We had been thinking about going to Berlin for a few years and with the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down later this year decided we must make a booking.
We had seen a comment in Simon Calder's travel page in The Independent on Saturday about flying there and decided to fly to Tegel that is the closer of the two to the city centre. This meant flying with British Airways and using the new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow.
Our flight was due to go out 8.45 on a Thursday morning in mid February. Fortunately the heavy snow that covered a fair part of the south east of England had now gone, however snow was forecast for Berlin.
We checked in online and were dropped off at terminal 5; we immediately joined a fairly long queue for BA's "Fast Bag drop off". This modern airport appears to have a very slow system whereby you queue for a long time as we did, you are looking out then for the next available check in person who does not process modern technology like they do in banks and many department stores - a system of a number appearing so you go to that check in desk. No, instead there is a helper who comes and goes and either the check in person waves to that BA employee or to the next person looking for a free check in assistant.
Once you have cleared this you must hurry to security and again join another long queue. If you get delayed here you are warned you could miss your flight! Eventually we got through security and were able to explore the wonders of Terminal 5. A fine modern warehouse style glass and metal construction full of shops and restaurants. Does an airport really need such a shopping centre like this, there seems to be a lot of wasted space. It seems like BAA and BA are concentrating too much in leasing out spacious retails zones, whereas had the check in and security areas been larger and a lot more efficient then the terminal would be more efficient.
What a contrast when you arrive at Berlin's Tegel airport. The airport is in the western part of the city and as we got off the plane we were going through passport control within a couple of minutes and collecting our baggage five minutes later.
This airport is a hexagonal terminal building around an open square and this for walking distances as short as 30 metres from the aircraft to the terminal exit. Inside there are numerous shops and restaurants, they difference to Heathrow's terminals is that they are open to people flying out or anyway waiting to collect visitors.
There are small duty free (or cheaper shops for alcohol, cigarettes and perfumes when you go through the various gates, but it looks like there are individual security and passport controls for the individual gates and so as you have got through these you are in small lounge with the small "Duty free" shop and a snack bar and just a few metres from the aircraft door.
Unfortunately Tegel is destined to close in 2012 when the enlarged Berlin-Schönefeld Airport is due to re-open as Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport in 2011. I hope that their design is modeled on Tegel opposed to the Heathrow style terminal buildings.
When we touched down although there was some snow in the surrounding area there was none at the airport and we took a taxi to our hotel, It was very cold not even 1 degree, but dry. The Hotel Augusta is situated in Charlottenburg area in the west of the city, near to Zoo. It is a very pleasant small hotel offering bed and breakfast and as it located in a couple of older buildings, it has very spacious rooms with high ceilings that have been very tastefully modernized.
We had our slightly out of date Rough Guide and in late January.The Independent had run a brief article by their travel writer Simon Calder on his experiences visiting Berlin in January 1999 a few months before the wall came down in November, looking back on that visit plus one of their brief guides "48 hours in Berlin". Armed with this information we set out and decided the best way to get an overview of the city on a cold Thursday afternoon was to take a guided tour on the Berlonina sightseeing double decker bus. There are few companies operating these tours and you can normally pay for the complete circular tour and hop off one bus at a given point and then hop on another.
We got off the bus at the Daimler Chrysler building in Potsdamer Platz and paid to take the express lift to the rooftop viewing gallery. Great views of the city from this point. Back onto the bus again past the only remaining section of the Berlin Wall, through Checkpoint Charlie and up past the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (Parliament building).
We got off the bus where we had got on originally and walked down the Kurfürstendamm shopping street to the KaDeWe department store. This magnificent 100 year old establishment was very warm and inviting as early evening approached. Visiting the top floor restaurant and bar complex with views over Berlin was fantastic; however going down a floor to the food floor was unbelievable. There are numerous small food bars serving food and drink in amongst the vast selection of produce you can buy. This is a place to visit and stay a long time in if it was a wet day in Berlin.
