Ampelmann: East Berlin’s Cold War Hero

From the devastation of WWII to the post war division, wherever you stand in Berlin you are always reminded of the city’s tragic twentieth century history. During the peak of the Cold War there were an estimated 16 spy agencies working in the city and while James Bond and Jason Bourne have moved on ( as far as we know) one Cold War hero has lasted the test of time. That man is the East Berlin Ampelmann.

Ampelmann, like any good spy can be easily overlooked or passed by, and after the German reunification he began to meld back into the shadows. However the citizens needed a hero, they needed a man to rally around to preserve their culture and Ampelmann was that man.

So who is Ampelmann? Put simply he is the road crossing man.

Bernauer Strasse was one of the most important sites of the Berlin Wall, and Ampelmann still stands guard today

Bernauer Strasse was one of the most important sites of the Berlin Wall, and Ampelmann still stands guard today

It was easy to tell what part of Berlin you where in based purely upon the road crossing signals. In West Berlin you had the boring capitalist slightly depressing looking stick figure we know around the world. Not in East Berlin! East Berlin (and East Germany as a whole) had Ampelmann, a slightly paunchy communist crossing man that oozed charisma. When stopped he stood defiantly, arms out stressed ( as opposed to the almost anaemic looking western version). When green he strode confidently, head held high, back arched as he marched off to work like all happy communists were expected to do!

Ampelmann & Ampelfrau (found in Dresden), so much more appealing than the boring Western crossing signal

Ampelmann & Ampelfrau (found in Dresden), so much more appealing than the boring Western crossing signal

After the fall of the wall his life was threatened, like many a good spy he was being hunted and was slowly being replaced by the western crossing man, the Cold War was over, and it appeared his time was quickly running out too.

However the people of East Berlin rallied around Ampelmann and he is now one of the symbols of the city. In the 1990’s a committee for the preservation of ampelmann was set up. The media jumped on board, the campaign grew and eventually politicians had to take note, the people had spoken! Nowadays whole souvenir stores dedicated to him can be found throughout Berlin selling everything from Ampelmann ice cube trays and cookie cutters to wine stops, bags, hats even Ampelmann Gummi Bears!

One of the many Ampelmann stores throughout Berlin. Do you really need those ice cube trays, well yes!

One of the many Ampelmann stores throughout Berlin. Do you really need those ice cube trays, well yes!

In fact he has become so popular that when new crossing signals are now installed across Berlin regardless of East or West it is Ampelmann who stands stops you victoriously across the city.

The face of Berlin has changed dramatically since the reunification in 1991.  History will say the West won the Cold War, but in Berlin one Cold War icon has endured. In Berlin the East had at least one victory and it takes the form of the Ampelmann…

Striding confidently off into the future...

Striding confidently off into the future…

– Dean

Advertisements

Our Pre Oktoberfest Checklist

It is that time of the year again, time to join thousands of travellers from around the world as you descend upon Southern Germany. So you are planning to hit the world’s largest beer festival? The Oktoberfest is almost a rite of passage for many backpackers travelling around Europe. However for many it can also be their downfall. By following our Pre-Oktoberfest checklist you can avoid some of the pitfalls of Munich’s craziest two weeks and ensure you have an awesome time!

The Hofbrau tent main entrance

The Hofbrau tent main entrance

1. Book Your Accommodation Early!

To be totally honest, if you are reading this and still haven’t got a place to stay you are pretty much too late! Accommodation is at a premium during the ‘Fest’ and even dorm rooms are ridiculously expensive. Camping is an option and Camping Thalkirchen is probably your best bet, but be prepared for masses of organised groups packing out the campsite. If you do camp make sure you are first ones into the shower block after they have been cleaned, you have been warned!

With some tents holding over 5000 people you better book accommodation early

With some tents holding over 5000 people you better book accommodation early

Remember, if all else fails do as the locals do and pass out under a tree in the grounds, dozens of locals can’t be wrong can they, oh and don’t forget to pack the beer blanket.

2. Start Drinking Now!

The Bräuhaus’ of Munich brew extra strong beer for Oktoberfest , somewhere between the five and eight percent alcohol mark! Combine that with the fact a stein is one litre, many an unsuspecting traveller have found their day or night coming to an early end because of a lack of ‘beer stamina’. On the bright side Munich brewers abide by the 1516 Beer Purity Laws meaning there are no additives or preservatives added to their beers. According to the Bräu Meisters it is the additives and preservatives that give you a hangover! So technically regardless of your beer drinking capacity you should be able to knock back steins all night and wake up fine in the morning!

