Express city trains leave Hamburg for Berlin at every hour and the journey takes slightly more than 1 and a half hours. Although we had a Eurail Pass, the train guidebook did not mention a necessity to pre-reserve a seat which would incur additional charges. With the availability of trains at every hour, we doubt there is a need to reserve one. Opting for a 9am train, leaving 9.08am from Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof, we checked out early and headed to the train station via subway since it is just a couple of stops away. With the light traffic even in a Monday morning, the trip was a breeze and we were soon on the platform waiting for the arrival of the train. Slightly 10 minutes before the scheduled time, the train arrived. It is an InterCity Express or in short ICE train that serves major German cities. Perhaps one of the most common trains to be found in Germany, it is considered a high-speed train.
Having only taken an inter-city train travel once between Jakarta and Surabaya which was an overnight train, I still found a certain fascination to train travel. This was one of the main reasons I chose to travel by train across Europe. Travelling by air might be fast, but with the security procedures and waiting, it doesn’t really makes sense for short-distance routes within Europe which are well served by railway lines with stations close in the city centre. Airports are usually further out of the the city centre. After all there is that sense of romanticism in listening to the gurgle of sounds coming from friction between the wheels and the tracks while taking in a visual feast of green meadows and wind powered turbines rotating. The route between Hamburg and Berlin is made of that. Don’t expect majestic mountains such as those in the Canadian Rockies or Swiss Alps. Appreciate instead the plain farmlands and towering hulk of wind turbines that farms clean energy dotting the otherwise boring landscape.
The train that came was relatively empty in the first class cabin with only around 40% occupancy rate. though it has more passengers in the second class cabin. Very little differentiates between the 2 classes. From what I can see the 2nd class has seats in a 2-2 abreast configuration whilst first class cabins have seats in 1-2 abreast. In addition there are small compartments that can seat up to 4 persons in 1st class and 6 persons in 2nd class. Most of the closed compartments are occupied though by businessmen hoping some peace while doing their work. Thus passengers hoping to clinch these compartments have best hurry to be the first on the train. It has to be noted though there wasn’t any area to place your luggage except on the overhead compartment which seems too fragile to support the medium sized roller suitcase. In addition only complimentary beverages were served in first class cabins while those seeking to fill their stomachs better bring some snacks or head to the dining car. The train makes several stops between travelling from Hamburg to Berlin though these stops are limited to 5-8 minutes each time, in accordance to the small leaflet placed on each seat which shows scheduled time of arrivals and departures at each stop. This meant we arrive on-time at our destination in Berlin at 10.44am. Being in Berlin provides a totally different mood, with the first signs being the uber-modern Hauptbahnhof which is encased in steel and glass, showing the cosmopolitan outlook of the city. With the Hauptbahnhof or Hbf in short being a major transport interchange between the U-Bahn, S-Bahn and city trains departing from the capital, there was a lot to take in. The large airy foyer has an excellent tourist information counter which also sells the Berlin Welcome Card providing unlimited travels on public transport as well as discounts on attractions. A variety of eateries from Asian to Turkish also meant choices for those who are hungry. My mum and I settled with some deep-fried fish fingers and fries while Dad went for Kebabs. I also got the Berlin Card for 2 days of travel.
After filling our stomachs, we headed to find the S-Bahn train as our lodging in Berlin is just 2 stops away from the Hbf S-bahn. However, being a first-timer, I led us to take the train going in the opposite direction, which meant a return trip to the Hbf to wait for the train going the other way. Very soon though, we arrived at Tiergarten, the stop named after the large central park in Berlin that separates the old city centre and the Charlottenburg area which was the heart of West Berlin before the Wall came down. I chose to stay at Novotel Berlin am Tiergarten which is located just beside the S-Bahn stop. The hotel though is unlike the trendy SIDE at Hamburg. Instead of a funky lobby architecture, one gets staid gray tiles. The rooms are standard and spacious but comes equipped with furnitures looking like they came from Ikea. Clean and standard, but nothing inspiring. The rates we got was pretty affordable though with the sofa able to be converted into an extra bed.
