I never did the university-year backpack-across-Europe travel experience that others have enjoyed, so this holiday was the closest I'll likely come to that: hopping on trains from destination to destination, hustling to ensure we make our connection in Cologne, hoisting my backpack full of simple tshirts and easy clothing on my back for the journey. No hostels, but backpacking in every other way. A great trip. From Berlin, we made our way back to Brussels for one last night, breaking up the return trip home, and the next day, took a quick detour to Antwerp before our Eurostar journey back to London. In this post, I capture overall faves and a few last impressions.
Best train ride: Cologne to Berlin and back
Excellent picnics, smooth high-speed ride, good seats, no squirrelly kids like other legs.
Related - Best picnic: Cologne to Berlin; Berlin to Cologne (honourable mention)
Cologne to Berlin's train picnic comprised two cheeses, St Felicien and Tomme de Savoie, a hunk of crusty baguette, some sliced cured meat and a Belgian beer. Berlin to Cologne's train picnic, a close 2nd, featured sandwiches from Barcomi, the Caprese (thick cut bread with tomato, mozzarella and pesto) and the Parma (thick cut bread again, with Parma ham and mustard), wrapped in parchment paper, washed down with a glass of Riesling. Good.
Best tourist attraction: The canals in Bruges and the Berlin Wall (tie)
The canals were gorgeous, full of beautful details and wildlife, such a delight to cross bridges and look down at the scenery. The Berlin Wall was fascinating, both the sections that still stand, covered in graffiti, and the areas where the wall no longer exists, marked only by a trail of stones tracing the path, along roadways, properties and beyond.
Best view: View from the bike path on the way to Sluis
Farmlands, villages, cows, an avenue of tall slender trees.
Least favourite critters: Wasps in Berlin
They were rampant and everywhere. Want to sit outside to enjoy your meal? Be prepared to swat the whole time.
Best train station: Antwerp
Look at how beautiful!
Food & drink:
Best meal: Invincible
A late entry, after so many excellent cafe experiences, we found ourselves in Antwerp on one last afternoon of our holiday and it was pouring rain. We wandered a bit, but then tucked into a restaurant that had been recommended in the New York Times. And it was the best meal of the trip, from the bread basket as we checked out the menu while sat at the counter overlooking the chef's station to the glass of wine (inVINcible being the place's name, it had an excellent house wine) to the beautiful filet of white fish on a bed of greens. Beautiful, delicious, a nice treat to wrap up the journey.
Best bar: 't Brugs Beertje
Mentioned it in the Bruges recap, nothing came close to the cozy, warm atmosphere of this comfortable place.
Best treat: The morsels served with cups of coffee
Your cup of coffee came with little goodies everywhere: a piece of dark chocolate, or a mini Belgian waffle, or a little madeleine, and so on.
Best cheap eat: Rissani in Berlin
Chicken shwarma platter for pennies. An excellent pitstop on our biketour. (Sorry currywurst.)
"...Focus instead on the mist rising into the early chill, the morning sun filtering across the treetops and the distinct possibility that you’re having the most peaceful morning in all of London."
The New York Times, on mornings in Hampstead Heath [link]. It's cooled off here, remarkably. Feels like autumn, and the morning runs offer cold, refreshing breaths of air.
From Brussels, we caught the high-speed train to Cologne and then transferred to a train to Berlin, relaxing with our excellent picnic of bread, cheeses & a Belgian beer along the ride. Berlin had been high on my travel wish list for ages, since Joe had first raved about his time there on his Euro-backpack adventures years ago and since reading a ton of different bloggers, design articles and creative websites raving about the laidback, cool atmosphere of the city.
Favourite neighbourhood: Mitte-Scheunenviertel
"Our" neighbourhood where we were staying during our time - residential, with lots of cool artsy courtyards, coffee shops and cafes. We spent so many evenings wandering the tranquil streets and so many mornings heading to one of the many amazing breakfast options for a dish of muesli.
Related: Favourite street: Auguststrasse.
Favourite tour: Fat Tire Cold War Tour
Riding bikes down Karl Marx Allee, to the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall, massive Soviet monuments, interesting stories about East vs West Berlin and lunch at an excellent falafel place. Almost a full day of history, stories and scenery, fascinating.
Favourite walk: Unter den Linden
The historic boulevard leading to the Brandenburg Gate, grand.
Favourite museum: Stasi Museum
We had just watched "The Lives of Others" in the weeks before our trip, a fictional story of a playwright in East Berlin who is spied on by the Stasi, so it was intriguing to see all of the real-world examples in this museum. Like the surveillance footage focusing on people watching a sport match or having a stroll while on holiday. Like stories of people being put under watch for the smallest of infractions, like marrying a woman with a relative with possible Western allegiances. Like the jars of cloths with people's body odours, so that search dogs would have a scent to follow if someone escaped or disappeared.
