Berlin!

Germany as I’m sure you know by now happens to be one of my favourite places to visit, I first visited the country in 2013 and have been at least once every year since with my most recent trip (November) concluding my 8th visit! Germany has provided me with some wonderful memories and I’ve grown to love the diversity, people and culture of the country – I’ve even made an effort to learn German! Verrückt! (Crazy!).

So seeing a friend on Facebook suggest that she would never visit Germany was a little disheartening. Whilst I’ve generally made my destination posts chronological anyway, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to follow on from Barmouth with my next trip and set the record straight given some of the misconceptions about Germany last week following an incident at Munich’s airport.

I’m not going to get in to my thoughts on the incident itself but Mo Farah claimed to have been on the end of racial harrassment in Munich, an accusation quickly denied by the accused. Online and media reaction to the headline went in two ways with some aiming criticism at Farah and others being critical of the accused security guard and then the defence of said security guard
.
Criticism is one thing but I read MANY comments making a sweeping generalisation of Germany as a whole because of this incident and I can not accept that. You’ll find ignorant and hateful people EVERYWHERE and one incident is not reflective of an entire nation with 80+ million citizens. Just like anywhere, Germany is a friendly and welcoming place and dismissing it as a potential travel destination would be a waste for a country that has so much to offer!

So let’s travel back to August 2014 and my trip to the German capital: Berlin! Myself and a friend had talked about going on a weekend break somewhere and as soon as Berlin was mentioned we were both in agreement that we should go! It had always been a “must visit” destination for me, Berlin was so steeped in history that it had always appealed to me. I couldn’t wait to go!

Yet wait and wait I did. Solo travel and group travel both have their pros and cons, a pro to solo travel is that you’re in complete control of everything. With 4 of us making plans for Berlin I was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in booking the trip. I couldn’t get properly excited until plans were finalised and it felt like there were a few setbacks, I’m sure there was equal frustration on their part as the planning process went on but eventually we had dates booked into the calendar!

Myself and Karl flew out to Germany on Friday morning, Andy and Rox had already flown into Germany a day or two earlier to get a little longer out of their break. Budget airlines hold a bit of a catch 22 situation – on the one hand it means pretty much everyone can travel, on the other hand it means pretty much everyone can travel.

Particularly when flying out of Stansted, flying on a Friday or Saturday and flying to a popular destination, you can not avoid the stag / hen (bachelor / bachelorette) groups.
Our flight to Berlin consisted of at least two stag do’s and I think one hen do on board too. Karl somehow bagged the window seat which left me sat next to a young lad who, at 6am or whatever it was, was already far too drunk to string a coherent sentence together.

There has been a lot of controversy regarding alcohol limits in airports and on flights recently and I’d apportion 99% of the blame at our drunken little island if I’m being honest. Our friends in the rest of Europe seem a little better at knowing their limitations than the Brits who disgrace themselves in the continent on cheap weekend breaks. This guy was a perfect example and you question firstly if he should have been allowed to fly and secondly why they let him buy a further beer on board. I think he was keen I joined in for a breakfast beer but I politely declined.

In fairness to him he wasn’t any trouble but it made my journey a little less peaceful than I would have liked. Nevertheless the two of us were soon arriving in to Berlin and making an effort to figure out how to get to our hostel, at the time I knew no German so both of us were solely dependent on English getting us by for the weekend.
It wasn’t too tricky and eventually we were arriving into Berlin’s “Cat’s Pajamas” hostel – I liked it and would probably stay there again.

We met up with Andy and Rox and made plans to go and see some of Berlin, we started off with a quick lunchtime stop and then aimed for central Berlin.
I’m a big fan of kicking off day one with a walking tour, however when Andy suggested we do a biking tour I was a little more sceptical. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, perhaps that is true but it didn’t make me feel any more confident about riding around the city and through the streets of Berlin on a bicycle. When was the last time I’d even rode a bike? I was coming up to my 26th birthday and the last time would certainly have been as a kid, so well over 10 years.

I don’t think Karl and Rox were 100% sold on the idea either so credit to Andy’s persuasion skills. He’d not just convinced one sceptic person it was a good idea but three, 3! Even after agreeing to it I was a little nervous about it. No sooner had I climbed on my bike had I fallen off it, and again, and again. The tour was something like 3 hours long and I couldn’t stay upright for more than 2 minutes – disastrous and we hadn’t even started hitting the streets yet! Can I get some stabilisers please?

