come

Hello to Berlin

Berliners, I imagine, must often feel rather like I did when I used to live in Oxford. Admittedly, Berlin is considerably bigger than Oxford, but there are times when you feel like buying one of those t-shirts that say ‘I’m not a tourist – I live here’. Except, of course, you get the feeling that most of those shirts were worn by tourists.

Yes, Berlin is full of tourists, even in February when the temperatures are sub-zero. Everybody wants to see the Brandenburg Gate and everybody wants to take a photograph of it. The queues for museums and galleries make you wonder how long they get at busier times of year. Tourists – honestly, don’t you get fed up with them?

Everybody has a photo of this

Everybody has a photo of this

The city, as already noted, is big and there’s enough room for everybody. There may be a time when you want to see a particular museum, but think ‘I’m not going to stand in the freezing cold for three hours’ so you simply go somewhere else. It’s not like there are only a few attractions. There is almost certainly something else interesting within walking distance and if there isn’t, then Berlin has plenty of public transport to take you elsewhere pretty quickly. The metro system (U-Bahn) is particularly good.

A Berlin Card is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to use public transport and visit a few museums. A three-day card costs around €25 and if you’re arriving at Tegel Airport, you can buy one there and use it to get the bus into the city centre. Note that Tegel is due to close in the next couple of years, but is still in use at the time of writing.

Museums – where to start? There are masses of them in Berlin, but the German Historical Museum isn’t a bad place to begin. The museum is vast and so is the collection. Culture, art, photographs, prints, coins and pretty much anything you can think of are crammed in. Germany obviously has some deeply disturbing elements in its history, but there is an uncompromising honesty in the displays and presentations.

There is also a frankness and openness about the DDR Museum. It’s a fascinating social history and as likely to be visited by those from ‘West’ Germany who are as curious about the life and times of their countrymen as visitors from other nations.

Museum Island is famous and it’s a shame that the Bode Museum is often overlooked. It’s a lovely Baroque building for a start, with a façade reminiscent of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The museum harbours a particularly fine collection of sculpture and Byzantine art. A small advantage of its seemingly low status is that it doesn’t get crowded.

The Bode Museum

The Bode Museum

Berlin does quirky as well as cultural. A good example is the Sugar Museum in Wedding. You may think that there’s not much to say about sugar, but once you think about colonialism and the slave trade, you soon realise that sugar is just as political as anything else.

Quirky is always good

Quirky is always good

It’s impossible to visit Berlin without thinking about literature; Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin keep coming to mind. Today’s Alexanderplatz may look rather different to the Alexanderplatz of Döblin, but its significance has lived on. This was where an astonishing one million people demonstrated against the GDR government in 1989. Ignore the glass and concrete of the shopping area and think of the history.

As with any sizeable capital city, it can be cheap or expensive to eat and drink. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle, but it’s perfectly possible to have a decent scoff without spending a fortune. Avoiding the obvious tourist areas is guaranteed to reduce the costs. Anywhere in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate is likely to be in the higher price range.

All of which leads us to beer, which is never a bad place to be led to. German beer is rightly revered for its quality and purity, with no filthy gas, chemicals, pasteurisers or other dross allowed into it. Sane people do not want to drink freezing cold chemical compounds.

Unfortunately, brewing has declined somewhat in Berlin. There is, though, an upside, in that micro-breweries are springing up. This is a recent development, but hopefully a positive one. The result is that beer from all over the country pops up in the city and there is beer to suit all tastes and palates. A personal favourite is the delicious black Köstritzer, not a Berlin beer, but from Bad Köstritz, south of Leipzig. Bursting with all kinds of flavours, refreshing and dangerously quaffable, beer doesn’t get much better than this.

There are some reasonably inexpensive restaurants and bars around Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, and it’s worth a trip on the U-Bahn to the latter just for a look at the delightful Art Nouveau station. Also, look out for the London Underground-style sign that was donated by London Transport to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U-Bahn in 1952.

In addition to the U-Bahn, there is a substantial S-Bahn railway around Berlin. For a bit of history, take a trip to Friedrichstraße station, which was in East Berlin but served by trains from not only West Berlin, but international trains as well. There was, apparently, quite a considerable amount of trade done in the station’s shops in the days of Cold War. You can almost conjure up images of some of the shady characters that have passed through here.

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

The shiny new Hauptbahnhof

Nobody, whatever their interests, should struggle to find anything to do in Berlin. Whether you want high culture or low – or indeed a mixture of both – you won’t be left short of options. If you want noise, clubs and bars abound. If you want a bit of peace, the Tiergarten is perfect for a stroll. Capital cities are not to everyone’s taste, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something of interest in a few days in Berlin.