No no. This is not (as my soccer obsessed seven year old thought) me suddenly doing in-depth coverage of the Bundesliga. Thankfully, there is so much more to these two German metropolises than the combined sum of their sporting talent, rich though it is.
Having taken two excursions into the Teutonic mainland in the last year, what I was struck by was not so much how wonderfully German each city was, but how incredibly and significantly different each urban experience was. It’s a bit like comparing Dallas to Austin or Jacksonville to New York, or Bath to London. On the one hand, you have the seat of Germanness in very affluent, very laid back, warmly welcoming city of lederhosen, weissbier, and bratwurst (seemingly best combined). On the other, you have a very chic, cool, urban experience, full of high fashion, coffee culture, a rich history and international influences.
Both have their strengths, but just how do the two stack up?
Language (as in do they speak yours?)
Southern Germans, Bavarians, the good people of Munich, are genuinely friendly. They smile at you when you try to speak in a broken, fundamentally flawed version of their language. Aren’t you cute? they think, holding back the wince as they hear their precious verbs and common nouns chopped to pieces. God bless you, American-who-lives-in-London-but-has-an-inexplicably-faint-Irish-accent, you’re trying.
With a flourish of pride, I got to the point where I could order coffee, pastry and beer, though not usually in the same breath.
And they’ll smile and they’ll give you directions slowly. In English. Sometimes they’ll even let you practise your German and patiently wait and answer you back in their native tongue, as through they are speaking to a small, slow child. They seem to smile naturally in their traditional volky attire, the hills alive with the sound of Dieter and Anke.
Berlin, on the other hand, is, as they say here in fashionable London, sh*t cool. Too cool for school and certainly too cool for small talk and open and extravagant gestures of friendliness. You’ll find hipsters and slackers. You’ll find Chelsea boots and skinny jeans, and certainly where we stayed at a friend’s place in Neukölln, the Hackney/Brooklyn/West Philly/(insert your local pretentious neighbourhood here) of Berlin, flat whites and street markets full of artisanal wiener schnitzel and hemp jumpers tempered with the cries of mountain goats, but you’ll get no random acts of welcome here.
You could try speaking the language, but you won’t get very far.
‘Zwie flat white, bitte.’ Armed with ingratiating smile.
‘Sure. You want sugar in your coffee?’ is the usual response. But the eyes speak volumes. They say, in a benevolently condescending way, look pal, you are in what used to be known as the American quarter. I speak better English than you will ever speak German. Let’s save us both some time here, eh?
‘No thanks,’ I reply. Subtext: fair enough.
Which is fine. Berliners are not unfriendly, nor are they, contrary to some opinions, aggressive. They just don’t seem to feel the need to bow and scrape with open arms or mince their words when you’re in their way. Come visit us or not. We’re Berlin. We’re not going to try to sell ourselves to you. Have a coffee in the street or don’t. Don’t stand in my way while you’re doing it.
We’ve been ravaged by history and you’re coming in with your American dollar and British pound and taking pictures of it all. What do you want, a medal?
Yes, Southern Germans can commonly be found walking around the market square, chowing down on a gherkin in one hand, easing its path down the digestive tract with a tankard of hefewiezen in the other.
You’d be silly to visit Munich and not sit down in the city’s oldest Beer Hall, Hofbräuhaus, and order a pretzel and a sausage smothered with sauerkraut and mustard. Or to cycle through the Chinesischer Turm biergarten and have… you guessed it, beer and sausage. For vegetarians like myself, the beer was nice. The food can get slightly repetitive.
Though in fairness to Munich, they had one of the best vegetarian restaurants at which I have ever had the pleasure of eating, Prinz Myshkin. The Thali plate was gastronomic euphoria. But like many things in Munich, it’s fancy, beautiful and expensive.
Bavarian food is traditional, honest and most importantly, German.
I very much expected the same of Berlin.
I was very much wrong.
You’d be hard pushed to find traditional Juh-man food in this city. The first night, we ate at a vegetarian burrito bar. The first morning, we scouted out all the comforts of home: flat whites, pastries, cappuccinos served by expat Kiwis and Aussies.
