Joaquim Rocha
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Interrail (Part 4) – Germany

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    Joaquim Rocha
  • Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail (Part 3) – The Netherlands.

We left Amsterdam in the morning of August 8, all eager to get to Berlin. It’d be my first time to Germany. We arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 3:20 PM and headed to our hotel nearby, it was Hotel Central Inn.

We were expecting the typical hotel building but what we found was a normal building with a big banner on one of the balconies with the hotel’s name, yes, the hotel was one of the building floors only. When we were paying the hotel, since we were saving our cash money (to avoid going to ATMs and paying bank taxes), I wanted to use my debit card everywhere I could but when I flashed the card, “with card, there is no discount!”, the receptionist told me with a very German accent. Our bill for two nights was 120 € and the discount would be 2.5 € but when I said “so, 117.5 € then, right”, she told me: “No, it is 120 €.”. “Okay, but with the discount?”, “With the discount 120 €, with no discount 122.5 €…”. Hmmm, I didn’t like that deal paid with cash. Only later we realized that by discount, she meant that there is kind of a 2.5 € tax you pay when you pay by debit card. I was used to have these kind of taxes paid by seller, not the client. Anyway, the hotel was humble, nothing fancy but it did its job, the free internet worked well for us to check the email (in our N900s), the place was clean and the staff, besides some trouble with the English and the initial misunderstanding with the payment, was nice.

Into the City

We then crossed the river and headed to the Reichstag and the beautiful Brandenburger Tor. After a few photos, we walked down the Unter Den Linden boulevard. We eventually left it and started to search for a place to have an early dinner since we were starving but we entered some financial area with everything but a place to eat.

(the beautiful park in front of the Reichstag)

Another weird stuff we found in our quest for food was that it seamed like the city was abandoned, no traffic, few people, silence… We speculated how it would change the next day guessing it could be because it was Sunday but the next day, the traffic and confusion we expected for a European capital never came, turns out Berlin is like that, pretty cool right? But going back to our quest for food, we finally found a sandwich restaurant, we were kinda disappointed because we wanted to eat something more German but our hunger won. We asked the guy for the food in English and after having eaten I risked asking for a coffee in German (I had been learning German by myself for a bit and wanted to try it): “Ich will ein Espresso bitte!”, the guy nodded affirmatively and I asked him in English if I had pronounced it the right way, he’s answer: “You want coffee?”, “Yes but did I say it right?”, “You don’t want coffee?”, “Yes, but did I pronounce it right, before?”, “You wanted coffee, right?”, I realized he didn’t really understand me so I just answered yes and we both laughed about the weird conversation. Ironically, just walking a bit, now at dusk, we arrived at Bebelplatz, which we still didn’t know this was a famous square (more on this later), but there were a few places selling Currywurst (the kind of thing we wanted to eat in the first place), drinks and a band playing Cuban music. So we went and tried the Currywurst and liked it. The band however, wasn’t that good and there was just a few folks standing there watching them so we kept on our little walking tour. After a while, since it was already night and we were tired, we walked back to our hotel, watched German TV for a bit and went to sleep.

(Currywurst ist sehr gut!)

The tour

Ana (read the InterRail (Part 3) article to know who she is) had told us about NewEurope‘s tours. NewEurope offers free (among other paid options) walking tours in some European cities with a tour guide that describes things in a very informal way, they are the typical cool dudes and make the tours really interesting. Of course, why is it free? Because the guides advertise the paid trips, take you to a specific place to have a water and snack break (which might then pay NewEurope a commission) and work on a tips base so, you should give them a nice tip to your guide. Having consulted their schedule, the tour started at 10 AM in front of Brandenbourger Tor, we headed there and had a nice breakfast at Dunkin’Donuts until the crowd started to arrive for the tours.

(Helena likes to take me pictures when I’m not aware of… instead of focusing on the Brandenburger Tor behind)

There were two languages for the tours, English and Spanish but we preferred to go with the former crew. Our guide was Chris, from England, and showed us around, starting by the Brandenbourger Tor until Berliner Dom, he showed us many important landmarks and particularities about the city — like the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, the wall (obviously) or the overground pink sewer pipes and the soviet architecture. He also talked, of course, about the Nazis and the Soviets. This was when we learned that the Bebelplatz near which had been eating Currywurst the day before was where the Nazi students burned the books back in 1933.

(the pink sewer pipes and graffiti)

The tour was great and we learned a lot about this city full of history.

