During the summer of 2016 I decided to take a three-week skirmish travelling Europe by train, I was joined by Luke Harrington (Haribo) and we planned to visit five different countries during this time. Our trip started with a flight into Amsterdam (which I had previously visited) from Manchester, spending a couple of days there before taking a train from Central station to Berlin Haupbahnhof.
Having never previously travelled to Germany, I was excited to see the sites of the capital city such as; checkpoint Charlie, The Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gates and finally, the history that is entrenched in Berlin due to the first and second world wars.
We departed from Amsterdam station at around 11:00am and the transport we were travelling on was probably the biggest train I had ever seen. Compared to a northern rail service from Leeds to Huddersfield it was like travelling in luxury, we had much needed legroom, overhead areas to put our extremely large bags and a table to play some cards and to lay a few beers.
The journey started very comfortably, heading east out of Amsterdam towards the German border. Normally, I am not a fan of long journeys however, this six-and-a-half-hour journey would turn out to be very different to those I had previously encountered. If you have never been to Holland (The Netherlands) then you can’t really comprehend how flat the place is, it’s literally like a football pitch in a shiny new stadium. Scattered across the country are wind farms and I tend to find the architecture and the site of them cool, furthermore, there are the little windmills of old, as well as the poppy fields which symbolise a lot if you are a citizen of the UK.
During the first part of our journey, we were fortunate enough to get into conversation with Robin who was a Dutch citizen travelling to the Baltic States of; Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. I’d never personally thought of the idea of travelling to these countries, to some, they are obscure and left field, however, these places are hidden gems and they are places I look forward to travelling to in the future. Furthermore, we started speaking to Adam who was an Irish national teaching English in a Dutch Jewish school. Quite a combination, but highly interesting.
The first two hours of the journey were fantastic, some fantastic conversation with great people and a few games of cards, specifically, the Jewish card game Yaniv! Around two hours into the journey, there was an arranged stop in the Dutch town of Almelo which is around thirty minutes away from the German border.
We departed the train for a comfort break, and to get some food in the café on the station at around 1:00pm and this is where the fun really started. Upon our arrival in Almelo, the conductor had told us that the power unit at the front of the train had ceased to continue working, and this led to some slightly problems. Firstly, the next train that was due to Berlin wasn’t due to arrive in Almelo for another two hours. Secondly, it was peak season for travellers all around Europe, and if the next train that was due to arrive was as busy as the one we had departed Amsterdam on there was literally no chance all the passengers could transfer on to this service.
At this time, we decided enough was enough and the Heineken stocks in the train station off licence diminished slightly quicker than usual, one thing that stands out is how the cashier said to me ‘You look like you are ready for a good time’ due to the sheer volume of ‘refreshments’ that had been purchased by; Haribo, my new pals and me. Now I’m being honest, I am a very social and extroverted human being, but I didn’t picture this situation with some random people on the platforms of Almelo train station. The laughs increased and the stress of waiting for a train to Berlin diminished, all while the group of strangers grew forever stronger. We were joined by; Alba (Spanish), Rebecca (Irish), Dave (English) who was with his girlfriend who was asleep, and a group of around 40 American’s who were associated with a church and whom were travelling to Germany to help with the refugee crisis.
Three hours passed and we were still in the situation of being stuck, in Almelo, tired, hungry, and partially confused to the entire situation as the conductor’s English was average. Fortunately for us, an announcement was made over the tanoy that the train was due to depart in fifteen minutes. This is when the commotion well and truly commenced. Our American friends, whom were travelling with partners, friends, and children. Around five minutes after the announcement we took our places back in the carriage of the train to find there were ten members of the American group missing, walking around the streets of Almelo. All hell broke loose with bags getting passed up and down the carriage of the train as it was impossible for all the remaining members of the group to carry all their own equipment and equipment for refugees. Tears were shed, and a few choice words were said during this point. The boys and myself helped as much as we could and Andy pleaded with the conductor to wait for five minutes, because the rest of the American group were making the way back to the station, fortunately around two minutes for departure, one bald American head popped up from the station stairs to the platform in a frenzied state. The bags were all over the platform accompanied by a married couple, and the conductor seemed mightily unhappy about the whole situation. Luckily, we managed to get all the equipment back on the train, along with the rest of the American gang and we were back on the way to Berlin!
