BIGGSY TRAVELS

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Category: Europe (page 1 of 4)

The East Side Gallery in Berlin

Berlin is a city I’ve visited twice now. Once on a school A-level trip back in 1992 and once just last month as we watched the Berlin Marathon. It was on day 1 of our sightseeing that we introduced ourselves to the city with a 35 minutes walk from the Brandenburg Gate down to “Checkpoint Charlie” but I really wanted to see more of the infamous Berlin wall.

Berlin Wall - East Side Gallery

Berlin Wall – East Side Gallery

Stumbling across many billboards dotted across the city describing ‘Der Berliner Mauer’ made we want to see an original stretch of it even more, and where better to see it than the ‘East Side Gallery’, SE of the city centre on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (Google link here). It’s the longest art gallery in the world with a length of 1,316 meters.

There are many other isolated pockets of the wall with the ‘Berlin Wall Memorial‘ on Bernauer Str and the Topography of Terror on Niederkirchnerstraße 8 being two great locations. However on this occasion the 4 of us wanted to visit this graffitted section with its famous artworks of Honecker, a Trabi car and various other thought-provoking pieces of artwork.

The Berlin Wall East Side Gallery from across the road

The Berlin Wall East Side Gallery from across the road

The East Side Gallery is over 1km long!

The East Side Gallery is over 1km long!

Take the S-Bahn to Berlin Warschauer Straße station (or Berlin Ostbahnhof which is slightly closer at its western end) and stroll all of 600m downhill to the eastern tip of it. It’s pretty obvious when you get there. At this point you are still in old East Berlin, with the “death strip” lying behind the wall, followed by the River Spree and then the sanctuary of old West Berlin. Make sure you look behind the wall too as there’s information on the hidden side of the wall, a view of the river, plus the knowledge that you’re stood slap bang in the middle of the “death strip” and just 29 years ago you’d have been shot for being there!

It was fitting that it was a dreary day when we went as this added a slightly fitting sombre atmosphere to where we were walking. After all, the imposing wall was an ideologically as well as a physically barrier separating loved ones from one another for many years. In our group of 4 we stopped at each and every piece of artwork, sometimes in silence, sometimes in shared amusement, sometimes falling back individually to contemplate a certain piece … or just in the vain attempt to take a photo of the artwork without anybody other people bring in it!

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery - the "death strip" behind the wall

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery – the “death strip” behind the wall

Some East Side Gallery facts

  1. Building of the wall (Errichting der Mauer) = 1961
  2. Fall of the wall (Mauerfall) = 9th November 1989
  3. Painting of the wall (Bemalung) = February to September 1990
  4. Repair work (Instandsetzung) = 2009
  5. Length = 1,316m
  6. Cost to visit = free 🙂

My favourite pieces of artwork along the wall …

The great thing about the wall is that everybody’s going to have their favourites. Mine were probably influenced by them being the most famous, or of late of course the most Instagrammed!

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery - Trabi! Birgit Kinder: Test the Rest

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery – Trabi! Birgit Kinder: Test the Rest

Honecker and Brezhnev - that famous kiss. Dmitri Wrubel: Mein Gott hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben

Honecker and Brezhnev – that famous kiss. Dmitri Wrubel: Mein Gott hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery - funny heads by Thierry Noir

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery – funny heads by Thierry Noir

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery Group Shot by Gamil Gimajew

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery Group Shot by Gamil Gimajew

… and some thought-provoking ones!

Many of the pieces had a simple message that no doubt go in and out of fashion dependent on what political factors are taking place in the world at the time. This one below was getting a lot of interest due to Trump’s plans to build his ‘Mexican wall’ and translates as “There are many walls to be dismantled”. It was going down very well with the American tourists we encountered!

One for Donald Trump.

One for Donald Trump. “There are many walls to be dismantled” – Ines Bayer, Raik Hönemann

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery - Afrikaniche Weisheit by Nette

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery – Afrikaniche Weisheit by Nette

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery. Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek: Curriculum Vitae Berlin Wall East Side Gallery - death count

Berlin Wall East Side Gallery. Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek: Curriculum Vitae

So get down to the East Side Gallery. Take your time walking backwards and forwards and make sure to step around the back to look at the other side. If you like souvenirs check out the small shop at the very eastern end where you can still buy a “genuine” piece of the wall. It’s now 28 years since the Berlin wall came down so do you think these souvenirs are genuine? It was 96 miles long so probably? Either way most gift shops around town are selling them as well. Tschüß.

35 minutes in Berlin

Of course I’m not advocating rushing around a city in 35 minutes and certainly not somewhere as deep and meaningful as Berlin. However while plotting a route on our 2nd full day in Berlin this blue-spotted route appeared in front of us on Google Maps, one which you could easily turn into a full half day with various add-ons.

So what is this 35 minute walk? Well simply put it goes from The Reichstag > Brandenburg Gate > Hotel Aldlon > The Jewish Memorial > Potsdamer Platz > Checkpoint Charlie.

