Shelly has "Great Success!"
In Berlin Shelly and I agreed to separate. Travelling together and living in each others pockets for so long certainly puts a relationship under pressure and by the time we’d reached Berlin Shelly made it clear that if she had to spend another afternoon in a motorcycle museum she’d have to f*cking kill me. Actually she didn’t say that at all, but in Berlin we did have very different priorities. For me, I want to visit the East German Motorcycle Museum in east Berlin (as I’m an East German motorcycle owner) while Shelly wanted to go big city shopping.
This was our third visit to Berlin, which makes it one of only a few cities we’ve visited repeatedly (the others being London, Paris, and Istanbul - all great cities, except London). Last time we were here ten years ago the city was like an enormous building site with construction going on everywhere. The city itself was rather run down and not very appealing. I described at the time as a city more famous for what it was than what it actually is. It’s good to see that in ten years nothing has changed. I must admit after we settled into our rather Spartan hostel room and walked around the neighbourhood I thought, “Jeez, Berlin is such a sh*t hole!”
But Berlin has an insidious way of getting under your skin. While Shelly went shopping I went to my motorcycle museum, which had an excellent collection of MZ motorcycles but was just a little too cramped and poorly lit to properly display them. I then wandered down the famous boulevard, Unter der Linten, passed the Kaiserdom and Museum Island and finished up at the technical museum. The Berlin technical museum is nothing compared to Speyer and Sinshiem but still had an excellent collection of unusual aircraft including a space age tailless Horton glider from the 1930s - think Stealth Bomber, only seventy years ago. Germany has never been short on technical innovation. Although it was early afternoon I decided to head back to the hostel as I had been feeling increasingly unwell since Nuremburg. The dreaded swine flu was upon me. I needed some rest.
Here is a link to more photos of the museum
Shelly meanwhile had been touring around town and had had some shopping success, returning with a pair of new boots and four dresses. Great Success!!
We decided it was time to see other people, so we opted for a bar crawl tour. Many big cities have them and they are often run through hostels. They are a great way to get out and meet people (and get drunk- which works for us). The Berlin bar crawl was huge with about 70 people attending - it was Saturday night after all. At the first bar we were plied with free beer and ‘entertained’ by an insane man with a flame thrower. Note - is it really a good idea to let and insane man have a flame thrower?? Not really I think. We tipped him a few coins to ensure he stayed far away from us. The group was quite mixed with British, Irish, Australians, Kiwis, Americans and some Spaniards. An English couple we spoke with told us they had attended on Thursday and had a such a good night they’d come back again. Of course, they couldn’t actually remember the last two bars they visited and were too ill to do anything on Friday, but hey…
So it turned out to be a totally excellent night. We visited four bars - the last two of which we can’t really remember all that clearly and finished up around 3am. But what we do remember is we had a great night and made lots of new friends… but can’t quite remember all their names now.
Another thing we noted while out at night was that all the prostitutes in our area (and there were quite a few) wore what can only be described as a uniform - it came in combinations of pink, black and white and featured tight jeans, high stiletto boots, tight top and a bustier. Surprisingly there were a lot of young girls working the streets, not old druggy hags and there were always lots of young guys talking with them, negotiating. It was all done quite openly.
Sunday was a very very quiet day.
In the late afternoon we visited the Pergamum Museum which houses some amazing ancient Greek and Persian sculpture. It is a wonderful museum.
From Berlin we intended to fly to the Baltic states but had some problems arranging flights. No matter what we tried we couldn’t complete an online booking through Air Baltic, the Latvian discount airline. Frustratingly we were forced to go into their Berlin office (which fortunately was on the same street as our hotel) and had to pay the normal rates (as opposed to the internet discount - is it a scam?). All these little hassles meant we had to spend an extra night in Berlin. On our last day we wandered over to Checkpoint Charlie, which really is nothing more than a big tourist scam. There actually is NOTHING to see there except a sign - hidden behind the teeming street vendors flogging Russian army surplus. BUT, around the corner from the Checkpoint is Trabant Safari.
For those of you who don’t know, the Trabant is the East German wonder car. As the Cold War heated up in the 1950s, the East Germans were forced to start building their own domestic auto industry (as most of the auto companies had fled west). The East German government established VEB as the state auto consortium, dolling out specific contracts to specific vendors - MZ built motorcycles, IWL built scooters, Simson built mopeds, IFA built trucks and Trabant built cheap cars. Due to resource shortages Trabant were forced to make some compromises. Firstly - they used an enlarged MZ motorcycle engine. It was noisy, dirty and not very powerful, but that was okay, because a lack of pressed steel meant the body of the car was made of cardboard. Well, it was fibreglass coated cardboard. The Trabant ran so badly that it was instantly branded a joke. But they still made millions of the things and exported them across the Communist world. In East Germany the wait list for a new Trabant was 10 years!! Despite all its flaws the Trabant was loved by its owners - they didn’t have much of a choice. Of course as soon as the wall fell Trabant was out of business, replaced by modern, reliable cars from Asia. All across eastern Europe Trabants were left to rot. Until some westerners and entrepreneurial easterners realised that there is a nostalgia for the Communist past and the old rust buckets were tidied up, painted and pushed out onto the road for tourists to drive.
Trabant Safari offers tourists a first hand opportunity to get behind the wheel of one of these unusual vehicles. There are two set tours and an ad-hoc short drive tours. The set tours take about an hour and you follow a lead vehicle around various sights of Berlin with commentary relayed via the radio. The ad-hoc tour is just a quick half hour around central Berlin in order to experience driving a Trabi. This is what we did. I must say it was a lot of fun - although nerve wracking. The Trabi is bare bones basic driving and the clutch and gearbox betray the engine’s motorcycle origins. The gears are in a H arrangement and you tell which gear you are in by feel and the noise the engine makes. The brakes were very dicey. Shelly only screamed a few times but you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for hours.
I have heard a rumour while in Germany that there is a plan to relaunch the Trabant, this time as an electric car.
The next day we were up and out fairly early for our flight to Tallinn, Estonia and I think we were both a little sad to say goodbye to Berlin.
In Berlin we also said goodbye to our good friend - the Opel Astra. It was somewhat disappointing to pick up a hire car exactly the same as our own car, but she served us well. We however treated her badly. She probably needed a thorough cleaning and disinfection after we'd almost lived in it for five weeks. We did over 8,000 kms in that time and there were plently of very long driving days. You could say our trip was sponsored by Red Bull as there is no way we could have survived without its energy boost. I must also add that power naps, even for less than fifteen minutes were absolutely essential. If businesses in the west want to get more out of their employees they really need to consider the benefits of a siesta. It's amazing the difference it makes.