Ask any Aussie 20-something who’s ‘done Europe’ where they’d return to and I guarantee they’ll say Berlin. I mean, they might say Prague or Paris or something (I’m not a mind reader) but definitely if pressed for a top 5, Berlin’ll be up there.
Berlin ticks all the boxes: more exotic than London but not so culturally different as to be alienating; as hip as the Scandi cities but not so prohibitively expensive; history and museum rich but not so overwhelming as the lasagne-jumble that is Rome; as architecturally beautiful and imposing as Paris and Vienna but not quite so strait-laced. It is both exciting and accessible; we want to race around Berlin as tourists, but we can also see ourselves setting up shop there for a moderate-to-long stint (cruising around on a 3-speed, attending cool gallery openings, experimenting with winged eyeliner…)
There was a storybook quality to the next leg of our journey. From Cologne we nipped in to Frankfurt, then travelled down to Bavaria which was charming and adorably picturesque.
Frankfurt’s Römerberg (old town square) is typically cute; edged with half-timbered houses, the three-peaked medieval Römer (which has served as the Rathaus for over 600 years) and traditional restaurants offering up Seussian lunches of 4 cold boiled egg halves in green sauce (appaz Goethe’s fave) and pancake soup (which I was sad to learn is not chunks of pancake in a bowl of maple syrup).
Beyond this nugget of old-timey goodness, however, Frankfurt seemed much like any other reasonably large city. The word “liveable” springs to mind; great for residents, not exactly a glowing endorsement for the adventure-seeking traveller. The fifth largest city in Germany and a commercial hub, Frankfurt plays host to something like 60 000 conventions each year (a figure which sounds kind of unreasonable but is too boring to warrant verifying) so is full of staid hotels and business centres. There must have been some kind of Comic Con on while we there because there were a lot of warlocks and unicorns about the traps, and I’m assuming (praying) that Bronies et al remain a contained subculture.
Arriving in Germany after almost 3 weeks in Spain was like entering a different world. Spain was so hot, so colourful and so busy (basically a kaleidoscopic incubator); Germany by contrast was so temperate and sedate. From towering over the petite sparrow-boned Spaniards, I suddenly found myself dwarfed by German giants. I felt like Alice in Wonderland; shrinking down to miniature with my first bite of apfel streusel cake.
Seriously, the change was notable. I don’t want to draw gross stereotypes, but every. single. person. we met in Cologne was tall, blonde and jolly. Where the Spanish zapaterias were crammed with spindly stilettos capable only of supporting 5 ft nothing minikins, the German schuhgeschäfte were lined with sturdy boots and oxfords. No need for extra height; these were all about the orthopaedic support, baby (in other words, my wheelhouse). The clothing was also super practical; where the crowds in Spain were decked out in lace crop tops, the German sheep were in Jack Wolfskin.
By the time we reached Madrid I was feeling pretty good about my relationship with Spain. Like we’d moved swiftly past the small-talk stage of acquaintance to a full-on loving embrace.
Of course Spain had every right to be embarrassed by me; I was still shaking out my map every few paces, striding around in Homyped sandals and inelegantly coping with the heat by collapsing in a red-faced sweaty heap every few hours.
And, while I’d mastered some basic Spanish (hola, gracias, sangria litro), our relationship was still rife with miscommunication. Spain offered me the chance to see the Palacio Real de Madrid; I responded with, “Cool, can I see the fake ones too?” I learned what to expect when visiting a patisseria (pastry), pasteleria (pastry), heladeria (ice cream) and panaderia (pastry). But then Spain would throw me for a loop:
As I was exploring Seville, I kept intoning Amy Schumer’s production tag in my mind — ‘It’s so easy!’
