The start to the trip started OK until we got to King Cross as expected. Very crowded underground (@ 8 pm) long walk from the underground station until we surfaced outside King Cross. railway station and the rain. The map had showed the hotel a short walk of a quarter of a mile from the station (yes it was a short walked as we proved the following morning). The rain, the mass of people, busy roads and we went off down the wrong road meant that by the time we found the hotel, my left knee was throbbing, I was hot and sweating not that you would of noticed from being wet with the rain. This was not helped by the fact that the daughter called while I was trying to convince google maps the the hotel I wanted was not the one it was saying I was standing outside of (it turns out that Google maps was indication the back of the hotel which was at the rear of the hotel we were stood outside of). The daughter was quickly dispatched with a promise of a call back once the hotel was found and we were in our room.
We eventually found the hotel, we booked in and quickly found our next problem, we booked a budget hotel (there are lots of them in the same area, no doubt all catering for the same early morning Eurostar Traveller). We were on the second floor with no lift and narrow twisty stairs. This meant we had to carry our bags up the stairs. It is worth pointing out that we both had tow along soft bags, I also had a rucksack, Karen had her hand bag and cpac machine (in its carry case, think laptop sized case). A bad knee, hot, wet and being unfit was going to make four flights of narrow twisty stairs difficult and so it proved to be. As I set of with my bags Karen could not even make the first step, fortunately the gentleman on reception said to leave her bag at the bottom of the stairs and he would bring up to our room in a few minutes. In the mean time I was learning how to eat an elephant, slowly two steps at a time, with equal amounts of swearing and groaning I made it to the second floor and our room. Shortly after arriving in the room a knock on the door announced the arrival of Karen’s bag. It was 9.20 which was roughly the time I had expected (hoped) to be at the room.
We had booked a room a budget hotel and that was what we got, we only wanted somewhere to sleep close to St Pancras. The hotel (and room) were clean. The room had en-suite toilet and shower, but if you book the same hotel don’t bring your cat as there will be no where to swing it! For us it served its purpose of getting a few hours sleep, I believe I got more sleep in the hotel than I would of done had we gone the route of an early morning coach to London.
I was awake before the alarm went off (set for 5am) I got up and started to get ready to depart. I am glad to say the transporting of the bags downstairs went a lot easier than getting them up the stairs and a lot quieter so as not to wake other guests. My wish to be close to St Pancras was proved correct by the fact that it took us 10 minutes to walk from the hotel to the main ticket hall at St Pancras Eurostar.
This was going to be a first for us, so we had no idea what going to happen, it was 30 years since we last went abroad. There was no real queuing other than what was caused as we loaded all our luggage onto the scanner. I breezed through passport control but the system did not like Karen’s passport and needed the assistance of the monitoring the machines to intervene. Once through this we had time to get a bacon and egg brioche roll for breakfast. We were soon on the travelator and walking down the platform looking for our carriage, good job we were in the second carriage I thought, that thought would come back to haunt me in a couple of hours.
Not sure what I had expected from the Eurostar, breakfast was not one of them. Ok it was only a roll and croissant jam and tea or coffee (and yogurt for those that like it). The journey was not quite as smooth as had expected, it was fast although no speed was shown on the information boards (home bound speed touched 298kpm). Apart from that the trip was just like any other train journey and before we realised we were pulling into Brussels Midi station on a rainy Tuesdays. Now was when that earlier thought of being fortunate about being in car two came back to haunt me, once off the train it was a very long walk past 14 other carriages (they are 16 carriage trains) to get off the platform and onto the main concourse.
Now for the wait
We had a two hour stop over in Brussels before our connection to Koln then Berlin. We did consider taking a walk around the vicinity of the station but as it was raining and dragging our suit cases after us despite being on wheels they were still heavy, this made the whole idea sound to unappealing. We did find out that there is locker storage on the station but by that time it was not worth it. We opt-ed to have a look around the shop on the station, many of them food stalls. On the whole the standard of food we found on all the stations was better than those we find in the UK.
The first Lesson
The first lesson we learnt is finding your carriage where you have reserved seats (you did reserve your seat didn’t you??), in Europe, every carriage has its own number and thus the seats in that carriage have their own numbers. But the European being clever (this was the same in Germany and Poland) is that there will be a board on the platform which will tell you where each carriage will be on the platform when the trains stops. All along the platform there are small boards with the letters A, B, C etc. and the information board will say that carriage 263 ( they don’t do Carriage 1, 2, 3 etc.) will line up with letter B. So know this you can position yourself on the platform with all the other 40 or so passenger trying to get into the same carriage.
The Carriage normally has a large Red LED screen on the side of the carriage giving the route number, and carriage number. Once inside the carriage you will also find the carriage numbers on an led screen at either end of the carriage and on the overhead boards in the carriage in most trains, we only one train (other than local commuter trains) that did not have this.
Don’t be surprised to find people seated in your seats, many people will just book a ticket but not reserve a seat and hope they get to sit down. Saw this happen several times (and once to us) but in all occasions we saw they gave up the seats with no issue.