Start building your drinking fitness before Oktoberfest!

Start building your drinking fitness before Oktoberfest!

Now The Smart Way Round have laid their bodies on the line all in the name of research and we can attest that after downing 10 steins in a night the next morning you don’t feel hungover! Well, you still don’t feel great but your body is expecting to feel worse than you actually do so perhaps the Bräu Meisters are correct. More research must be done on this one we think, but in the mean time start improving you drinking skills.

For some the experience can be all too much

For some the experience can be all too much

3. Bring Loads of Money.

For the first time ever a stein of beer is hitting and in some tents breaking the 10 euro barrier. So a decent session in one of the Oktoberfest beer tents is going to set you back a small fortune (or the price of a dorm bed for a night).

With steins costing around 10 Euro this year it could be an expensive shout

With steins costing around 10 Euro this year it could be an expensive shout

At some stage you are going to have to eat. Once the beer goggles are put on every girl in a dirndl selling giant pretzels is going to look like the most beautiful girl you have ever laid eyes on. The likelihood of numerous pretzel purchases is virtually guaranteed.

Beware the charms of the pretzel girls!

Beware the charms of the pretzel girls!

There is also a good chance you are going to walk out of there with an overpriced souviner but by the end of the night you REALLY are going to need that felt hat with a stuffed Bavarian Lion attached to it.

So our suggestion is call home for emergency funds, raise the credit card limit and just accept you literally are going to flush your cash down the loo at Oktoberfest!

Did I really buy that last night?!

Did I really buy that last night?!

4. Buy Lederhosen or a Dirndl.

Hey you are in Bavaria! All the locals will be sporting their traditional costumes so why not you?

I promise you from experience there is nothing more fun than drinking beer wearing leather shorts that are way too tight but strangely comfortable.

Everyone at Oktoberfest will be wearing it

Everyone at Oktoberfest will be wearing it

However be warned, when that emergency bathroom dash happens or when you get caught at the back of the inevitable enormous line to the gents, for the first time wearer lederhosen can be a nightmare to get undone!

Our tip, practice that emergency dash in your hotel or hostel so when the time comes you are a lederhosen undoing pro!

5. Make a copy of your Passport.

Over 1000 passports get lost annually at the Oktoberfest with the majority of them being Australian! In fact things are so bad the Australian Embassy opens a temporary passport replacement service in the British Consulate in Munich.

Of course it will never happen to all of us will it, but just in case have a few photocopies of your passport and a couple of spare passport photos ready, oh and don’t keep them with your passport!

Finally have a great time, you are partaking in a tradition dating back over 200 years, eat, drink (too much) and try and remember for many this is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Do you have any hints and tips for the Oktoberfest First Timer? Let’s us know and leave a comment below

Prost!

Most of all enjoy!

Most of all enjoy!

– Dean

Oktoberfest 2014: Top Day Trips out of Munich

It is now less than two weeks until Oktoberfest begins and if you followed are Pre Oktoberfest Checklist you should hopefully just about be ready to go! While a week-long beer drinking binge sounds good on paper, after a few days of being jammed into the Oktoberfest tents you may be looking to get out-of-town and rest your liver. Below we have listed a number of great day trips all within a couple of hours journey from Munich.

1. Ludwig II’s Fairytale Castles.

‘Mad’ King Ludwig’s castles are the jewels in the crown of Bavarian tourism. Neuschwanstein is the most famous, with an estimated 1.4 million visitors every year. Neuschwanstein was also the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle and has captured the imagination of tourists since the King’s mysterious death in 1886.

The view of Neuschwanstein Castle from Mary's Bridge

The view of Neuschwanstein Castle from Mary’s Bridge

However, while most people flock to Neuschwanstein, his other two castles are equally as impressive. Linderhof, near the famous Bavarian religious town of Oberammergau (also worth a look if you have time) is the only castle Ludwig ever completed. Much smaller than the other two, it is a far easier visit than Neuschwanstein and also doesn’t get the crowds. Nestled amongst the mountains and surrounded by lovely gardens, Linderhof would have to be our favourite of the three.

The smallest and only palace to be completed, Linderhof

The smallest and only palace to be completed, Linderhof

The final castle is situated on an island in Bavaria’s largest lake, the Chiemsee and is situated almost half way between Munich and Salzburg. Herrenchiemsee was built to be a living breathing museum dedicated to Ludwig’s idol, Louis XIV of France. An almost exact replica of the central sections of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee is probably the least visited of the three but has an idyllic location and can only be reached by a boat ride out to the island.

