13th - 15th Oct 2016
|The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, illuminated|
Just as I was leaving Warsaw a watery sun began to peep through the clouds. Pity I had had such a wet time of it. Hey ho. Despite being held up, or I should say delayed, by a gang of wealthy Chinese in my hotel I made it to the central station in good time. Not a long walk.
The train departed at 9.57am and much to my delight the carriages contained comfortable 'compartments' rather than aircraft type seating. Only three others were in my compartment so plenty of room to spread out and relax for the 6 hour journey to Berlin. I was looking forward to watching the scenery go by, fiddling about on my computer and enjoying whatever they had to offer in the buffet or restaurant car. I was let down on all three counts. The scenery, travelling due west through Poznan, was distinctly uninspiring; flat and not even many trees. I have yet to see anything resembling a hill since leaving Tallinn. There was no wifi and, worst of all, there was no buffet or any source of refreshment for the whole journey. I mean, this was 6 hours spent without even being able to get a drink! If I'd known that before I would have plundered the breakfast buffet at the hotel and bought a few bottles of beer in the station. Polish Railways (PKP) definitely gets the thumbs down for that.
Two of my fellow compartmentees got off at Poznan leaving me alone with a German chap, a builder I think, or perhaps a road worker (I never really gathered) returning to his family in Berlin. He spoke little English, and me barely any useful German but nevertheless he insisted on speaking to me, almost non-stop. I hardly understood a word he was saying and my Deutsche is only what I gleaned as a schoolboy from the War Picture Library comics. Phrases such as "Hande Hoch Fritz!" and "Achtung mein Schmeisser ist kaput" or "Donner und Blitzen wo ist der Flammenwerfer Herr Hauptman" were, I considered, not appropriate for any sensible conversation. I tried to be polite and nodded and shook my head at what I considered the correct moments. It seemed a long and tiresome journey.
Arrived at the very smart new 4 level Berlin Hauptbahnhof (full of smart shops and restaurants) at about 4.00pm and asked the helpful information desk lady where I could stay for the night, preferably cheaply and nearby. I was directed to a place 10 minutes walk away called the 'AO Hostel'. She also told me that there was to be a 'son et lumiere' show tonight at the Brandenburg Gate...in my honour of course. The AO was much better than a hostel, cost 70 Euros per night and I got a comfortable room with all mod cons, plus a good bar.
It was a 20 minute walk to the Brandenburg Gate where the show was due to start at 7.00pm, and it did. Quite impressive too with clever changing lights and moving graphics playing on the gates accompanied by loud music. There was a healthy crowd there to greet me, although in true reserved and polite Teutonic fashion they made a point of not overtly recognising me. The photo of this event does not show the crowd because I was at the front of it. It was still going at 8.30pm when I decided I had seen enough.
After a decent supper at a restaurant on Unter den Linden I got a U-Bahn back to the Hauptbahnhof. This was just a brief pit-stop, as was to be my next night spent in Brussels.
The ICE train left Berlin at 1052am bound for Cologne where I had to make a change. It passed through Hannover, Minden, Osnabruck, Munster; place names that were familiar from a previous existence in Germany. I remember the days when the journey by military train from Hanover to Berlin was through old Soviet controlled East Germany and was quite an elaborate performance. This train did boast a wifi facility, but you had to pay for it. I duly paid 5 Euros for an hour's connection (what a rip off). It then didn't work! (an even greater rip off). I don't understand why the further west you go the worse the internet/broadband service is. In the Baltics, and indeed in most far eastern countries, wifi connection with fast broadband is as free and available as tap water. Maybe we will catch up one day.
A quick change to another ICE train at Cologne (that didn't even offer wifi, expensive, useless or not) and arrived at Brussels Midi at 1540pm. Another helpful info desk chap directed me to a nearby hotel which, he suggested, was only 7 minutes walk, a couple of Squares, away in the Place de L'Aviation.
On leaving the station, by the back exit, I felt somewhat ill at ease. It is a scruffy and badly lit area. There were several little groups of Afro-Belgians hanging around. They were mostly wearing dark glasses (and it was beginning to get dark by then) and looked vaguely sinister. I really don't know what they were up to and they talked in that strange Afro-French dialect. There were also a few armed-to-the-teeth Belgian soldiers knocking around. I'm not sure which I considered the more dangerous.