Berlin in 35 minutes. A nice starter route

We were in Berlin for the marathon the next day on the Sunday so we wanted to see some sights but without having to walk too far. We had the day after the marathon on the Monday for that. So my little route encompasses 2 historical structures, a “comedy” moment spot, a newer memorial installation for some contemplation, a famous square and finally a fairly ordinary location which suddenly became suddenly became infamous in 1961.

Der Reichstag

A resplendent government building with its new glasshouse dome stuck on the top of it. Take some picture outside of the main facade with the German flag fluttering in the foreground. Go inside of course to experience the new glasshouse building, booking the tickets in advance if you wish to do so.

Berlin Reichstag

Der Berlin Reichstag

Inside der Reichstag

Inside Der Reichstag. Source: Wanderlust Chloe

Der Brandenburger Tor

100m around the corner is the Brandenburg Gate. Significant for it being the backdrop to proceedings in 1989 when the Berlin Wall can down, the location of “The Hoff” singing ‘Looking for Freedom’ on New Year’s Eve 1989 (but not actually bringing the wall down), and for the marathon runners the thing they run through with just 200m to go! A beautiful structure.

Der Brandenburger Tor the day before the Berlin Marathon

Der Brandenburger Tor the day before the Berlin Marathon

 

The Hotel Aldon

100m further on from the Brandenburg Gate is the Hotel Aldon. Remember that day back on 19th November 2002 when the late Michael Jackson decided to dangle his baby over the hotel balcony? Well it was here at the Hotel Aldon on the 3rd floor up, 2nd window from the right.

Hotel Adlon and that Michael Jackson balcony

Hotel Adlon and that “Michael Jackson” balcony

 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

200m down the road is the Jewish Memorial. A controversial new installation completed in 2005 taking up some prime real estate in central Berlin. With no real centerpiece itself you can walk up down, backwards and forwards amongst its 2,711 concrete slabs, all with varying heights but the same 0.95m width and 2.38m length. The abstract and somewhat vague installation leaves much time to ponder and seek interpretation of the message it’s trying to convey. I found it to be strangely tranquil and certainly a place to reflect on past atrocities.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Potsdamer Platz

Once busy pre-wall Potsdamer Platz found itself divided in two when it went up on 13 August 1961 but over the years it became a popular spot for curious tourists, especially when an observation platform went up allowing members of the public to look over the wall at the wilderness beyond. It was also one of the earliest locations where the Wall was “breached” to create a new border crossing between East and West Berlin.

Potsdamer Platz train station

Potsdamer Platz Train station

We literally stumbled across a line in the ground depicting where the wall once stood. We weren’t quite standing one second in the West and one second in the East but we appreciated the significance of this historical marker. The day we visited Potsdamer Platz felt fittingly open and bleak which added to the overall effect of where we were.

Berlin Wall Marker in Potdamer Platz

Berlin Wall Marker in Potdamer Platz

Checkpoint Charlie

The last of the 5 legs takes you from the memorial to Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway between East Berlin and the American sector of West Berlin. Now containing a slightly (read “really”) tacky spot for tourists to have their photo taken with “real” border guards, but also a place with a handful of exhibits and small museum and what I liked best, the original signage. A spot I remember visiting back in 1992 on a school A-level trip but even then already 3 years after the wall has fallen.

Either love it or hate it cheesiness at Checkpoint Charlie. I was the latter

Love it or hate it cheesiness at Checkpoint Charlie. I was the latter

Original Checkpoint Charlie Signage for when you entered West Berlin

Original Checkpoint Charlie Signage for when you entered West Berlin

You could easily spend a half day exploring these 5 spots, sandwiching in the Tiergarten and its Siegessäule tower between points 3 and 4 plus the Topographie des Terrors before you get to Checkpoint Charlie. Either way Berlin with its recent political past, various remaining examples of its infamous wall,  plus of late its emerging tech areas to complement its punk and techno music scenes make Berlin a wonderful european city to visit, and that’s before I even mention its cuisine and beer houses. I’ll be back again, hopefully. Prost! 🙂

Check out two recent experiences of Berlin by travel bloggers Wanderlust Chloe and Heels in my Backpack with more infomation on getting around and spots to eat and drink. The House of Small Wonder being a key spot for some “Instagram action” and the best coffee I had all week!

Driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Tuscany Italy

I’ve always wanted to drive an original Fiat 500 ever since my pal Hornblowertravels mentioned them many years ago with his ultimate goal of driving one back to the UK across the Alps. That never happened but while planning a week’s break to Florence (inspired by the Dan Brown book Inferno) everything suddenly fell into place and we booked an all-day Fiat 500 group tour to see what they were like!

Posing for some pictures at our first pitstop

Posing for some pictures at our first pitstop

We chose My Tours’ 8.5 hour trip as we wanted to experience driving one for the day and not just be behind the wheel for a token half hour or so. It also meant we could see the stunning Tuscany countryside from behind the wheel before being city-bound in Florence for the rest of our 4 night stay there.

So how does the day work?

You meet outside the chemists in Florence train station at 9:00 before a short walk to the company’s mini bus. Our trip consisted of 3 couples plus a family of 3 driving the Fiat 500s and 8-9 people riding brand new yellow Vespas. It was a tough call which option we wanted to take beforehand when booking but in our case the thrill of driving a 1960s Fiat 500 won us over and that’s what we went for.

