Friday 23 September 2011

I'm On The Right Track Baby - I U-Bahn This Way

It's September, the traditional time for gays to holiday.  We move as a pack once the children and families have cleared out of the airports.  Whole bushels of homos sweep across the globe, taking advantage of the  cheaper rates and empty hotels to get a little last minute sun and fun.

The Bf and I decided that we'd forgo our usual tan-fest and instead get a bit of culture, so we headed to Berlin, capital of Germany and all round fun city.  The Bf's been here quite a few times over the years, but the last time I came here it was 2000, so I was curious to see how it had changed.

I'm not going to bore you with a complete "what I did on my holiday" essay; this isn't class 3D at Junior School, and you're not Mrs Devine.  Instead I'll bore you with a run-down of just the stations I visited.  Because of course I went round the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn; I'm nothing if not consistent.  A true railway station geek doesn't take a holiday.

Berlin Schönefeld S9 S45 DB

It started, as it does for most tourists, at the airport.  And it wasn't the greatest of beginnings.

Schönefeld is about to be replaced as an airport: just up the road, the massive Berlin-Brandenburg is being constructed, which will replace the city's current three airports with a gleaming new one.  Of course, there will also be a S-Bahn and Deutsche Bahn (DB) station.  Until then, you're stuck with this relic.  Built quickly in the 1950s, this is just a subway with some platforms attached.  Imagine Clapham Junction without its charm or personality.

I'm guessing that the minute Berlin-Brandenburg started construction, DB decided not to bother putting any more money into Schönefeld.  It certainly feels that way.

Its most heinous crime is a lack of ticket facilities.  Every day, thousands of confused foreigners pour into the station, and they're confronted with ticket machines.  That's it.  There isn't a single human being there to provide assistance, unless you count the hawkers with their genuine/fake Communist badges being sold from a blanket.  Thanks to the Bf's experience, we knew what ticket and what train to take, but imagine arriving from, say, Tokyo, and not having anyone to ask.

I'll return to the theme of ticket offices later on.  You've been warned.

Berlin Zoologischer Garten U2 U9 S3 S5 S7 S75 DB

This is more like it.

Zoo was the central station for the Western sector during the Cold War, and despite the opening of the Hauptbanhof, it still retains a lot of its importance.  It has that buzzy, intercontinental feel that all good European stations carry with them, a mix of the dangerous and the banal that's quite heady.

Again, it's no looker, but it's a far more fascinating mess.  It looks like it gets the once over with a chamois leather now and then, for starters.  And of course you're in Berlin proper now, not its outer limits, so there's the thrill of stepping out into a new city.

It's a thrill that's slightly ruined because you have to step out into a tedious bus terminal, but no matter.  Hello Zoo.  Nice to see you.

Mohrenstraße U2

Have you ever had one of those moments where you look at your partner and think, "erm... okay?"

The Bf is extremely tolerant of my metro station fetish, and regularly asks me in new cities "do you want to do some train things?"  Bless him.  However, he was insistent that we visit Mohrenstraße station, for reasons unclear to me.

I mean, it was a nice enough station: a classic of the U-Bahn genre.  A shallow island platform, accessed by steps from each end, and nicely decorated.  It's about as typical a station as you can get.

Once we were down there, though, the Bf leaned in close and whispered, "You see the marble on the walls?  That came from Hitler's Reich Chancellory!"  It was said with such glee that I was forced to seriously re-evaluate his position on the Nazis.

Don't get me wrong: the Bf is, and always has been, slightly to the left of Marx.  He's been a member of the Anti-Nazi League, a left-wing councillor, a trade unionist, and if it were up to him we'd all be wearing boiler suits and singing The Red Flag before breakfast.  He does, however, have a minor fascination with the National Socialists and their influence on Berlin.  We all have our foibles.

A little internet research when we got back revealed it wasn't even true - chemical analysis in the 2000s showed it was mined from an East German quarry after the war, not stripped from Hitler's lounge before the Soviets demolished it.  It carries on as an urban legend however, giving wide eyed tourists something to stare at.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park U2

Oh, my mistake: I can't bring you the details of this station after all.  I'd gone out on my own for the morning, while the Bf slept off a sambucca-induced hangover, and I'd ended up outside Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park.  I'd left without my wallet, but I had a twenty Euro note and a day pass was only €13, so I figured I'd be fine.

I'd reckoned without the ticket machines.  One was out of order, and the remaining five machines rejected my note.  Every single one of them.  If this were the UK, I could have presented myself to the ticket office and paid for it there, but there wasn't a single member of staff available.  In fact, there wasn't even a ticket office: the station had been built without one.

I could have just jumped on a train, because there are no ticket gates.  BVG not only trusts you to be honest enough to buy a ticket before boarding, but also has no way of stopping you getting on without one.  There are ticket inspectors who cruise the network, but I didn't see a single one in four days.  I can't decide if this means that German people are extremely trustworthy or if British people are just really untrustworthy.

I didn't get on the train without a ticket of course.  I just didn't get on a train.  I walked back out the way I came and did without.  I've said it before but: no stations without ticket offices.  Ever.

Hauptbahnhof and Brandenburger Tor U55

Merseytart presents: the sad case of the U55.

