Wednesday 28 September 2011

Cross Country

I lean back in my seat and the music swells up around me.  It's the soundtrack to Tomorrow Never Dies, David Arnold's brilliant score that I once saw described as "a dustbin clattering down an elevator shaft".  Which was a compliment.  Halfway through I realise I should be listening to Casino Royale, because of its sweeping train music and its Czech location filming, but I hate to stop an iPod playlist before it ends.

Berlin's behind us now.  We've passed out of the Hauptbahnhof and through the tunnels and out of the suburbs and into the flat dull landscape of Northern Germany.  It looks much like England; fields, cows, hedges, trees.  Level crossings in the middle of nowhere with a single car being held back for our passage.  It's all very familiar, very temperate Northern Europe, very Protestant.  The BF nods off.  I realise I'm staring out the window and not taking anything in.

If I'm honest, the train is a disappointment.  We're aboard the Hamburg-Budapest service, via Berlin, Dresden and our ultimate destination, Prague, taking the leisurely railway route instead of a boring aeroplane.  We treated ourselves to first class seats, for only a small extra, but it doesn't feel first class.  There are no complimentary snacks, no free wi-fi, not even a plug socket at our table.  The red and blue seats are comfortable, but not massively so.  It doesn't feel right, comparing Deutsche Bahn to Virgin and Virgin winning.  We've already had a minor contrempts with a Japanese tourist and his wife.  He'd staked out our table for himself by dropping his massive suitcase across the seats; I politely explained that we had reserved them, and showed him our ticket, causing him to shout down the train at his wife.  He spent the rest of the journey being ping-ponged round the carriage as passengers arrived to claim their reservations.  I began to wonder if he even had a ticket.

Tiny country stations glide past, with names full of umlauts.  The architecture is unremarkable.  In fact the main feature at most of them seems to be an astonishing amount of graffiti.  This seems to be the hallmark of Continental rail travel - it's almost as though they can't be bothered scrubbing it off after a while.  There are tags all over even the smallest piece of railway equipment.  Unless it's a massive pan-European version of Art on the Network.

We're seats 95 and 96.  Alongside us, in 93 and 94, are a young Australian couple with Eurorail passes.  She looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar and has had her head buried in a Kindle since Berlin (can you bury your head in a Kindle?  "She has had her nose pressed up against a Kindle since Berlin".  Needs more work).  He looks like Robbie Williams - disturbingly so - but has less patience than her.  To be fair, he's laid a pack of Strepsils out on the table in front of him, so he's clearly suffering.  (I got the early stirrings of a sore throat the next day; it was immediately christened "Antipodean Flu").  He also has a copy of Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar, in the classic orange and white Penguin cover, but when he opens it to start reading it turns out he's only about ten pages in.  He gives up a few pages later.

Dresden station, when it comes, is magnificent.  I press up against the window so I can properly take in its huge glass roof and its ornate stonework.  Robbie Williams suddenly gets up and leaps off the train, leaving his girlfriend behind.  My anxiety levels rise with each minute.  I assume he's just nipped off for a cigarette or something, but what if he doesn't make it back?  What if the train takes off without him?  What do you say to an inconsolable Australian whose boyfriend is rapidly receding into the distance?  The passengers on the platform get thinner, and I see Deutsche Bahn men wandering around.  Surely we're about take off, and still no sign of him.  I find myself looking out for him, even though the girl seems utterly disinterested.  That's trust for you.  He reappears in the corridor, bringing pastries and bottles of Fanta.  She barely looks up.

Someone must have flicked the scenery switch at Dresden.  The ordinariness of the landscape vanishes and is replaced by something magical.  Now we're travelling through thickly forested mountains, rocky outcrops looming threateningly overhead, with the Elbe our constant companion.  The houses in the villages we pass are decorated with intricate carvings and roof ornaments and onion bulb domes.  A tributary empties into the river beneath a perilously thin bridge.  Mist clings to the tops, nature's soft-focus filter.  It's a landscape I've never experienced before, the coldly beautiful Central Europe.