At the garage waiting to choose our Fiat 500s

At the garage waiting to choose our Fiat 500s

After an hour’s drive out to their garage in Badesse you sign the mandatory consent forms, presumably to confirm 3rd party cover and not any 1st party damage (maybe I should have read mine a bit more carefully), have a photocopy taken of your driving license and a credit card, and then one-by-one you take your chosen Fiat for a practice drive in their large car park. The other 3 parties in our group had already edged over to the colour car they wanted leaving us with a dark blue one, albeit we later found out that ours was the oldest in the group being a 1968 model. The practice “spin” is so they can see you’re fit and able to drive before going out on the open road, My “training” consisted of 1-2 laps with one of their three employees, 3-4 on my own and then 3-4 laps with my girlfriend in the passenger seat.

A selfie stick view out of the sunroof

A selfie stick view out of the sunroof

I’d driven a left hand drive manual car before so it all came quite naturally, although ours had a quirky start lever just in front of the handbrake and reverse gear was found by pushing the gear lever down, right and then back which took a few attempts to properly engage. With such a light car, albeit with such a small engine, a few rear-wheel wheel spins were inevitable what with the car park consisting of gravel. It has quite a snappy little clutch too but it felt oh so lovingly mechanical compared to modern day cars.

A dashboard eye view as we drove along

A dashboard eye view as we drove along

Once the training was all done and dusted you head off into the countryside. Our 4 Fiat convoy followed behind the 8-9 line of Vespas. In our group a Spanish mother/daughter paring didn’t feel confident enough in their light blue Fiat so a member of staff drove for them instead.

What it looked like behind the wheel

What it looked like behind the wheel

We subsequently found out you can hire Fiat 500s for solo hire but it gives you a lot of confidence being in a group, a) as you can simply follow the car in front and b), there’s a bit of a “safety in numbers” factor, although any other cars on the road seemed just as pleased to see us as we were to be in the cars ourselves. There wasn’t one single toot of anyone else’s horn all day which was great particularly as along many stretches of road we were rarely getting above 40mph.

Passing by beautiful Italian cypress trees

Passing by beautiful Italian cypress trees

Our first stop was after about 20 minutes in a lay-by with a view of the surrounding hills. In my own car I wouldn’t have been worried but as we’d parked up on a slight incline just beyond a bend all I could think was “hill-start, hill-start, hill-start 🙂

The first proper stop was at the town of Castellina in Chianti for 30 minutes or so, just long enough to savour the pretty little town, pop into the town’s street-side market and to check out the small shops selling bottles of the chainti. Leaving the town car park I was sandwiched amusingly in-between two “normal” cars, and it’s here where I struggled to get it into reverse, inching ever closer to the wall in front of me! On my third attempt I found it, got it into reverse and caught up with the rest of the group.

Our little Fiat 500 sandwiched between two big BMWs

Our little Fiat 500 sandwiched between two big BMWs

 

Struggling to get into reverse and getting ever closer to the brick wall in front of us

Struggling to get into reverse and getting ever closer to the brick wall in front of us

From Chianti we headed along the winding rows with many hundreds of Tuscan cypress trees lining the road. Soon we arrived at the Poggio Amorelli winery. Yes wine tasting and driving! Mmmm! Nothing was said before, during or after about this, and I was mindful that the Italian blood alcohol percentage is actually lower than the UK’s. My girlfriend had any wine that I didn’t drink … and there was a bowl to pour wine into if you didn’t want to drink it all! 🙂 So just one small glass for me but washed down with some tasty cheese and meats as everyone in the group sat around one huge table, flagged either side by wine barrels.

Having lunch at the Poggio Amorelli winery

Having lunch at the Poggio Amorelli winery

With slightly more bravado post-wine we left the winery and headed onwards! The rest became a bit of a blur. Not due to the wine, but just due the enjoyment of being in great company in a great little car amongst some amazing scenery. When we arrived at the village of Castello di Volpaia for another quick pit-stop an American in the group could only politely moan about the lack of bathrooms! This isn’t Disneyland lady! It’s a 1000 year old castle!

Parked up at Castello di Volpaia

Parked up at Castello di Volpaia

 

The views from Castello di Volpaia

The views from Castello di Volpaia

From there it was onto an ice cream/gelato store and then back to the garage. 70km under our belts, no incidents, no breakdowns and a thoroughly enjoyable day out! I would recommend this trip no end.

It was here that we reflected on our little Fiat 500 for a short while. I’ve never driven an original Mini but I imagine they’re pretty comparable. They really aren’t very wide and are oh so dinky! We never did get into 4th gear but it was ever so nice to drive. Ours had a sunroof that slid right back allowing us to stand up and look out through it too … when stationary that is!

Find out more at My Tours

The Fiat 500s 70km later back safe and sound

The Fiat 500s 70km later back safe and sound

Posing in another one of the Fiat 500s at the Chianti winery

Posing in another one of the Fiat 500s at the Chianti winery

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