Germany

Don't overlook the Lake District

Buenos Aires - Argentina’s charismatic capital - may get most of limelight but a trip to the country’s Lake District is fully warranted in in its own right, says Kaye Holland

Buenos Aires is a magical city full of fantastic food, football, tango, and loud and proud Latin culture. However it would be criminal to travel all the way to Argentina without ticking off the Lake District - an area area of extinct snow-capped volcanoes, emerald forests and glacial lakes.

Reaching Argentina’s Lake District from Buenos Aires typically involves boarding a bus for 24 hours but it’s a journey that is both fascinating and rewarding.  I loved learning card games, playing bingo and chatting over mate (Argentina’s national drink - akin to a herb tea - is a social experience not just a thirst quencher) until the early hours. Little wonder then that I arrived in Bariloche with a big smile on my face.

Argentina’s lush Lake District is often called ‘Little Switzerland’ partly due the similarity of its picture perfect scenery (think clean, crisp air, majestic mountains and glittering lakes and rivers) but also because of its architectural style. In the region’s two main centres - San Carlos de Bariloche in the south and San Martin de los Andes in the south - alpine chalets, church steeples and statues of Saint Bernard dogs abound. So much so, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were back in Europe.

The Swiss inspired architecture is down to the influx of German and Swiss immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th century which meant that new cultures, tastes and styles were rapidly woven into social fabric. And nowhere is the Swiss influence more apparent than in the town’s dining habits: the tight nest of streets thrum with fondue restaurants, beer halls and boutique chocolate shops (they aren’t luxury but a way of life here) on every single street. Both Bariloche and San Carlos de Andes are foodie cities and excel at outdoor eating - most places have al fresco seating.

But the Lake District’s real appeal lies beyond its cities.The region is as generous with its national parks – here’s looking at Lanin and Nahuel Huapi, arguably the grandfather of all Argentina’s national parks – as it is with its chocolate stores (make no mistake if Willy Wonka was looking for somewhere to live, Argentina’s Lake District would be it).

No guidebook could prepare me for my first glimpse of Circuito Chico - one of the region’s most bewildering beautiful sights. It’s also one of the area’s most popular attractions but for all that, it’s not packed with visitors so you never feel like you’re trudging a well worn path as you lace up your hiking boots and head to the top of the 2076m Cerro Lopez.

For serious, leg, lung and bum burning exercise and chance to flee the crowds completely though, climb the 2388m Cerro Cathedral - which, when winter rolls around, is the Lake District’s most important snow sports centre.

 

Yet while the Lake District is perhaps best known as a winter destination (the mountains sometimes exceed 2m of snow at the end of the season), it’s also become an increasingly popular destination in summer – when scores of Argentine high school students flock here to celebrate the end of their exams.

But it’s not all buena ondas (good vibes) in the Lake District. Indeed the region has an un-deniably dark past, having become a refuge (together with Chile’s Villa Baviera) for fleeing Nazis at the end of the Second World War.

Argentina’s president at the time, Juan Peron, was after the expertise of Nazi scientists (as were officials in both Britain and America). Subsequently around 12,000 Germans were welcomed – no questions asked – to Argentina between 1946 and 1952. And many – such as former SS captain Erich Priebke, labour camp commander Josef Schwammberger and Josef Mengele (aka the ‘doctor’ of Auschwitz)  settled in the foothills of the Andes mountains.

What’s more it transpires that, somewhat disturbingly, local residents not only knew that Nazi war criminals were living among them (Preikbe didn’t even take the trouble to change his name) but accepted it. I spoke to several citizens during my sojourn, who explained that the Nazis were judged on their contribution to Bariloche – which was by all accounts excellent (they established climbing clubs, taught at local schools and played an active part in the community) – and not on the way they behaved before arriving in Argentina. Nonetheless it troubles me to think of escaping Nazis living out their lives in beautiful Bariloche – whose pretty pine forests reportedly inspired Walt Disney to create Bambi.

That Argentina– which generously opened its arms to Jewish immigration during World War 11 (Argentina is the sixth largest Jewish community in the world, and the biggest in Latin America)  – was also a sanctuary for Nazi criminals is one of the many, many conundrums of this country.

