Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin
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After going to these two cities, it seems weird to put them in the same sentence but many people do “as the best of Europe“.  However, their personalities are so different in strange and semi- unpredictable ways.  Paris, the City of Lights, exudes a romantic sophistication and elegance that Berlin doesn’t even pretend to imitate.  Whereas Paris is an iconic embodiment of a charm that nowhere else can emulate, Berlin is a work in progress toward an indeterminate end.   Rory MacLean comments, “Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being”. There’s tremendous attention to detail wherever you look… sculptures embedded into bridges that depict their construction, ornate iron gates with gold detailing, uniform blue roofs accented by carved detailing.  Paris is chic, a cultural hub but despite its classiness, it comes chaos and feels more like a Latin city than a traditionally European one.  People jaywalk, climb their motorbikes onto bumpy sidewalks and walls are covered with scrawled messages about unrequited love.  Everyone complains about snobbish Parisians but I was pleasantly surprised how strangers happily squeezed close on the train, offered up seats for old ladies and generally seemed more patient than people in cities of that size.  And they’re laughably polite… I love it when the metro announces “This is the final stop.  We invite you to leave the train”.

The City of Light just glows. Paris from the love lock bridge.

The City of Light just glows. Paris, France from the love lock bridge.

Berlin has massive structures, stoic traditional buildings next to mismatched modern ones, wide boulevards and no space is sacred.  There’s construction, things crumbling and street art everywhere… even graffiti on street art sculptures.  As far as the feel I get from its inhabitants, despite its punk history and rebellious lack of respect for unmarked space, it’s still a German city and I find Germans to be a rather compliant, cold and unexciting bunch.  I love to people-watch but in Germany, there’s nothing to see… people patiently wait to march across the zebra stripes when the light changes even if there’s no car approach from either side of the horizon.

Famous Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

Famous Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

Despite their differences, Paris and Berlin have been connected throughout the centuries.  People I’ve talked to naively linked them together as mutually “great European cities” and ancient conquerors created a certain rivalry between the two.  The chariot on top of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was actually seized by Napoleon during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and taken to Paris for a time.  Hitler wanted to obliterate Paris to the ground because he knew Berlin could never compete (fortunately, his soldiers refused to follow these orders).  The French still have some animosity toward Germans, rightfully so, given the World Wars.

The point of traveling from city to city to eat, see and do different things.  People go to Paris for romance, culture, massive museums of classic pieces and bohemian artsiness.  People go to Berlin for cheap beer, crazy parties, punk culture and the witnessing the aftermath of a divided city.  Greater writers than me have written better things than I can about these places so I’m not pretending to have created a comprehensive guide.  But if you want to take advantage of the “greatness of Europe” by looking for the right things in the right places!

Go to Paris…

Pierre Hermes macarons.

Pierre Hermes macarons… this picture looks just like my box! Photo courtesy of Beatrice Peltre.

1) To Eat.  It is not going to be cheap but French food is rightfully delicious.  Expect to pay at least 15 euros for your meal if you sit down somewhere, but its worth it.  The French attention-to-detail fully carries over to their approach toward dining, true for the dishes themselves and the atmospheric surroundings.  Paris is filled with brasseries that feel like a time warp to a Parisian golden age.  Some are cozy, some are charming but they’re usually filled with Art Nouveau decor, heavy wooden mirrors and sparkling chandeliers.  Fondue, crepes, croissants, ever-present fresh French-bread… everything that entered my mouth was delicious and I only sampled vegetarian and backpacker friendly basics.  While in Paris, make sure to eat macaroons, which Parisians have also made an art form.  These colorful circular French pastries have with sweet or tart fillings, sandwiched between two meringue and almond four based cookies.  Bakeries pimp out their pastries with shimmery gloss or gold sparkles in addition the rainbow colored base layers.  Eating these treats is also an adventure… the simultaneously spongey and firm exterior melts away to expose fillings with flavors that really packs a punch.  Per recommendation of my Parisian friend, I bought mine at Pierre Herme, which she liked because of both the quality and wide selection of adventurous flavors.  They are famous for ispahan (a rose, raspberry and litchi combination), mogador (milk chocolate and passionfruit blend) and their vanilla house blend but they dabble in everything from goat cheese to green tea to fig.  My photos from a macaron sampling session are in my camera flying through the air to the United States but flickr has one from the same bakery.