I set off armed with a street map, wishing I was armed with something more lethal, which the station info man had kindly given me, to find the Place de L'Aviation. I then found myself walking down some dimly lit streets in what was clearly a very black 'ethnic' and grotty area. I was stared at, quite disconcertingly, by locals loitering on the street corners and one feels remarkably vulnerable being an obviously touristy white man dragging a suitcase and carrying all one's money and valuables in such a dodgy part of town where one stands out like the proverbial 'dog's bollocks'. Smart, elegant, chic Brussels this definitely was not. Anyway, I eventually found the hotel, Hotel Aviation (what else), without incident. It seemed decent enough and affordable at 50 Euros (cash) for the night. Having dumped my kit, and carefully locked away or hidden all my valuable stuff, I decided to go back to the station to do some shopping for rations because there were no shops nearer to the hotel. I retraced my steps with only the odd look from the corner loiterers. They must be getting used to me. Maybe we'll be on chatting terms before I leave. I did my shopping and set off back again. I had only gone a short distance when, passing a row of taxis, I noticed one of them appeared to have a little fire underneath it. A couple of guys then started setting off hand-held fire extinguishers at what seemed a minor glow. I decided to stay and watch. The flames grew higher despite the efforts of, presumably, the driver and a couple of mates. It soon developed into a mighty conflagration with attendant explosions and billowing black smoke. Interestingly, other than a few taxi drivers, nobody else in the area seemd to be taking much interest. The crowd of gawpers consisted of just me and another couple of guys taking photos with their mobile phones. I had, wisely I thought at the time, left my camera in the hotel, dammit. Sod's Law; you never have it when you need it. I think someone was trying to stop traffic passing by. Perhaps burning cars here is such a regular occurrence that they are of no great interest. Eventually a fire engine could be heard approaching from the distance. The siren grew louder, then grew fainter. It grew louder again and must have come quite close before growing fainter again. I heard it again coming from the opposite direction and again seemed to get close, judging by the noise, but again disappeared. It brought to mind episodes of the Keystone Cops. They were obviously racing around the city, bells ringing and siren blaring, with firemen hanging off the sides, and completely lost.
They did arrive eventually. The car was still ablaze, fortunately for them, with plumes of black smoke and the occasional dying pop, fizz and bang. The firemen, kitted out like spacemen, had a marvellous time dousing it with foam, and it took some dousing, before we could all admire what was left of the smouldering wreck. I felt like giving a little round of applause at the end of this bit of street theatre. I walked back to Place de L'Aviation by a different, longer but better lit and populated, route. Had supper in a cheery little restaurant and went to bed. That was when the trouble started.
My room was basic but seemed clean and tidy with en-suite shower. It was 1.15am when I woke up with an itchy right foot. I tried to disregard it, but woke up again sometime after, thrashing about with a serious itching on my arms, back and neck. I couldn't disregard this. I was being eaten alive! What to do? The bed was obviously infested. I really couldn't be arsed to go all the way down to reception, if indeed anyone was likely to be there, so I took the quilt off the bed, put it on the floor and slept on that hoping the bugs were in the mattress part. It wasn't a comfortable night, and the following morning, my back, arms, neck and feet were still madly itching but, curiously, no sign of bites. They appeared red and glowing later in the day. I rather meekly decided not to press this matter home with a rather surly concierge before I left on the basis that it would probably end up in an argument and I doubted if I would get any money back. Still not sure if it was fleas or bed bugs, but thoroughly unpleasant whichever. The only previous occasion I was bitten by bed bugs was on the Ghan train in Australia, and they left nasty infected very localised bites. Maybe these ones were fleas, not that I saw any or even care what the little bastards were. I suppose the only thing to do is warn any of you reading this, should you be passing through Brussels and looking for accommodation near the Midi station, AVOID THE HOTEL AVIATION at least until it has been fumigated.
I obviously never got to see the smart part of Brussels where the fat-cat over-paid Eurocrats dine out and party in grand style (on our taxpayers' money). I don't suppose they get to see much of the Place de L'Aviation either for that matter.
So, back to the Midi railway station for a short 35 minute trip to the charming French town of Lille.