I pondered this painful paradox while on a great day trip to the La Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Route) - an outrageously photogenic road whose scenery (all pine forests, crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains) is the kind that landscape artists would kill for. If you can’t get a little perspective on life and love while driving (a car is mandatory) La Ruta de los Siete Lagos, something’s wrong.


By the time I returned to Bariloche my mood had brightened and I realised that regardless of the region’s unsavoury past, I had fallen a little in love with the Lake District. Maybe it’s the heat or one too many glasses of Malbec - Argentina does Malbec better than anywhere in the world - but after a few hours here, life takes on a trance like quality.

Or as the iconic Argentine revolutionary, Che Guevara, once said: “Perhaps one day, tired of circling the world, I’ll return to Argentina and settle in the Andean lakes, if not indefinitely then at least for a pause while I shift from one understanding of the world to another.”

IF YOU GO
Where to eat
Want to eat some of the best ice cream not only in Bariloche, but in the country? Head to Helados Jauja (48 Perito Moreno) where fabulous flavours (Dulce de leche anyone?) are served in a cup with a plastic spoon stuck in the side. For something savoury, look to La Marmite (329 Avenue Bartolome Mitre). This Bartolome Mitre mainstay serves up your Patagonian favourites - think trout, venison and, of course, fondue.

Where to stay
The enviably located (it’s just a stone’s throw from the bus station and main street Bartolome Mitre) Hostel 41 Below - offers clean dorms, a decent complimentary breakfast, a comfortable hangout area and great views. Be prepared to fall under the spell of Sylvie and Leeandro - two of the friendliest people you could wish to meet - who welcome travellers from all over the world.

Legends of the wall

Regardless of whether you’re a backpacker or a flashpacker there’s plenty to do in Germany’s cool capital and now is the time to visit: the weather is warm and dry, the city is free of the tourist hordes encountered in the ‘high season’ and for the time being prices remain below average for a European escape. What more excuse do you need? Kaye Holland shows you the way to go

Why go:
Since the fall of the wall two decades ago, Berlin has experienced a vast wiederbelebung (revitalization) and while acknowledging the past refuses to live in it. Or as the German art critic and journalist Karl Scheffler declared in 1910: “Berlin is a city condemned forever to become and never to just be”. He appears to be right.

Must see and do:
Make no mistake, Berlin is a gritty as opposed to pretty city but for history buffs it can’t be beaten.


As a first port of call, The Brandenburg Gate, the city’s symbol, is as good a place to start as any. The famous gate, once a backdrop for presidential speeches (it was here that former US President Ronald Reagan said in 1987: "Mr Gorbachev – tear down this wall!”) and now the setting for New Year’s Eve parties, Pink Floyd concerts and world cup soccer games will transport you back to high school history lessons more than any other landmark.


Adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate stands the sobering Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Reflect on this gruesome period in Tiergaten – Berlin’s largest park where you’ll discover war memorials and victory statues before continuing your cultural odyssey over at The Reichstag (www.bundestag.de). Germany’s parliament building received a major face lift after reunification, with a glass dome now perched atop its roof. Designed by Lord Norman Foster, it affords panoramic views of Berlin and pleasingly entry is free (but do go early or late to avoid the long queues).

Ticked off The Reichstag? Head east along the elegant Unter den Linden – a grand boulevard that recalls the glory days of royal Prussia – until you arrive at Alexanderplatz. Known to locals as “Alex”, the former heart of East Berlin is a showcase of socialist architecture of which the Fernsehturm TV Tower (Germany’s tallest structure at 368m) is the most prominent feature. But if you want to see the real legacy of the DDR, seek out the Stasi Museum and Hohenzollern Prison where Kate Winslet shot scenes for Stephen Daldry’s film The Reader.

Elsewhere in what was East Berlin, learn more about the Jewish history of Germany in Kruezberg at the architectural marvel (it’s shaped like a shattered Star of David) that is the Jewish Museum before taking in the East Side Gallery (www.eastsidegallery.com) which at 1.3km, is the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin wall. Seized upon by artists in the weeks following its collapse, this section of the wall (adorned with some 100 or so distinctive revolutionary images) continues to characterise the freedom and collective nature of the German capital.

