Berlin, I am led to believe by numerous books and websites, has a temperate climate “characterised by moderately warm summers”. Hell, Hades, blazes, a monkey’s bum, an oven, a Carolina Reaper chilli and a dingo’s sphincter, on the other hand, are all generally considered to be extremely hot, and it has honestly never occurred to me to add ‘German capital’ to that list of similes until I step off the plane at Berlin Schönefeld Airport.
It’s hot in a face-searing, bone-sapping, migraine-inducing way that they definitely don’t warn you about before they open the plane door – “Welcome to Berlin where the local temperature is WHAAAAAT the…”. There’s a blast of scorching air as I emerge on to the plane steps and passengers leave strips of skin on the metal handrail as they grasp it for support. The short walk to the terminal building is a sort of German hot-coal initiation ceremony, only with a hundred metres of tarmac and concrete and no cooling off the feet in a palm-fringed sea. The local news report will doubtless lead with the story that flights were disrupted at Schönefeld Airport today when planes literally melted on landing. “Yes Hans, that’s correct, the puddle you can see on the runway is in fact Easyjet flight EJ357, and now back to the studio”.
Hot as a dingo’s sphincter
It’s not even the hottest day of the year. That was a couple of weeks earlier, when the city hit a record 39℃ (over a hundred Fahrenheit in old money), though when you’re this far up a dingo’s sphincter what’s a couple of degrees between friends? Thirty-nine is not “moderately warm”. You wash a pair of soiled jeans at 39℃ to get rid of the stubborn stains after that night in the club when you… anyway, doesn’t matter. Thirty-nine is insanely hot for Europe. Thirty-nine is beyond the boiling point of isoprene, phosgene, pentene, ethyl bromide and trichlorofluoromethane and, while I don’t know what any of those things are, I do know it’s not a good idea to boil them. Thirty-nine means I’ve already got sunburned kneecaps and I’m thinking the ‘thin long-sleeved fleece’ from the packing list is probably a bit de trop.
Still, here I am and off we go. The first train on the first day of my Big Summer Train Trip – I’ve decided it warrants capital letters – is the half-hourly regional express from Schönefeld Airport to Berlin city centre. In the next nine days, I’m going to travel over 2,500 kilometres by train across central Europe as I trace the Danube, penetrate the Balkans and traverse the Alps, and it all starts with the short thirty-minute ride to Berlin’s main station, the Hauptbahnhof.
Sadly, I’m going to have no need of the one phrase in German that was drilled into us in Mr Hargreaves’ class in school – namely, wo is der bushaltestelle? (where is the bus stop?). Instead, I simply follow the handy sign from the airport that says ‘Trains’, so nuts to Mr Hargreaves. I buy a ticket from the automatic machine in the concourse, see from the departure board that the Berlin train is about to leave, sprint down the tunnel, follow the signs and run up a steep flight of steps to the platform. I say all that like it’s easy – sprint, run, up the steps. Picture a red-faced, glistening man who looks like he’s just eaten a vindaloo and dipped himself in lard, wading in slow-motion through treacle-like air while carrying a bag full of clothes more suited to a winter ski holiday. Imagine, if you will, a heavy-breathing, rucksack-carrying gent moving with all the sprightly ease of a prison escapee hobbled by ankle chains and negotiating a muddy field. Yep, that’s me.
The train’s idling, engine running, doors open, so I clamber on, find a seat and stow the backpack. I’m ten minutes out of the airport and already wringing wet – so much so that I don’t want to lean back against the seat because of that terrible, clingy feel of sweaty shirt against skin. Doors close, the train pulls off on time and I look out of the window as we trundle through Berlin’s suburbs on a piercingly bright summer’s day, clackety-clacking through stations with offputtingly long compound names.
What could possibly go wrong?
It’s taken four months of meticulous planning to get to this point. I’ve taken trains all over the world, from Norway to New Zealand and Sicily to China – not those actual routes, you understand – and I take my travel prep seriously. There’s nothing I like better than devising train journeys, plotting routes and chasing down the information I need to make the trip a success. Four months of reading, Googling, writing and printing. Sixteen weeks of checking train timetables, noting down departure times and confirming connections. One hundred and twelve days of filling-in spreadsheets, downloading apps and making seat reservations. Two thousand six hundred and eighty-eight hours of learning the word ‘train station’ in a variety of European languages, not all of them with vowels or consonants in the expected places.
Obviously, I’m on the wrong train.
To be fair to me – and I think you must try, despite the clear temptation to laugh your head off – it’s not at all apparent at any point that I’ve made a mistake. Stations come and go, all pre-fixed with the word ‘Berlin’, so we pass through Berlin Ostkreuz, Berlin Ostbahnhof, Berlin NichtThisWay and Berlin DummkopfIdiot, though I’m not really paying much attention and may have mis-read a couple of them. And I’m not really paying much attention because I followed the signs to the right platform. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on the train to Berlin from the airport which terminates at Berlin Hauptbahnhof and so I don’t need to worry about it because the train will just stop when it gets there.