Across the border, and we enter the Czech Republic at Děčín. The Deutsche Bahn train crew dismount and chatter on the platform while a portly guard in calf-length shorts waves us off. The Bf and I are clutching our passports, completely unfamiliar with the process of international rail travel.  The whole process seems so bizarre to our island minds - that a tiny little town like this can have Budapest on its destination board.  There's no frontier, no border guard, no immigration control.  My fantasy of recreating the end of Cabaret is sadly dashed.  The EU and the Schengen Agreement may have made travel much easier in Europe, but it's stripped it of some of the romance.  I've been abroad half a dozen times on my current passport and there isn't a single stamp in it.

Our third guard comes on the tannoy and welcomes us on behalf of Czech Railways.  The first was a neat woman with thin-framed glasses who made her announcements in German only.  The second, who boarded at Dresden, was a burly man with a sing-song voice that made him sound - and I realise this sounds unlikely - like a Teutonic Rastafarian.  He spoke English, German and Czech, and threw some freeloaders out of first class and into standard with undisguised glee.  I guessed that he was specifically here for the international portion, spending his days criss-crossing the border, because he gets off at Děčín and the Czech gets on.  He wouldn't look out of place on Merseyrail, with his yellow tie and belly poking out beneath his waistcoat.

The Australian man has taken out an expensive looking leather bound journal and is struggling to find something to write in it.  I imagine the pressure he must be under: crossing the globe, a once in a lifetime trip across Europe, and trying to boil it down into words.  Something for the grandkids to read in fifty years time.  I notice that the last entry is for Thursday and today is Sunday.  He rolls the pen round in his hand a few times, looks at his girlfriend for some kind of inspiration (she doesn't notice), then writes: Friday 16th September.  I realise it's not a journal, but a diary, and he's backdating his entries.  I'm quietly outraged - that's cheating!  Of course, I don't say anything.

In fact, we haven't said a word to each other the whole journey.  I'd been afraid, when I heard them talk as they sat down, that we'd have been in for a detailed run down of their international voyages the whole trip.  By the time we pulled into Prague station I pictured us swapping Facebook details and Christmas card details and hating them with an intense passion for ruining my trip.  Perhaps the iPod headphones have been a powerful deterrent.  If I was a proper travel writer, we'd have been swigging from a hip flask and sharing hilarious anecdotes before we'd left the Hauptbahnhof.  As it was, my shy/antisocial instincts were satisfied.  This is why I'm not a proper travel writer, just an idiot with a blog.

We're flowing into a U-shaped valley with the river at its base.  Through here, somehow, the Czechs have managed to squeeze railways, roads and narrow towns, a few streets wide.  The mist has developed into a thin drizzle, and the towns are all so spectacularly ugly, it feels like we're travelling through a black and white film.  Something with subtitles and a back street abortion.  Between the factories, though, you get more of that inspiring landscape, more of those green mountainsides and endless forests, so you can forgive it.  At Nelahozeves, the car fills with the smell of gas from the refineries.  I have to admit, it makes a nice change from the smell of dope I got a little while ago.  I get the feeling that down in Standard class there may be a bit of a party going on amongst the backpackers.

Robbie Williams decides to have another crack at Paul Theroux.  He lasts two pages this time, and folds down the corner of the page to mark his place.  I resist the urge to scream "use a bloody bookmark!" in his ear.

The tendrils of Prague itself start to wrap themselves around our train; the green starts to recede, replaced by concrete, and the stupidly ugly Communist blocks get even stupider and even uglier.  Of course, now that market forces are in charge, they're starting to fall apart as well, which makes them look worse.  We pass under and over highways, and the carriage slowly comes to life: the sleepers are roused, they stretch and yawn.  The tourists scramble at their suitcases in the overhead racks.  Creased coats are battered back into shape.  The Australian girl finally turns her Kindle off; I wonder what she was reading that carried her all the way through the six hour trip.

Into Prague railway station, and we leave the train, passing up the opportunity to take our complimentary DB Magazines with us.  The journey's over; it's time to explore another country.

Monday 26 September 2011


Bored with my Berlin trip?  Tough!  Here's another post about it to go with this one and this one.  I'll get back to Merseyrail eventually, I promise.

