A superstar among Berlin's border crossing points, Checkpoint Charlie was one of three allied checkpoints in Germany and one of eight border crossing points between East and West Berlin. The other two allied checkpoints were on one of the Autobahns leading into West Berlin from West Germany - Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt and its partner Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden. The checkpoints were mainly for military personnel, rather less concerned with the movements of civilians, unlike the GDR border control points on the other side. This was something reflected in the name - checkpoint, rather than border control point - highlighting the fact that the western allies didn't officially consider it an international border.

Checkpoint Charlie started life as a small wooden hut and though it was replaced by larger ones over the years of its existence, it was never as large as the border control point on the East Berlin side. Checkpoint Charlie was removed in 1990 and the checkpoint building was moved to the AliiertenMuseum (Allied Museum) in Dahlem. So as not to disappoint the tourists looking for a piece of history, this was put up in its place in 2000:

The reproduction Checkpoint Charlie

This is a reproduction of the first hut that stood on the site and is one of Berlin's biggest tourist attractions. The unfortunate thing is that just beyond it, behind the Christmas tree in the picture, was a genuine GDR watchtower, which was knocked down by a developer not long after the reproduction hut went up, to make way for...a patch of bare earth. Something seems slightly cockeyed about the whole thing.

Still, there's at least a plentiful supply of Russian hats (and beyond them, behind the placards, the space where the watchtower used to be):

Russian hat sellers

These stalls crop up all over former East Berlin, selling various communist souvenirs. I suppose on the plus side, they're no less genuine than the checkpoint...

As I begin gathering my things so I can leave, clouds are gathering to cover the sun. It's not enough to deter me though, even if the temperature does start to drop once the sun's gone in.

Just a few minutes' walk from the busy Leipziger Straße lies this piece of urban wilderness:

A piece of wilderness in the centre of Berlin

Why is there this piece of waste ground so close to the city centre? A closer look at the path gives a clue:

A sandy track with traces of tarmac

It might look like just a sandy dirt path at first, but there are traces of thin tarmac there too. Tarmac which hasn't been replaced for at least 20 years...

This is the remains of an East German 'Kolonnenweg' (patrol road), which border guards used when patrolling the border. This sandy wilderness was part of what's often known as the Todesstreifen (death strip), the space between the wall on the western side and a second wall on the eastern side. This space between was what made escaping far more difficult than just climbing over a wall - by the 1980s, the Berlin wall was one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, a far cry from its beginnings as a barbed wire fence on August 13th 1961.

The area between the two walls was covered with sand, which was regularly raked and sprinkled with weedkiller, not because the SED were fans of Japanese rock gardens, but to ensure there was nowhere for escapees to hide. The area also often contained anti-vehicle defences, barbed wire, dogs on long chains, signal fences and watchtowers, making the chances of getting across unspotted very low indeed.

Further along, just off Kommandantenstraße, someone seems to have set up camp:

A dwelling made from an old skip

Your eyes don't deceive you - that's a skip with windows, a solar panel and a satellite dish on it. I don't know if there's anyone living in it, though.

There's more of the Kolonnenweg here too:

More Kolonnenweg

There's something equally strange on the corner of Beuthstraße, even if it's less anarchistic in nature:

A single show flat

It seems this area isn't going to stay as waste ground for much longer - a developer is planning on building several blocks of luxury flats. They've built this single show flat to attract orders; it looks rather lonely out here on its own though and actually seems more out of place than the skip/spaceship hybrid over the road. I have to say that, considering the current economic climate and knowing the issues Berlin as a whole has faced with attracting new money in, I'd rather be taking orders for the skip.

You'll perhaps remember me mentioning Tegel when I wrote about Platz der Luftbrücke. The runway was built during the Berlin Airlift in the French sector in 1948, on the site of what had been Racketenflugplatz Berlin (Berlin rocket flight site) between 1930 and 1933. At 2,428 metres, it was the longest runway in Europe at the time.

It wasn't until 1960 that commercial flights began, the first being run by Air France. Because of West Berlin's occupied status, only French, British and American airlines could fly to and from Tegel (and Tempelhof). The airport was an attractive destination for airlines at the time, because the runway made it better suited to the new jet airliners which were becoming increasingly commonplace. Pan Am began operating a service from New York JFK in 1964 for this reason.

As Tempelhof became more overcrowded, more airlines began operating flights to and from Tegel. As its usage grew, architects Gerkan, Marg und Partner were contracted to create plans for a new airport. The hexagonal terminal building design is quite striking, something which earned them international acclaim (and more contracts in Germany - Berlin Hauptbahnhof and the renovations of the Berlin Olympic stadium are two more recent examples of GMP's work in Berlin).

We're left waiting for a while before the baggage comes through on the conveyor.

Woman watching the plane on the stand

It gives a good chance to look at the ceiling, though, which is actually more interesting than it sounds.

