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.