Numerous companies offer day trips from Munich and often combine Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Oberammergau. If you do go with theses agencies double-check what you are booking, as a lot of the tours DONT include entrances into the castles themselves.

Rear facade of Neuschwanstein

Rear facade of Neuschwanstein

2. Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

Visiting a concentration camp is not something you will necessarily say you enjoyed, but it is something you will be glad you have experienced. Dachau was the first camp set up in the 1930’s and now days is part memorial and part museum, dedicated to all those who suffered under Hitler’s regime. Getting out there can be a little tricky on public transport, however a number of local tour companies offer trips out to Dachau normally meeting in Marienplatz. We highly recommend the audio guide.

Shadow of the entrance gate into Dachau

Shadow of the entrance gate into Dachau

3. Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest

According to legend when God was creating the earth he gave all the natural beauty to the angels to distribute evenly around the world. As you can imagine this is a time consuming job. With the angels running behind schedule (he did only give them a week after all), God bellowed out “Hurry up!”, and the angels dropped all the natural wonders in Berchtesgaden.Or so the story goes.

Looking down over Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest

Looking down over Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest

Approximately two hours from Munich the region of Berchtesgaden is stunningly beautiful. Dramatic mountains, crystal clear lakes and rivers and of course Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Specially designed local buses drive you up one of Europe’s most amazing, and somewhat hair-raising roads to the base of the Eagle’s Nest. From here it is a short walk through a tunnel to the original elevator made of polished brass before arriving in the building itself. Eagle’s Nest has a little something for everyone, incredible alpine scenery and photo opportunities for the nature lovers and some very interesting history for the history nerds (like me). Our tip, try to get there early, queues for the buses and the elevator can be very long if the weather is good.

4. Salzburg

The hills are alive! That’s right, after only a two hour train journey you could be yodeling away Julie Andrews style in the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart . Salzburg makes for a great day trip from Munich if for no other reason to just ‘pop’ over the border into Austria.

Salzburg's gorgeous Old Town

Salzburg’s gorgeous Old Town

Combine the imposing Festung or fortress towering over the city and the charming medieval streets and alley ways, Salzburg is a photographer’s dream. There are plenty of sights from ‘The Sound of Music’ to keep you amused or for something totally different head out to Hangar 7, the home of Red Bull. For great views of the old town and fortress head to the Cafe Sacher and enjoy a slice of the famous chocolate cake, Sacher Torte.

Sacher torte, yum!!

Sacher Torte, yum!

There are numerous other possibilities that we haven’t mentioned her as well. Nuremberg has a great old town and huge city walls, while from Garmisch-Partenkirchen you can catch a cable car up to the top of Germany’s highest mountain. If you fancy staying in Munich there are also some great experiences to keep you busy. We love Mike’s Bike Tours, a great way to see loads of the city and have a seriously fun time doing it. You can also hire bikes from them and they also run trips to Neuschwanstein and Salzburg.

Remember (if you haven’t had too much beer), Munich is a great city and so is the surrounding countryside, so make sure you take time out from Oktoberfest and get out there and explore!

– Dean

Prost!

Prost!

 

Our Favourite European Underground Systems

One of the most rewarding challenges of exploring a new city is mastering the local public transport system. In Europe we have them all, the good, the bad and the downright confusing! This week we look at some of our favourite undergrounds from around the continent.

 1. The London Underground

Ok so maybe we are a little biased as it is our hometown, but ‘The Tube’ not only is the oldest underground in the world, one of the most used undergrounds in the world but also regularly voted one of the best undergrounds in the world. All Londoners’ have a love hate relationship with the Tube but without it we would be in a whole world of trouble, just try and get anywhere when there are line closures for maintenance works! In fact it is only when it is shut or not working do we truly realise how much the city relies on it. Best bit of advice, buy an Oyster Card, fares are much cheaper than paying for a paper ticket, oh and don’t forget to ‘Mind The Gap’.

Going underground...

Going underground…

 2. Berlin U-Bahn & S-Bahn

Ever since living in Berlin I have always loved the rail network here. The rickety old carriages rattling along the tracks elevated above the roads below or perhaps trundling through the old ‘Ghost Stations’ from when the city was divided between east and west. When you are riding the Berlin metro it feels like any minute James Bond or Jason Bourne will come bursting through your carriage is some cold war spy drama. Our tip, check out the Mohrenstrasse station, the red marble walls come from Hitler’s former Reich’s Chancellery building, and don’t forget to validate your tickets before jumping on the train it is a hefty fine if you get caught!

