Big bruises, big history lessons and big Berlin

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Scott cycles past part of the East Side Gallery (formerly the Berlin Wall).

IT’S 2am on a frosty autumn morning in Berlin and I’m peddling furiously down a dark road with just the glow of my headlamp to light the way. Ahead of me the shadowy figure of Scott bobs in and out of view and for a long second I fantasise about forcing my legs to catch up just so I can kick him in the shin.

If I’m going to be entirely honest with myself, it’s not his fault, well mostly. But when you find yourself cycling down a dark street, well past the witching hour (and your bed time) in just a light jacket and shorts in sub Arctic conditions somebody has to take the blame.

At 2.30am the dark city camp site comes into view and I rattle down uneven cobble stones (Scott’s ahead of me with a wall of stony silence between us) and mere minutes later I crawl into my icy sleeping bag with the night’s events swirling around me.

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Site seeing Berlin with fellow Aussie cycle tourer Don

A day of excellent site seeing with fellow Aussie bike tourer Don, an evening beer with a local 22-year-old Jerry (who we met through the bike hosting site Warmshowers), dinner at a local Rastafarian drug den, and then an invitation to a “nearby” party with fun loving Berliners. It was hard to pin point where it could all go wrong.

We’d been at Berlin’s tree-covered campsite for just one day when Don rolled up on loaded touring bike. Sporting a fuzzy red beard and an Akubra, the Perth-born nurse (who worked in the Kimberleys) had been cycling around Europe for four months and with his broad Aussie accent he announced England was the next stop where he’d work for the winter.

We struck up an instant friendship and decided to explore Berlin together the next day. According to the guide books the capital was a vibrant and hip place where past and present collided in the plethora of museums, cheap and delicious street stalls and the famous East Side Gallery which remains one of the only chunks of the original Berlin Wall, sporting over 100 paintings/murals and street art.

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Checkpoint Charlie – a famous East/West Berlin relic

A day was spent getting our bearings and checking out the DDR museum (a hands on look at life under East Berlin rule in the 60s and 70s) and then a quick walk around “Check Point Charlie”.

The following day we jumped on our bikes at 9.30am and peddled the 11km into town to take part in a Cold War underground bunker tour before checking out Brandenburger Tor (where Hitler’s own Bunker once lay) and then the East Side Gallery.

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Brandenburger Tor in Berlin is a famous square now used for ceremonies and protests such as these – a protest against human trafficking

We’d also planned to met up with the cheerful Berliner Jerry who had offered to be our guide.

For an hour we strolled along the tourist-packed East Side Gallery which was only slightly ruined by the added tacky graffiti and sex jokes and from there we checked out the hip and alternative quadrant of Kreuzberg which kind of reminded me of Brisbane’s West End.

It was there that Jerry met up with us and we downed a drink at a quirky bar before the kind, curly-haired local offered to take us to an African outdoor eatery called Yaam for dinner and then onto a friend’s house party.

Don, who happily enjoys a drink or three, quickly complied and Scott and I gave ourselves the “when in Rome..” shrug before joining in.

It turned out Yaam was a Rastafarian/weed hot spot (with just a couple of simple vegetarian dishes in case you get the munchies) and as we walked into the sandy, open-aired “platz” I wondered what on earth we’d got ourselves into. Just a handful of very stoned Africans wandered about with Bob Marley blaring in the background and Jerry needlessly informed us that this was where you could “buy your marijuana” if you liked.

Within seconds a local offered us just that but we quickly declined and said we were actually there for the food. A simply plate of rice and vegetables proved to be surprisingly tasty and at 9.30am we left for the party which our guide insisted was quite close to the campsite.

I was already tired, cold and keen for my sleeping bag but I forced my legs back onto the bike and tried to shove away the thought that I was wearing shorts and a cycling jacket with just a 2 euro bottle of wine to offer up at a stranger’s party.

Techno music blared out of the small apartment as we wandered into the home and after some introductions to the hosts we shuffled into the corner sipping on a glass of wine.

I took a look around and was met with a group of hipster 20 year olds sporting the kind of nose rings and dreadlocks only someone that age can or wants to get away and quickly realised I wasn’t just too old, but way to uncool for this kind of gathering.

I mean, let’s forget for one second that I couldn’t remember the last time I had listened to techno music or been to a house party. Truth be told I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d stayed up past midnight.

All of a sudden I felt like the weird aunty at the party who everyone nervously avoids and hopes will leave before she embarrass herself.

Don embraced the experience with a gusto I envied while joking to us that he was “glad I’m not the oldest for once” and after sampling some shots of a local Berlin liquor that tastes like toothpaste I gave Scott “the look” before tapping my watch.

Yes, yes I know I’m a nanna but by this point it was 12.30pm and I was cold, hungry (the shared plate of African food didn’t even touch the sides) and bloody nervous about making it back to our campsite from an unknown neighbourhood.

At 1am we eventually managed to inch out of the apartment and beelined straight for a 24-hour Hungry Jacks (hoffing down chilly burgers that gave us heartburn) before hitting the dark streets.

We’d left Don in the company of two beers and a young French girl and despite worrying that he didn’t have a map, GPS or even sobriety to help him get home, he insisted he’d be fine.

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Our leafy campsite with just our tent and Don’s parked in the tent section

At 9.30am the next morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag with a groan and discovered a happy-looking Don who was already tucking into breakfast.

