Europe travel · Travel

German travel- Berlin the bold


Despite being Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, to me, evokes a kind of tough, scrappy, brutish image, both from its past as a divided city during the Cold War and its contemporary image as a inexpensive, start-up paradise. I found this to kind of true when I visited it, as it was old in some parts, but I also found it attractive and more modern than Rome or Paris. As with London and Paris, Berlin was my first-ever stop in its country.

After getting off my budget flight from Rome, I took the airport bus to the station near my “pension,” their word for a cheap kind of inn, which in this case was a set of rooms inside a low-rise apartment. The building was dark at night, had no elevator, and had graffiti painted on the walls of its driveway. Not exactly the most ideal place to stay in. But it was close to the subway, being between two stations, and further up the street, a supermarket with a separate alcohol store next door (perhaps due to local rules). On one of the nights I went there, a group of punks (mohawks, black jackets and all) were hanging out with a couple of pitbulls in the parking lot, which did give me a little bit of trepidation but nothing happened. But yet, the neighborhood was attractive, with a wide expanse of lawn and a neat row of trees separating the block buildings from the sidewalk and main road. It was only the next day I realized there was a distinctive tower with a dome (TV Tower) at the far end of the main road. The neighborhood also had a lot of small businesses like cheap eateries, alcohol stores and clothes stores.

The first place I visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city’s most famous attraction, the Wall exists as a few preserved sections, as it was mostly torn down. The Memorial is right in the midst of a neighborhood built over where the wall stood. As such, the Memorial stretches along several blocks where parks, preserved wall sections with a watchtower, and a small oval church commemorate the wall. Near the end, there is a museum from which you could get a good view of the wall from the top. The setting was so serene, in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the wall which bisected Berlin into an open Western part and the Eastern, Communist section from where people tried to flee to the West. Some of them lost their lives doing so, which is also commemorated. I also visited another more artistic part of the Wall two days later.

I later made my way to the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament that was in a grand, gray building. More specifically, I went to the top of the building, a dome from where you could get good views of the surroundings. It was then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, which was smaller than I’d imagined. There were horse carts, street musicians, and even an Iranian protest against their country’s regime going on. I walked to Gendarmenmarkt, where three magnificent buildings – the 18th century Konzerthaus Berlin (Concert Hall) and two 17th century churches (the French and German churches) are lined up in a row. I finished off the day by going to Potsdamer Platz, a confusing mall complex spread across several buildings and basements. The coolest part was Sony Plaza, a circular entertainment building covered by a neon-coloured roof made up of blades that resembled a propeller.

The subway was old, but retro and clean in a charming way, not so much creaky and antique like Paris’, cramped like London’s or dark and dirty like Rome’s. But it was a little confusing (see the system map) because there are so many lines, divided into surface and underground trains- U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

  

Travel

Overview of a first-time Europe trip

For many years, I often had to say to people when talking about travelling, “I’ve never been to Europe.” Well, I no longer need to say that because I finally did go to Europe.

Specifically, I went to the UK, France, Italy, and Germany in October. My destinations were mostly cities – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin – since those are among the most famous places in Europe, plus I like cities, not to mention my lack of familiarity with Europe and my wonky foot meant I couldn’t really do any hiking. I stayed a few full days each in most of the cities so it was not one of those whirlwind, 10-day, 8-city kind of trip. Actually the trip was a little over 3 weeks but it did feel too short. Originally I was planning a shorter and less ambitious trip but then my mother asked to come along (we went to London and Paris, then she went back first) so I extended it and decided to go to Italy.

It was a real eye-opener and I left with a positive impression, that Europe, or at least those countries I went to, despite all the news about struggling economies and old societies, is still very much a beautiful, modern and advanced continent. It was easy to see and feel the history all around, especially in cities like Paris and Rome, which was integrated with modernity in a way that was charming and different from cities in China or Taiwan. The sights were beautiful, the food was great, people were courteous in general, the service was good, despite expectations about supposed French haughtiness which were proven wrong. On the other hand, what was not so charming was the lack of toilets in places like the Louvre or the old subway in Rome. I also had strong concerns about pickpocketers and scammers, which I read a lot of worrying accounts about. I had a few encounters with the latter, but luckily I was unscathed. I should also say it was good to have gone to Paris before the terrorist attack last week, as some things may never be the same security-wise in the short term, with even other countries like Belgium affected.