After running around Barcelona trying to see as many galleries and Gaudi buildings as possible, the South of Spain was just super relaxing. Nothing much opens before 10am, and the soporific heat makes siestas necessary; around 2pm everyone starts moving like sloths through jelly. Even the Giralda Tower climb – the one bit of strenuous activity I was prepared for – was breezy. I’d geared up for 34 flights of stairs (and pre-emptively cashed in my carb and gelato points) but was instead met with a series of gently inclined ramps (originally a mosque, this allowed the muezzin to ride a horse to the top of the tower to do the five-times-daily call for prayer).
If Copenhagen is the cool girl with the burgundy lips and goofy grin, and Budapest is the eclectic hipster bedecked with Iris Apfel jewellery, then Vienna is Julie Andrews (and not just as the Austrian Maria von Trapp); beautiful and of distinctly regal bearing.
Vienna is the place for imperial history. You feel the grandeur of the Habsburg empire as you saunter along the Ringstrasse (ring boulevard), and as you crane up at bronze quadrigas and golden angels that perch like wedding cake toppers on fondant-white edifices. Even stopping for a snack break feels stately, as you eat your sachertorte (a royal favourite) in an old coffee house to the dulcet strains of Mozart and Haydn.
In my only full day in Vienna I aimed to hit up as many of the central museums and sights as possible, like a frenzied round of (enjoyable) speed dating. After a traditional Viennese breakfast at Café Mozart (a perfect soft-boiled egg, coffee and sugar pelleted brioche) I started at the impressive Hofburg Palace complex.
I expected to dash impatiently through the Imperial Silver Collection (the first of the 3 museums included in admission). I mean, I appreciate dinnerware as much as the next person, but the idea of having enough interesting crockery to fill a whole museum seemed to be a load of…crock. I was happily mistaken. The collection was like the Be Our Guest scene from Beauty and the Beast, on crack. Think many-metres long centrepieces, elaborate gold- and silverwork, and porcelain galore filling floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets.
The Sisi Museum provided a fascinating glimpse into the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who at the age of 16 married her 23-year-old cousin Franz Joseph I. Catapulted into Habsburg court life for which she was ill-prepared and unsuited, she took to emo poetry, extreme dieting and exercising, dangerous horse riding feats and indulging her wanderlust. Stabbed by an Italian anarchist while travelling in Geneva in 1898 at the age of 60, Elisabeth’s life and beauty (her ankle-length hair was not considered an OHS issue, but her literal crowning glory) have become the stuff of legends. The tour of the Imperial Apartments was another whoa-inducing insight into royal life.
Imperial Silver Collection, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), Imperial Apartments, Hofburg
I didn’t know much about Denmark before I booked a flight to Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago. As a child I was enchanted by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales; as an adult, by Disney’s animated retelling of them (though who isn’t, really? I’m yet to meet anyone impervious to the charms of Frozen…). I’d seen Masterchef contestants struggle to recreate René Redzepi’s fanciful Nordic concoctions with ingredients like carrot sorbet, vinegar meringue and whey. I’d also heard about the Danish love of all things hygge (cosy). As a sucker for stories, food and snug ambience, Copenhagen was right up there in my Tripadvisor searches when deciding where to go to escape Oxford over Easter break.
I planned for 3 days, which is not really long enough to fall in love with a person, but long enough to fall head over heels for a city. At the risk of sounding like a strung out flower child, I just loved its vibe.
Copenhagen manages to be at once charming and trendy; like a girl wearing burgundy lipstick and a goofy grin. Clean design lines and sometimes bleak skies are offset by cobbled streets, colourful buildings and tiny glowing cafés.
The Opera House, Nyhavn, St Alban’s Church, view from Christiansborg Palace
Beautiful old buildings that speak to centuries of history huddle alongside trendy boutiques. The city is compact and easy to explore on foot or by bike (if unlike me you don’t require a Mighty Ducks formation and padded goalie gear to imbue you with cycling confidence). Caveated by my somewhat limited Euro travels, I’ve gotta agree with Lonely Planet’s assessment that all of this makes for possibly Europe’s most seamless urban experience.