Once you’ve got the old GDR out the way, wander west where you’ll stumble across many of Berlin’s most famous and beloved landmarks from the royal splendour of Schloss Charlottenburg, a beautiful Baroque palace, to the 3.5km long Kurfurstendamm – Berlin’s equivalent of Broadway with its chic restaurants, theatres and cinemas. Two other West Berlin boroughs worth visiting are Schoneberg –where John F Kennedy made his rousing, morale boosting “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech back in 1963 – and west Charlottenburg, home to the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 1936 Games.

Best bites:
German cuisine is best sampled in the form of the humble currywurst – a popular spiced pork sausage slathered in tomato sauce and curry powder – from an Imbiss (kiosk).

Other typical German fare to chow down on includes Kasseler Rippchen (smoked pork chops), Eisbein (boiled pork hock) and boulette (fried meat balls) washed down with a Berliner Weisse. But veggies and calorie counters need not abandon any travel plans just yet: there are plenty of places serving some of the mouth-watering meat free dishes imaginable. For a full list, check out //veganleben.info/gastrolist.htm

After dark:
Berlin is very much a party town so forget about sleeping (this is a city with no curfew), put on your dancing shoes and prepare to party until dawn – sleep is way overrated anyway. For live music, seek out the A Trane (www.a-trane.de) and B-Flat (www.b-flat-berlin.de) which offer free entry on Mondays and Wednesdays respectively. For the low-down on all the latest bar and club openings (in this most resilient of cities, change truly is the only constant), ExBerliner(www.exberliner.de) is a great source of information.

Top shops:
Berlin’s biggest shopping draw is the fabulous KaDeWe department store – Germany’s equivalent of London’s Harrods or New York’s Bloomingdales – offering catwalk style for all budgets.


Foodies meanwhile will love the sixth floor where you can chat to staff and scoff samples (chocolates, cheese, champagne and sausages) – a far more pleasant experience than your average supermarket hell.


Aside from this shopping institution (whose name, Kaufhaus des Westens means department store of the West), the myriad of malls at the rebuilt Potsdamer Platz are a good place to indulge in some serious retail therapy.

Best kept secret:
Most tourists tend to take one of traditional hop on, hop off double-decker bus tours and certainly they aren’t a bad way to see Berlin. But if you’re on a budget a better way to get to grips with the German capital is to board public buses 100 or 200 whose routes take in all the key sights (Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdamer Platz etc) for a fraction of the price.

 

Sleepover:
The Ritz-Carlton Berlin
Situated in a fantastic location near dynamic Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin, this grandiose hotel inspired by the works of renowned Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) is something of a city treasure.


Accommodation consists of 303 rooms and suites, tastefully furnished in shades of beige and brown and featuring high tech touches like bedside control panels and heated bathroom floors. Facilities include the authentic Brasserie Desbrosse –an archetype from 1875 – whose open kitchen with its antique red enamel oven serves up simple French fare as well as steak frites and a daily oyster and lobster buffet, a tea lounge offering over 40 choices of fresh tea, a popular bar (Robbie Williams is a fan), fitness centre and La Prairie boutique spa.
With so much on offer, checking in is easy: the challenge lies in leaving…
Visit www.ritz-carlton.com or email berlin@ritzcarlton.com to make a reservation.

 

Getting Around:
Berlin boasts an excellent public transport system consisting of the U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (light rail), buses and trams that puts London to shame. For route information, visit www.bgv.de

Need to know:
www.berlin.de
Berlin’s official website allows you to search for all the necessary tourist information and gives a brief overview of the political and cultural landscape of the city.

 

The year that was

It’s been a busy year of travelling and it’s time to take stock. Here Just About Travel contributor and travel enthusiast, Kaye Holland, shares five of her favourite 2014 travel destinations

 

Hamburg (Germany)
Tired of the same German city breaks (think Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt et al?). Then head to Hamburg – Germany’s second metropolis and a city so full of character you may just want to move there. Admittedly Hamburg doesn’t make it into too many tourist brochures but when you get there it’s hard to see why not: the Port City boasts urban beaches, a buzzy market vibe, great galleries, gourmet eating and a thriving maritime scene (with two inner-city lakes, one river, almost 2,500 bridges, a world-renowned sea port and two oceans close by, Hamburg is first and foremost a maritime destination).
But above all it’s about enjoying a banging night out: Hamburg rivals Berlin  – not to mention most cities in Europe – when it comes to nightlife, which as varied as it is plentiful stretching from trendy dive bars to smart clubs, edgy discos and live music venues. The aforementioned only really get going around midnight but panic not. You can stay out until sunrise without worrying about getting a dirty look from the hotel receptionist because absolutely everybody in the city does it. My last night in town ended late, natch, but while I woke up the next morning  with my head ringing, my heart was singing. Underrated Hamburg may just be my favourite European city.