Sunset at Place du Tertre, Montmartre, Paris, France

Artist Square at Place du Tertre, Montmartre, Paris, France

2) Art Is Everywhere: Bohemian to Classic

I think the word “bohemian” exists to describe Paris.  Before visiting Montmarte, I was familiar with the definition of the word “Bohemian: socially unconventional, often living in material poverty because they prefer their art or learning to lesser goods” but I hadn’t really seen it in action.  One of the first things I did in this city was climb its biggest hill (a whole 130 meters above sea level) and explore the neighborhood of Montmartre, which quickly became my favorite in Paris.  Montemartre was originally a rule-free neighborhood for displaced Parisians when Napoleon III wanted to make room for his friends closer to the city center.  It quickly became a popular drinking and entertainment area, giving birth to establishments like Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir.  It also became an inspirational hub for artistic masterminds like Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and more.  Today, you can find artists painting portraits under umbrellas on cobblestone streets at the Place du Tertre, just a few blocks away from the fancy schmancy Basicalica Sacre-Coeur that most people climb the hill to see.  The neighbor hosts tons of art galleries, neat vintage shops and some rebellious graffiti.  Supposedly, the more historically run-down parts are undergoing gentrification as the neighborhood becomes the new hip place to be so I hope it retains some of its free-spirited charm.  But you don’t need to head to the hills to experience Paris’ bohemian charm.  Shakespeare and Co is an incredible bookshop near Notre Dame that attracts intellectuals through lectures, book signings, concerts and more.  I hear that during the summer, the riverbanks are lined with people playing guitars, making music and hanging out.

Paris Opera House (one of the two) which makes honey on the roof.

Paris Opera House (one of the two) which makes honey on the roof.

Obviously, Paris is famous for more classic art and architecture too.  I’ve seen dozens of Opera buildings but the one in Paris took my breath away (and I loved it even more when I learned they had a honey-making operation underway on the roof).  You can waste your life away with the art on display at the Louvre (I heard if you spend 60 seconds staring at each object on display, it would take you 3.5 months to move through the museum) but art is everywhere.  There are photography exhibitions in metro stations, ads advertising new exhibitions, opera, ballet and cinema screenings.  I’ve never been anywhere else where art and culture is as omnipresent, in such a wide variety of forms.

Shakespeare Book Company, Paris, France

Shakespeare Book Company, Paris, France

3) To Explore Diversity

When I first hopped on the metro in Paris at Porte de Clingnancourt (Paris’ largest flea market), I had the disorienting experience of being the only white person on the train, something I never expected to experience in France. I got off at Barbes-Rochechouart, which I quickly learned straddled the North Africa and West Africa neighbors in Paris.  It was a land where barbers catered to afro hair and pants made space for bigger booties.  Paris has two Chinatowns (Quartier Chinois & in Belleville), A Little Sri Lanka (Little Jaffna) and people from everywhere, everywhere you look!  I just loved overhearing conversations in Paris… all different languages, all different accents and people I heard speaking English were using discussing fascinating things in groups where everyone came from a different country.

Go To Berlin:

Legal galleries near Cafe Cinema, Berlin, Germany

Legal graffiti near Cafe Cinema, Berlin, Germany

1) To See Art Everywhere (And its Always Changing)

Berlin is a living gallery that constantly changes from day to day as artists add post-ups and street-art, graffiti over existing murals and even engage in artist dialogue over issues of “selling-out” and such.  The most touristy place to see street art is the East Side Gallery, where artists decorated 1.5 kilometers of the old Berlin wall.  There are a few legal places to find it (in the recessed area behind Cafe Cinema, Rosenthaler Straße 39… the oldest cafe in Berlin) but its impossible to miss, if you take a train, walk by the River Spree or go anywhere in Berlin.  Definitely check out Flutgraben and Kreuzberg, which are kind of grimy areas with squats and dilapidated buildings, but filled with awesome graffiti.  Kreuzberg is also the historically Turkish area so if you visit on a Tuesday or Friday, you can get the side benefit of the largest open Turkish market in Berlin… fruits, vegetables, cheese, olives, freshly baked bread, gozleme… I’m already drooling.

