Berlin was my next port of call. Yes, Berlin you hear me say. Why head back to Germany having already visited I don’t hear you ask. Two reasons: firstly, I needed a Chinese visa and Berlin has an outsourced visa centre and secondly, a friend from home by the name of Alis was joining Pico and me for a few days. It was a period of smiles, travel admin, long drives and random places to sleep.
Leaving the Baltics was a memorable drive in itself. Once again, my American engineer, Eric, joined me. Warsaw was our destination for him to grab a train south to Krakow and as a halfway stop for me. Vilnius to Warsaw was smooth with a pit stop at a random roadside conservatory serving amazing food, a podcast on oil production and some serious infrastructure improvements that improvised a small rally stage.
Arrival in Warsaw bought some beautiful sights as dusk fell and the city lit up. The national stadium is probably the most impressive and attractive stadium I’ve ever seen. Likewise, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Science) is spectacular at night too – it looks very similar to Wayne Tower from the Batman films.
Dropping Eric off at Warsaw Central Station was easy and I circled the block while he tried his luck at the ticket desk. He was successful and we departed as fine friends with future offerings of beds at home. I’d planned to sleep on the road a little way out of Warsaw in preparation for the 6-hour drive to Berlin. With this in mind, I set off out of the city knowing I’d return to teach English conversation in a week’s time.
I say planned: that’s not what happened. The Serial podcast I mentioned last post out totally grasped my imagination. Previously I’d only listened to 2 episodes and had been totally engrossed. I left Warsaw at about 8pm and that night I listened to all but the last episode. While doing so I managed to drive from Warsaw to Berlin – it may have been 12 hours driving that day but honestly, it flew by.
The other reason for this extended drive was that it was my first time back on a motorway in 6 weeks or so and I was cruising. Late at night the roads were clear and it was a pleasure to make such easy miles. I delighted in driving consistently, smoothly and fast – I finished that evening with a big smile in a Berlin service station.
Unsurprisingly, I paid for it the next day :)
Arrival at the hostel in Berlin where I was meeting Alis was a tired affair. Having driven hard the night before, I arrived hours before check-in. When the girl on the front desk saw my cheeky smile hiding a weary face she just wouldn’t stop laughing at me. As I told her of my journey she just about paused for the briefest moment of sympathy. Cheers!
She swiftly directed me round the corner to a delightful little café – Impala. Here I dined on a bagel of chicken, peanuts and slices of mandarin – a genuinely exceptional combination. Beyond the superb smoothie and accompanying flat white, my favourite thing about this place was that they didn’t have Wi-Fi. I’ve continuously been surprised at the availability of free internet everywhere on my journey so far – it does exist in the UK; I guess I’ve just never needed to use it. In that small moment it was a treat to not be connected. Thank you, Impala.
View over the River Spree with Berlin's famous TV tower in the background
A wonderful rest in a hostel hammock followed and next on the agenda was my visa. In between preparing paperwork, I helped bump start a car, got a haircut and relaxed in Gorlitzer park. The visa had to be picked up on the road because a Chinese visa has to be used within 3 months of issue and when setting off I had over 3 months of travelling to do before I got there.
An added complication was proving my entry and exit from the country when I intended to arrive by car and depart on foot. Some flights MAY have been purchased and cancelled to help ease this process ;) Joyfully, for the first time in 4 attempts, my visa application was finally accepted.
In several ways, Berlin felt like the most foreign place I’d visited so far. Far fewer people spoke English, the city has a mysterious post-Communist edge and I arrived tired, not able to function at my finest. I must say that I’ve never seen a city of better-dressed people – everyone has a style and dresses exquisitely to meet the expectation they’ve placed on themselves. Oh how I yearned for something a little more individual than jeans and a t-shirt – I felt positively boring.
Alis arrived late on a Friday evening having enjoyed a 3-hour flight delay. It may have been bad for her but this was great for me – it meant I could catch up on some much needed sleep with a quick nap. The endless driving and Baltic partying had definitely caught up on me.
Over the weekend we toured Berlin from top to bottom by foot. We were genuinely sore by the end of it. We did all the classics – The Brandenburg Gate, the remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Tiergarten, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag and generally delighted in strolling round the epically graffiti’d walls of the city. While climbing the Victory Column in the Tiergarten we even had the oddity of hundreds of cyclists blocking all vehicles on the road as they cycled round the park – our view from the top was the perfect place to view it!
