Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bonjour, Brussels

Here's the thing about Germany that blows my Canadian mind: it shares a border with nine other countries, all easily reachable by train. Nine countries!

Back home, you can drive for days and still be in the same province. Canada's extreme width measures more than 9,300 km, which is more than the distance between between Bonn and Beijing (7,830 km).

That you can jump on a train in Germany and pop out in another country in less time than it takes to drive to the airport and clear security is a novelty that hasn't worn off yet. Two weeks ago, I left Bonn at 6 p.m. and was eating dinner in Brussels two and a half hours later. When I got on the train, people were speaking German and eating sausages. When I got off the train, people were speaking French and eating waffles. It's about as close to teleporting as it gets.

Belgium's historic centre is stunningly beautiful. But I recommend giving the Atomium a miss. Built for Expo '58, the Atomium is one of Brussels' most inexplicably popular tourist attractions. We ended up at the Atomium thanks to a Mountain Equipment Coop employee who, upon learning Brussels was part of our itinerary, imparted some misguided advice: "Duuuuude. You have to go to the Atomium. It's wild."

Sure, the Atomium is interesting to look at from the outside. But don't waste your time lining up or spending money to go inside. There's nothing to see. Most of the pods are closed to the public and if you want to go to the top pod for the panoramic view of Brussels, you have to go all the way back down to the ground floor and cue for the elevator.

Mini Europe, on the other hand, was great. Where else can you travel across Europe in one hour? Where else can you trip and fall and almost bring the Eiffel Tower crashing down with you? The Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate was especially well done.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Berlin: Poor but sexy

Officially, Berlin is the capital of Germany. Unofficially, Berlin is the capital of cool.

It's one of the most graffiti friendly, bike friendly, art friendly, party friendly, freak friendly cities I've ever visited. It's exciting and dynamic and all of the other adjectives that hint at the atmosphere of the place but don't quite do it justice.

Berlin feels free to me. It's refreshing to be in a city where a guy wearing crystal-studded stilettos doesn't raise eyebrows or to know that whatever your fetish is, there's a club that caters to it. (Which is great in theory but not so great in reality when it's 4 a.m. and the party outside your hotel window is still raging.)

But what tips Berlin over the edge, what makes it truly interesting, is that amidst all of the fun and freedom and forward-looking progressiveness runs a somber undercurrent. Its horrible history isn't on full display but it isn't hidden either. The memorials, the museums and the galleries are a testament to the city's heavy historical burden. Berlin is a juxtaposition between the past and the present, between horror and hope.

Division is a constant theme: even the monument to the Berlin Wall is split in two. You can go to the Topography of Terror where a section of the wall stands above a series of panels that take you through the history of Hitler and the Holocaust to the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. Or you can go to the East Side Gallery where the murals painted on a 1.3 km stretch of the wall are a symbol of freedom and the euphoria of reunification.

So you have two walls. One wall symbolizes humanity at its worst. And the other symbolizes humanity at its best. Either way it's a powerful symbol of hope, a reminder that things can change. Walls can be built up but they can also be torn down.

It was surreal to see the Berlin Wall with my own eyes. It was equally surreal to see that the wall -- once used to control and divide people -- has been reduced to little more than a backdrop for Facebook profile photos.

The fall of the wall was a larger-than-life historical event and it happened in our lifetime. When I was learning about the Berlin Wall in history class, never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day I would actually touch the wall with my own hands.

This was meant to be a somber pose but it turned out to be unintentionally sexy. But since Berlin's mayor gave the city its "poor but sexy" tagline, I figure the photo is apropos.

I've posted a few other photos below. The rest are on flickr.

Of course, a highlight of Berlin was catching up with Marni and Laura, who I hadn't seen since the last time I was in Canada, which was three years ago. We all arrived in Berlin on Friday morning, spent the weekend together and then took the train back to Bonn on Sunday night.

They spent a couple of days in Bonn before heading out on their own, and I met up with them again the following weekend in Belgium. We've known each other for a long time so even though we hadn't seen each other for a few years, there was an immediate ease and comfort. We slipped back into familiar roles, like family.

On the train back to Bonn, we had visions of eating in the dining car a la Orient Express.

However, upon arriving in the dining car we were informed that there was a limited menu because of a malfunction in the kitchen. I ordered a Snickers bar, which was served on a plate. All that was missing was a knife and fork.

A Snickers bar served with a side dish of surreal. A fitting end to the trip.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Bonn to Koblenz by bike

To me, a city's livability is directly related to its bikeablity. The easier it is to get in, out and around a city by bicycle, the happier I am to live there.

Bonn may not be the world's most dynamic city but what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in bikeability. The city is littered with bike lanes, bike paths, bike trails, bike stoplights, bike stores, bike rental shops, bike parking spaces, bike signs, bike routes and bike maps. (Unfortunately, being a paradise for cyclists also makes Bonn a paradise for thieves. Stories about stolen bikes are as ubiquitous as sauerkraut and sausages.)

Not only is it easy and safe to get around Bonn by bike, it's easy to ride from Bonn to other cities and towns in Germany (or to neighbouring countries, for that matter). Pretty much every region in Germany has a network of signposted bike routes. The country is criss-crossed by more than 200 long-distance trails covering 70,000 km, which makes it a perfect place for bike touring.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Bonn was buy a bike. I've been itching to get out and do some cycle touring on the weekends but the weather wasn't cooperating. So when the forecast finally called for blue skies and warm temperatures yesterday, I decided to test out some of Germany's trails with a short 65 km ride down the Rhine from Bonn to Koblenz.

The nice thing about the ride was that it was almost entirely car-free. The majority of the route was down a bike path beside the Rhine, with a few back roads, forest trails and city streets thrown in for fun. The whole thing was well signposted with markers every few kilometres.

The best thing about the ride was that every 10 km or so, the path would cut through a small town on the banks of the Rhine, which meant plenty of opportunities for cake and coffee breaks. It took us more than seven hours to ride the 65 km to Koblenz. Of that, only four hours were spent in the saddle. The rest of the time was spent eating, relaxing and taking photos.

We arrived in Koblenz with enough energy to do some sightseeing before dinner. And, of course, no German bike adventure would be complete without capping it off with a tall, cold, German beer.

Heading back to Bonn was easy because bikes can be taken on trains in Germany. You can always ride one way and take public transport back. It's just one more layer of bikeability, which makes me happy to live here.