In short, I found Paris to be the most beautiful city, Rome the most historic and impressive, and London the most modern. Germany was good though I was a little disappointed by certain aspects of society (surly service staff, people walking into you etc). However, I liked each country I went to, and could have easily spent more time in each of them.

I may have missed out on Spain, and Northern and Eastern Europe, but hopefully I will get there another time.

The itinerary
I started off in London, where we stayed for a few days and did a daytrip to Cambridge. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris, stayed for a few days, then moved on to Chambery, a town near the Alps in southern France, by train, stayed one full day, and crossed into Italy by train. I stayed in Milan for two full days, then went to Rome, again by train. After three full days, I flew from Rome to Berlin, stayed for two days, which I admit is too short for that city, then took the train to Frankfurt, stayed one full day, then flew back to Asia.

The highlights

England
London
-I’ve been to a few good museums but the British Museum was pretty impressive, the first of many great museums I’d visit in Europe. It features famous objects like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece, and a Egyptian gallery, plus it’s got a cool African section.
-Tower Bridge was attractive, with the Tower of London on one side, while crossing the bridge provides nice views of the river Thames, HMS Belfast, moored lower down the Thames, and London’s weird towers like the Shard and Skygarden.
-Westminster Parliament with neighboring Westminster Abbey were both large, grand buildings
-Trafalgar Square was much livelier than I expected, and the National Art Gallery, which is at the square, was full of nice paintings.
-I’m an Arsenal fan so Emirates Stadium was a great place to visit. As a bonus, it is near one of the oldest and most attractive subway stations I’ve ever seen – red-brick Holloway Road station.
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France
Paris
-The Louvre was great (I only saw about one-third of the exhibits).
-St. Chapelle doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside, it has the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
-Looking down across Paris from the Montparnasse Tower (it’s much less busier and actually lets you see the Eiffel Tower)
-The Champs-Élysées by itself is not so spectacular but walking on it to reach the Arc de Triomphe was really cool, especially as the avenue becomes more busier the nearer you get to the Arc.
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Italy

Rome
-The Colosseum is magnificent, but the neighboring Forum ruins are more interesting and the neighboring (all three are right next to each other) Palatine Hill lets you have a good view of the Forum.
-The Piazza Navone is a large, beautiful square surrounded by attractive buildings, restaurants and a large church. It is in the middle of a historic district with the Pantheon just east of it.
-The Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angel’s Castle) is a round Roman imperial fortress that overlooks the river Tiber and the Vatican.
-Vatican Museums feature so much great art that it was almost too much for me to take in. There were impressive sculptures of Roman emperors, huge masterpieces and fantastic painted ceilings, such as the Sistine Chapel’s painted by the great Michelangelo.
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Milan
-Milan’s main attraction, the massive Duomo cathedral, is an impressive sight both inside and outside and on top. The cathedral is next to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an open-air luxury mall which is strikingly beautiful.
-Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) is a formidable 15th century castle that serves as a museum. It’s actually a collection of mini-museums ranging from art to furniture and also features Michelangelo’s last project, an unfinished sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
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Germany

Berlin
-German historical museum is only two floors but is full of interesting exhibits and paintings that range from the Middle Ages to German reunification. It also has World War II items such as Nazi posters and newspapers about the Allied victory.
-Gendermenmarkt is a square flanked by the three awesome old buildings – the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and the French and German churches.
-Berlin Cathedral is one of the most attractive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Its green dome-shaped roofs make it different from all the tall, stern, rectangular cathedrals you see all over Europe.
-East Side Gallery is an over 1km-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is covered with crazy and beautiful graffiti “masterpieces.”
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Frankfurt
-Romer is a historic square that features distinctive picturesque traditional wooden buildings.
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Sports

2014 Brazil – a World Cup to cherish

The best World Cup in modern times just finished on Monday morning (China time). A lot of people have said it was the best and I do too, but not just because it was full of thrills or controversies, nor that there were upsets and dark horses who lived up to expectation, nor even because it was back in Brazil after 64 years but because Germany finally won a final, beating Argentina 1-0 to win its first World Cup since 1990 and fourth overall.

