All Aboard the 09.17 from Berlin

Downstairs in the impressive, vast, modern transport hub that is Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Hbf), the 09.17 Euro City train rolls onto the platform on its way through to Budapest. The train is, uncharacteristically for European transport, a few minutes late but that doesn’t seem to bother any of the passengers waiting to board, ahead of trips south to Dresden, Prague or on to Slovakia or indeed all the way to Budapest.

The train belies the modern surroundings and the ultra modern German “Ice” trains on adjacent platforms, being a diesel locomotive of no great beauty pulling a variety of carriages into the station. Towards the front of the train the carriages are relatively plush and modern, with those at the tail end where we take our seats possessing a little more character, a bit more of an “Eastern Europe shabby chic” feel with brown or mustard upholstery, curtains and décor. This doesn’t detract from the comfort of the ride however, with reclining seats and plenty of leg room providing a comfortable place from which to take in the outstanding scenery of the Elbe and Vlatava rivers as we travel the 350km down to our destination, Prague.

The natural landscape between the cities of Berlin and Prague is, as above, beautiful. Particularly south of Dresden the scenery takes on a new level as the railway follows the Elbe River valley which opens up to provide a landscape which is strong, imposing and captivating. With ticket prices set at an affordable rate (especially if you book through the Czech Railway end) this is a journey that is certainly recommended.

The train ride connects two Central European cities which offer different, but entertaining football experiences. For anyone who has visited Berlin, they will know what a great place it is. Traditional architecture, efficient transport, clean, friendly and well planned out in recent times to dilute any remnants of East and West, aside of course from the remaining portions of the Berlin wall and other features such as Checkpoint Charlie which have now been integrated into the city and are equally as notable as they would have been in the past, except now for amenity and tourism as opposed to other, more political reasons.

From a football perspective, you have Hertha Berlin as the bigger, richer more prominent side playing in the Bundesliga and residing in the West of the city at the famous Olympiastadion. There are a number of smaller teams, the most prominent of which in recent times is Union Berlin, a smaller, more hipster side who have never played at the top level of German football. Union are more of a community, niche side from the East of the city.

Watching Hertha Berlin is a great experience. As above, they play at the vast Olympiastadion which just like much of Berlin successfully manages to integrate historic, traditional architecture, proportions and materials with the demands and requirements of modern life. Served, as you would expect by exemplary public transport links, the stadium is really accessible. When walking from the metro station to the stadium numerous pop up stalls selling merchandise such as T-shirts and scarves among other treats line the pavements and underpasses en route.

Upon reaching the stadium you notice that the car parks and hard landscaped areas round the stadium are full of cars (as expected) but a number of these cars have a bit of the American style “tailgate” party about them with fans mingling, eating and drinking before the game. Pop up bars, hot food outlets and the like also appear on approach to the stadium, allowing all fans to mix and enjoy the build up to the game.

This fan orientated style is very much apparent in German football. Games are about the fans, both in terms of the overall experience of the day but also from a more political perspective in terms of the 50+1 ownership rule. It is a great experience – cheap tickets, beer on tap, tasty pretzels – what’s not to love.

The standard of football is of course also great. The “gegenpressing” style which has been in vogue for a few years now makes for a fast paced and exciting game to watch. The tactical approach also facilitates this and the high skill level, particularly amongst Bundesliga teams offers a great fan experience.

But what of football in Prague, at the other end of the scenic train journey?

As the train rolls through the Czech countryside, with the picturesque landscapes and architecture, not to mention stunning features like Decin Castle towards the German border, the overall culture and feeling changes. Berlin has the wonderful clean mixture of modern and tradition successfully integrating the past and present. Prague offers a similar mix, but with more focus on the traditional and historic features – the Old Town’s narrow cobbled streets, the astronomical clock and features like the exquisite Charles Bridge offer a more intricate visual appeal.

Moving out of the centre and into other districts like Vršovice, where pastel coloured art nouveau style traditional apartment blocks line the streets, also populated by indie or hipster boutique style shops, cafes and bars, you move towards some of the different football stadia in Prague – home to a number of teams, including Sparta, Slavia, Bohemians and Dukla in the top league and teams like Viktoria Zizkov competing in the league below. All stadia are easily accessible from the centre of the city and walking past bars you can try to find the cheapest offering of Pilsner for your Czech Crown to help soak up the atmosphere.

Like the city itself, the Prague teams combine both the traditional and modern. There is a contrast between the likes of Bohemians in their ramshackle stadium, single stand and exposed concrete walls which convey something of an Eastern Bloc type feel and the shiny new stadia of the larger and richer Slavia and Sparta who manage to mix history and tradition with the modern commercial requirements of football.

The football style on show also demonstrates this cultural mix, with intricate styles and technically proficient footballers fitting into, at times functional tactical formations with a mix between robust, laboured football at some of the lower achieving sides and fast paced tactically innovative football from the better teams in the league.

While all the sides in the league may not be able to match the top teams in terms of excitement and some of the games between lower level sides can be something of a war of attrition, the league does offer an entertaining and financially viable footballing spectacle. Prague itself offers plenty of options for entertainment also, with reasonably priced beer and food of offer in most bars and cafes lining the art nouveau streets.

While there are different footballing styles and spectacles between Berlin and Prague, both offer equally entertaining matches and are well worth visiting for a football trip. The culture of each city can be seen on the pitch, regardless of who you elect to watch – be it the richer sides like Hertha or Sparta with their more high profile stadia and players, or the niche or hipster style teams in smaller, old fashioned stadia also translating a facet of that city.

The costs of attending games is also very affordable. Tickets can be purchased from £15 at Hertha or from around £5-10 at the likes of Slavia. While travel costs as well as accommodation need to be taken into account, cheap flights and hotels can be found in both cities and the overall price is not un-comparable with say a weekend in Glasgow, travelling from the north or south of Scotland for a Cup Final, Scotland game or similar via train. As such, these both offer very realistic options for football fans wanting to broaden horizons in a footballing sense and is something that is very much recommended.

For more on European Football, please check out:

Czech First League – Mid Season Review

Bohemian Armchair Football

The Tribute of the Plzen Juggernaut

Tactical (r)evolution and a Cultured Football trip to Warsaw

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