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Southward to Bavaria and a view of Munich.
Southward to Bavaria and a view of Munich. (Fridmar Damm/ZEFA/CORBIS for The Boston Globe)
 If you go: Munich

Visitors always have a ball in Berlin, Munich

Email|Print| Text size + By Colin Nickerson
Globe Staff / May 28, 2006

BERLIN -- Deutsche Post clerks are sporting soccer shirts and the huge onion-shaped observation chamber atop the city's 1,200-foot Television Tower has been painted to resemble a soccer ball, albeit with pink octagons.

The World Cup is coming back to Germany and pitch fever grips the land. Soccer ball motifs dominate restaurants and subway stations. Bars buzz with speculation about players and team prospects. Outlandish scare stories -- Germany is about to be overrun by Romanian prostitutes, undercutting local talent! Germany is about to be overrun by English football thugs, with shinier shaved pates and even bigger tattoos than the local hearties! -- shriek from the front pages of the nation's steroidal tabloids.

The official motto, ``A Time to Make Friends," has been duly announced and the hosts and FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) have duly launched a National Service and Friendliness Campaign . Details of the campaign are sketchy, but seem to involve persuading Germans to smile a lot and offer directions to lost foreigners.

Just about every town in Germany is sponsoring some sort of festival with soccer as its main theme and from June 9 to July 9, every pub on every corner will have TVs tuned to the competition -- so order up a frothy mug (Germany boasts 5,000 beers from 1,274 breweries ) from the lady in the dirndl and follow the whipsawing ball.

Or skip the soccer, and just come revel in oompah bands, Baroque architecture, and food that ranges from Hamburg's eel soup to Munich's roast pork knuckles (you get the whole trotter) to Berlin's ketchup-drenched currywurst.

There will be no great bargains on offer. There seldom are in summertime Europe. But think positively: Germany is friendlier than France and way cheaper than Britain. It offers sleek cities chockablock with culture and unto-the-dawn night life, plus medieval hamlets oozing charm, mineral baths to soak the blues away, hilltop castles, the rivers Rhine and Danube, and powerful memorials and ruins from the bloodiest war s in history.

German topography ranges from craggy mountains to the south to the brooding seascapes of the North Sea and the Baltic. Some people actually come here for the beach resorts. Go figure. But there are worse ways to fritter away a summer day than ensconced in the odd wicker sofas called ``strandkorb " that are placed by the thousands on every patch of sand. The covered contrivances can be rented for a few hours or all day, and are meant to provide privacy as well as protect beachgoers from the elements, including sun but also rain and wind.

If you can go to only two places in Germany, make one stop in Bavaria, whose urban centerpiece and best exploration base is the glorious city of Munich. The other stop should be Berlin, which can also serve as launching pad for a day trip to nearby Potsdam and perhaps an overnight to Dresden, which has resurrected its war-ravaged center into an astonishing jewel.

Bavaria is the cheery, beery, traditional Germany of lederhosen and brass bands. People are friendly. History is rich. The Alps are nearby.

Munich has three symphony orchestras, enough museums to raise blisters on the toughest soles, and is one of the most important filmmaking centers in Europe. Start at the Altstadt, or old town. The Church of Archangel Michael, or Michaelskirche, with its Baroque nave, was built from 1583-97 by the Jesuits and is billed as the first Renaissance church north of the Alps. Thirty Bavarian princes are buried in the crypt.

The royal palace contains seven courtyards and hundreds of rooms. Don't miss the palace's Schatzkammer, or treasury, which is a marvelous collection of stuff -- gold work, scepters, swords, ivory, crystal, religious carvings -- possessed by three centuries of very acquisitive Bavarian rulers.

On the sporting front, the unusual German Hunting and Fishing Museum has a vast collection of hunting weapons both ancient and modern, dioramas of game fish, paintings of hunting scenes, and stuffed critters galore. Not for every taste, but a surefire pleaser for the gun-and-rod crowd.

The 12th -century Peterskirche (Church of St. Peter) offers terrific views of old Munich for those willing to climb the 306 steps of the bell tower. Back on the cobblestones, you'll want to stroll around the open air market -- thronged with tourists, sure, but city dwellers also come for the fresh produce -- with its vegetable and fruit stands, cheese vendors, sausage sellers, burbling fountains, and beer garden.

Hungry? A local specialty is Schweinshaxe, oven-roasted pig's trotter served with knucklebones and all. You have to gnaw a bit, but Bavarians think nothing is more tasty. Another local specialty is Leberkaes, a pâté of meat and offal that is served up sliced and warm by every butcher and in some restaurants. More timid tastes will be satisfied with Munich's famous Weisswurst -- basically a white frankfurter served with a piece of bread -- or fresh warm pretzels served at any bakery.

To Berlin, then.

Germany's capital sprawls on and on: 343 square miles , population 3.5 million , hub of the world's third-richest economy , after the United States and Japan. Yet in some ways Berlin has no center. There are landmarks, sure -- Brandenburg Gate, the shrapnel-scarred ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the grim and controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Charlottenburg Palace, the Zoological Garden -- but Berlin is more a city for savoring than sightseeing. If Munich is brass bands and symphony orchestras, Berlin is cool jazz and late nights. It's home to large numbers of university students, and also young artists, musicians, and writers drawn to one of Europe's most dynamic cultural scenes.

It's also surprisingly ratty-looking, especially compared with western Germany. The costs of reunifying Germany since the collapse of the Wall in 1989 have strained Berlin more than any other city. Ambitious building projects have stalled; there's not always enough money to cut the grass in urban parks or scrub the graffiti from great monuments. Still, the city is green and lovely, with broad streets, small squares with fountains, and thousands of outdoor cafes and tree-shaded restaurants.

Checkpoint Charlie -- where US and Soviet tanks faced off in 1961, nearly igniting a third world war -- now looks exactly like what it always was: a modest military inspection shack, with sandbags and a sign warning that travelers were about to leave the American sector for the communist-controlled zone. It's possible, but not easy, to follow the route of the Berlin Wall through the history-haunted downtown.

Berlin's most-visited site is also its grimmest -- a 204,440-square-foot patch of land close by the Brandenburg Gate at the center of the city containing 2,711 concrete plinths , looking like giant gravestones. The Holocaust Memorial to the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler's Nazi regime officially opened last May and has already drawn 3.5 million visitors.

It's a long hike or quick subway ride -- Berlin's two subway systems are the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, which are interconnected but not always conveniently -- to Wittenberg Platz, a large central square. The Ka De We department store there is among the most sumptuous on the continent. Farther west is the fabled Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard, universally called the Ku'damm , with every brand- name retail outlet you can imagine, but also pleasant outdoor restaurants and drinking places. Another lovely spot is nearby Savigny Platz.

Berlin offers a huge array of restaurants, few of them likely to win stars from Michelin. German cuisine is hard to find and not very palatable; the city has more Italian restaurants than Rome, seemingly, but most specialize in mediocre pizza and overcooked lasagna. With its huge population of immigrant guest workers, Berlin is billed as the ``largest Turkish city outside Turkey," so there are plenty of modest but flavorful Turkish restaurants. The gritty Kreuzburg district offers the best, as well as a colorful outdoor Turkish market.

Berlin's trademark dish, weirdly, is the aforementioned currywurst. Sold at fast- food kiosks, currywurst consists of a sliced, fried frankfurter doused with mildly-spiced ketchup and a dash of curry powder. If you like it, you might even think of yourself as a Berliner.

Contact Colin Nickerson at nickerson@globe.com.

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