As you could tell, I am a Germany fan and have been, since 1990 when I somewhat randomly choose to support them before the 1990 Italy World Cup and they won it, also over Argentina, with Diego Maradona, 1-0. Since then, I’ve supported Germany through thick and thin, seeing them get knocked out in consecutive World Cup quarterfinals to Bulgaria in 1994 and Croatia in 1998 (3-0!!), and crash out consecutive European Championships in 2000 and 2004 in the first round stages, but also enjoying their current resurgence, which has been in progress since at least 2006. From then, they’ve reached 5 straight semifinals of major tournaments – 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 final, 2010 World Cup semi, Euro 2012 semis and of course, victory in the 2014 World Cup.
Germany are riding a high now, boasting the best reputation and record in international football and bearing the mantle of exciting and efficient attacking football, which Brazil used to be renowned for. Back then, in the 90s and before, Germany were the opposite- disciplined, resolute, practical and relentless, but unimaginative and boring. Then, failure in the early 2000s (as mentioned above) led to an overhaul of their nationwide child coaching and development, which started to bear fruit from the 2006 World Cup when Germany, who were actually the hosts, reached the semis and ended up third. This new Germany was slick, fast, flexible and attractive, but also retained its discipline and efficiency of its forebears. This new Germany was also diverse and multicultural with players of Polish, Turkish, Tunisian and Ghanaian backgrounds. And unlike other strong teams at the World Cup like the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina, Germany thrives as a team and is not dependent on one or two main players, whether it be in scoring goals or dominating midfield.

As if there wasn’t a glut of things to admire about Germany, consider this.
Germany is a team of giants, but it’s led on the field by a guy of noticeably small stature and boyish looks. Standing 1.7 meters tall (which still makes him taller than me), Philip Lahm is the captain of Germany and German club giants Bayern Munich and one of the best defenders in the world. He’s so good that he was assigned to play in midfield for this past year, including at the World Cup.
Germany’s victory was so stunning it even prompted admiration from English writers not just for the team, but for the country itself.

It was fitting that it was held in Brazil, arguably the world’s most famous football nation and football’s spiritual homeland, after an absence of over 60 years. Of course, the host country suffered a serious blow to is illustrious reputation with that disastrous semifinal loss to Germany, but let’s get to that later. There were a lot of worries about safety and incomplete stadiums and infrastructure, but the tournament overcame most of this, carrying on with great vibes, a festive atmosphere nationwide and a lot of excitement on the pitch.

Having said this, the concerns were serious and did not disappear just because the World Cup was fun and exciting. Now that the tournament has finished, Brazilians will have to live with the aftermath and see if the huge stadiums and the ambitious infrastructure projects were worth the exorbitant $13.5 billion and the crackdowns on protests. The poverty and inequality still lives on, and though the World Cup was largely peaceful and festive, it seemed like this wasn’t by accident or natural. The state ramped up its security for the tournament and negative events such as alleged shootouts were kept out of the press, while protest organizers were arrested. While the tournament was great for fans and spectators, the people of Brazil may not feel the same way, though this did not prevent them from being good hosts generally, as people who went there including some of my ex-colleagues have attested. While the World Cup has come and gone, and protesters were silenced or ignored, their concerns live on and hopefully will inspire and spur action, both in their country and abroad, about the enormous costs and corruption that are involved with spending on World Cup and Olympics events (with even citizens in wealthy countries refusing to support hosting the Winter Olympics).

The action on the field wasn’t all good, of course. There were the absurd moments, the incompetence, and the viciousness. Luis Suarez’s amazing bite for all ages will live on in history.

The most stunning and heartbreaking game was supposed to be Holland’s 5-1 destruction of the defending World and European champions Spain. That is until the semifinals when an even more complete annihilation occurred, to the host nation. Germany’s 7-1 rout of Brazil was so complete Brazilian fans were so numbed with despair and shock, they couldn’t be angry with their opponents. Brazil went on to finish fourth, losing 3-0 to Holland in the third-place match, and capping a dismal tournament for them. Ironically, it was their best finish since winning the World Cup in 2002, as they were ousted at the quarterfinal stage in both 2006 and 2010. But it was terribly disappointing given the sky-high expectations of victory on home soil that all their fans wanted. And even more so, given the cynical and ugly way that Brazil had to resort to in some of their games, especially in the quarterfinal win over Colombia. Brazil will need to do some serious thinking at how far they’ve fallen and what they need to do to overcome this. Perhaps they can start by looking at their neighbor and biggest rival Argentina who showed in the final how to play Germany.

CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean) did extremely well, frankly it overachieved with 3 out 4 teams reaching the knockout stages and tournament’s best underdog Costa Rica going on into the quarterfinal before losing on penalty shootout to the Netherlands. Africa did well too, as for the first time, more than one African team reached the knockout stages. While Algeria and Nigeria both lost in the second round, they played attractive and enterprising football and lost with honor. Asia was a disappointment, with all four of its teams failing to advance from the group stage.