We did scout out a traditional beer garden in Berlin institution Schleusenkrug (because when in Germany…), which was lovely, but even they didn’t serve Bratwurst. They served something called weiner wurst, boiled Viennese sausage with an ethereal pallor that I’d never seen in cooked meat before. To my mild surprise, my son gobbled it up, after telling the man behind the order window that he was ‘1/8 German!’ (he’s fallen into the American habit of fractioning off his identity into different older European cultures).
We hunted down the Berliner favo(u)rite, Curry wurst, but once we found the legendary Fleischerei Imbiss and the Mrs and the boy plated up, it didn’t look much different to me from a meal I was partial to as a child: hot dog, cut up, with ketchup. Apparently, the good people of the German capital add curry powder.
This is a city full of punked out pizza (Alsatian tarte flambee), Vietnamese Banh Mi, and any number of cool vegetarian and vegan places and international influences. Look for food adventures instead of traditional German fare.
Awesome Places To Go
The forecast for both our German vacations was quite gloomy. Strangely, we were luckier with weather in Berlin than Munich, which may, coupled with the fact that we accidently coincided with a Catholic feast day (man, those Southern Germans really are devout) on the day we had intended to rent a car and drive out to Neuschwanstein Castle, yet taint my consummately professional, analytical opinion.
To give Munich its due, it’s a walkable (or bikeable, as is the favo(u)red mode of transport in the city), beautiful and inspiring city. We climbed to the top of Peterskirche, to gaze out from dizzying heights over the many spires and gothic delights in the local environs. We cycled through the Englischer Garten, secluded from the city streets, larger than central park and home to two beer gardens, many playgrounds, a Parthenon-like structure, a pagoda, and several different locations for river surfing. On the last day we even had a gander at the excellent ode to scientific discovery, The Deutsches Museum, with a fine kinderreich (Kid’s Kingdom), in the basement that kept my son happy for the last day of our stay. Historical, stunning, and laid back, Munich is a marvelous city.
But there was simply something about Berlin. It wasn’t as clean, but it was edgier. Where else in the world is there an airport that’s been turned into a public park? Tempelhof Airport, where we spent a bemused half a day, ceased operating as an airport in 2008 and reopened as a public park two years later. On first approach spooky, especially on the windy day that we trekked out, there is some strange sense of joy about walking around on abandoned runways, seeing people picnic, play soccer, cycle or walk their dogs on wide open spaces where once great metal machines revved up off the ground and groaned back down as well.
I avoided the more overtly Jewish elements of Berlin tourism. Any German city is steeped in a deep and perpetual process of soul searching over The Holocaust. The one ‘cargo’ train at the end of one of the sheds in the Technikmuseum was enough for me. What fascinated me more was the incredibly rich history surrounding the Berlin Wall, the fall of which seemed in many ways to be the pinnacle historical event of my childhood, playing out in breaking real time on all our television monitors as I sat glued at the tender age of 11.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend traipsing from Brandenburg Tor to Checkpoint Charlie on a cold day with a seven year old, but the boy did enjoy watching trains in futuristic Potzdamer Platz Station and we enjoyed the rest.
That depends on you, doesn’t it?
Do you want beer, pretzels and lederhosen, red-faced Germans pulling you pints of tasty Bavarian brew? Or do you want to see the graffiti that marked a thousand heartbreaks during the communist era and then sip away the contemplative sorrows of history in Becketts Kopf?
More importantly, with two cities this cool in one country, why haven’t you booked your ticket yet? Don’t expect me to tell you where to go! Get a move on, man and make up your own mind. Go, become more cultured, experience the continent, experience the world as it is in all its glory.
Off you pop!
Let me know what you think.
As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.
It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica — but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North.
And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!
But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.
Going from Place to Place
Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!
Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.
And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.
Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.
The “Quirky” Neighborhoods
When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.
The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.
Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.
Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.
Food and Drink
It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.
Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.
And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.
And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t really call them Danishes in Denmark.
Well, they wouldn’t, would they?
They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.
Best of all though… Snow!
Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.
I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.
Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy. Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.
And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.
All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.
As I’ve said before, 2013 has officially been dubbed The Year of The Gathering, for the duration of which Ireland will play host to the whole diaspora of its sons and daughters come back to see the homeland, to reunite with family they didn’t even know they had, to disabuse themselves of illusions to do with leprechauns and to generally appreciate all about the land that disproportionately produces world-class poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Michael Longley, Louis Macneice, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney (insert name of your favo(u)rite here) and many others besides.
