How I Spent My Vacation, Part 3: The Hills Are Alive…

Previously: Drowning in Berlin

We may not appreciate the finer point of Munich at 7am on a Saturday morning, after about four hours of sleep – hey, they give us a sleeping car with all mod cons, we’re going to take the time to use them. This is way before our friendly tourist information hotel reservation office opens, but we find a hotel virtually across the street. We crash out there, catching up on what we missed on the train. The hotel seems to be full of Japanese tourists. Indeed, most of Europe seems to be this summer.

It is also next door to a Beate Uhse sex shop – one of three on the main street. Uhse herself, who flew the last plane out of Berlin in the final days of WW2, was something of a German institution until her death last year. Her name is still known to 98% of the population, and the company is in the top hundred public German companies, with a turnover 5 times that of Ann Summers (whose founder was inspired by Uhse). It’s listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, and the initial offering was 63 times oversubscribed. Sex sells – even shares.

Unlike Berlin, Munich is compact enough that we don’t feel the need for a bus tour, and just saunter around town looking at stuff. We find another branch of World of Music. Our rucksacks become even heavier. The center, around Marienplatz, has a lot of old buildings, including some nice tall ones which provide decent viewing platforms – but there are equally many modern shops, which gives the place a sense of being a living town, rather than just a museum for tourists.

We find ourselves in the Englischer Garten, a beautifully-kept series of gardens, pathways and architecture – there’s apparently also nude sunbathing in some areas, but we don’t see anything untoward. By the duck-pond, I talk Chris into a photo opportunity with a swan – I snap the photo at left, and urge her to get closer. When she does, the swan is distinctly unimpressed, and emits a sound somewhere between an amphetamine-crazed kettle and a punctured balloon. I remember that, allegedly, swans can break your arm with their wing, but Chris is saved by the timely arrival of a small yappy dog which draws the swan’s ire. The insurance company would never have believed us.

When good swans…go bad

To recover, we head to the Hofbrauhaus, one of the most famous pubs in the world. Hard to see why; presumably because it caters to tourists and doesn’t need repeat business, the service sucks. Though we don’t discover till later, it was one of Hitler’s favourite hangouts, too. We were much more impressed by the Augustiner Grossgaststatten, which had great food, excellent waiters, and was so good we ate there two nights in a row. There’s definitely a knack to drinking out of those huge glasses though – I vow to practice more. My only regret is I don’t get to order any Black Forest Gateau here, simply because “Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte” is my all-time favourite German phrase.

We eventually roll back to our room, and watch Euro MTV for a a bit. There’s been a gradual decrease in the number of TV channels available to us on the trip; in Belgium, you could still watch the BBC, and in Amsterdam, there was an English-language Euronews channel, but now, it’s MTV or nothing. The most disturbing thing is the volume of techno cover versions; occasionally, the results aren’t bad, e.g. Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, but they really should have left Patti Smith’s Because the Night alone. There are some things with which mankind was not meant to meddle.

The next day, we opt to hop across the border and do Salzburg, ticking Austria off the list. If Munich is a living city, Salzburg (or at least the center of it) is a tourist slut, peddling herself relentlessly and lacking in personality. Everything is packaged with either Mozart (born there) or The Sound of Music, which was filmed around the area. Chocolates, music-boxes, little plastic busts, you name it, you can get it with Wolfgang Amadeus on it.

Despite this, Salzburg is very beautiful, with fabulous gardens (the Do-Re-Mi sequence was shot in one), a broad river running through the centre of town, any number of statues and fountains, old buildings, narrow streets, busking string quartets (playing WAM, natch!) – you get the picture. Or rather, the set of picture postcards, with Mozart emblazoned on the corner of each one.

Chris is feeling horny

The Hohensalzburg Castle dominates the city from its rocky perch in the centre of town. There’s a meandering path up to the fortress, but being lazy tourists, we opt for the funicular: the views from the top are spectacular. Started by the local archbishops in 1077, it was never successfully stormed, and thus is largely in pristine condition – though one pillar, pointed out on the tour, has a nasty chunk taken out of it by a cannonball – an interesting experience for anyone in the room at the time.

In the castle, was a stall offering you three shots with a crossbow for 2 Euro; I nail the first one, briefly contemplate a career as a professional crossbower, then get steadily worse, despite humming the Buffy theme. Grrr. Aargh. It does drive the selections from Sound of Music out of my head, at least temporarily, before we head back across the border to Munich, where it is chucking it down. Can’t complain, however, this having been the first rain seen since the morning of the wedding, more than two weeks previously. We bid a fond farewell to Germany, even if it might be a while till we can face sausages again, and prepare to head into the land of banks, gnomes, cuckoo-clocks and chocolate…

Next: On a Swiss Roll

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 2: Drowning in Berlin

Previously: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

We arrive in Berlin after the first night train of the trip, at some ungodly hour. You’d think they’d make some allowance for honeymooners, but no, all the timetables are designed to suit the business travellers. So, we pull in several hours before the tourist office (and its hotel reservation bureau) is open. The first thing we do is get our night train to Munich booked, since we have no desire to end up in Moscow, simply because there is no room anywhere else.

