April 21, 2012
Our Trip to Warnemünde, Germany, and to Berlin by Train and Bus
The overnight voyage from Aarhus to the port of Warnemünde, Germany finally brought us from the North Sea into the Baltic. Warnemünde is a seaside resort town at the mouth of the river Warnow in the northern-most part of the Rostock region. And it’s where we had arranged for our first excursion… a train trip to Berlin, followed by a bus tour of that famous city.
Cruise excursions are very organized affairs. I guess the cruise line doesn’t want anyone getting lost or wandering off in a foreign country. At any port there are typically a dozen or more excursions, and things can really get confusing. But in this case there were only a few excursions… most of them to Berlin, 240 km (180 miles) south. Still, they had to keep us under control.
After breakfast, we waited for the Cruise Director’s announcement over the PA. Then, as instructed, we headed to the ship’s theatre, the Queen’s Show Lounge, the usual waiting area for excursions. There we were given coloured stickers to wear on our shirts to identify our tour.
Once tagged, we were lined up then guided out to our train which was waiting for us just outside the cruise terminal. I always feel like we’re being herded, when they do this, but I understand the need for it. Without such guidance they could have seniors, kids, parents and newlyweds wandering clueless all over the place. And we can’t have that, now can we?
I like traveling by train. I once rode from Vancouver to Halifax aboard a CN train and, as awkward as the coach seats were for sleeping, I enjoyed every minute of it. So I was very excited about traveling to Berlin by train.
There was no assignment of cars, so we hopped onto a relatively empty one so we would be sure to get a compartment for the four of us. The compartments were small private rooms with sliding doors and seating for 6 people. We were joined shortly by two widowed grandmothers who were traveling together, which made for pleasant chit chat and an enjoyable two-hour ride into Berlin.
Train travel is unquestionably one of the most civilized ways to get around. Besides our comfortable coach, there was a bar car and a dining car, and we took advantage of both.
Once we arrived at the Berlin-Lichtenberg station in East Berlin, we met up with our tour guide again, who directed us to our tour bus for the day.
Tour buses all over the world look the same. They smell the same. The seats all feel the same. Their PA systems are just as garbled. And their air conditioners only partly work.
The train station was in East Berlin, so that’s where our tour of the city began. Can’t say I was overly impressed by row-upon-row of featureless, high-rise apartments and drab, rundown, walk-up flats. East Berlin is still a pretty grim and somber-looking place.
The transition from East Berlin to West Berlin is still the wall, or rather where the wall used to be. Torn down in 1989 when communism collapsed, portions of this cold war barrier, that once divided families and friends, have been left standing as a stark reminder of that once oppressive period. Where the wall has been removed, there is still a line marked on the ground where it used to be.
The militaristic influence of the Soviet Regime can be found all over East Berlin in the form of massive, gotham-esque structures. It all reeks of an attempt to impress, or more probably to intimidate, the local citizens… to remind them that they’re in “strong” hands.
We then stopped at Humboldt University and the Bebelplatz Night of Shame Monument, a glass-covered pit with symbolically empty bookshelves in it. This site recalls the Nazi book burnings of May 10th, 1933 when the freedoms of speech and thought suffered one of their saddest moments in history.
It’s possible that our hosts were concerned that by now we might be getting an overly negative impression of Berlin, so our next stop was for lunch at a delightful german tavern, the Bräustüberl. Everyone’s spirits perked up when they saw platters of schnitzel, sausages, german soups, rye bread, sauerkraut, and especially tall glasses of cold beer. The drinking age in Berlin is 16 for beer (18 for alcohol), so my oldest son decided to try his first glass of pilsner. I ended up finishing it for him.
The meal was fantastic! And, despite having a tray of food spilled on him by a rushed waitress, my youngest son enjoyed their traditional tomato soup so much, he has been trying to find (or reconstruct) the recipe ever since.
After our meal we walked around a bit to keep from falling asleep. All around West Berlin are interesting tourist attractions and fascinating architectural delights to explore.
After our brief walkabout, we hopped back onboard our bus for more sightseeing. One interesting and sobering site we stopped at was the infamous Check Point Charlie, the inner-city border crossing where only officially-approved dignitaries and restricted vehicles were permitted to pass, all under the watchful eyes of humourless armed guards and trained snipers. Today it is an awkward, giddy mix of young tourists getting their photos taken beside military-clad models, and those who are old enough to recall those dark, terrifying days of the cold war.
There are some sights that are meant for tourists, and some that are meant for everyone. Our short, but heart-wrenching, visit to the Holocaust Memorial stirred something in the soul. It is deliberately ambiguous, leaving its exact meaning open to interpretation. But I thought the message came across loud and clear. No one I saw walked away unmoved.
From there, we drove around the city having myriad memorials, parks, historical sites and events pointed out to us. It seemed that everywhere you looked something significant had once occurred, or was now occurring. Berlin is truly an incredible city!
Of course, no visit to Berlin would be complete without a stop at the impressive Brandenburger Gate, now considered the symbol of reunified Berlin.
And the sites just kept on coming. We stopped at the Reichstag, or German Parliament building with its classic architecture and distinctive glass dome, where we were able to take a leisurely stroll in the sunshine around the beautiful landscaped grounds.
There are so many other things we saw. Nudists in the park. The parks themselves. The new opera house. The new train station. Hitler’s final bunker. Armed motorcades accompanying dignitaries. The breathtakingly beautiful public gardens. That hotel where Michael Jackson hung his baby from the balcony. The cafes and shops. The fountains and statues. The monuments and architecture. The stores. The fashions. Wow! I mean, wow! What an awesome city!
But it was soon time to leave, so we headed back to East Berlin to catch our train for the return trip to Warnemünde. The trip back was relaxing as the train clickity-clacked its way through farmland and little German villages and hamlets. We kept the windows open so that we could smell the fresh (and sometimes not so fresh) German country air as we rolled along.
We sailed out of Warnemünde at 11 pm. By then the sky was full of stars, and the lights of the cruise terminal and ships gave the whole scene the look of a fairyland. As we sailed past the village by the breakwater, I could hear singing coming from a bar somewhere… not pub songs or a band, just people joyously singing a song together. I wondered how many a young sailor departed from that same port, perhaps for the last time, to the sounds of his countrymen singing like that.
That concludes our day-trip to Berlin. Fortunately, not all our excursions were that long. That’s why this one remains one of my favourites (although St. Petersburg, Russia is right up there too, but that’s a story yet to come.) It’s too bad we didn’t get a chance to see much of the town of Warnemünde itself. Maybe next time.
Our next day was an “at sea” day as we sailed eastward to Tallin, Estonia. In my next blog I’ll show you some of the things we do when “trapped” onboard the ship all day.