But let’s face it. In order to see the best that Ireland has to offer, you need to rent a car. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything controversial or intensely debatable when I assert that Ireland’s public transport system is neither cheap nor efficient. Its urban rail system, the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) is one of mechanized transportation’s great misnomers and I’ve taken train journeys down to Kerry that involved long and tedious connecting coaches from Mallow in Cork (I don’t know so don’t ask). But that is Ireland’s pace and part of its peculiar and particular charm.
But thanks to the Celtic tiger of the 90’s and noughties, Ireland’s road system has undergone some massive modernization, especially around the cities, and is a general pleasure to drive around, basking in the rural fields of green flanking either side of some fairly efficient, if a tad congested thoroughfares (I know those who have experienced them will take this as irony and I’ve been in the traffic jams too, but they’re not that bad).
And what rewards to be reaped from driving 10-15 minutes in any direction outside the capital, from Brittas Bay on the Wicklow coast to the passage graves of the Boyne Valley, from Bray Head south of Dublin to Howth Head to the North.
Such as this gem just 40 minutes south of Dublin as you whip round the quiet country roads, Glendalough (literally, “Glen of Two Lakes”). Glendalough is where the famed sixth century Irish ascetic, St. Kevin, sought refuge from his followers and is said to have slept in a bronze age cave at the edge of the mountain. Who can blame him for wanting to stay in this place? On a fair day, such as the one we visited on, views anywhere in Glendalough are stunning.
The gently rolling brooks and streams make for peaceful passing of a lovely day.
The rural splendor can only possibly elevate and inspire the soul.
And at the same time it is a place steeped in the spiritual heritage of this island, featuring several different stone churches near the hiking trail on the site, dating back as early as the 10th century. Oddly enough, there were marauding American tourists that were over for the Notre Dame vs. Navy taking place at the Aviva Stadium. My compatriots were a tad loud, brash and somewhat badly dressed, but generally pleasant. Just as I was feeling on the verge of an epiphany amidst the graves and medieval stone structures, I heard a voice, as if it ‘buzzeth in mine air’ from a rotund lady in sunglasses just to my left saying, ‘WHAT’S THAT, CHER? THAT’S RIGHT. MEET YOU BY THE CHURCH.’ Ah the high dulcet tones of the North Atlantic twang. That, as I have said many times before, is our charm. We don’t mind how much like sore thumbs we stick out; we will blunder confidently on in hopes of a miracle… or a little guidance.
Notwithstanding being surrounded by my countrymen, there is a blanket-like tranquility in the air, a permeating peace and beauty, that leaves no wonder as to why the Irish landscape has inspired such mysticism in its poets.
Well worth the day if you’re going to be in Ireland or could make a very good reason to make the trip.
For car rental, Enterprise’s Dun Laoghaire office just south of Dublin cuts right through all the minutia and hassle of holding insurance on cards and all that palaver. There are a couple nice pubs and restaurants in Glendalough, but you’d be better off following the signs north again towards Avoca in Kilmacanogue for a lovely plate of food and a soothing stroll along the grounds.
Go. Be inspired! Feel the rhythm of your feet along the ground informing your consciousness in verse. Come back and tell me about it!
We had our biannual snow day two weeks ago, but unfortunately, my son’s school was still open. This presents a slight problem when all you want to do is go play in the snow and your living, breathing excuse to do so — your small child — has gone off to school for the day. How dare he.
So instead of building snowmen and pegging each other with well-packed balls of ice, the missus and I took a brisk and beautiful walk along the Hackney Marshes, a vast swathe of green space local to our part of East London, providing playing fields and picnic spaces in fair weather, and bright, crisp splendor in the winter as you can see here.
What I began to notice as I savo(u)red the beautifully self-contained sound of snow compacting underfoot was the underestimated panoramic joy afforded us so close to the center of one of the largest and busiest capital cities in the world. And how it genuinely feels ever so slightly different to stroll though open spaces and trails that neighbo(u)r the grey, sludgy, dull roar of busily trafficked thoroughfares like the industrial Orient Way and Leabridge Road, a stretch that slices right from Hackney to Whipps Cross, just short of Essex. So, with the following photos, I have tried to capture something of the uniqueness of nature within earshot of the chorus of rumbling engines and angry horns scurrying about the roads on their daily grind. I hear it’s snowing again in many parts of America. I hope this captures the brighter side of it. Enjoy.