Looking back at what went on in Almelo, it is something I will never forget, the whole experience is a little surreal. Sat on the concrete platform with a bunch of strangers having so much fun and the added stress of members of the American group going AWOL isn’t something you would forget in a hurry.
Eventually we were back on the move but three hours behind our expected arrival time in Berlin. I think everyone was relieved that the train was ‘fixed’ and that we could all get our connections from Berlin to our various destinations around the city. I was looking forward to seeing the German landscape as we travelled through the east. However, as we arrived into German, the train pulled over for an unscheduled stop this time. Again, our power unit on the train was broken, queue more time on a platform in a train station (I’ve experienced this in three different countries; Holland, Germany and England) and Holland is the best place to do this. Unluckily, we were only delayed for two more hours. In all honesty, being delayed on a train with a group of people you met eight hours go helps you to build strong bonds, and these people played a massive part in the rest of my trip.
By 11pm we had finally arrived in Berlin Haupbahnhof, the last part of our journey was fantastic because everybody was looking forward to arriving into Berlin, and one of the American’s had a guitar with them and the carriage had completed a rendition of West Virginia before we departed. We said our goodbyes to the American’s and Andy who were heading on their various different journeys, however, we took Robyn’s, David’s plus his girlfriend Anchal’s details and decided we would meet up at various times throughout the trip.
After reaching the hostel following a bus journey to Alexanderplatz (East Germany), we checked in and had a quiet corona in a bar around 500 yards from the hostel. It had been a long day and we decided that it would be a good time to head back to the room to sleep before we explored the city.
One thing I would highly recommend if travelling Berlin is to purchase a travel pass for the UBahn, because Berlin is a super big city and the famous landmarks are a fair distance around and the Ubahn is a cost-effective way of getting around the city. During the first day, we did a lot of walking and it does becoming extremely tiring. We met with Robyn, who had previously been to Berlin and he showed us around the landmarks such as; The Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, The Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial. If I’m being honest, The Berlin Wall is a big piece of concrete and I had higher hopes of what it would be, although one cool thing was looking at the history of the wall, what it meant to the German people. This wall separated families and it makes you realise what a treacherous place no man’s land was, innocent victims were killed for trying to flee to be reunited with their families. It really is a site you must see. One other landmark we saw was the huge tower in Berlin centre, I find it strange that you would plonk a TV tower in the middle of the city, but it is quite quirky and it helped us navigate around the city back to Alexanderplatz where our hostel was based. Finally, my favourite site that I saw in Berlin was the holocaust memorial. It is something that I will not forget, although it doesn’t look like a lot, it is what it represents that truly has a deeper meaning, the place has a kind of eeriness and it really allows you to sit there in peace reflecting on what it must have been like for those who were involved.
On our final day, we said goodbye to Robyn who departed for Krakow and the Baltic States. We contacted Anchal and David who we met on our bizarre journey from Amsterdam to Berlin. They are southerners living in Sheffield and Leeds respectively, and it was nice to have someone who knows your region. We had a relaxing day seeing the other sites and David recommended we head to the bar in the west of Berlin that evening named Das Schungel, it was a fantastic decision as the bar was so quaint and had so much character, one could say it was highly upmarket compared to the other places I had previously been to. During my time in Berlin, I realised that there’s a huge difference between the East and the West of Berlin, the east is like going back in time to the 1960’s and the west is the newer ‘cooler’ brother. Personally, I would recommend staying in the West as there’s a lot more going on compared to the east and everything is far more modern, but the character of the East and the influence of communist Russia is something you don’t see every day.
Myself and Haribo, headed back to the hostel at 2am and enjoyed a bottle of Erdinger in the Foyer, we decided it would be a sensible idea to head up to the room before we continued our journey on from Berlin to our next destination Prague. Berlin gets the thumbs up from me, although I expected a little more from such a great historic city. There are great sites, lots of history and there is plenty to do for a variety of different demographics.