Hop the ICE and walk in the footsteps of the Beatles

BERLIN — High-speed trains and wide new highways have been reconnecting Berlin to the countryside during the 16 years since the Berlin Wall fell.

But several major recent upgrades in railway speed have helped Berlin rebuild links to the important places in the region — including Hamburg, now just a 90-minute train ride away.

Hamburg, the northern German port city where the Beatles spent their early years playing in seedy clubs, has become an easy day jaunt for Berliners — and even foreign visitors to Berlin who are looking for a change of scenery without having to pack a toothbrush.

The sleek, white, high-speed Intercity Express (ICE) trains zoom passengers over the 180-mile track from Berlin’s central Ostbahnhof and Bahnhof Zoo rail stations to the heart of Hamburg.

The speeds between Germany’s two biggest cities top out at 149 mph. The trains run at hourly intervals, and cost about 100 euros ($120) for a round-trip ticket. The phenomenal success of the high-speed train line has even knocked commercial airlines that were only marginally quicker on the route. Before World War II, an experimental train with giant propellers attached to the back, dubbed “The Flying Hamburger,” needed 138 minutes for the journey. But after the war, times slowed and trains needed six hours for that trip.

The journey itself on the modern, clean, comfortable trains with well-stocked dining cars can be as entertaining and relaxing — as the northern German plain flashes by panorama windows — as whatever might be lying ahead on the itinerary in Hamburg.

“What, we’re already there?” is a comment frequently heard by travelers who have barely finished reading their morning newspaper by the time the train pulls into Hamburg. The railways estimates about 1,000 of the 10,000 people on the 15 daily trains each direction are in fact commuters who have bought annual passes costing $4,000.

“The passenger volume increased by more than 60% in the last year after the travel time was cut to 90 minutes –and that greatly exceeded even our most optimistic forecasts,” Deutsche Bahn spokesman Achim Stauss tells Variety, adding that capacity was increased and extra trains added to meet the demand.

It’s the most popular rail line between cities in Germany. “The two cities have moved a lot closer. Both Hamburg and Berlin are profiting from it,” says Stauss.

Hamburg, a city of 2 million, is Germany’s publishing mecca and wealthiest city, and also has one of the world’s biggest harbors, at the mouth of the Elbe River near the North Sea.

Hamburg also boasts one of the world’s biggest and most famous red-light districts at the nearby Reeperbahn, and some of Europe’s most valuable real estate along the banks of the Alster lakes near the center of town.

Walks on a trail around the Alster, or pleasure boat cruises on it, give ordinary people an extraordinary glimpse of how the “other half” lives.

Hip Hamburg is a center for the theater and musicals in Germany. It also has long been one of Germany’s most important film centers after Berlin, and alongside Munich and Cologne. It’s been busy sprucing itself to be one of the 12 cities where World Cup soccer matches will be played this summer (the U.S. team will be based in Hamburg).

Hamburg’s also been dusting off its recent history, with a “Beatles Square” to be dedicated in May at the juncture of two streets: Grosse Freiheit and the Reeperbahn. From 1960-62, the Beatles played in clubs in the red-light district, including two that are still there today: The Indra on Grosse Freiheit, and the Kaiserkeller nearby, where they played for two months in 1960 and met a new drummer they called Ringo, who filled in for their ill drummer Pete Best and ended up as his permanent replacement. They also played at the Star Club, but that burned down 20 years ago and only a plaque in the courtyard marks the site.

Hamburg is just one of the interesting places to visit outside Berlin. Other destinations within two hours include:

POTSDAM, home to the Babelsberg film studio and the town where Harry Truman met Stalin and Churchill to carve up the post-war world in the summer of 1945, lies just southwest of Berlin. The famous Glienicke Bridge, where Soviet and U.S. spies were swapped in the noman’s land between the East and West, still stands and today merely marks the border between Berlin and Potsdam.

LEIPZIG, where the 1989 revolution against communism in East Germany began with peaceful Monday-night rallies, and the city where Goethe’s “Faust” is set, lies 200 km south of Berlin — or just under two hours by train.

WARNEMUENDE, a lively Baltic seaport resort and harbor city, is undergoing restoration to return it to its turn-of-the-century charming self, when it was a popular escape for Berliners before the war. It lies 230 km north of Berlin at the end of a smooth, speed-limitless autobahn. There are several trains each day to the town, and the journey takes more than two hours.

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