He’d managed to wobble home at 4.30am (falling off his bike just once) and was even gearing up to go for a run.

I’d had just a couple of drinks that evening but with my bloodshot eyes and pale skin it looked as though I’d come off second best at an all night rave.

It was an unexpected end to one hell of a week in Germany which began just after we rolled out of historic Bremen.

The cycle east to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp took two, fairly uneventful days and when a cool morning dawned the following day we had just eight kilometres to reach the infamous World War II site.

DSC_2792Arriving on our loaded bicycles at 10.30am (much to the amusement of a group of Chinese tourists standing next to their shiny tour bus) we planned to stay just two hours before heading to Celle but mere steps into the enormous Documentation Centre I realised a full day wouldn’t even cut it.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stared at the images of emaciated prisoners lying dead and naked in grotesque graves that now stood as great grassy mounds.

The black and white photos filled an entire wall but while polished stone framed the polaroids and the grounds were no longer littered with open graves and disease-riddled huts the horror of it hit me like a slap in the face.

Right here, in this deceptively tranquil field, thousands of Jews, political prisoners, Soviet soldiers and even children were brutally murdered or callously left to starve to death just a few decades earlier and to be honest I couldn’t understand why.

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It’s deceptively peaceful at Bergen Belsen where green mounds cover the graves of thousands

Outside an autumn breeze ruffled those dozens of grassy mounds housing the dead with just small plaques announcing the number in each: “Here lie 5000”.

Next to me, Scott stood frozen in anguish as he watched the short black and white film of skeletal POW bodies being tossed without ceremony into a dirt pit.

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The grave of Anne and Margot Frank

We moved silently through the enormous centre watching interviews, reading historical accounts and taking in the walls of images before it came time to visit the grounds of the camp itself. Armed with a vision that seemed burned to our retinas we could see where it all happened and eventually we wound back to the cemetery (although the camp is in fact one giant graveyard) where we found the headstone for Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

I looked at my watch – it was 4.30pm.

With hearts heavy, we had just an hour and half to find a campsite before the weather dropped along with the sun at 5.30pm a small site came into view. A large and cheerful Oktoberfest celebration was underway forcing us to watch, with drool sliding down our chins, as plates of pretzels, pork knuckle and sauerkraut sauntered past the reception area into a function room.

Suddenly our packet pasta and dried sausage seemed crap bordering on inedible but we sourly began cooking on a tarp next to our tent while planning the next few days.

Berlin lay just 300km east we hoped (rather ambitiously) to get there in about four days with the reward of a decent and some serious site seeing.

The following morning dawned cold and frosty so after a quick coffee and a bowl of cereal we packed up the tent and moved on.

Just 15 minutes later the cycle path to Celle, which followed the river, dwindled to a close and I quickly turned my bike up a steep hill to the main road.

For some reason my wits where still in my sleeping bag and when I joined Scott at the crest I overbalanced, pulled the wrong foot out of the cleat and then spectacularly fell on my back side with the bike on top of me.

Pain shot through my bottom like a lightening strike and tears stung my eyes. Had the fall hurt less the site of a grown woman clutching her backside next to a mass of bags and bike would have looked bloody hilarious but as it was my buttock was searing and he we still had 15km to the next town.

Sarah cycles through a main street of Celle

Sarah cycles through a main street of Celle

I’m not sure if it was the fall (leaving me with less than kind feelings towards my bike) or the fact that Celle has well over 100 half timbered buildings in the main street (making it look like a picture from a Grimm fairy book) but I had no intention of cycling further that day and so we threw the Berlin schedule out the window and instead wandered through the gorgeous town before picnicking in its main park. We found a campsite that afternoon and gorged on tea and biscuits until bed time.

Gorgeous fairy tale characters pop out of a window in Celle

Gorgeous fairy tale characters pop out of a window in Celle

The next morning I rolled over painfully and asked Scott to inspect the damage.

“Oh shit,” he said.

“You’ve got an, um, pretty big bruise on your bottom.”

Besides having a multi coloured buttock I was sore and miserable and suffering from a severe case of the sooks so we decided it would be best to make up ground via the train.

At 5pm we’d covered 150km and emerged at what looked like a Soviet waste land but was in fact the town of Rothenau.

The campsite was 20km away, the sun was threatening to flee, so when a sign for a “pension” (b&b) popped up out of the gloom we shoved budget fears out the window and knocked on the door.

Despite the fact that suspicious red lights lined the windows and our host looked like Dracula crossed with Fabio we were lead to a surprisingly gorgeous little room with a sloped roof and exposed wooden beams while being charged 75 euros including breakfast.

DSC_2813I had an amazing sleep (on my side) and the following morning (after a hearty buffet) we managed to smash out the final 90km to our Berlin campsite without breaking too much of a sweat.

It’s now the night before we leave the capital and from here we head to Dresden (a city bombed to smithereens during World War II but impressively rebuilt) before heading to Prague in the Czech Republic via the Elbe River.

From there it’s a quick dash to Munich where we’ll celebrate Scott’s 30th in great beer hall style and a quick dash down to Switzerland and it’s famous Alps.

No sweat at all.

2 Responses to “Big bruises, big history lessons and big Berlin”

  1. Hi Guys Great to read your latest blog Bruce

  2. Thanks Bruce!

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