Limone Pimeonte (Italy)
Decided that 2015 will be the year that you give skiing a go? Then look to Limone Piemonte in Italy. Never heard of it? Prepare for that to change. Located approximately a 90 minute drive south of Turin,  Limone Piemonte is late out of the tourism starting gate and doesn’t attract the constant influx of skiers that Courchevel and Cortina do. But we can probably all survive a skiing trip without bumping into the Sloane rangers… Limone may be something of an overlooked  skiing land, but it’s one worth acquainting yourself with if you want character and local charm  – rather than inflated prices.
Spend your days swishing through perfect  powdery snow and nights tucking into fabulous five course meals.  But while Riserva Bianca is best known as a winter destination, it’s actually a location for all seasons. Visit in spring and you can witness nature emerging from its slumber. Visit in summer and you can hike and bike along the miles of mountain trails. Come in autumn and explore the charming small town or simply enjoy the quiet of elevated territory.

Tel Aviv (Israel)
Can’t choose between perfect beaches and bronzed bodies, a buzzy city atmosphere or architectural treasures? Israel’s largest city delivers them all – along with gastronomy, history and culture -  in spades.
Of course Tel Aviv has been in the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons but don’t be deterred from visiting: travelling to Tel Aviv – whose name means ‘Hill of the Spring’ – no longer constitutes an active threat.  Tourists have rarely been targeted and you’ll be warmly greeted by Israelis looking to shed their country’s international reputation.
In fact I defy you to to resist the charms of the friendly – and unfeasibly good looking – locals who will bend over backwards to help you during your sojourn in the White City. Those that I was befriended by couldn’t get over the fact that, back home in Harrow, I don’t know my neighbours – absolutely everyone knows everyone in Tel Aviv.
All told if you want to put the pep back in your step, if you want to live life to the full and be bold, bright and fabulous, Tel Aviv delivers. It’s an easy journey being only a short four hour flight away from Blighty but – at the risk of gushing – I’d travel to the ends of the earth for a little time out in Tel Aviv.

Tulum (Mexico)
There’s something of a buzz building around Tulum: The Sunday Times’ Michael Hennegan hailed Tulum as the “only place to be on New Year’s Eve” while Louis Vuitton has even gone so far as to name a bag after the town. However compared to its cousins, Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it’s still without the crowds (but with the character).
Individuality, you see, is what Tulum does best so you won’t find identikit chain hotels and restaurants catering mostly to tourists here. Rather you’ll find boutiques, bakeries and cantinas (traditional Mexican watering holes). Other assets include sugar-like sands and azure waters but only a philistine would come to Tulum without seeing the world famous Maya ruins which, without a doubt, is one of those travel benchmarks.
The scenery – think ancient ruins set against a backdrop of golden beaches and blue Caribbean sea – is so beautiful it will bring a tear to your eye. Rich in natural splendour and culture, Tulum will warm any traveller’s heart.

New Orleans
Louisiana’s favourite city takes some beating when it comes to diversity (the former French colony was given to the Spanish in 1763, until America took control in 1863) and its’ colourful history can be felt in the medley of architectural styles, think trademark Creole townhouses, shuttered windows, Spanish courtyards and ironic ironwork balconies. The South’s foremost city has  resisted the pressure to become the same as everywhere else, or as a slogan I spied on a t-shirt  in a shop targeting tourists near the port put it: “In New Orleans, normal is a setting on a dryer.” For make no mistake: Nola boasts an infectious joie de vivre found in few places on earth.
Of course all this partying will make you hungry. Fortunately food is another part of New Orlean’s pleasures: apply the ‘never eat what you could have at home’ rule and get stuck into good tasting local specials such as beignets, jambalaya, gumbo (magic in a bowl), boudin and crawfish.
Much like Tennessee Williams – who once famously remarked “America has only three cities,  New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland” – I am forever smitten.