It’s only been four days since the World Cup ended and not only do I miss it, but I am already looking forward to the next one in 2018.

China · Sports

Go Dortmund, onwards to the final

It’s just past midnight and today is May 1, Labor Day, a holiday in Taiwan. Therefore I am reasonably confident I can wake up to watch the Champions League* second-leg semifinal (2.45 am Taiwan time) between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. Dortmund shocked Madrid 4-1 in the first leg last week and are favored to reach the final. I like watching football, but I’m not a big fan of any particular club. However, in the Champions League, I always back German clubs, including Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, and Bayern Munich, who will play tomorrow’s second leg against Barcelona, themselves holding a 4-0 advantage. An all-German final is highly likely this year and I’ll certainly savor that. I hope I don’t jinx it by writing this post just hours before the game.

In the Asian Champions League**, China’s Guangzhou Evergrande and Beijing Guoan have qualified for the knockout stage already, while Guizhou Renhe just missed out. Jiangsu Sainty unfortunately will likely not make it after a 2-0 loss left them bottom of their four-team group with just one game to go, but they do have a slight chance if they win and the second and third placed teams in their group both lose.

*The UEFA Champions League is the most prestigious football club tournament in Europe and the world. It consists of 32 of Europe’s best clubs competing in a tournament that starts with a group stage, then moves on into a home-and-away knockout stage. The final is a single game held in a predetermined stadium. The 32 clubs are the champions, runners-up, (and the third and forth-placed teams from the top nations) of their countries.

**Other continents like Asia, Africa, and North and Central America (and the Caribbean) have their versions of the Champions League as well. South America’s own is called the Copa Libertadores.

China · Sports

Quick update on German and Chinese football

Football (soccer for you North Americans) is my favorite sport and this past week was a treat in the European Champions League. When it comes to club leagues, I am not a real fan of any club, but I support German teams in the Champions League, which is a yearly tournament featuring the champions, and the second, third, and (for some nations) fourth best teams of most European nations. In the first leg of the semifinals last week, German teams Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund battered Spanish teams Barcelona and Real Madrid 4-0, and 4-1 respectively. An all-German final seems likely and I’d be very pleased. The second legs are this Tuesday and Wednesday so most likely, I’ll be waking up in the early morning to watch one of them (May 1, Labor Day, is a holiday here).

I also follow China’s football league, which has been getting some attention in recent seasons. One of the main reasons is the big money that’s being put into some of the clubs, many of which are owned by property magnates who seem to be emulating their counterparts in Europe, specifically those oil sheikhs and Russian and American billionaires who own Premier League clubs. As a result, several big-name players have moved to China in the last 2 seasons, including former Chelsea star Didier Drogba, ex-Barcelona star Seydou Keita, and others like Yakubu,Nicolas Anelka and some South American stars. German magazine Der Spiegel has an article on the Chinese football league, focusing on Lucas Barrios, one of the biggest names. Barrios moved to Guangzhou Evergrande from the German Bundesliga’s Borussia Dortmund last season at the peak of his career at 27, unlike Drogba and Keita who are getting on in years. The Paraguayan striker played in the 2010 World Cup for his country. Unfortunately his career at Evergrande hasn’t been so smooth and Barrios seems to be regretting coming to China. He still has a soft spot for his former club. However it’s not actually stated why he doesn’t like it at Guangzhou, except that he’s unhappy, and the article specifically says he doesn’t even mention Guangzhou. In this case, Barrios should have nobody but himself to blame, because he’s highly paid, and living comfortably.

The article gives a good overview of the major investment put into the football league, especially in Evergrande, whose coach Marcello Lippi led Italy to their 2006 World Cup. The major concern is whether this investment is sustainable and can be maintained in the future. The article also says David Beckham got US$2 million to become an ambassador for China’s football league, which saw Beckham visit China recently for a few days to make some public appearances. Beckham didn’t say he got any money so it’s notable the article states he got so much.

In the Asian Champions League, Guangzhou Evergrande is the only Chinese team to qualify for the knockout stage already, while Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Renhe still have a chance. Jiangsu Sainty unfortunately will likely not make it after a 2-0 loss left them bottom of their group with just one game to go. Asian Champions League action continues this week with the final matches of the group stage.