In the great words of the Monty Python crew, “And now for something completely different.” I’m coming down from the politics-junkie high of election season as we all slowly exhale and put the presidential pugilism of the last month or two especially behind us. I’m not actually of the belief that, as social animals, anything we do is completely divorced from the political/social sphere, but I did think I’d get back to travel this week, which is not so overtly political.
To that end, inspired by fellow blogger Marina from Hercules Gets a Passport, whose blog post on San Francisco has motivated me to want to one day explore that wonderfully sunny looking city that was once a political hotbed of flower-power and beat poetics in the 60s, I’ve decided to write about a city I love, Dublin. Marina’s blogpost was for a competition and, whilst the competition is closed, I like the idea of taking three things you know and love about a city and exploring them.
I spent four years in Dublin (actually close to four years, but I have to say something to explain my accent). It is a city rich with a history of wit, of poetic souls, and of artistic temperaments. This year, Ireland celebrates 2013, The Year of the Gathering, a year-long celebration of Irish cultural identity in which particular emphasis is placed on welcoming back the sons and daughters of Eire from the far and wide diaspora to come back home and celebrate their roots. So, just in time for The Gathering, I thought I’d take you on a very quick mini-tour of my Dublin and hope to entice you to join in the celebrations in some way this year.
Lunch in Govinda’s
Who, outside of Ireland, outside of Dublin even, could conceive of a popular Hare Krishna vegetarian restaurant close to the city center? Who could further guess that such a cafe would serve top-notch food at fairly reasonable prices? Every year, at least once, we make our pilgrimage to Govinda’s for lunch in town. Warm, friendly staff will pile your plate high with steaming lasagne, the most perfect sag paneer I’ve yet tasted and generally comforting peppery, spicy potatoes, vegetables and assorted dollops of scrumptiousness to fill you with virtuous goodness for the rest of the afternoon and possibly the evening. Having spoken to the knowledgeable staff before about the topic, I now know that there are Govinda’s restaurants in cities throughout the world. We’ve been to the one in Toronto which was supposed to be pay what you like but was closed for a festival during out visit, and still periodically frequent the London Govinda’s, which has good food and a more accurate representation of Thali plate dining. But nothing beats the Irish Govinda’s on Aungier Street for a welcoming, relaxing ambiance, generosity of portion size and quality of cuisine.
Swing by Butler’s for a Hot Chocolate after lunch
Butler’s is a Dublinian institution, without a doubt the best hot chocolate and the best chocolate to be found anywhere in Ireland; rich, decadent, warming the cockles and mussels of one’s heart, the piece de resistance is the little sweet Butler’s presents to you on the saucer, which you dutifully drop and mix into your drink. Great place to get gifts to bring back home, meet, reunite and chat over warm, creamy, frothy cocoa.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side… Otherwise known as The North Side
Years ago, working at a school in one of the poshest neighborhoods in South Dublin, Ballsbridge, I certainly heard my fair share of Northsider jokes (What separates us from the animals? The Liffey. Ha ha ha ha), but I also always found something genuine and beautiful and full of character about this gritty, underrated half of the city. I lived on Clonliffe Road, near the Gaelic Football and Hurling Stadium, Croke Park. We used to get checked for tickets coming back from Tesco with our shopping and the excitement and buzz of the atmosphere was unparalleled.
James Joyce, in Portrait of an Artist as A Young Man has his hero Stephen Dedalus claim that Drumcondra is “where they speak the best English,” but something about Joyce makes me think that, though he was clearly no nationalist, his sympathies laid with Stephen and the local pride he took in the North side. It is also a place that will afford you, with a brisk or leisurely stroll, some of the finest period architecture the city has to offer. Neither is it without its simpler pleasures, for at the end of your sojourn down this thoroughfare, you will find Fagan’s pub, Ireland’s former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern’s local, a fine establishment in which to sit and relax with a pint of Arthur Guiness’ best and time to ponder and philosophize as Dublin cannot fail to inspire you to do.
I feel civically and globally obliged to mention that there was protest the day we went. It was led by a group called Jews forJustice for Palestinians. I felt fully in support of the protest as they were protesting against an insidious Anglo-Danish company called G4S, a company that is contracted by the government to deport asylum seekers.