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:
For the next leg of our trip we caught a train to Granada, which had something of the same feel as simple, sun-soaked Seville, but with a bit more grit. I don’t want to say ‘dichotomous’ because my #1 rule for life is ‘Try not to be a wanker’, but this tiny city contains some surprising contrasts. (Maybe not more than any other city, but brought into such stark relief because covering the city takes less time than baking Betty Crocker brownies.)
The main street – Calle Reyes Catolicos – for example, is a shiny boulevard (literally shiny – they had big sanding machines out to rough up the tiles which ballet-flatted tourists were skating around on like butter on hotcakes…) with the swanky feel of Rue St-Honoré or Rodeo Drive. As you move up towards Carre del Darro and the Albaycin (old Arab quarter), the boutiques stipple into dilapidated hostels and whitewashed houses. Cobbled streets wend up the hillside, providing a calf-aching trek for shoeless street artists and tourists alike. We saw more than a few dreadlocks — and only some belonged to other Aussie backpackers (who were wearing Bin Tang singlets and cleaning the souvenier shops out of shotglasses. What can I say…we’re a classy bunch).
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).
To bookend my BCL year (and delay my return to Australia and the realities of post-student life), I planned a month of travelling through Spain and Germany with my friend Kate. After graduation day, it was time to beeline for Barcelona!
My trip got off to a less than illustrious start. Having bid a teary farewell to Oxford not 12 hours earlier, I caught an early 3 hour bus to Stansted Airport (ugh) only to find that my flight had been delayed. After an interminable terminal wait (during which I saw, and was lightly splattered by, a kid throwing up into his hands), disconcerting RyanAir flight (involving hearty clapping and cheering on takeoff and landing), bus ride, and struggle to find the right train station, I finally arrived at my hotel. I immediately perked up; right next door was the bright beacon of a gelateria, mercifully open at 11pm. It’s a law of science that gelato always heralds good things and indeed, this marked the point at which things turned around.