JasonBerlin
Pros!

My fortunes did change (without the need for stabilisers before you ask!), soon enough I’d remembered how to balance myself and stop properly. I was whizzing through the streets and ready to embark on the Tour de France (alright, maybe not). Nevertheless I had been won over. We ticked off a number of the sights spread out across the city and I started to appreciate how much there was to see in the city. From viewing the stunning architecture to learning about the history from our tour guide, Berlin was living up to my high expectation.

A bike tour was a perfect way to see it and allowed us to cover so much more distance than if we’d been on foot. I think the highlight was riding through the Tiergarten (Berlin’s answer to Central Park) and seeing how peaceful it was. The Tiergarten was also home to a couple of pubs, one of which we stopped at for a scheduled break in the tour! A beer later and we were back on our bikes to see a little more of Berlin before rounding up the tour. It wasn’t something I’d ever have considered doing if I’d traveled alone but I’m really pleased we ended up doing it.

Friday evening we went and grabbed food somewhere and then enjoyed a few drinks to finish off the night. A successful start to our trip in Berlin!

Four years later, Saturday and Sunday are a bit more of a blur. I remember what we did but I can’t particularly associate the things we did with a particular day.

IMAG0090
The Reichstag building

Over the next two days we took a little more time to see some of the sights we’d only briefly visited on Friday such as the famous Brandenburg Tor, Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag building. The latter you can enter for free to then see views over Berlin from up on the roof – despite being free you do have to book a time slot in advance so keep that in mind before visiting. We got a little caught up elsewhere and ended up having a crazy rush to get there in time, I think we were a little late but they fortunately weren’t too strict on enforcing an exact time. I’d still recommend getting there before your time slot though! Haha.

We checked out a few museums. The Topography of Terror and DDR museums ended up being the best of the ones we visited. The Topography of Terror my favourite of the two and as most of it is based outside, it’s free to enjoy! You also have to make sure to check out the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – it’s a must see!

However in contrast the Checkpoint Charlie museum I personally found a bit of a mess and didn’t enjoy. The museum had no structure to it, parts of it were interesting but it wasn’t well laid out and some of the rooms had exhibitions with no real relevance to the museum. It was bizarre and I didn’t really feel like it justified the admission price.

One of the other enjoyable things we did in Berlin was visit the huge Flohmarkt (flea market) on the Sunday which was interesting to look around. I’m not much of a shopper but it was interesting to see the variety of things sold and people watch as tourists and locals both looked to enjoy themselves! It was also a good spot to pick up some cheap lunch.

Beyond the daytime antics, one of the things I loved most about Berlin was that it felt completely different in the evening. It’s a fascinating city by day and has plenty to offer for tourists but come the evening it felt like a much livelier place. It helped that we were there in the summer. The better weather made it easy to enjoy eating out and drink at one of the numerous beer gardens that occupy the city, there was a buzz about Berlin every evening we were there and it made it a fun place to go out and enjoy Berlin’s nightlife.

With great company, great beer and great weather I could have spent many more nights soaking up the atmosphere of Berlin. Köln (2013) had given me a little taste of German culture but I truly felt at home in Berlin. There’s something I love about big cities and I found that Berlin matched some of the best and ranks as one of my favourite European cities.

I feel like I only covered a fraction of what Berlin had to offer so it’s a city I definitely want to return to and I highly recommend you visit too! Whilst it’s unfortunate that racism, discrimination and inequality continue to exist within society please don’t let it put you off visiting Germany.

Berlin in particular is incredibly welcoming and a multi-cultural city home to foreigners from all over the world, you’d be missing out to overlook a country as diverse as Deutschland!

cropped-dscf4102.jpg
Me at the Brandenburger Tor

Deutschland; Ich liebe dich! Bis bald!

Have you ever been to Berlin? What did you think? Where else in Germany should I add to my growing list in this wonderful country? Let me know in the comments!

All the best!

Jason

Advertisements

Visited Cologne, fell in love with Köln!

Trip 1: Discovering Cologne (Mar 2013)

In an older post I wrote about Sydney which I visited in February 2013, it really enhanced my love of travel and more importantly it also gave my confidence a much needed boost. After two weeks in Sydney I arrived back in England and my thoughts immediately turned towards the next trip. I now had that travel bug.

