Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

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”. 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. 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… 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...

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

Cologne is one of those cities that I didn’t mean to visit but ended up being more interesting than I expected. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions: most people who visit snap a few pictures of the massive cathedral in between switching trains at the international station, conveniently located a stone’s throw away. If you’re a particularly ambitious Cologne tourist, you can climb the ~250 stairs to the tower of this lurking structure that took 400 years to construct. You may even walk across the lovelock bridge and snap a few pictures to the other side. But then you’re basically done. As the city was nearly destroyed during the Second World War, there’s very little notable or attractive architecture around town and only a handful of relatively generic museums. But what Cologne lacks in beautiful buildings (even the rathaus (town hall) and the opera are pretty ugly), it makes up for with spirited inhabitants with a strong city identity, different than you’ll find anywhere else in Germany. Do I recommend that you travel far out of your way to see it? Probably not. Even its residents admit that it’s the perfect place to live but not the most exciting city to visit. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, I do recommend finding a local and talking to the special traditions surrounding this city. If you can’t find someone like Thomas (my host) to enlighten you, here’s a few things I learned about what makes this place unique: 1) Gnomes Everywhere! You’ll notice that the people of Cologne tend to be pretty lazy and legend has it that little house gnomes enabled their slothfulness. Supposedly, the heinzelmännchen used to do all the work of Cologne’s citizens during the day until a tailor’s wife tried to see these gnomes. She spilled peas on the ground to catch them by causing them to slip and fall. The infuriated trolls left and never came back… except to decorate the Christmas markets! Find the fabled fairytale creatures in full-force in the Old City Heimat der Heinzel – the “Home of the Gnomes” Christmas market where they take the ski lift to the top of a rustic beer hall, peek out at skaters sliding around the rink and judging matches of eisstockschiessen (a form of curling). 2) It’s Student-Friendly As home to the University of Cologne, the city has plenty of good bars, restaurants and bookshops to their 80,000 students. I scoured the downtown for a good café with wifi to hang out in and didn’t have much luck because they either didn’t have Internet or looked too fancy (Thomas later reassured me that although they might have linen tablecloths, the people of Cologne don’t judge so I could show up to the Opera in jeans and people won’t blink an eyelash. So the cafes may not be as fancy as they appeared to me). So I didn’t find too many neat spots to curl up downtown but the area near the university (Zulpicher Str. is where I mostly walked up and down) had plenty of cute bookshops, affordable and informal eateries and bars to chose from. Even better, the pubs operate on a student schedule so you’ll find places open until 6 AM even on weekdays. Thomas mentioned one, owned by a 63-year-old woman which is open from 7 PM-4 AM six days a week. 3) You Can Ride Public Transport For Free! I’ve never been in a city with this policy but inhabitants of Cologne have an automatic guest pass that allows a friend to ride for free: all the time that a citizen accompanies them, if I’m not mistaken. He said for certain hours on the weekend, the guest pass can extend to all your family members. Although this policy still seems a bit bizarre and too good to be true for me, it frees up extra cash that you can spend on beer instead of U-bahn tickets. 4) Its Past Is Left Up To The Imagination Cologne was a Roman city, developed in 50 AD, but it has very little visible history left since the Allied Troops killed 95% of the population and destroyed most of the city during WWII. You can walk paths paved by the Romans in “old town” by the river but you need to imagine what Cologne looked like centuries ago. The only remnant of real “history” I found was an arch left over from a Roman gate, near the cathedral. 5) It Has a Lock Bridge That Wouldn’t Break Having recently come from Paris where bridges have begun to break under the weight of...