China · Sports · Taiwan

Assorted China and (1) Taiwan reads

There’s been an epidemic of public shootings in the US recently, with the latest being a gunman who was shot dead in the middle of New York City by police (who also shot 8 bystanders by accident) after having killed a former colleague (not to mention a rash of murder-butcheries in Canada recently). So does this really mean that the United States is full of guncrazy lunatics who love to buy and use weapons without any shred of responsibility or accountability, and idiots who fully support these rights even if it means crimes like the one above and the Colorado Batman cinema massacre are easier to commit? Probably there are quite a lot of people in the US like that, but it still wouldn’t be just to accuse all Americans of being gun nuts. The US is a nation of 300 million, the fourth biggest in the world, and it’s kind of pointless to paint it with simple stereotypes.
This goes the same for China, a nation of one point three billion (1,300,000,000), and the world’s third largest nation, and with subregions and subidentities. A lot of media coverage and public perceptions of China portray it as a giant, monolithic entity with articles proclaiming bold statements like China’s in trouble, China is booming, China is a land of great opportunity, China is a ticking time bomb, foreigners are all leaving China,  and so on. Foreign Policy magazine has a new article on China in which Minxin Pei declares that “everything you know about China is wrong.” What if China isn’t rising, but is falling, Pei states and warns about the danger to the US of overestimating China. The article might be interesting to some people (so do take a look at it), but one problem with this is that it’s not just the US government who might be overestimating China, but the media, who often hype anything about China and in the process paint China as a single broad monochrome canvas.

On slightly more upbeat news about China’s global relations, here’s Der Spiegel about China’s positive relationship with Germany. Trade is booming between these two economic giants, though not everything is rosy. Still, the Germans seem to have a pragmatic approach that bodes well for future relations. Germany’s leader Angela Merkel knows that it’s essential to have a strong economic relationship with China, who is Europe’s main trading partner and vice versa. Also to avoid a unipolar US-dominated or a bipolar US-China world, it’s necessary to have China on board, who would be a much more reliable partner than Russia as Merkel seems to realize, from what the article says. Conversely for China, it’s smart to boost relations with Europe’s top power and ensure this relationship grows stronger.

On to football, while Japan’s Shinji Kagawa has played very well for Manchester United as the new season begins, it’s sad to remember at one point United had signed a young Chinese star. It’s quite obvious that Dong Fangzhuo wasn’t quite ready for the opportunity and that he was mainly signed to give United a presence in the Chinese market, in other words, to sell shirts and win fans.

Finally, if there’s one really charming historical place in Taiwan, that would be the old capital of Tainan. I only went there once but the southern city has a number of interesting and well-preserved historical sights and still has a laidback atmosphere to it. One could liken it to Nanjing, China’s southern former capital city, which also has a nice charm and peaceful atmosphere. Of course Nanjing is not as sleepy and its historical sights have a more rugged and damaged condition due to the wars it’s suffered.

Uncategorized

“Shenhua’s nuclear bomb has arrived”

Shanghai Shenhua really did it and got Didier Drogba. Fresh off of winning the Champions League and the FA Cup, the “Devil Beast” Drogba will now be scoring at will (presumably) in the Chinese league soon. The Chinese public and press eagerly await Drogba. The title of this post was uttered by Wang Dalei, Shenhua’s starting goalkeeper and Drogba’s teammate. However, would Drogba really succeed and adapt to the sometimes chaotic and amateurish conditions in the league, especially at his club? Would the club be too top-heavy (great strikers, but weak midfield) and unbalanced to do well?

Not totally surprised, but the French went out and played an abysmal game to tamely exit the Euro 2012 at the hands of defending champions Spain. However I admit I didn’t watch this game and am relying on the reports of this match, but from all accounts, it seems France were out of it and didn’t really mount any offense, even though they trailed 1-0 all the way until the final minutes when they conceded a penalty. Coming into this tournament and during the first two games, France seemed as if it had turned a corner. But then having qualified for the quarterfinals, they lost their final group game to Sweden and then came reports of infighting. Right now, the coach Laurent Blanc, a member of their 1998 World Cup winning team, is under some pressure to go. Well, good riddance to them.

Germany predictably beat Greece in their quarterfinal match that was so filled with political and economic connotations. Jokes and politics aside, Germany won 4-2 in a match that was far mor onesided than the scoreline indicated. And they did so without 3 of their regular starters including striker Mario Gomez or midfielder Thomas Mueller. Unfortunately this display of dominance means that Germany has now been made the sole occupant of the favorites mantle from the press and I fear that naturally this means another team will win. Germany will play the winner of tonight’s match between England and Italy.