New can be old; futures can be built on the past.  Gleaming temples to modernity often have ancient foundations.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) is a glass and steel palace of the railways.  It rises up out of wasteland to shine at the city, with its view of the Spree and the new Government District.  But it's actually constructed on the site of a much older station, the Lehrter Bahnhof.

140 years ago, the Lehrter Bahnhof opened to accommodate east-west trains in the city.  Soon after, an S-Bahn station was added to the mix, and things carried on quite happily for seventy years or so.  During the war, however, the bombing destroyed much of the building, and what wasn't bombed was then shelled by the Russians, until the whole station (except for the suburban lines) was demolished in the 1950s.  Lehrter Bahnhof then slipped even further into obscurity with the division of the city.  It was right at the edge of the Western Sector, the last stop before East Berlin, so when the Wall came up it became largely surplus to requirements.  Who'd want to go there?

Thankfully, the Wall came down, and the German government looked at how it could rebuild the city and its transport network.  They finally settled on a brand new North/South line which would interchange with the current East/West lines, and, well, there's this big bit of vacant land where a station used to be going begging...

The Hauptbahnhof was born, a confection of shiny 21st century steelwork on top of its 19th century foundations.

I'd read about the Hauptbahnhof, of course, and eyed it lustfully.  It belonged to that new generation of European train stations springing up across the continent, places like St Pancras International and Lyon, new railway buildings that harked back to the glory days of travel.  This new phase of construction placed the passengers and the tracks at the front and centre of the building.  Whereas once, in places like Euston, the tracks were squirrelled away like a dirty secret, in the new century high-speed trains have made people proud of the railways again.  Nothing to hide here.

Stepping inside for the first time was a disconcerting experience.  I'd made my way across a building site to get there.  Walking down from the riverside, I'd had to edge past hoardings and diggers, along a makeshift pavement space, to get anywhere near the entrance.  The forecourt was made up of confused looking people holding onto rollie-suitcases, trying to work out the temporary bus stops and taxi ranks.  Then you walk through the door and - calm.

Perhaps calm is the wrong word.  There was still the thrill of a major railway station, the world of passengers swirling purposefully around me.  There was a great void ahead of me, punctured by escalators and lift shafts leading who knows where.  Yet it felt so ordered and unhurried.  There wasn't a rough cacophony of noise from the travellers, just hushed murmurs of conversation swallowed by the vastness of the space.

The Hauptbahnhof has five levels, though only two of them are for trains.  At the very top of the station are the east-west services, plus the S-Bahn.  At the very bottom are the north-south services.  Squeezed in-between are all the services you'd expect from a modern transport terminal, the travel centre, the left luggage, the toilets, plus shops.  Lots and lots and lots of shops.  More shops than you'd know what to do with, to be honest.

I have no objection to retail provision in a station.  WH Smith's was founded on the principle of taking advantage of passenger boredom while they waited for a train.  Bookstores, food outlets, coffee shops - I can understand all that.  Clothes shops, though?  A Virgin Megastore?  An O2 shop?  Who says, "Ah, I've got ten minutes till my train leaves - I'll get a new mobile."

The other item of note was how few actually German companies were on offer.  Finding a McDonalds was no surprise, but there was also a Burger King, a Starbucks, a Cafe Ritazza, an Upper Crust, even a store just called "Fish & Chips".  I'm not sure if this was an acknowledgement of the very international clientele of the Hauptbahnhof, or if it was only multinationals who could afford the rent.  None the less, when I fancied a snack, I headed for Kamps, which might be the German version of Greggs the Bakers for all I know but at least it had a suitably Teutonic name.

I took the escalators up to the top floor to see the platforms properly.  As I rose up, the sense of space and spectacle was really impressive.  I was passing up into a shiny clear world.

It was new and yet familiar.  For all its glow, this was definitely a train station, not an airport terminal that got lost.  The curved roof was a throwback to the mighty Victorian termini; it shows that some styles are just classic.  While those early roofs were high to allow the smoke from the trains to dissipate safely, here it was simply to make the building open, clear, to give its users room to breathe and enjoy the space.  It was also, let's be honest, a bit of a show off move: the station was rushed to completion before the 2006 World Cup, and you can imagine the impressed faces of the foreign football fans as they stepped off their train into that echoing hall.  Then they probably went to find a pub.