From what we saw everybody travels with large bag of luggage, be that a roll along case with handle (to push or pull) or a large backpack, they are all large. Most times you will find the luggage racks at the end of the carriage full (unless you are getting on the train at the start of it journey), this means you have to place you luggage on the overhead shelf assuming nobody else has beat you to it. You may be lucky based of seat configuration to be able to put some large luggage between the groups of 4 facing seats where two pairs of seats face back to back. Leg room is normally quite good which allows for a small bag to be placed down by your legs plus some seats have room to allow you to place a small bag under the seat.
With these lesson learnt we were soon heading out of Brussels heading for Koln where we change trains for a Berlin bound train. The journey was uneventful as we took in the view of the country side (one of the reasons to go by train). We pasted many abandoned siding and railway work (we were to see more in Poland) and it was not long before were arriving in Koln and struggling down the train with everybody else to get off the train. Once at Koln station we quickly found our way off the platform and with the aid of the overhead boards found at each platform we found ourselves on the platform waiting for the Berlin bound train and staring at Koln cathedral. Now that surprised me, I knew Koln had a large cathedral but I had not expected it to be next door to the railway station, it is one of those land mark building that if you get the chance you would like to visit. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit the cathedral, just a few minutes to admire it and grab a couple of photo’s before our train arrived and we left Koln behind.
Berlin bound and the driver did not spare the horses as we shot along at 250kph for long periods of the journey, the journey was pretty much uneventful with most of our time spent staring at the countryside as it went speeding past. It was not long before we were rolling into the outskirts of Berlin with darkness descending it was going to hide what were were intending to explore on the next day and in a couple in a 4 days time when we stop over in Berlin on our return from Poland. That same darkness was to hide what a spectacular building the central station really is as we were to discover in the following days.
We had booked a hotel about 200mtr’s from the station, The Meininger Hotel, this is like you Travel Lodge\Premier Inn\Ibis style of hotel. Basically it offers bed and breakfast (comprehensive continental style breakfast) with basic room with on-suite toilet and showers. Whether this is a characteristic of all Meininger Hotels but this one was full of School kids, there must have been around couple hundred kids from several different groups\schools. Whilst they were boisterous they were not annoying. Once we had dropped our bags in our room, changed and tidied ourselves up we headed out to find something to eat, having spied a Pizza restaurant in the station we decided to have Pizza for dinner. This is when we got our first real glimpse of what Berlin Central station really was (more on that shortly). It had been a long day so once Pizza had been consumed it was back to the hotel and and early night.
Where did all the police come from?
The following day dawned damp and police every where, well as far as we could see outside the hotel entrance and surrounding roads (around 50 police vehicles). It was Berlin Unity day, a bank holiday in Germany where they celebrate the reunification of east and west Germany. We found out that a large demonstration was due to take place hence the police were out in force early on (we found out later that there is a police station on the other side of the railway station). We had planned a bus tour of the city and was advised to do the trip early as there was expected to be road closures due to the demonstrations. As it was raining it made sense to take the advice and do the bus trip.
Now every where the bus went the police were there including being stopped by a 20 vehicle police convoy motorcycle police out riders, all with blues and two on, every main junction there were police, roads were already being closed off, this was starting to look serious.
On our return the bus was not able to drop us off at the starting point so we had to walk back to the hotel passing more closed off roads. Having seen the crowds at the Brandenburg Tor (gate) and the Reichstag we decided to avoid those areas. We opted for a stroll along the river except for the fact that large areas were closed off and being blocked by police. We went into Spreebogenpark that ran alongside the river and on the other side of the river was the Kapelle-Ufer road, this was closed and being used as a car park for the police vehicles probably around 50 of them. It was along the river that we started to see police in full riot gear, police boats patrolling the river, police helicopters flying overhead and police spotters on the roof of building on the other side of the rivers, All you could hear were police sirens and see police vehicles with their blue lights flashing rushing around.
With dark clouds looming (of the weather variety) we decided to head over to Berlin railway station and explore the shops. Well the main entrance to the station on the Washingtonpl was closed by police so we opted to use the side entrance near Vipiano restaurant, it seemed like a good idea except the anti nazi demonstrators had taken up position of the outside seating area of Vipiano (where they could watch the pro nazi rally and throw verbal insults) and yes there were police there to keeping a watchful eye. There were police guarding the side entrance of the station, there were police patrolling the station all in riot gear. At one point in the late afternoon the police blocked the entire entrance to inside the station on Washingtonpl in or out of the building and were blocking people on the first floor going down to the ground floor, I think this was when the demonstration started to breakup. At this point we decided to seek refuge in our hotel and waited to see if the situation calmed down. I am glad to say that by 7:30pm things had calmed down and a lot of the police had disappeared of the streets although there was still a present to be seen but nothing like earlier in the day. With all the excitement and with an early start the following day, we decide that the Vipiano restaurant would the place for our evening meal.