Once upon a time, the German government decided to build a brand new main station for Berlin. The Hauptbahnhof would be right in the centre of the city, close to the new Government District, and it would be connected to the U5 U-Bahn line.  Construction began in the 1990s.

Then tragedy struck: they ran out of money.  So they stopped building it.  At which point, the German government tapped Berlin on the shoulder and asked for its money back.  It was decided it was cheaper to run a shuttle service than give the government its money.  And so the Hauptbahnhof's new underground line only went three stops, and only had one train on it, and no-one used it.  The end.

Of course I had to ride the U55.

I started at the Hauptbahnhof, which I'll cover in more detail in a future blog post, because trust me it needs one.  The Bf and I went hunting for the U-Bahn station, but it was strangely difficult to find.  It was tucked away, off to one side.

The first thing that strikes you is how much space there is.  The second thing is, where are all the passengers?  It's a weird little stub.  Think about it: this connects Berlin's Waterloo (Hauptbahnhof) with its Westminster (Bundestag) and finishes at its Trafalgar Square (Brandeburger Tor) - and no-one seems to want to use it.  Very odd.

It's been beautifully put together: you can at least see where the money went.  The decorations are well moulded, it's shiny and clean, and there's a big fence down one side so you don't try to use the wrong platform.  Oh.

We waited five minutes or so for the next shuttle train, which disgorged an excited school party and no-one else.  The train whizzed through to Bundestag, where a half a dozen people boarded, then on to Brandenburger Tor, where we all got out.  And that was it.

Brandenburger Tor is an even better U-Bahn station than Hauptbahnhof.  It's been beautifully tiled, with illuminated wall panels showing the history of the Brandenburg Gate, and a great lighting scheme.  

And of course, step outside and you have the Brandenburger Tor itself right in front of you: the station exits directly onto the Parisier Platz.  It's a great effort.  Shame it's all gone to waste really.

It's not all bad news.  The work on joining the U55 to the U5 has finally started up again.  The U5 is the only line completely within the old East Berlin, and the 2.2km extension will bring it across the divide at last.  Somewhere around 2017 this little stub will cease to exist, and people might actually be able to appreciate it.

Potsdamer Platz U2 S1 S2 S25 DB

I'd been to  Potsdamer Platz once before, when I'd visited in the year 2000.  Then, it had been a nice impressive entrance to a building site.  All that had surrounded the station's escalators had been cranes and hoardings.

It's changed a bit since then.

That's the DB headquarters, looming over a busy road junction.  The cuboid structure on the right is the entrance to the railway station - the highest building around when I last visited, and now a dwarf among giants.  It was a staggering transformation.

Underground, it's not quite so impressive.  Potsdamer Platz station's had a bit of a cosmetic make-over, but it is still at heart the same building that opened decades ago.  You can hardly blame the Berliners for concentrating their regeneration efforts in the area elsewhere.

Alexanderplatz U2 U5 U8 S3 S5 S7 S75 DB 

What Zoo was to West Berlin, Alexanderplatz was to East Berlin.  It was the hub around which the city's transport revolved.

The Bf had brought me here because he had promised me the "best cafe in Berlin".  I had visions of kaffee und kuchen in a beautiful German tea room.  Thick, lavish slices of ridiculous gateau accompanied by pot after pot of strong creamy liquid.

Alexanderplatz itself teased me with its retail provision.  This beautiful bakery was right on the platform itself, filling the underground station with the smell of fresh bread, pastries and pretzels.  I think MtoGo might have to buck its ideas up, frankly.

Up above, Alexanderplatz is separated into two sites.  The S-Bahn and mainline are in a massive terminal across the side of the square, while the U-Bahn station is built below it, meaning you need to rise above ground to visit it.  Not too much of a hassle, as it means you get to see the Fernsehturm rearing above your head as you transfer.

Oh, and the "greatest cafe in Berlin"?  Turned out to be the top floor canteen at the Galeria Kaufman department store.  Which was nice and all, but at the end of the day, it was a department store cafe.  We could have pretty much gone to Debenhams in Liverpool.

I'm going to stop my Berlin adventures there, because there is still a load of stations to come and I don't want to bore anyone to death.  Expect a part two in the next day or so.  Please come back then...


gottago said...

God I love Berlin so much.

How could you not write more about the EMPIRE of train travel that is Berlin Hauftbahnhof! I found the whole station utterly mesmerising. Levels and levels of platforms! How did they do it?!

I'm surprised U55 was empty when you went. Whenever I've been there has always been a pretty large number of people getting on board the tiny line (though I've only ever been in August).

The airport station is pretty dumb. The only person I met throughout the whole holiday who couldn't speak a word of English was a member of staff on the platform at the confusing airport station. Of all the places to put someone who can't speak English!

And did you not see the EasyJet advert for Liverpool flights on the walk from the airport to the station? Bizarrely a beer glass represented us.

Andy Howe said...

You are not boring us, this is great Scott, I'm off to Madrid in October, and I love the Madrid Metro system, though Madrid is not a massive capital, it's metro appears to grow every time you visit, never been to Berlin though, so this looks amazing, more soon, and keep up the good work :-)

Scott Willison said...

gottago, there's a MASSIVE post just about the Hbf coming up, don't worry. I've got hundreds of pics to dig through first!

And Andy, I went to Madrid a couple of years ago: you're right about the ever expanding metro. Have you seen the map? It's insane (in a good way).