Driving from Tegel airport terminal at 6.30 am on a Saturday in late November is perhaps not to see Berlin at its best. Sunrise still a far off hope and the streets are empty. The occasional flashing blue light of a police car streaks past. The city seems to be taking a breather.
Shards of glass from broken bottles twinkling like miniature light houses, a legacy of recently ended Friday night celebrations, reflect the lonely light from street lamps. Shop fronts are mostly not illuminated. Clumps of autumn leaves dust roads and paths, but are barely visible in the gloom.
Sensible tourists are tucked up in hotel beds. Most locals have a day off to look forward to and not many are out and around at this hour, save those with no choice in the matter. Even the usual scavengers, human or otherwise, have better things to do.
Expecting to have to wait hours before we can check in at our hotel we are pleasantly surprised to be told they have a vacant room. The healing power of a hot shower after 24 hours or so sitting in a plane seat can only be appreciated through experience. We didn’t mind paying for breakfast as we weren’t charged an extra night for the early check in. Bliss.
Out on Saturday streets at 8.15 am we find little had changed in the past hour or two. We are the only pedestrians and we are feeling the cold. The sky is light but maudlin grey. Maybe Berliners know better than we do?
By 10 am we begin to see the first tourists converging on the Berliner Tor. They are not the only ones. A group of protestors gathers around an inflated blue-green Earth and, huddling against the cold, chants that they do not want pollution from Poland, or something like that. My German is far from equal to such a task.
The day is developing and the city is waking up. Streets are busier now. Unter den Linden is host to hundreds of tourists, rugged up as we are, determined to experience Berlin but not sure how to go about it apart from walking around determinedly.
In the absence of many alternatives, we decide to embark on a cruise along the River Spree, through the city. As we discover, a great opportunity to tale photos from a different perspective. As we also discover, sitting on the upper deck in the open; bitingly cold. We had no companions. Everybody else seemed to prefer the heated saloon below, although it seemed to defeat the purpose of the cruise, even if you were warmer.
Sunday brings a clear blue sky presided over by a sickly sun. It also takes us to Leipzig, about an hour south-west from Berlin by train. Every Leipziger seems to be out enjoying the sun; a stark contrast from bleak Berlin the day before.
Leipzigers come in all sorts: Family groups; football hooligans, pierced and tattooed fringe dwellers; and of course, tourists like us. Unlike Berlin, tourists do not predominate today. They are part of the passing parade; not its substance. Young and old, riot police (deployed for football crowd control), workers finishing preparations for the Christmas markets, and pets of all kinds, know this is a day to savour.
Leipzig drips with history and culture, but on a different scale and at a different pace from Berlin. Just as, for all its beauty and culture, Berlin can appear a little sterile and forbidding, Leipzig embraces its visitors. Once you are inside the Stadt Zentrum, (city centre) pedestrians rule. The relatively few cars must wind their way carefully through the streets which are essentially pedestrian zones. Fascinating antique shops, entrancing coffee and cake shops and uplifting churches give an eighteenth century feel to the place. We spent our sunny Sunday afternoon walking around like children seeing everything as new and being seduced by a city that carries within it the spirit of another age.
Sunday evening saw us attend worship at St Thomas Church; the church where J. S. Bach was choir conductor (and is entombed there). Although the service was conducted in German and difficult to follow in all its details, we felt welcome. The realisation that our fellow worshippers were descendants of those who worshipped with Bach was powerful. We two Lutherans were moved. We felt as if we had touched the source.
Oh, and did I forget to mention? Leipziger Beer is to be enjoyed.