Berlin – Keeps getting better

The first time I got into Berlin was from Scandinavia. Back then in 2008 – 09, fresh from a beating from the cost of food in Scandinavia, Berlin proved to be a heaven for both how cheap the food here was compared to Norway and how varied my options looked. In the Summer that year I took the train from Berlin’s east train station to go to Krakow, Poland. There is a different train station to get on a train westward bound. The ‘Westbahnhof Train Station’ is super modern and if you want to head on the rails to Paris or Amsterdam then this would be it. The East Station, however, like the countries in the East back then was not something to write about. The train too looked as if it was pulled from a post World War II movie. People hardly spoke any English and since it was the end of Summer the sun was already going down at 1900 hours, the time my train was about to screech out of Berlin.

Since then I have been traveling to Berlin at least thrice every year for work and every year it seems like the old communist days are long over. I do not think English is how one should judge the receptiveness of a place, however understanding the language in a foreign country does help the regular movement. In the beginning, the guys at the hotel reception and tourist places only spoke English, but as the years went ahead the corner coffee shop and the odd waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant did too.

The Vietnamese Pho (Noodle soup) in Berlin is as popular as the Turkish Kebab. Both these nationalities have their own little attachment to Berlin. Vietnam was a brother country to East Germany in the Communist era and a lot of them came for education and never went back. Similarly, many from Turkey came during the late 80’s till the late 90’s as Germany unified and a lot was needed to be built in the East to make it at par with the West. They never went back either.

The food scene is Berlin is colorful and places like the ‘Hackescher Markt’ is one the many food districts where high-end restaurants go side by side with a run of the house Thai joint. This is one thing that has always impressed me of the city. True, it is the Capital of Germany and true, it does look like one, but it feels like a very Global city. It feels as neat and tidy as any city in Scandinavia and it feels as warm as any in Latin America. This is Germany, I guess is hard to find. From the Germans that came here from other big cities and recite their stories of Berlin, I have learned that how metros like Frankfurt and Cologne feel commercial and superficial to Berlin. Some have found a love interest in Berlin and they stay back and the others, well they just stay back for the love of the city.

The Tegel Airport is like the city itself. Though there is one more that connects the city to the globe (The Schoenefeld). I have always landed and taken off from Tegel. Since 70% of the city is green and a large part of it has the river Spree running through it, the whole city even with its concrete structures feels like a huge park. It also helps that the ride to Tegel is a maximum of 20 – 25 mins in a public bus from one of the many city centers. Unlike the cities of Paris or Amsterdam in the West or Prague and Budapest in the East, Berlin does not have an old town. I guess the city lost whatever it had and was considered old in the war. Speaking of which the cities subsequent caretakers did make sure that very less of what war did was kept. ‘Hitler died here’ one of our guides had said once. When we asked where he pointed to a parking lot! They did not want to relieve the war it seemed. However, what they still have is the wall. The wall still runs through the city but is only present as two brick lines on the ground on most of the city roads. The east side gallery is a creative space which was given to various
artists to use the wall as a platform to show their art and to paint a message of ‘the world needs no walls’. The city also has a DDR museum where the communist lifestyle is played. The parliament building or the ‘Bundestag’ has a lovely glass dome roof and rivals the glass structures from the Potsdamer Platz, where the Sony Centre plays the Annual Berlin Film Festival every year.

Every time that I roam the streets, Berlin feels inviting and every time I leave the city limits I am happy because I know I will come back again. Berlin happens to be one of my favorite cities in Europe I know. Just like the more than 4000 varieties of Cheeses and Sausages in KaDeWe, Berlin’s premier food and shopping store, the variety of nationalities living here along with the Germans make this a very special place to be.

The Saxon Swiss National Park and the Elbe River

Over the first few years of my driving from the German border into the Czech country, I kept noticing signboards with an interesting design of mountain peaks on them. There was just one though at repeated intervals. I think somewhere between wanting to go deeper into the German countryside and my disapproval of Prague’s tourist scene came the idea of actually following the direction that came from the signboard.

I drove to the Saxon Swiss National park and my GPS read 7 kms or so when the scenery had already started to get interesting. The Autobahn was a bit boring with acres of flat fields but now on the country road, the fields gave way to intermittent hills. Just around 3 – 4 kms before Bastei, the village in the park, I could see the sand stone formations slowly appearing. As the road got narrower it also got interesting with pensions (family run guest houses) dotting the sides of the road. I parked and started following a small group of tourists assuming that they were headed to the park entrance. I only came to know later that there was no such thing as the park entrance and that I was already inside the park.

It is only at the first viewpoint did I realize how high up I had come. The sandstone formations rise up from the surrounding countryside and the first viewpoint is just the introduction to what lies ahead. As I continued walking again in the direction of the people with me, I passed the Panorama Bastei hotel, by this time I had read the letters B A S T E I more than 10 times including on the GPS. There was enough build up for the grand view that was supposed to come in. I had sneaked a peak on the internet the night earlier and was keen to see if this looks as good as it did on the internet.

What I saw was way better than the internet. From the first viewpoint the river Elbe is not visible but from the second and the final one what I was sanding over was something that I could count as the best 10 views of my traveling life. The River went parallel to the road which went parallel to the railroad and when the red german rail coaches went by the contrast was perfect. As the river snaked its way up north my eyes could see right to the next big town. In my first year of visiting Bastei and the Saxon Swiss National park I only took in the view from the top but in my subsequent years I went on the famous Bastei bridge and took in the view of the Sandstone formations that so beautiful cropped up from ground zero next to the Elbe River. Just visiting the Saxon Swiss National park and actually soaking the scenery up is different. I guess one needs to take on the many trails of the park and maybe spend a night camping in it. Or perhaps visit in the winter when the snow makes up for an interesting contrast with the grey sandstone. In any case, if you are a just a tourist like me and not an adventure enthusiast to truly take it easy in the park, staying in Bad Schandau by the banks of the Elbe would be a good idea. Similarly staying at Rathen, the town at the end of the famous 2-hour Bastei trail is a good option too. The later is more charming with quant countryside hotels lined up along the river.

I stay at The Lindenhof hotel in Bad Schandau. It is family run and feels like one. I often go there in Spring-Summer, when the Asparagus and strawberry are in season and many of the menus in the restaurants of this region have season specials to choose from. I have only once cruised the Elbe river downstream from Bad Schandau to Rathen which was the next stop but I could very easily have gotten to Dresden or Meissen further downstream. Both Dresden and Meissen are special in their own way. The former is more like a city and used to be one of the principal ones in former east Germany along with Berlin and Leipzig. Meissen, however, is small and charming with its shot to fame coming from the Porcelain Manufaktur, the first porcelain factory in Europe back in the times when the royalties used only the works from China, a homegrown porcelain was something to be proud of.

Staying on the Elbe and visiting the Saxon Swiss National park is something that I look forward to every year, and every year I take the same number of pictures and act like a tourist. Perhaps the Elbe ages with time and with each year it looks more beautiful.

Where: on the border of Germany and Czech 30 km from Dresden.
How to reach: Coming from Berlin you could take a train to Dresden and then change for a train to Rathen or Bad Schandau. The bus is not too handy.
To stay: Hotel Lindenhof in bad Schandau was doubled are from Eu 100 onwards.