I wandered around, just staring at that beautiful high ceiling.  The roof is also, sadly, symbolic of some of the cuts that hit the station during its construction.  It was meant to extend the full length of the platforms, but in the rush to get the station finished on time, the ends were sliced off; then, in a storm a few months later, some ribs of the roof collapsed and flooded the station.  It's somehow pleasing to know that transportation cock-ups aren't just restricted to the British.

Once you've done the top, you have to go to the bottom, so I took one of the specially constructed oval lifts right down to the ground floor.  Everything was still clean and shiny; no-one had yet peed in the lift, and the console was free of scratches and graffiti.

Down in the Untergeschoss was a completely different experience to being up top.  This was, effectively, an underground station, and though there was some daylight leaking through, it very definitely felt like a subterranean world.  And yet it was so large - your brain can't quite take in that they managed to squeeze eight platforms, each long enough to accommodate the longest high-speed train, into a space below ground.  It didn't feel restricted or small.  It was open and closed all at once.

With an admiring glance at the ICE train waiting on the platform, a train that seemed to be going ridiculously fast when it was standing still, I turned and made my way back up the escalators to the concourse level, in the centre of the building.

The Hauptbahnhof would be a real boon for lazy trainspotters; you could just position yourself against one of the balconies and watch the trains come in and out without moving an inch.  Not that there'd be a seat for you, because like all modern railway stations, if you want somewhere to sit you can pay €3 for a coffee.  No-one gets a rest for free, mister.

It's a dizzying whirl of a station, all movement and flow.  Yet, like I said, there's no sense of confusion. It's laid out with brilliant simplicity and total confidence.  Even my vertigo-prone brain couldn't help but stare down into the levels, watching the trains move in and out, the flows of people being disgorged and swallowed by each new arrival.

I found a coffee shop so I could sit down and gather my thoughts in my journal.  Beside me was a splendid ogre of a woman and her husband, both of them dressed in over-coloured fashions and neither of them seemingly having smiled since the early Seventies.  They eyed the cafe over their macchiatos with the well-honed eyes of people who've been there, done that, and disliked every single second of it.

I was overwhelmed.  I knew the Hauptbahnhof would be beautiful; I knew it would be impressive; I knew it would awe-inspiring.  I didn't realise how good it would be.  How well designed and thought through it was.  What a pleasure it was to use.  I'd get a train to Prague from the Hauptbahnhof a couple of days later, and it was a smooth, uncomplicated move, even with a suitcase and an unfamiliar language and a BF who wasn't in the mood to be overwhelmed by the architecture.  Berliners haven't taken the station to heart; it's resulted in the marginalisation of the Zoo and Ostbahnhof stations, the traditional home of railway services, and it cost too much and it fell to pieces and all the other old arguments about anything new which sadly appear to be universal.

I loved it.  I hope Network Rail has sent every single designer, architect and engineer on its staff over to have a look at it. Euston is about to be rebuilt, and this is what we should be aiming for.  An epic, twisting world of trains.  A palace of the railways.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Multi Platz

Part two of my Berlin U-Bahn romp.  The first part is here.  Go on, you know you want to.

Nollendorfplatz U1 U2 U3 U4

Nollendorfplatz station is graced with this beautiful canopy, calling you in.  Sadly it's not the original, which was bombed during the Second World War, but is a more recent copy.  It's gorgeous, and looks even better lit up at night like a chandelier:

It's just as beautiful below ground, having been tastefully restored by BVG.  The escalator hall features a tiled light well leading down to the platform itself, with the other stations on the line picked out.

It's all so pleasant.  The great thing about the U-Bahn in general is its simplicity.  By sticking to one basic station design - a single island platform, stairs at each end - it becomes a joy to travel on.  While the London Underground can sometimes become overwhelming, a maze of staircases and tunnels and signs, the U-Bahn is elegant and understated.  It has tiny details like the light well that just add to the experience - a dollop of cream on top of your pie, if you like.

Nollendorf is next to the city's main gay area, the Fuggerstraße, and on one external wall is an understated memorial to the homosexuals killed during the Holocaust.  A poignant but appreciated tribute.  