Easter was coming up, it felt an ideal time to get away without having to take time off work. I’d also had a little booster as I’d received a decent little sum through a tax rebate to fund a weekend trip somewhere. I explored a number of options before eventually deciding to catch a train to some German city called “Cologne”.  Why Cologne? Honestly, I don’t really know. A combination of it being expensive to fly Easter weekend and Cologne not being too far away on the train somehow led me to one of Germany’s biggest cities.

The reality though is that it was such an illogical choice. I knew nothing about Cologne, it wasn’t a city that I’d ever thought of visiting, I couldn’t speak a word of German so how I ended up there is a bit of a mystery.

I hadn’t ever been to Germany before so  I went to Cologne with no idea of what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. It’s quite a nice city and one I’d happily recommend to people looking for a European weekend break away. The standout landmark of the city is its cathedral (the Kölner Dom), you can see it from miles away and all over the city. Seeing it for the first time blew me away and it doesn’t get any less impressive several viewings later. It is an incredible piece of architecture, a World Heritage Site and a reason in itself to visit Cologne.

Cologne29
Kölner Dom!

Once you’re done admiring the cathedral (this could take a while) you’ll find plenty else to keep you entertained. The Rhine river runs through the heart of the city so you can take cruises along the river, get tickets for the theatre or a show, discover the museums (the Lindt chocolate factory particular popular and has some great views on the roof!), walk through the large shopping district in the city or just wine and dine your way through the pubs and restaurants scattered along Cologne’s cobblestones.  Along the waterfront you’ll find some particularly enjoyable spots to enjoy the local delicacies and have a few Kölsch beers.

Cologne49
Overlooking the Rhein river

It’s a good city break. It’s not the greatest city you’ll ever visit but I do think it’s worth a visit. I’d personally recommend spending 2-3 days in Cologne and not much more. I think any longer and you’d soon run out of things to see and do. My trip was 3 days long and I left with thoughts that I’d seen all that I wanted to. It’s a nice city, I’d had fun and it was a good first impression of Germany. I’d never rule out returning somewhere because you don’t know what might happen but I didn’t envisage I’d be going back to Cologne.

 

Trip 2: The return to Köln (Mar 2016)

Three years earlier I couldn’t see myself returning to Köln – nice city but “been there, done that” would be an apt description of my visit to Köln. I struggled explaining how I’d even decided upon Köln so you’re probably scratching your head as to how I ended up back here.

Luckily it’s a little more straight-forward on this occasion. I am a huge football fan and one of my big bucketlist items was to attend a Borussia Dortmund home game at some point. Famed for its incredible atmosphere and “yellow wall” it’s something that any football fan would want to experience. Unbelieveably the situation arose where my beloved Tottenham Hotspur had been scheduled to play in Dortmund. I had to go! The game was announced Friday lunchtime and by Friday evening I had booked flights to Germany! A “once in a lifetime” opportunity to watch Spurs in Dortmund – I’m going again next month.

Dortmund18
Borussia Dortmund v Tottenham Hotspur

Easy to laugh in hindsight but it genuinely felt like a “once in a lifetime” chance and a “must not miss” game. I wasn’t alone in that thinking though and by Friday afternoon the, normally cheap, flights to Dortmund and Dusseldorf had started shooting up. What was plan B?
Flights to Köln are still really really cheap and it’s not that far away. Book the flights asap, worry about the accommodation later.

Accommodation in Dortmund was fully booking up, neighbouring cities had no real appeal to me and Köln was appearing the most sensible and cheapest option. I could still travel to Dortmund on matchday, right? It does mean returning to a city you’ve already been to though. I was a little reluctant but committed to Köln. I could take the odd day trip, see some of the remaining bits and pieces Köln had to offer and at least I had friends with me this time which would be much more fun than my previous solo adventure here.
Oh, one other thing. I could also speak the language! Admittedly nowhere near fluently but I really can’t understate how much of a difference this made.

German Idioms
German phrases translated directly to English. 

I arrived Wednesday morning and come lunchtime I had spoken more German than the entirety of my previous trip. Only something as simple as asking for a table, reading a menu and ordering some food / beers in another language but to me it was mind-blowing. I’d been in this same restaurant three years earlier and knew nothing. Here I was complimenting the food ( “sehr lecker” ) and asking where the toilets were because I’d ordered a beer or two too many. It made me feel proud and definitely felt like I was acclimatising a bit better than my previous trip to Köln.