 

Hanging out in Hamburg

Kaye Holland cuts loose in a city that has become a real hot bed of hedonism

When most people say they have visited Germany, what they really mean is that they have been to Berlin which is bit like saying you’re au fait with London because you once got lost in Leicester Square. Or know New York because you had brunch where Big met Carrie.

But if you’re tired of the same German city breaks (Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt et al), then you, my friend, need to head to Hamburg - Germany’s second metropolis and a city so full of character you may just want to move there.

Admittedly Hamburg doesn’t make it into too many tourist brochures but when you get there it’s hard to see why not: the Port City boasts urban beaches, a buzzy market vibe, great galleries, gourmet eating and a nightlife scene second to none making it ideal city break material.

That said with two inner-city lakes, one river, almost 2,500 bridges, a world-renowned sea port and two oceans close by, Hamburg is - for most visitors - first and foremost a maritime destination. Pretty much everything happens by the water: Hamburg’s port regular welcomes ships including the QE2 from all over the world and hosts spectacular vents such as Hamburg Cruise Days and Hamburg Port Nights. I was fortunate enough to be in town for the latter - a week which saw Hamburg’s Port and landmark buildings and bridges (the city has more bridges than Venice, London and Amsterdam combined) magically illuminated in blue every evening (courtesy of internationally renowned light artist Michael Batz) while sailing vessels, passenger ships and cruise liners made their way down the River Elbeagainst a beautiful backdrop of fireworks.

You, dear reader, will have missed the spectacle but habour tours run until the end of October and the chance to spend an hour or two cruising past the vast container and ship repair port is not to be missed.

There are many museums dedicated to Hamburg’s seafaring past to explore but the best - by far - is the International Maritime Museum in the atmospheric Speicherstadt district. Situated in Hamburg’s oldest remaining warehouse, this museum showcases 3,000 years of naval history on nine floors. Exhibits include some 40,000 miniature models, maps and paintings plus a treasure chamber with ships made of gold, silver and amber. After you’ve had your fill of history, stroll around Speicerstadt’s cobbled streets and admire the spotlit warehouses rising from the waterways...

But it’s not all about tradition. For while Hamburg continues to flaunt its ‘Free and Hanseatic Town’ title, the Port City is also reinventing itself with HafenCity - aka the largest urban development project in Europe. The old port warehouses have been replaced with showy steel and glass offices, shops and apartmentsthat are a must for fans of modern architecture. However the jewel in HafenCity’s crown is arguably the Herzog & de Meuron (the Swiss architects of Tate Modern fame) designed Elbphilarmonie concert hall at the symbolic convergence of river, city and habour. Due to open in 2017, Hamburgians believe it will rival the Sydney Opera House...

Gastronomy is a further pull: Hamburg hums with places to eat. I enjoyed a memorable meal on Rickmer Rickmers ship - a destination lunch spot if ever there was one. Local delicacies to try on this floating landmark that recalls the age of the large windjammers include Labskaus (a sailor’s hash consisting of corned beef, beetroot and potatoes, that’s topped with a fried egg) and Rotes Grutze (a rich dish made of red berries swimming in cream) washed down with an Alsterwasse ( a shandy in a 50:50 ratio of beer and lemonade).

For all that, Hamburg is at its best at its most local. This means seeking out Strandperle - a buzzing beach club located right on the River Elbe that rivals party places such as Ibiza. Surprised to hear this? I was until I rocked up one Saturday afternoon (when the atmosphere is at its best)  and found myself sipping a cocktail and soaking up the sunshine and scenery (ready your favourite Instagram filter, for the views of the docks opposite are unbeatable) to the drum of the DJ.

Or spending a not to be missed Sunday morning ambling around the Fischmarkt. Despite it’s name, you don’t have to be a fan of fish to visit Hamburg’s legendary market where surviving night owls, early birds, Hamburgians and tourists alike cross paths for a beer, breakfast or both. And all before 9.30am (the Sunday market retains the same hours as when it first began in 1703).

Going local also involves supporting FC Pauli (Hamburg has two teams but it’s FC St Pauli, with its skull and crossbones symbol, that enjoys cult status in Germany) - even if they endure yet another morale-sapping hammering at home.