From there it's a five minute walk to my favourite of Berlin's gay bars, the Blond, which has an absolutely gorgeous barman I almost embarrassed myself over (Robert, in the third picture - dreamy sigh).  He was so utterly wonderful I almost considered staying in the city purely so I could perv at him every night.

Olympia-Stadion U2

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were one of the greatest propagandist events in history.  Thousands of Germans turned out to glorify Nazi superiority, not the Olympic ideals of equality and humanity.  The simple sports complex in the North of the city was torn down and rebuilt in record time as a crucible for Nazi glories: a place for the Germans to assert their superiority over the globe.

It didn't quite work like that of course, and after the war the Reichssportfeld fell under British administration.  They used the Olympic complex as their HQ and, despite the calls for its demolition, carefully restored much of the site to its pre-war state.  They recognised its importance as a building, not as a Nazi mouthpiece.  You can't deny that the Olympia-Stadion is a fantastic piece of architecture.  Its symmetry, elegance and awe-inspiring design make it as great today as it was when it was built, especially since careful restoration for the 2006 World Cup has brought it up to modern standards without destroying its sensibilities.  There are a number of excellent exhibitions in the complex which give its history without sugar coating its more disturbing side (throughout my visit I was impressed and slightly humbled by the German willingness to acknowledge and apologise for their crimes during the war).

Of course, the vast quantities of spectators (the stadium could originally accommodate 110,000 people) needed public transport to get them there, and so the U-Bahn station was also rebuilt in a similar style.  From the platforms upwards, you can feel the quality and the determination to impress the passenger as they arrive.  Everything about the station felt big and grand - wide staircases leading up to an open concourse.  I pictured myself among the excited Olympic throng, headed to the station.  Damn, I wish I'd got tickets to London 2012.

From the outside, the station looks like a truncated Arnos Grove.  It has that station's brilliant use of brick as a canvas, but it doesn't have the London station's great drum, or its grandeur.  It does serve as a wonderful sign for the passengers though.

I loved it.  Which probably makes me a fascist or something but I couldn't help it.  The lines of it, the solid yet graceful construction, that subtle 1930s vibe.  It's a shame that something so wonderful has something so evil behind it.

Pichelsberg S3 S75

I'd planned on getting back to the city centre from the stadium by the Olympiastadion (no hyphen) S-bahn station, but somehow we took a wrong turn and ended up at Pichelsberg instead.

This wasn't actually a bad thing.  The route to the station was along quiet, tree-lined lanes with only the odd house and stable, and when we got there, it was clear it had been given a makeover for the World Cup, and as such looked gorgeous.  Wood isn't used enough in train architecture.  It's a very calming building material, very elegant, and in amongst the wooded cutting it felt even more relaxing.  It was a zen-station.

This was my first time on an S-Bahn train.  In case you don't know the difference between the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn, the U-Bahn runs underground, except when it's overground, and the S-Bahn is overground, except when it's underground.  Hope that clears things up.

The U-Bahn's actually more of an inner city service, while the S-Bahn heads out into the suburbs.  Broadly speaking, Merseyrail's an S-Bahn, though the definition is somewhat wooly and some people can get very steamed up about it.

Anyway, Pichelsberg: it's lovely.

Incidentally, on the journey back we were sat opposite the most slappable child in Western Europe.  He was about five and was clearly in the middle of a strop to end all strops, leading to him screaming, shouting, stamping his feet and at one point punching his mother in the face.  Her reaction was just to say "Nikolas" a lot, which is a bit like trying to put out the Towering Inferno by emptying your coffee cup on it.  By the time we got off the train the Bf and I were close to pushing little Nikolas under the tracks ourselves.

Wilmersdorfer Strasse U7

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a party animal.  For example, I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon; I've had two cans of Fanta and I'm looking forward to watching that episode of Outnumbered I recorded on Friday.  Then I'll probably go to bed.  I've never smoked a cigarette, I've never taken part in a fourgy, and I've never read Hunter S Thompson.  In short, I'm dull.

However, thanks to Wilmersdorfer Strasse, I now know what it's like to have an acid trip.

Imagine stumbling down to the U-Bahn after a heavy night.  You're on your way to work, bleary eyed, smelling of last night's tobacco, your shirt askew and clinging to a can of Red Bull.  Then you find yourself staring at a giant tiled vagina.