Are lucky not to end up there anyway, as the ticket clerk speaks no English, so we have to rely on a combination of my German, and her infinite patience – Dutch Railway personnel, please take note. We are first in the queue and get a room in the Hotel Remter, just off the Kurfurstendamm, up the street from both a strip-club and a transvestite revue. Bet that causes confusion to inebriated customers. We turn up at our abode, two hours before the room is ready (it’s still early!) but Dunkin Donuts occupies the time, and we look at the map and plot. It’s such a large city, we opt for an early bus-tour, so we can scope out the land and then go back tomorrow to interesting places.

I’m curious to see what Berlin is like, since the last time I was here was just before the wall came down (at the time, the Eastern Bloc border was cracking elsewhere, but not in Berlin). At that stage, you had to change DM25 into their currency when you went across into the East, but there was so little to buy, I ended up getting the best seat in the house for a performance of My Fair Lady. In German. Thanks largely to souvenir hunters, there’s now very little of the actual wall still standing, and what there is, is carefully fenced off as a monument. Elsewhere, there’s just a double line of cobble-stones which mark its path. As we travel round, it’s as if the division had never existed – life has just gone right back where it left off, with an incredible amount of construction.

The Bear Wench Project

We notice a lot of psychedelically coloured bears lurking around the city. Before you discard this apparently bizarre hallucination, should point out we’re talking cast from some kind of plaster. There were about four different poses, but no two were alike; turned out to be an art project, and one we fell in love with. Just done a quick count, and approximately 10% of all our honeymoon photos are of Berlin bears. 🙂 One statue was sent to New York in May, and was placed on Wall Street – this may not have been wise, given the bear has long been a symbol of market pessimism. And lo, the market did duly plummet, and accounting scandals did flourish!

That night, we head off to a Goth club, with the delightful name of Golgotha – not without trepidation, since we have no real idea of how to get around after the subway closes! The area it’s in is very quiet, but the address is on a main road, which soothes our paranoia somewhat. We walk past an incredibly spooky park, which looks like something out of Brotherhood of the Wolf, and laugh – wouldn’t it be funny if the club was in there!

We pass the park and check the house numbers. Guess what? It is in there. We go back and stand at the path (all badly-lit and tree-roots) peering in, nervously. Is that howling I can hear? I tell Chris I won’t make her go in there if it bothers her, thereby artfully concealing the fact that I’m scared shitless. We see two figures looming up out of the mist towards us, and prepare to defend ourselves. It’s an elderly couple. We figure if they can cope, so can we…

Ist das Lola?
Lola’s bank
Run Chris Run

Of course, nothing happens. The club is friendly, doesn’t charge admission and has good beer, though the music largely sucks. We are too happy to be with living people to mind, but are careful to leave in time to catch the last subway, and with other humans. This last plan goes down in flames when they go in the opposite direction, leaving us to make our way out alone through the park. RUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN!!!!

The next day, we head to the Post Office, and send back to Phoenix a box of stuff no longer needed. With hindsight, we should have delayed this until after the immediately following trip to World of Music; the space freed up is rapidly consumed by CDs and DVDs. Happy times… Thereafter, we turn to the main business for the day – retracing Lola’s steps from Run Lola Run.

We had done some quick research on arrival here, Chris having found a website which lists locations used in the movie. Had we known we were going to be here, we’d have made the effort to watch it beforehand, but Berlin was not on the original plan. This lead to much “Er…is that the building?” questioning of each other; we take pictures anyway, just to be sure. [Subsequent inquiry back in London revealed we were usually pretty close to the mark!]

While running around odd corners of Berlin (and discovering that Lola would have to be an Olympic champion, or possess a teleport device, to cover all her route in 20 minutes), we stumbled across a couple of cool places. First up was Fassbender and Rausch, allegedly the world’s largest chocolate shop, which uses it to create, much like Mini-Europe, large-scale creations of famous buildings. I presume they’re varnished rather than actually edible (one hot day, and boom, the Reichstag is reduced to a puddle) but you can only admire the concept.

In the Babelplatz, opposite Lola’s bank was a window in the ground, onto an underground library, without any books on the shelves. This was a chilling monument to the Nazi book-burnings in the 1930’s, reminding me of Heinrich Heine’s prophetic quote from a century before: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”

On a lighter note, we found the mother lode of bears: 125 in a circle on the site of the future U.S. Embassy, with each representing one country and decorated by an artist from there. Kind of a Uni-teddy Nations… [Go on, groan – I’ll wait here for you] Also stumbled into a street festival, with food, entertainment and, of course, beer; one of the personal highlights was hearing them play Kraftwerk over the PA. Chris amused herself with some bubbles, and going by the trail of small children she acquired, it seems that you don’t need any musical ability to be a Pied Piper.

We left Berlin that evening with a feeling that we’d only scratched the surface of the city. Chris – particularly impressed with the public toilets – said it was somewhere she’d be happy to live, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a place with enormous potential, busy without being overcrowded, and the train to Munich reinforced our overall happiness and satisfaction with Germany. Never have I ever seen a sleeping car possessing its own bathroom, including a shower. Sheer luxury, with even a ladder that comes out of the wall so that the top bunker doesn’t have to engage in Lara Croft-ian maneouveres to reach the bed. With such attention to our comfort, it seems a shame to go to bed, but Munich beckons…

Next: The Hills are Alive…