Favourite park: Tiergarten
Beautiful long paths, tons of greenery. Refreshing.
Most childlike glee moment: The playground near the Berliner Fernsehturm
Because it had trampolines in the surface, like level with the rest of the ground, that I could bounce on. Trampolines!
Most delightful moment: Walking into the Clarchens Ballhaus, where we were seated outside in the twinkling light-lined garden, and finding a sparkling ballroom packed with people doing tango to a live band.
Favourite running route: Along the river and then around the Lustgarten.
Best boutique: Do You Read Me?
A magazine store on Auguststrasse, full of tons of artsy indie publications. I got the latest issue of Dubai-based Brownbook! I could have spent hours and hours!
Least helpful: Transit
So... where do you get tickets to ride the tram? We still don't know, and the locals we asked couldn't tell us either.
Least reliable: Weather forecasts
Sunny sunny sunny all day! So we leave the raincoats at home and then spend a half hour tucked under an overhang during a torrential downpour.
Food & drink:
Favourite breakfast place: Barcomi
In through a doorway that turned into a passageway, opening into a courtyard in which this excellent deli resided. Bagels, muesli, coffees & juice. We got sandwiches here later in the week for our trip back to Belgium, and they were excellent: BLT, tuna, caprese, Parma ham, on thick cut bread, beautifully wrapped, with a peanut butter cookie.
Favourite coffee place: The Barn
Also a top breakfast place. The coffee-making staff at this place were artists. Excellent pastries and muesli too.
Favourite restaurant: Cafe Nord-Sud; Standbad Mitte (tie)
We sat at a table outside the first one and chose our options for the amazingly well-priced 7.50 Euro three-course menu. Charming service, delicious food.
The second place was at the end of a cul-de-sac, serving fresh healthy dinners and beautiful breakfasts. Like hanging out in a neighbourhood of our own.
Biggest hype, but wasn't won over: Currywurst
It was okay? A true Berlin street food experience, complete with a massive line of people, and tasty... but once was enough.
Tons of tattoos, tons of people wearing protective layers over their newly drawn tattoos, it's all edgy tattoos.
Labourers wear Mario Brothers overalls in bright primary colours.
Chill service to the max, no rush whatsoever, to the point where you're craning your neck looking for someone to bring the bill long after you've finished your drink and your plate has been cleared.
From the lovely little quaint town of Bruges, we caught the train back to the bigger, yet still charming, city of Brussels. We'd been there last year and loved the atmosphere of sidewalk cafes, comic strip murals and gorgeous architecture like the Bourse and Grand Place. We went back to some old faves and also checked off some new items on our wish list, like the Royal Palace and EU Parliament.
Best daytrip: Train to Louvain la Neuve to see the Tintin Museum
We had seen this exhibit last year and it was just as charming this time as well. The audio guide was a very simple-to-use and informative iPod Touch gizmo, with clips from Herge interviews and historic photos that influenced the artist. We also went back to the same place for lunch, nice big salads.
Photo from Mom
Best museum: Palais Royal
Gorgeous architecture and opulent decor in the massive rooms of this palace, along with a very interesting exhibit about the history of the country and its royal family. Free to enter.
Funniest EU moment: Out of stock sign on the English language pamphlets
Most endearing shop: Catherine Fromagerie
Despite a crowd of other patrons packing this small shop's interior, the lady at the counter took gentle care to fill our order, explaining certain French words that my ear hadn't quite caught, and setting us up for a beautiful train picnic the next day en route to Germany.
Best fun surprise: St Catherine
Friday evening in the neighbourhood, totally hopping with laidback locals filling the overflowing patio tables.
Best tourist attraction: Grand Place
It really is grand.
Photo from Mom
Food & Drink:
Best snack place: Exki
Healthy, vegetables, good coffee, yogurts for breakfast. Crowd-pleaser.
Beer of choice (James Award): Westmalle Tripel
Chosen after rigorous selection process.
Best new bar: A La Mort Subite
Whether sitting at a table in the golden evening sunlight or inside later on, this place had a nice menu and personable staff.
Best charcuterie plate: Moeder Lambic Fontainas
Stack beautiful bread, wedges of different cheeses and meats and fromage blanc on a few wooden planks to enjoy at an outdoor table with a Belgian beer. Just right.
Best snack: Fritland
Because you have to have a cone of fries at least once during a visit to Belgium.
Best treat: Speculoos from Dandoy
The place with the wooden cookie molds.
Photo from Mom
Photo from Mom
Photo from Mom