Another interesting moment was getting caught in a governmental. There are often protests in the city and as a result they regularly barricade various streets for crowd control purposes. Don’t ask me how but we ended up on the inside of all these barriers. Negotiating with various camouflaged military to get out was full of laughter and confusion on both sides!
Sunday had us leave Berlin as we headed south to Vienna from where Alis was flying home. The original plan had been to enjoy the sights and sounds of Prague on the way but our enjoyment of the Sandeman’s walking tour (recommended by the dear Mr Pumphrey) left us leaving later than originally intended. The evening drew closer and we hurriedly searched the roadmap for somewhere to camp up.
We ended up in the Sächsische Schweiz National Park near Dresden. Looking for a shop that was open on a Sunday evening bought no reward and it was a case of raiding Pico’s food box. The box delivered and we conjured up a sweet little meal from the varied ingredients available. We cooked marshmallows on my stove late into the night.
The next morning bought a false start: Pico was out of juice. A kind German couple managed to interpret my jump lead gesturing and we got him back in business swiftly. We’d repeatedly seen brown signs for something labelled Bastei the previous evening. We had no idea what it was. So having negotiated our way out of the ‘paid’ car park that we’d stayed in, we followed them. What we discovered was a fantastic bastion hotel and a misty gorge to gaze into. What a pleasant little surprise for a Monday morning.
Alis packing up from camping having just jump started Pico
The drive down to Vienna was gentle and pleasing. So much so that Alis had a nap – truth be told, I appreciated the silence :) We camped on a windy hilltop overlooking an area of farmed national park just north of the city. Austrian beer and tunes were the order of the evening.
Pico and our hilltop view
On our way into the city we spied some magnificent hilltop architecture peering its twin pinnacles over the rushing motorway. We were practically in Vienna before we turned back to investigate. Our efforts were rewarded with the Klosterneuburg Monastery. We’re not the first to find this gem but as it’s out of the city it doesn’t get as much visiting as it deserves. The monastery was established in 1114 AD and is now a museum and art gallery. It’s definitely worth a look in if you’re in the area.
Coffee and cafe outside the Klosterneuburg Monastery
Vienna itself was splendid. We strolled through grand streets and gazed in admiration at the buildings that tunnelled around us. Alis took a particular fancy to the elegant horses that pulled numerous carriages through the streets. This may or may not sound strange but Vienna was just a nice place to be. Nice in terms of the traditional meaning: giving pleasure or satisfaction, pleasant or attractive. It combines the historic with modern living in a fine fashion and I’d definitely recommend it – in fact I wish I’d been there longer to sample more of the city, its classical music and its museums.
Viennese street art
Alas, it was time to see Alis off after our brief excursion. Having dropped her at the airport I again set my sights on Berlin. It was time to pick up my passport and I had my fingers crossed that it would contain a new Chinese visa. I blitzed it back to Berlin in a night and day – what is it with these mega drives to Berlin. I arrived late one afternoon and the visa centre had closed early so I proceeded to drive out of the centre towards the suburbs.
Sleeping here meant my most covert camping yet. I was on a leafy cobbled street where the locals weren’t used to rogue British men parking a sticker covered motor. The curtains went up fast and I proceeded to shadily dance a dance with passers-by. I didn’t even blow up my air mattress for fear that the noise was too noticeable. It wasn’t my finest sleep but it was worth it: I got my Chinese visa the next day. Plans needed to change now for I had three months to enter China.
Next stop was Warsaw and a brief encounter with some Polish students eager to comprehend the nuances of the English language.
Wednesday 14th September – random Berlin service station, Germany
Thursday 15th September – EastSeven Hostel, Berlin, Germany
Friday 16th September – EastSeven Hostel, Berlin, Germany
Saturday 17th September – EastSeven, Berlin, Germany
Sunday 18th September - Sächsische Schweiz National Park near Dresden, Germany
Monday 19th September – Ernstbrunn near Vienna, Austria
Tuesday 20th September – random service station, Czech Republic
Wednesday 21st September – Berlin suburb street, Germany