Still it could be worse.  It could be Bismarckstraße.

Bismarckstraße U2 U7

Jesus Christ.  And look at the monkey:

Frankly if you ran home screaming after that, I wouldn't blame you.

Ernst-Reuter-Platz U2

Originally known as Knie, Ernst-Reuter-Platz served as the terminus of the very first U-Bahn line, and opened in 1902.  Its importance has been commemorated with a small plaque by BVG:

I may have only got a D at GCSE German, but even my limited linguistic skills can translate 100 Years of the Berlin U-Bahn.  Clearly they're getting in early with their celebrations.

It also features some very nice blue and white tiles that the Bf and I agreed would look lovely in a bathroom.

Sophie-Charlotte-Platz U2

Above ground, Sophie-Charlotte-Platz is a very mediocre road junction.  It's not notable in any way.

Below ground, it's a time machine.

The station has been turned into a living history of the U-Bahn, with its original furnishings and equipment restored to their turn of the century best.  It's a bit like being in a German co-production of The House of Elliot.

On top of that, the station has been decorated with full size paintings showing the U-Bahn network in the period before the First World War.  The whole platform length is covered with them, and they're both distinctive and fascinating.  I took pics along the whole length, but sadly, it turns out they didn't all come out: they were a bit blurry and indistinct.  Probably because I wasn't comfortable standing close to the platform edge so I could fit them all in.  It's real shame because they were great pictures, and good insight into the history of the U-Bahn.  Some did work, though:

There was also an old map, which is always good to see:

The network's grown slightly since those days.

Savignyplatz S3 S5 S7 S75 

If Bismarkstraße is a hallucinogenic nightmare, Savignyplatz in a pure slice of darkness.  An S-bahn station overlooked by a high wall it's been decorated by a mural themed around "environmental destruction".

Yes, the screaming demented faces of tortured souls.  That'll set you up for a day at the office.

Wittenbergplatz U1 U2 U3

This is the one, the jewel of the U-Bahn: Wittenbergplatz.  It was opened as part of the very first U-Bahn line (which, confusingly, is the one now called the U2) and it was built with a major street presence.  Wittenbergplatz itself (the square) is in the centre of the city's shopping district, with the KaDeWe, Berlin's Selfridges, across the street.  At track level, it looks like nothing special:

Dig around a bit further though and you find a sneaky delight.  To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the U-Bahn - and to symbolise the post-War peace - London Underground gave the city its very own roundel.

Lovely stuff.  You can imagine the "squee" noise I made when I saw it.

While London Underground went for a simple but solid look for its turn of the century stations, Berlin went in a different direction, and built a temple for Wittenbergplatz.

It was, sadly, heavily bombed during the war, but it's been restored beautifully, with further work going on in the 1980s to really bring it back up to its glory days.  Inside is all dark wood and ironwork, with subtle Art Nouveau touches.  High windows allow light to flow into a central ticket hall.

At the centre is a lovely iron clock.  There aren't enough clocks in train stations.  Big old fashioned round ones with hands.  It's all digital now, and usually the station owners rely on some small ticking numbers at the bottom of a "now and next indicator" to show the time.

Meanwhile, the lovely cream tiling around the roof has some great, intricate detailing, along with some globes on top of the columns.  It shows how keen the company was to make this station part of the luxurious district around it, so that its travellers really felt they'd arrived.

It's a shame that BVG have then spoiled it with their treatment of the old ticket booths.  As I've said before, all ticketing is now handled by machines, so the mahogany boxes have been turned over to retailers.  The fast food sellers have then covered the exterior of the booths with gaudy signage and backlit photos of chicken wings.  It's definitely not in keeping.  I understand the need for commercial activity, but couldn't they have insisted on a certain level of quality when it came to the signs and the retailers?

BVG have held on to one of the booths though, for a rarely seen information point.  Which was closed.

I shouldn't gripe; they're doing a great job.  Berlin is one of the great Metro cities, with a massive, well-tended network.  In just the few days I was there I saw a wonderful variety of architectural styles, artistic projects, and futures which made me sorry to leave - and itching to return.