It means catching a show (Hamburg is the world’s third most successful musical centre) or cycling along the River Elbe past pretty pilots’ houses and parks.

But above all it’s about enjoying a banging night out: Hamburg rivals Berlin- not to mention most cities in Europe - when it comes to nightlife which as varied as it is plentiful, stretching from trendy dive bars to smart clubs, edgy discos and live music venues.

St Pauli (Hamburg’s former red light district) in particular is full of hormones, hedonism and a whole lotta fun. This is where the Beatles started out more than 50 years ago and the Fab Four have always acknowledged that it was in St Pauli that they developed their sense of style (or as John Lennon put it: “I was born in Liverpool but grew up in Hamburg.”) You can breathe the same air as the Beatles in the grimy Grosse Freiheit 36. Sure it’s not the most salubrious spot in town but for cheap drinks and and liveliness, it certainly does the job.

However if you want to drink with the local jet set, check out Clouds rooftop bar. Downing an aperol spritz here while drinking in the views of the renowned Reeperbahn is a real 'pinch me' moment guaranteed to make you feel like a film star.  Some advice: Hamburg’s bars only really get going around midnight but panic not. You can stay out until sunrise without worrying about getting a dirty look from the hotel receptionist because absolutely everybody in the city does it.

My last night in town ended late, natch, but while I woke up the next morningwith my head ringing, my heart was singing. Underrated Hamburg may just be my favourite European city.

NEED TO KNOW
Getting there
Quick, cheap daily flights with easyjet from Gatwick mean that you won’t get eaten up by your wallet.

Best bites
Carls is set apart by its location right next to the Elbphilarmonie. And by its cooking: think fabulous French-Hanseatic cuisine such as Pannfisch with a Pommery mustard sauce. 

Where to stay
Motel One am Michel Hamburg is the perfect hotel for urban explorers who don’t like to much fuss. The rooms won’t set your pulse racing but they’re clean, comfortable and boast the best beds you will ever sleepin. Service is warm and efficient in equal measure and the motel is only a hop and skip away from Hamburg’s most happening areas.

 

Wunderbar! The best of Germany

Germany became the first European team to win a World Cup held in the Americas with a 1-0 victory over Argentina in the final last night - thanks to a dramatic last gasp winner from Mario Götze - and deservedly so. Joachim "Jogi" Löw’s side were without a doubt the best team in the tournament. But it’s not just football that Germany is good at: Deutschland is also a top travel destination. Here's a few of our favourite German hotspots

Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate

Make no mistake, Berlin is a gritty - as opposed to pretty -  city but for history buffs, Germany’s cool capital can’t be beaten. As a first port of call, The Brandenburg Gate, the city’s symbol, is as good a place to start as any. The famous gate, once a backdrop for presidential speeches (it was here that former US President Ronald Reagan declared in 1987: "Mr Gorbachev – tear down this wall!") and now the setting for New Year’s Eve parties, Pink Floyd concerts and soccer games will transport you back to high school history lessons more than any other landmark. Adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate stands the sobering Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Reflect on this gruesome period in Tiergaten – Berlin’s largest park where you’ll discover war memorials and victory statues  - before continuing your cultural odyssey over at The Reichstag. Germany’s parliament building received a major face lift after reunification, with a glass dome now perched atop its roof. Designed by Lord Norman Foster, it affords panoramic views of Berlin and pleasingly entry is free (but do go early or late to avoid the long queues). Ticked off The Reichstag? Head east along the elegant Unter den Linden – a grand boulevard that recalls the glory days of royal Prussia – until you arrive at Alexanderplatz. Known to locals as 'Alex', the former heart of East Berlin is a showcase of socialist architecture of which the Fernsehturm TV Tower (Germany’s tallest structure at 368m) is perhaps the most prominent feature. Elsewhere in what was East Berlin, learn more about the Jewish history of Germany in Kruezberg at the architectural marvel (it’s shaped like a shattered Star of David) that is the Jewish Museum before taking in the East Side Gallery which, at 1.3km, is the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin wall. Seized upon by artists in the weeks following its collapse, this section of the wall (adorned with some 100 or so distinctive revolutionary images) continues to characterise the freedom and collective nature of the German capital.