Graffiti on the street art sculpture, on a bridge near Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Graffiti on the street art sculpture, on a bridge near Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

2) To Splurge 

Well, the good thing about splurging in Berlin is you don’t have to spend much to have a good time.  If you forget about the fact that Berlin has no real income, the cheap prices seem almost too-good-to-be-true for a European capital.  Most of the attractions are free or cheap (I highly recommend the free walking tours in the city, which is worth the 5 euro tip, also if you plan ahead and register, you can tour the roof of the Reichstag for free), hostels are aplenty and beer is incredibly cheap… especially if you buy it at Berlin’s famous spätis (for as low as 60 euro cents).  These convenience stores aren’t exclusive to Berlin but are on almost every corner here.  Since public drinking isn’t policed in Berlin, beer-to-go are common and consumed by locals and tourists alike.  Meals in restaurants cost fractions of what they did in Paris (4 euros for a pizza, 6-7 euros for a budget sit-down lunch) and the street food options extend way beyond the selection in France (if you don’t want a crepe, you’re out of luck!).  In Berlin, you can pick up bretzels from wicker baskets on the sidewalk, doner kebab (this sliced lamb sandwich with grilled vegetables in a picket was actually invented in Berlin!) or sausages from street vendors who wear grills around their necks (try the Berlin-style Currywurst topped with ketchup and curry powder)….  When a basic meal in Paris costs you at least 15 euros, you’ll feel so happy when you spend less here (transportation is the one exception is a one-way metro ticket in Paris costs 1.80 euro whereas in Berlin, it’s 2.60 but in Berlin, you can take advantage of a day pass for 8.20).

It's always time to Party in Berlin! (PS The post-up of these dancing girls can be found all over Europe but are done by a Berlin artist)

It’s always time to Party in Berlin! (PS The post-up of these dancing girls can be found all over Europe but are done by a Berlin artist)

3) To Party

Maybe the reason I didn’t like Berlin as much as everyone else is I didn’t really take advantage of its wild nightlife (I mostly wandered the Christmas markets with a cup of gluhwein then started my journey home on the early side since my host lived on the outskirts of town).  Berlin is known as the best clubbing city in Europe, as the world’s capital for techno.  After the wall went down, Berlin founded all sorts of strange bars and clubs in abandoned factories, power plants and commercial buildings, looking for ways to express themselves to maximize their newly acquired freedom.  We walked by parties under bridges, where bouncers were still letting people in Sunday morning.  I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Berlin nightlife but check it out and tell me how it is!

Song of the Moment: Free Man in Paris– Joni Mitchell

If YOU go to Berlin/ Paris: If you don’t have a friend in town and a limited time to see the cities, I think tagging along a free walking tour is the way to go!  Learn about the city, see a few major cities and probably make a few friends along the way.  I had a friend in Paris so I didn’t do it there but I’m sure multiple opportunities exist.  I didn’t get to spend enough time in Paris but after I read this article of 12 Hidden Treasures of Paris, I wish I could have stayed another week… check them out for me!  Also, I hear you can sleep overnight at the Shakespeare and Co bookstore if you help them out for a few hours… its on my bucket list… it should be on yours!

In Berlin, I’ve heard people rave about NewBerlin tours (they hand out maps with Starbucks locations to help you with the non-trivial problem of finding free wifi in Germany).  I opted for Alternative Berlin’s free walking tour that focused on street art, squats and subculture which I truly enjoyed.  If you try to travel between the two cities, I’d recommend trying to find a flight.  The drive claims to be 10 hours on a map but German roads seem perpetually filled with some delays, despite all German’s claims at efficiency.  I did a ride share in a love van where the driver kept taking naps so it took 17 hours.  I hear a 14-hour bus is also an option for ~80 euros but your best bet is to plan ahead and arrive in a plane!

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