With the luggages settled, we headed out to see Schloss Charlottenburg, one of the grandest city palaces of Germany. To reach our destination, we first departed on the S-Bahn towards Zoologischer Garten before transferring to the U-Bahn to head to Sophie-Charlotte Platz. From the U-Bahn stop, it is a about a 10 minute relaxed walk towards Schloss Charlottenburg, but it is a nice walk along a tree-lined path with low lying buildings along both sides. We stopped in one of the cafe for some gelato before moving off towards the palace. The approach through the tree-lined pathway was wonderful as the central facade of the palace comes into view slowly allowing visitors to appreciate the central dome along with the symmetry of the palace architecture. As we reach the end of the pathway, we are greeted with the grandiose boulevard outside the palace. The front plaza outside allows a glorious view of the pair of gladiators guarding the gates along with the central domed building of the palace. Inside the palace courtyard, a statue of the King on horseback awaits. The main central wing of the palace was not open yet to public during the time we visited, however, the east wing was open. With the palace positioned along the east-west axis facing south, the palace follows traditional architecture of imperial residences.
There was a payable entrance fee and on top of that, photography is only allowed if an additional fee is paid. Within the east wing the most prominent chamber in the wing would have to be ‘Green Room’ which is the second room from start of the entrance. It is ornately decorated with mirrors and wall murals depicting the element of air, fire, wind and earth. The other chambers in the wing includes the king’s apartments, library and several audience chambers. Another chamber of note is a room containing a collection of snuff-boxes used to be owned by the king. Due to the sacking of Berlin, most of the original paintings and furnitures from the palace has been destroyed or lost. Thus they have been replaced by replicas and other noteworthy paintings of that era. Due to the small section of the palace that was open, the audio tour of the palace can be completed in around 2 hours or so. Limited languages are available on offer for the tour though, and Chinese isn’t one them. If someone were to visit France or Austria, I do think they can skip on Charlottenburg since Schonbrunn or Versailles are much more impressive palace examples. The palace architecture of Charlottenburg is worth a note, especially due the addition of a central dome. Schloss Charlottenburg also has a garden at the rear which is open to the general public.
After the tour of Charlottenburg, we headed to a cafe opposite the palace for Eiskaffe, or Iced Coffee. The beverage is actually iced coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream topped with a generous serving of whipped cream. The strong bitterness of the coffee was great with the smoothness of the vanilla ice cream and definitely rates higher than the Iced Coffee from Coffee Club. From the cafe, it was another short walk to a bus stop where we boarded bus towards Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm for short) which used to be the heart of Berlin before the Wall came down. The area is still a busy shopping street now and has one of Berlin’s main attraction, the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church which is a reminded of the city being a main air raid target during the World War. We browsed through some of the shops here, and stopping at the BMW showroom along the street, where they were showcasing the latest 5 series model. For dinner, we chose to have it at this Chinese restaurant located in a courtyard tucked away between shops along the Ku’damm. We ordered a roast duck dish, steamed fish and braised tofu, however the food we had doesn’t seem to be as good as the one in Hamburg. The small restaurant saw a large number of diners later in the evening though. Perhaps it could be due to its location in one of the main shopping streets in Berlin.
It was close to nightfall after dinner, whereby we returned to the hotel by taking teh S-Bahn from Zoologischer Garten again. On the way back, one interesting sight was this Erotikmuseum in Berlin which deals with all things relating to the art of sexual interactions. Upon returning to the hotel and having a shower, I decided to head out again at night, though only my Mum chose to follow. With my Mum, I headed out to Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn, from where we walked along the Unter den Linden towards the Brandendurger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate in English. At close to nightfall, the Brandenburg is at its best I think as the gate is lit up magnificently brightening the area. Passing by Unter den Linden, one can also find the Russian influences in what used to be the eastern part of the city administered by the left-leaning East Germany. For example, the Russian embassy and Russia’s flag carrier, Aeroflot has their offices in a prominent spot in Unter den Linden. Beside the Brandenburg, however, lies the Embassy of the United States and France. Unter den Linden is the most prominent boulevard in Germany then, and the most politically important. Which is why our exploration of Berlin’s city centre will be around that area.