Hexagonal pillars

The architects have carried the hexagon motif right the way through the building. Everything, from the air traffic control tower to these pillars, is hexagon shaped. It's difficult to get a picture that shows the shape of the building (or at least it is when you're dragging a suitcase and don't want to spend the whole day wandering the airport looking for the perfect spot), but this shot of the taxi rank, which is on the inside of the hexagonal-ring shaped main terminal building, should give some idea:

The taxi rank

It's a wonderfully compact design - with the taxi rank on the inside of the hexagon and the gates on the outside, the distance from aircraft to taxi can be under 70 metres. It's not a whole lot further to the buses either, which stop right in front of the hexagonal building.

I get on the X9 bus into town. A certain Mr Dedicoat sits opposite me...perhaps the BBC has sent him as a spy to trail me? The bus's heating is turned up high, but a brief waft of cold air comes in every time the doors open.

It's not as cold as I expect when I get off the bus outside Zoologischer Garten station. There's a definite chill to the air, but the combination of sunlight and a thick winter jacket help ward off the bite the air normally has when the temperature gets into minus figures. Cold is different in Berlin to in Britain anyway, a dryer cold that doesn't creep its way right into your bones in quite the same way.

I make my way towards my hotel. I'd not normally choose to stay in this part of Berlin, mostly because there's less in the area that interests me, but a very cheap deal made it impossible to resist. It's worth shopping around for places to stay when you come to Berlin - there are so many hotels and apartments that you can quite often get something for a very reasonable price (sometimes not much more than you'd pay for a hostel; in fact, sharing a large flat with several people can work out cheaper than a lot of hostels). Do make sure you know exactly where the place you're booking is, though - some places which look like a good deal are actually a very long way from the city centre, or are in areas you'd really not want to stay in!

Time to settle in for a bit, before heading on back out (like I already hinted in the last post!).

Ever wondered where the National Lottery's 'voice of the balls' Alan Dedicoat goes on holiday? Probably not, actually. Still, if you ever did, I can tell you he was headed for Berlin this morning...as, of course, was I.

It was an early start this morning, a taxi picking me up at 4:30 (too early to take the tube or train, unfortunately, by far the cheaper options).

I make the mistake of buying a coffee on the way to the gate – I plan on sipping it slowly as I wait for the flight, but it turns out to be ready for boarding way before I'm finished and when I get to the gate itself, there's a big sign saying "No hot liquids beyond this point". I gulp my coffee down, one of the staff at the counter shooting me a slightly dirty look, as if it was due to my own madness that I'm stood there gulping down cappuccino. I do briefly consider trying to convince the staff that it's not hot, but merely warm, on its way towards cold, but I can't help thinking of the last time I flew to Berlin, when a half-full 200ml container of hair gel (which I have to admit I'd forgotten was in my bag) was confiscated for being 'way too big' despite the fact they must have been able to see on the scanner that it only had 100ml inside it (which in turn reminded me of how the Stasi had equipment for opening up tubes of toothpaste sent to East German citizens in the post, spreading out the contents on a board to check it...whether they then put it back again in a way that kept the stripes in the right order, I'm not sure).
I board the coach to the plane sans-coffee, but still munching on a sandwich, an item which I presume had been deemed inoffensive enough to take on board the plane (and certainly rather less offensive than some of the things which get served as in-flight meals). It's then that I notice that I'm sat opposite Mr Dedicoat, who boards the flight just ahead of me as we get off the bus. I suppose I can now add celebrity spotting to journeytoberlin.com's list of activities.

It's still dark as we take off at 7am, with the yellow-blue beginnings of dawn somewhere beyond the clouds. London is still lit with the orange glow of sodium vapour streetlights as the plane rises above the suburbs, the yellow-blue making way for warm orange-pink twilight as we ascend through layers of cloud.

The cloud over mainland Europe is a thick blanket of white, with not even the smallest glimpse of land showing through. The plane begins to descend at 8:10, the captain announcing that the current temperature in Berlin is 'a rather chilly -3 degrees centigrade'. While I know that such wintery temperatures strike fear into the hearts of some, I can't help feeling a bit excited at the announcement. Rather like people who travel to hot countries in the summer, I like travelling to Berlin in the winter, for the cold weather.
I remember the winters of my childhood, when thick snow fell on London and we could make snowmen in the garden. I'm sure they weren't all like that, but those are the memories that stick. I'll never forget the huge snowman which someone built in the park one year, which had a hollow in the base big enough to crawl inside; unfortunately this meant it was also big enough for dogs, one of which had left a large 'present' inside it. There are limits even to what a three year old child is prepared to crawl through.

There's been snow forecast for Berlin this week; from my experience the Germans seem to have a better idea of how to stop dogs from leaving 'presents' in it.

The clouds thin as the plane makes its final descent, revealing a golden winter's day in Berlin. It was on a day like this that I first saw the city, from an S-Bahn train heading to Alexanderplatz from Zoologischer Garten and there's still something special to me about days like this. The plane touches down at Tegel Airport just before 10 local time and joins the other planes docked at the airport's hexagonal terminal building, basking in the morning sun.