Across the road from the Hotel Augusta is a great place to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Reinhards bar and restaurant. Here you will find all the staff smartly dressed in long white aprons and outside as was typical of several bars and cafes, the normal tables and chairs, with a folded blanket on each chair.
The next morning following a buffet breakfast we set off to find an English speaking tour of Berlin. The contact and guide were outside the Zoo Station at 9.45. No one else had turned up that morning at the western meeting point for Original Berlin Walks. Our guide who was half German and fluent in English took us on the train to the east meeting point at the Hackescher Markt. Fortunately there was another couple there, so the tour went ahead. This is a four hour walking tour costing EUR12 per person and worth every cent of it. The same company also runs a selection of other tours, some of which take place in Greater Berlin.
It is a great way to see the sites, have history explained and ask questions. We saw the remains of the wall in the centre close up and where the wall once was there are now two rows of cobbles.
We walked through the Brandenburg Gate and past the Reichstag and onto the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial) sculpture and the location of Hitler's bunker. By the end of the tour we had seen all the famous landmarks, many of course we had seen from the bus the previous day including the famous east Berlin Television Tower that constructed under communist rule and had to be shorter than its counterpart in Moscow. It has a rotating restaurant and we were told has some exceptional views, but you don't want to go up there if it is too cloudy.
Our guide told the same story as in the "What to see" section of 48 hours in Berlin from The Independent. When the tower was constructed, crosses off churches were removed by the East German Government. Whenever the sun shines on the globe of the tower, a perfect cross appears and this is known as the "Pope's Revenge".
We stopped for a snack in another of those delightful Berlin cafes complete with blankets on the outside chairs and carried on walking and attempted to get back to our hotel for a station near Checkpoint Charlie. A very helpful Berliner saw us studying our map actually when back down onto the tube station, travelled out of his way to put us back on the correct line. It is very important to pick up a DB BAHN map for the S+U-Bahn-Netz from any station opposed to relying on the small scale version reproduced in many tourist publications. The underground system is very efficient and there are only trams in the East Berlin.
Saturday was Valentines Day. Although there were a lot of flower sellers about and shops were full of Valentines gifts, it appeared that restaurants did not have special dinners at inflated prices that you would normally find in the UK and Ireland.
We started off with breakfast at Reinhards. Most people were having long breakfasts and they offered a choice of German, English, Australian and New York American. Those having breakfast were drinking a glass of champagne say we did as well.
The breakfast set us up well for the cold day ahead and like the day before was also bright and sunny. We walked down the Kurfürstendamm to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche Memorial Church and then took the underground to visit the DDR Museum. Both our walking guide and the Independent feature suggested going there. It must be fairly new as it was not in the 1998 edition of the Rough Guide which proves, you do need to buy up to date guides when you go travelling.
The DDR Museum is quite small and portrays life in the former Democratic German Republic (GDR). You are encourage touching the exhibits, listening to the music and see the TV of the era and the largest exhibits are a typical apartment layout from a concrete slab housing estate and an original Trabi that you have to try and start.
We then moved onto the Berliner Dom, the catherdral and headed up towards the Reichstag. We had to queue for three quartes of an hour and it was cold. However oncwe you have got past the security, you are whisked up by lift to the roof abnd can walk around the glass dome desidneg by Sir Norman Foster. There are spectacular viws of the city from up there and of course as it is the Parliament and all citizens (and visitors) are welcome to see their Parliament working, trhere are no admission charges.
The evening ended with a nightcap at Reinhards and we caught the bus into Tegel airport in the morning. The journey takes about 30 minutes and like all the public transport we experienced was very inexpensive. Apparently most Berliners depend on it and approximately only a third actually own cars.
Overall the city has a lot of unemployment and unlike Munich, Brussels, London, Rome and other similar cities there are not lots of very expensive cars about. It did not seem too expensive staying in Berlin and eating and drinking. There are of course luxury style hotels and restaurants and there certainly appears to be an excellent selection about.
Berlin is a city that is very cold in winter and very hot in summer. The best time to visit is around April or late September. Enjoy your stay in Berlin, we did.