One of Berlin's former 'Ghost Stations', closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

One of Berlin’s former ‘Ghost Stations’, closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

 3. Moscow Metro

Difficult, confusing and amazing are just some of the words to describe Moscow’s enormous metro system. Built to showcase the might of the Stalinist Soviet Union, many of the metro stations look like they belong more in a palace than an underground. Finding the right stops can be tricky but rewarding with mosaics of Lenin, space aged themes and a statue of a soldier’s dog whose nose you rub (in the Red Square Metro) but a few treasures awaiting the brave! Our tip, get a good map and learn to read Cyrillic!

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

4. Budapest Metro

While not the best metro system in Europe it was the first on the continent, dating back to 1896. The reason we love this underground is the old communist feel when you go underground. Instead of turnstiles ore relying on German honesty, as soon as you validate your ticket at the validation box you are met by a handful of heavy set black clad metro guards demanding to see your validated ticket, (which they have just seen you validate). Then you head to the platform and you can almost guarantee to get checked again or perhaps as soon as the doors of your carriage close a badge is flashed “tickets please” yelled out and you are subjected to another check. Our record? In a three-stop journey we had our ticket checked five times! Better validate that ticket!

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Do you have a favourite metro or underground in Europe, or better yet do you have a ‘worst’ underground or underground story? If so we would love to hear about it, leave a comment below or drop us a line on Facebook.

 

– Dean

Stepping Back in Time: Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber

One of the most beautiful parts of Bavaria is the Romantische Strasse or the Romantic Road. Formed in 1957 to promote tourism the road links some of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany and stretches from Würzburg to Füssen a distance of over 300 km.

The jewel on the crown of the Romantic Road is without a doubt Rothenburg. It is also the most visited but it is easy to see why! Cobble stoned streets wind past bright pastel coloured houses. Vines and creepers wind their way up, through, over and around the brick work and the whole historic center is surrounded by the enormous medieval city walls.

The Roeder Tor, one of the many towers scattered throughout Rothenburg

The Roeder Tor, one of the many towers scattered throughout Rothenburg

Walking through the streets of Rothenburg feels like walking through a fairy tale or perhaps a movie set, it almost doesn’t feel real. Little wonder why people love this town. In fact Walt Disney loved it so much Geppetto’s village in Pinocchio is a cartoon recreation of Rothenburg .

The most photographed scene in the entire city

The most photographed scene in the entire city

Day trippers from Nürnberg and Frankfurt pour into the town and come 10:30 in the morning in good medieval fashion you are battling with visitors from around the world for the best photo spots, seats at cafés or Christmas decorations (something Rothenburg is famous for). Beware the coach loads of tourists pouring into the Kathe Wolfhart Christmas Museum, you have been warned!

Christmas everyday with loads of stores selling wooden Christmas decorations

Christmas everyday with loads of stores selling wooden Christmas decorations

Our best bit of advice? Stay over night, by 16:30 most day trippers have cleared out and you have these dream like streets and alleyways to yourself.

As the days get later the day trippers clear out leaving you alone in the city

As the sun sets the colours really come alive

Rothenburg is a photographers dream, a great destination for families with lots to amuse children and a romantic little getaway for couples. Put simply Rothenburg has it all and should be a real must on any visit to Germany.

Get lost in the winding medieval laneways

Get lost in the winding medieval laneways

While the city has a colourful history, the most famous episode occurred during the 30 Years War in e 1600’s. General Tilly of the Catholic armies requested that Rothenburg accommodate him and his estimated 20,000 troops over winter. After refusing to do so, the town was besieged and was only taken after one unfortunate local lit a torch inside  the Powder Tower, and…. Kaboom! The walls were breached.

As the story goes Tilly was so impressed by the citizens bravery he promised to spare the town if the Lord Mayor could drink a three and a half litre flagon of wine in one go! The Lord Mayor met the challenge, passed out and saved the town! In reality the women and children of Rothenburg threw themselves at the mercy of Tilly and paid him handsomely to spare them! However the story stuck and every hour from eleven in the morning til eight in the evening this encounter is relived in the small glockenspiel on the Market Square!

Tilly's drinking challenge re enacted every day as part of the glockenspiel

Tilly’s drinking challenge re enacted every day as part of the glockenspiel

The town

Continue reading