The BBC of Festivity: Berlin, Brussels, Cologne

Berlin bound on the bus…then figuring out the local trains to get to Weberwiese, where we were met on the platform by a vision with red hair and a green coat…FRANZI!!  Franzi is a fellow belly dancer from our Seoul days, but she has moved back to Germany to work as a nurse.  She had just moved into a new apartment that same week, and we were honored to be her first guests.  On our first night, she had to work the redeye shift, so we made ourselves scarce the next day by investigating the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which has been left in the state it was after an Allied bombing in WWII, and Schloss Charlottenburg, a lovely yellow castle.

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We spent at least an hour traipsing through the extensive grounds of the castle, which were full of colorful leaves, joggers, and beautiful little spots to rest our feet after so much walking.  After that, we made our way back to the apartment to make dinner with our hostess.  After which, we wandered through the brightly lit area around Alexanderplatz, with Franzi pointing out all her favorite places, including a little log cabin theatre right there in the middle of the city.

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The next morning, we hunted down a little cafe for a great German tradition: Sunday  brunch!  A vegan brunch!  Actually, I have to say, Berlin was easily THE most vegan friendly place I have ever been.  After languishing with our coffees, we headed back to the house to put up her wallpaper.  The next morning, Sangbyeong and I decided to take advantage of the good weather to walk around the city.  Our first stop was the East Side Gallery, the largest chunk of the Berlin Wall still standing.  We had missed the 25th anniversary of the fall by one day when we arrived…alas.  But the East Side Gallery is always a colorful palate that preaches tolerance and peace.

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From there, we crossed the river into the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, the bubbling melting pot of different cultures that makes Berlin’s pulse move that much faster.  Found plenty of funky street art, a vegan cafe, and…lots of drug dealers.  Ah well.  We continued our walk all the way up to the old Checkpoint Charlie, where there were several displays showing old photos of the checkpoint and the history of the Wall, itself.  Passed the old SS headquarters, and headed toward Potsdamer Platz.  Another couple hundred meters brought us to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe….a full square city block of cement blocks.

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Our last stop was Brandenburger Tor, and a good thing too, as the clouds were starting to roll in and threaten rain.  We passed back through Alexanderplatz and headed home.  The next day, we had a mission…finish the wallpaper!  Despite the best efforts of outlets, light switches, and shoddy architecture to thwart us, we were victorious!  Thus, we spent our last evening with Franzi celebrating with wine, chocolate, and white walls.

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Okay….fast forward a few days, because we flew from Berlin to Paris (33euro flight!!), and we arrived in Brussels.  We only had two days to explore the city, so we headed out bright and early our first morning to make the most of it.  Our hostel was located along the canal, so we headed into the heart of the city, aiming for the spires in the Grand Place.  But  first…we had to stop and have the pommes frites.  The Grand Place itself was getting all dressed up for Christmas, so we were able to see the tree in various stages of dress throughout the day.  We followed our noses to the palace and the park, before turning back toward the center.

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We passed the St Michael’s Church and wandered in to see the stained glass and modern interior.  It was a peaceful space that is clearly well taken care of.  From there, it was time to enact our most important mission of the day.  I had a tip on a tiny, hidden pub where we could buy the fabled Westvletern 12…the world’s best beer.  And we found it!  Hard to describe it in beer terms…it felt more like a wine.  SO. AMAZING.

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We wrapped up our time in Brussels by wandering through the alleys, admiring the street art and catching the fabulous sunset.  The next morning, we had a little time before our onward bus, so we treated ourselves to the Magritte Museum.  Having been a huge Magritte fan since 8th grade, it was a very intense and dreamlike experience…much like his art.

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With that, we were on yet another bus…this time to Cologne (or Koln), Germany.  The reasons for this detour were simple: I wanted to see the Dom and Christmas Market season had started!  Cologne is famous for having the biggest and best of all the Christmas markets, and I wanted to get myself in the mood early, since this would be a special Christmas season.  We arrived late, but our hostel was within spitting distance of the Dom.  And that was our first stop the next morning.  After exploring all the nooks and crannies, we stopped for a cup of gluhwein at the Dom Christmas Market before wandering a few of the other city streets.

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Christmas Markets might open around noon, but their real glory is after the sun sets.  At twilight, we embarked on a mission, with map in hand.  Is it possible for one couple to visit all SEVEN Christmas markets in Cologne in one chilly night?  Our first stop was the furthest afield, whose theme was reindeer.  Held in a large city park, this one felt very cozy, tucked in among the trees.  The next two were fairly new, one with a St Nicholas theme and full of puppet shows and smiling children, the other a dedicated shopping village.

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The fourth one we visited was the Angel Market.  White star lanterns hung high in the trees and each stall was decorated with a different angel.  We also spotted some truly creative items…like Dom shaped waffles and chocolate tools!  The next market was a long, chilly hike away, located along the river, it is was themed after sailing and the sea…although it was pretty dark and hard to take good photos!

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Our last two markets to see that night were the Elves Market (by far the largest and most intricately themed!) and the Dom Market itself.  Both we had visited in the daylight, but they were packed with locals in the evening…all getting together to play games, ice skate, listen to brass bands, drink grog or mulled wine, and just get into the spirit of the season.  Entering the markets, I would say it is impossible not to feel the Christmas spirit.

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Mission: Accomplished.

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