Berlin Wall

Two other Berlin boroughs worth visiting are Schoneberg – where John F Kennedy made his rousing, morale boosting “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech back in 1963 – and west Charlottenburg, home to the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 1936 Games.

Brandenburg Brandenburg’s big headliner grabber maybe Berlin but the rest of the region has plenty to recommend too: the state’s small towns, churches and series of low hills serve as a welcome antidote to the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s bewildering array of bars, museums and modern buildings. Potsdam – with its fabulous fountains, follies, palaces and gardens – is a particular standout. Most people associate Potsdam with the aftermath of the Second World War: Potsdam’s Schloss Celcilienhof is where the victorious Allies arrived on 2 August 1945 to work out details of the division of Germany and Europe. The city, whose beautiful baroque buildings were badly damaged during the war following a bombing raid in April 1945, was assigned to the Soviet zone and effectively closed to the west when the Berlin Wall went up overnight in 1961. Today you can still sections of the wall near the Glienicke Bridge.

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The Bridge of Spies, as reporters referred to it, is where the United States and Soviet Union exchanged agents and prisoners no fewer than four times during the Cold War. Today the bridge is a beautiful vantage point affording jaw dropping views of Schlosspark Glienicke (castle grounds), Babelsberg Castle and Park as well as the Sacrower Heilandskirche (church of the Saviour).

Cecilienhof Palace is also worth checking out – if only for the fact that this is where the Potsdam Conference (the final big ‘big three’ meeting between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain about the future of Germany) was held at the end of the Second World War. But if you’re after a holiday not a history lesson, make a beeline for the buzzing Dutch quarter – teeming as it is with trendy shops and cafes.

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Or check out charming towns such as Wolfshagen and Wittenberg – both within easy reach of the  bright lights of Berlin. A word of warning: locals don’t speak much English in these ‘off the radar’ destinations but regardless you’ll be warmly welcomed by residents. Indeed one of the unsung pleasures of a visit to Brandenburg is the chance to meet its people. Rightly or wrongly there’s a stereotype surrounding Germans – they’re invariably portrayed as staid and serious – but, in Brandenburg, Just About Travel was struck by how warm, friendly and, shock horror, funny (our guide Michael was an absolute hoot) the locals are.

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The Rhine Valley Rudesheim - situated in the romantic Rhine Valley (one of Germany’s biggest and most prestigious wine producing regions) - is remnant of an older, miraculously unspoiled world. This is Hansel and Gretel territory, in short the Germany of your imagination: think fairy-tale castles, cobbled alleyways and steep yet spectacular vineyards. An arresting view of the vine clad hillsides is guaranteed from the chairlift up to the Niederwalk Monument: a giant statue commemorating the 19th century reunification of Germany.

Another  sight worth seeking out is the surreal Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum: a mansion housing a collection of remarkable self playing instruments including hurdy-gurdies, organs and a magical musical chair that plays a tune whenever someone sits on it! At night Drosselgrasse – a long, narrow alley leading up from the river – comes alive. It’s a cacophony of shop keepers, food sellers and some surprisingly classy souvenir shops (you’ll want a trinket or two to remind you of your stay). On a balmy summer’s evening, locals and tourists alike love to hang out here in one of the olde worlde taverns, sipping wine or the calorific but to die for Rudesheim coffee (hot coffee and warmed Abrasch brandy topped with a generous dollop of sweetened whipped cream sprinkled with chocolate flakes), soaking up the sunshine and scenery.

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More German joviality can be found in neighbouring Assmannshausen. Rudesheim’s sister settlement  looks like the landscape of a dream and not the kind of place where you’ll find a pumping party scene but, believe Just About Time: that’s what you’ll get in the backstreet bars.  You’re guaranteed a lively night for sure though of course this is not the real reason to visit Assmannshausen: you go for the half timbered houses and the breath-taking backdrop of the Mauseturm (Mouse Tower) which was originally used to collect river tolls from an islet in the river before being  destroyed by the French in 1688.

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Tempting though it might be to stay in Rudesheim and Assmannshausen sampling the outstanding local wines, it’s worth venturing by boat to Bingen (the gateway to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley’ UNESCO World Heritage Site’). This quaint town is celebrated as the home of the popular saint Hildegard, for its gorgeous gardens and grassy riverbanks and amazing array of cafes in which to recharge, relax and escape the rat race.