The awkward nice lunch

After the tour ended, Chris, the guide, told us that anyone could join him and have a schnitzel for lunch for only 9 €, the best schnitzel in town, he assured. I was a bit reluctant but Helena thought it was a good idea so we told him we’d join in. I readily regretted it when I realized that the lunch crew would be us, an American girl from Wisconsin, Chris and four Hungarian girls who had been flirting with him heavily during the tour… So, we felt like two too many. Also, to make things worst, the restaurant wasn’t nearby like I had assumed but we had to take the S-Bahn and the tram to get there. It was Al Hamra, in Raumerstraße and I told Helena, as a joke, that maybe the guy lived nearby and made us all go with him that far while he’d be at home. Turns out Chris lived 5 minutes away 🙂 Anyway, the lunch started by Chris telling us how he came to Berlin and how it was like to live in there. I was still feeling awkward in there until the Hungarian girls asked us about us and we told them about Portugal and Spain. I noticed they pronounced Budapest just like we pronounce it in Portuguese (sounds like Booda-pesht) and this led to a conversation about languages where Chris told us that he couldn’t still speak German after two years in Berlin and only now he was starting to distinguish the sounds… Before we realized we were all talking with each other but Chris, he was quietly sipping his Augustiner beer. When they realized I was a programmer, they mentioned one of the girls was also a programmer and I told them about my company, Igalia, how it differs from the other companies and about Free Software. Oh, and about the schnitzel, I must confess I didn’t really know what it was, I was thinking of an elaborate thing or something and it turned out to be, well, a schnitzel, what we call a “bife panado” in Portugal and, while it was good, it wasn’t anything to be excited about, like our friend Chris was. It turned out to be a good lunch after all.

The long walk

After lunch, Helena and I went to a second-hand clothes shop nearby just to check it out (we haven’t those where we come from) and decided to walk back to Alexanderplatz instead of taking the tram. It was a pleasant walk down the Prenzlaeur Allee where we could see a less cosmopolitan neighborhood. We even entered some local shops like this toys shop that had action figures of Einstein, Jesus and Mozart! How cool is that!? Made me wonder if Berlin’s thugs carry away their crime using water guns. 🙂

(Einstein action figure)

Arriving at Alexanderplatz, we wanted to go further south where Chris told us that’s where the alternative/second-hand shops were but I wanted to pass by Berlin Ostbahnhof to check schedules for the trains to Czech Republic and I assumed it was like 15 minutes away. I was wrong, it was farer that I had thought and took us a bit more than half an hour to get there.

At the train station we had another bit of German language training. We took the chance to finally send some postcards to our families and went into the post office inside the building where the attendant told me she couldn’t speak English but I managed to explain her I wanted stamps. Then, asking the Info desk for the schedule I was amazed that none of the assistants (one of them around my age) spoke English. They pointed us to the first floor and so we went but we entered the wrong office where they finally pointed us the right one which was on the side. I mean no mocking nor disrespect by stating here so many times that almost no-one could speak English, it is simply that I had this idea that in Germany most people could speak it. All the people in the train station were kind to us, the ones who couldn’t understand us made their best to be understood and finally at the right office, the assistants told us the info we wanted.

(nice painting on the side of a building)

After this little detour, we headed south for the neighborhoods with the alternative shops and even though we walked for a while, it was getting dark which meant that probably we’d find those shops closed. So, we stopped by a local supermarket to get provisions for the next day’s trip. It was a big walk since after lunch and we concluded we’re simply not used to those distances, Berlin is just huge and every mental calculation we did by looking at our tourist map should have been multiplied by 3 or something (no, our tourist maps never had a scale…). After this, we took the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz and dined at a kebab nearby. Another thing we could verify was that the folks who had told us Berlin is a cheap city were right, even though we have lower salaries in Spain/Portugal, the prices of the supermarket goods and food (in kebab places) was not very different, even cheaper in many cases. For example, a kebab sandwich for 4.5 € or a real estate agency selling a 72m2 flat (with 3 rooms) about 15 minutes walking from Brandenburger Tor for 180.000 € (way cheaper than Spain/Portugal). After dinner, we took the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnof and went to our hotel for our last night in Berlin.

(just outside the Hauptbahnhof)

The following day we went to Hauptbahnhof again and, after an adventurous last-minute platform change that was communicated only in German, we left for Prague at around 12:36.

Berlin really surprised us and it was the city we liked most during the whole InterRail. It is indeed a very special city that we feel it might be a really good place to live.

to be continued…