Returning to Köln was an interesting experience. It felt so familiar but different at the same time. I’d walked these streets, been in these bars before but because of the improvement in my German it felt like I was seeing things with new eyes and my ears were definitely picking up on things I’d missed out on last time. The friendly chit-chat of the locals and German mannerisms that were easier to notice.
I didn’t spend all of my days in Köln, I took the odd day trip to nearby places such as Brühl and Bonn but overall I left Köln content.

There had been a twinge of disappointment at returning but by the end of it I was thankful I’d gone back with more of a local experience. Two trips over eight nights though felt plenty. Would I return to Köln? Maybe but certainly not to soon. Two trips in the space of three years was plenty for the near future.

Cologne35

Trip 3: “Where is Leverkusen?” (Oct 2016)

Köln wasn’t my only option for Dortmund, I could certainly have picked other German cities that were slightly nearer but Köln at the time seemed like a logical choice. With hindsight maybe I would have gone somewhere else in March.
After a few trips in 2016 I’d saved my last few days of annual leave for one more away trip with Spurs. All I had to wait on was the destination. Where would Spurs be playing?

Leverkusen11
Bayer Leverkusen v Tottenham Hotspur

Leverkusen, Germany. Germany again! Alright, I quite like Germany. Where exactly is Leverkusen though? Oh, it’s a tiny town outside of Köln. That’s bloody convenient. Nearest airport? Kôln/Bonn. Nearest city? Köln. So.. Köln.. again.. really? Third trip, second of 2016.

I was gutted. Similar to a spoilt little child I was eyeing up all the incredible European destinations Spurs could potentially be going to and I’d “only” got West Germany again. This wasn’t meant as a personal attack on Köln because it is a nice city but I think I would have taken ANYWHERE else. I’d seen enough of the city on the first visit, a second was definitely enough and just over 6 months later I was going back. What was I going to do for five days on my third trip to the city?

I’m an optimistic and positive person so my childishness had evaporated come the day of my flight out there. I love Germany, what was I so miserable about? Most people would love to travel as much as I do and I was having a little tantrum. Good friends, German beers, a day out at the football – what was not to like? It certainly beat being at work or stuck in the rain in England.

Cologne63
Köln looking pretty. Not so bad, right?

It wasn’t ideal but just make the most of it. I took a couple of day trips again, this time including a day in Belgium. That gave my German so much confidence. I’d spent Sunday in Germany, speaking a good level of the language, before visiting Belgian city Liege on the Monday. Liege is a French-speaking city and it wasn’t until I went to grab lunch that it occurred to me I hadn’t entirely thought this through.

A friendly greeting of “Bonjour” accompanied with a French menu. Panic! My French is rubbish! Take me back to Germany! I can do this no problem whatsoever.
I’ll talk about Liege another time but it dawned on me how good my German is at this point. Sure, amongst fluent German speakers I might struggle but I was better than 90% of foreigners.

Back to Köln! Tuesday was simply a day of football and German beer – wonderful. The game was dreadful and another wonder-save from Hugo Lloris in Europe spared us from defeat but what a fun day and fun atmosphere.

Wednesday my mood had switched completely. I was in complete admiration of Köln, I seemed to have Köln rose-tinted glasses on. Everywhere I looked I could only see the things I loved about the city – it’s beautiful cathedral, walking alongside the Rhein river and just wandering up and down it’s cobbled streets. I felt happy here, I felt at home with such familiar surroundings. Maybe a third visit does that to you?
Part of me didn’t want to leave and part of me was questioning if I’d come back to Köln for a 4th time and of the opinion I probably would.

They say “third time’s a charm” and it couldn’t be more apt to describe my love affair with Köln. It’s such a strange city for me. It was never a city on my radar, I couldn’t quite tell you how I ended up there, had no real intention of returning on either of my first two trips and yet ended up falling in love with it on the third visit.

Am I in a rush to return to Köln? Not so soon but oddly I see myself back there at some point. It took a while but you won my heart Köln and all three trips certainly have some wonderful memories.

I don’t know when I’ll see you next but “Bis bald Köln, ich liebe dich”

Cologne22
So much love spread in Köln.

So tell me, have you ever grown to love a place more after several visits? Have you been to Köln yourself? Leave me a comment and tell me what you thought.

All the best!

Jason