Except, after about forty minutes, just as the train is leaving another random suburban station – Berlin ScheiẞeVerdammt as I recall – there’s an announcement that says, “Next station, Berlin Schönefeld Airport”.
I look around at the other people in the carriage, none of whom seem to be panicking or hyperventilating, and all of whom appear quite clearly to be heading to an airport, with their labelled luggage, passport holders and care-free demeanour. I sit tight and say nothing as the train passes back through Berlin DummkopfIdiot, Berlin NichtThisWay, Berlin Ostbahnhof and Berlin Ostkreuz, until it terminates half an hour later at Berlin Flughafen Schönefeld, where delighted holidaymakers pour off the train and into the airport terminal.
I grab my backpack, stand on the platform and try and look as if the hour and a half’s round-trip back to where I started was entirely the beginning that I had in mind for my trans-European train extravaganza. Can’t be too careful, just checking, belt and braces and all that. Now I know that’s definitely not the train, it’s time to get cracking, best foot forward, onwards and upwards. I cross the platform to the other track where the actual train to Berlin Hauptbahnhof is just about to depart, jump on, find a seat and stow the backpack. This time we bypass Berlin NichtThisWay and Berlin DummkopfIdiot in favour of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Berlin Friedrichstraẞe – well done driver, I knew you could do it – and pull into the main station roughly two hours later than planned.
I only understand train station
I have since discovered that there is an excellent German phrase, Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof, whose literal translation is “I only understand train station”. Germans use it when they don’t understand something – rather like we might say “It’s all Greek to me” – and I can’t think of a better opportunity to try it out. I still have no idea what happened, or how it is that the train went in an entire circle without me noticing – in fact, Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof – but we are where we are (Berlin, I think) and will say no more about it. Stop sniggering at the back there.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is one of those modern railway stations that badly wants to be an airport, with its elevated terraces, shopping concourses, ersatz street-food kiosks and café zones. If only they had some of those plane things and a runway, but they’re stuck with the boring trains. The tracks are all tucked away underground – “all right, if we have to have the trains, they’re going right down there, where no one can see them” – and I rise on zig-zag escalators into a vast, soaring, glass-roofed hall. It’s undeniably impressive and, if I’m honest, all a little disappointing for the adventurous traveller.
Time was, you got off a train in a major European city and emerged into a grimy, smoke-filled concourse where tramps were foraging in bins and gangs of urchins were harassing fresh-faced American students carrying towering backpacks.
Drugs, why how kind
Out on the street, you’d be thrown straight into the Red Light district and introduced to several unkempt, hollow-faced people with grasping hands eager to make your acquaintance. You’d run the gauntlet – drugs? why how kind, no, I’m sure she’s lovely, etc – try to look like you knew where you were going and never, under any circumstances, book into any of the hotels within eyesight of the station. These were called things like Hotel Gunshot or Organ Harvest Gardens and rarely troubled the local tourist board’s star-rating system. There was a place I remember around the back of the Rossio station in central Lisbon, the rather gritty Pension Iris, whose ‘en-suite twin room’ indeed had both shower and toilet, plumbed bang into the centre of the room and separated from the beds by a pull-round shower curtain. The proprietor maintained a 24-hour reception by sleeping under his desk on a soiled mattress, baseball bat to hand. In the bar next door, a down-at-heel businessman in a shabby suit once beckoned me over, reached into his pocket (no, not what you’re thinking) and proudly showed me his gun.
Ah happy days. But as I say, long gone in most of Europe and especially around Berlin’s sparkling, glass-fronted Hauptbahnhof, where the worst that’s going to happen to you is a squirt of designer perfume in the eye from an over-keen shop assistant.
This is an extract from my new book, Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave, which is available now for pre-order from the following places:
About ‘Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave’
My latest travel memoir is a hot and steamy adventure (no, not that kind) by rail across Europe, taking in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Liechtenstein, Zurich and Milan.
In the European-wide summer heatwave of July 2019, while sensible people stayed indoors, put their heads in the fridge and watched endless re-runs of ‘Frozen’, I spent nine days on trains across Europe, visiting nine cities in nine countries.
Why? Good question.
It started off, as most of my ideas do, with a spark of inspiration fuelled by a glass of red wine. Another glass made me think it really was quite a good plan, and by the third glass I had a full itinerary worked up.
If only I’d checked the advance weather forecast, I would have seen that Europe in general, and central Europe in particular, was just about to be engulfed in the mother of all heatwaves. Relentless travel across Europe, jumping from one tin can on rails to another, was going to be decidedly not cool.
But I live in England where a heatwave is what we call it when you have to take your jumper off in July, so it honestly never occurred to me that it would be so hot. That bit’s all on me. Definitely my fault.
Everything else that happened? Well, that’s up to you to decide.