So here I am in Berlin, safe and sound. There's plenty more to be said about Tegel, but the day's just too nice to be spent sat behind a computer, so I'll leave all that until later. It's time to get out into the city!

While it seems that every shop on the high street is currently trying to convince people that Christmas won't be Christmas unless they shop there, I have different ideas...Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a visit to Berlin.

So, join me here between the 13th and the 16th of December for a Christmas journey to Berlin. There'll be plenty of festive fare courtesy of Berlin's Christmas markets, plus more of the usual blend of famous sights and forgotten relics.

Well, I'm back in London. It's been a long journey in more ways than one. I'll keep working on this site - at the very least, I'll use it the next time I visit Berlin (there are really so many more things to cover!) but I'll probably update it with other relevant things from time to time, so keep watching!

So, it's time to leave Berlin. It's another grey day, with a faint hint of drizzle in the air.

With a bit more light in the station than there was on the evening I arrived, there's a chance to grab a picture of its multi-level interior.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof interior

There aren't actually many angles which you can see all the levels from. This is one of them, though I don't think seeing it like this really conveys just how vast this place feels.

Up on the top level, you can see right across, through all the overhead power lines, to the Berliner Dom, the Rotes Rathaus and, of course, the Fernsehturm.

Skyline from Berlin Hauptbahnhof

The ICE for Cologne arrives at just after 9:45. It's a long train at this point - actually two trains attached together. It'll be split in Hamm, one half going to Köln/Bonn Flughafen (airport) and the other going to Köln Hauptbahnhof.

The ICE arrives

A little girl gets on with her mother at Berlin Spandau. The girl cries; she doesn't want to leave Berlin. I know the feeling...

Past Hannover, things become more grey and it starts to rain. Then come the Weser and Wiehen hills, with mist rolling down from their summits.

Bearing in mind the death valley memory I mentioned on the outward journey, I can't help smiling when I see this piece of advice at Hagen Hauptbahnhof, advising people not to get out there:

Bitte hier nicht aussteigen

Of course it's meant to indicate that you should get out of the other side of the train, but the sign actually just says 'please don't get out here'.

There's a tiny bit of time in Cologne to wander out of the station:

The Kölner Dom reflected in Köln Hauptbahnhof

Then it's on to Brussels. I probably should have taken some pictures when I got there, but Bruxelles Midi really isn't a station that puts me in the mood for doing that sort of thing. The main concourse has low, dark coloured ceilings which just make it feel gloomy and oppressive.

It's dark when the Eurostar leaves at 17:59. "Mind the dangly bits, they might get in someone's face" says the voice of an elderly lady a few seats in front; I don't look to see what's going on.
I get given an electronic questionnaire to fill out during the trip, the man handing me a PDA and a stylus and telling me to use the stylus on the screen 'just like holding a dart'. As he seemed to be leaving people unsupervised with them, I wonder if he ever comes back to find someone has taken it too literally and impaled the PDA with the stylus; I suppose it would be as good an indicator as any of what the customer thought of the experience (or at least of his survey).

The train arrives at St Pancras just after 19:00 British time. The journey to Berlin has come full circle...ready to begin again another time...

Lurking on most most Berlin bar menus, waiting to surprise the uninitiated, is the Berliner Weiße:

A glass of Berliner Weisse

This is a wheat beer unique to Berlin which undergoes a lactic fermentation to produce its characteristically sour taste. As a result, it's almost always served with a shot (Schuß - 20ml in a 330ml serving of beer) of syrup to sweeten it - either raspberry (Himbeer) or woodruff (Waldmeister). Often you'll see them referred to just as 'rot' (red - raspberry) and 'grün' (green - woodruff). Napoleon's troops apparently called it the champagne of the north; whether they put raspberry and woodruff syrup in their champagne too wasn't recorded. Actually (more seriously), I once overheard a tour guide saying that the practise of putting syrup in Berliner Weiße comes from the Huguenots who came to Berlin in the late 1600s, though I suspect this isn't true and that it's actually a more modern practise (it seems by the 19th century they were drinking it with a shot of Schnaps or Kümmel, a caraway spirit; I'd guess the sweet syrup idea may not have become common until the early 20th century, but that really is just an educated guess), which neither the Huguenots nor Napoleon's troops would have heard of.
Berliner Weiße is low in alcohol (about 2.8%) and many find it a refreshing summer drink...or a refreshing winter drink, I suppose.

From Bavaria, in the south of Germany, comes the Hefeweizen:

König Ludwig Hefeweizen

This is also a wheat beer - Weizen being wheat, Hefe being yeast, which is what gives the beer its cloudy appearance. Its flavour is slightly fruity, with hints of bananas, though there's no actual fruit flavouring in it like the fruit syrup in Berliner Weiße. It's a more robust kind of beer, with more alcohol - usually around 5.5%. You'll also often see a Dunkelweizen (a dark version) and Kristallweizen (a filtered version, sometimes served with a slice of lemon).

There are of course many other kinds of beer commonly served in Berlin, both brewed here and elsewhere - you may find this post becomes the first in a series...


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