Germany v. Italy: the holiday showdown

Eleanor Bley Griffiths went to Berlin:

Itching to jet off somewhere exciting as soon as an exhausting term was over, seven historians, two Japanologists and a mathematician decided to descend upon Berlin. Germany’s capital is a history enthusiast’s dream. The city was a focal point for World War 2 and then for the Cold War; it was torn into pieces by global and ideological conflicts, but it was the people of Berlin who eventually tore down the Berlin Wall which had split the city entirely in two. Exciting stuff. Berlin certainly bears the scars, both in physical reminders and in its unique identity. In practical terms, it’s fun, it’s cheap, and there’s a lot to do, so it was the perfect place for our getaway.

Alexia Millett went to Italy:

Italy was the obvious choice for any Classicist, and after the pummelling of Mods we were in search of sun, sites and spaghetti. March, too, was the ideal time to go: cold enough to escape the crowds of Europeans flocking south, but hot enough to sit out in sunny piazzas drinking cheap wine and expensive coffee. We wanted a degree of culture, but not at the price of self-indulgence, or indeed at much of a price at all. Italians are notoriously friendly to the point of flirtatious, and as two girls travelling alone we felt it was somewhere we could happily travel around without being accosted. The Italian train system is efficient and about a third of the price of National Rail – it cost us about 10 euros to get from Rome to Naples. Flights were cheap, making it a great choice for a cheap and cheerful jaunt. 

What did we do?

Berlin: The first two days were bitterly cold: perfect museum weather, if you look at things optimistically, though we still did a fair bit of tramping around and shivering and drinking hot chocolate. The DDR Museum was pretty good, though to counterbalance the rose-tinted picture of East Germany it presented, you might want to visit the virulently anti-communist Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The German Historical Museum had too much to take in, but it did put the development of Nazism and anti-Semitism into interesting economic context. Finally, we ended up at the Topography of Terror, so-called because it is next to a stretch of the Berlin wall built over Gestapo torture cellars: Berlin’s history has a way of overlapping like that. Unsurprisingly, the attached museum was depressing but interesting. Ending our museum tour, we visited the Reichstag (the German parliament building) and got an excellent view from the roof, though we were unable to climb the glass-and-mirror dome because they were cleaning it (the cheek of it!). After that, the sun finally put in an appearance. We took advantage of this by going to the zoo, which was intensely exciting (Polar bears! Giraffes! Alpacas!), and by taking a boat trip up the river Spree. Berlin looked gorgeous in the sunlight as we glided through the water, but I’m sure we only got a taste of the city. I’ll be back.

 

 

Italy: Our primary aim was to see the classical sites, and put into practise some of our supposed archaeological knowledge, which was at best highly speculative, at worst just wrong. The Colesseum is not ‘probably another Roman bath’. Although we were too cheap to buy any of the tourist guides, our guide book proved quite informative, and for us anyway it was more interesting to look round the actual sites than learn dates. An absolute must-see for anyone is Pompeii, which is a vast sight. It was hot and we got stuck behind Japanese tourists taking pictures of every individual stone, but amazing to walk round this enormous dead city and imagine a Roman town in its entirety. A particular favourite was the Museum of Archaeology in Naples, which contains many of Pompeii’s treasures, above all ‘the secret grotto’, a trove of outsized phalluses and Roman pornography, all strictly censored by Victorian archaeologists. Otherwise, we avoided most of the museums, preferring to see outdoor sights rather than trekking round endless rooms of Caravaggios. In general museums can be overpriced and have huge queues. We adopted a policy of ‘if we can do it with our parents then why do it’ as far museums were concerned. 

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Where to stay?

Berlin: After painstaking internet research , we stayed in a great hostel called ‘Wombats’, in East Berlin. In fact, we were not being nearly as original as we thought – as soon as we walked into the hostel, we saw familiar faces and realised that, coincidentally, we were not the only group of Oxford students set to explore Berlin that week. As a group of 10, we had booked rooms of 6 and 4 in advance, and these rooms were pretty swish for £11 a night, with bedding and floor-space and an en-suite and everything but the (bathroom) sink. I say this because, one evening, the sink unexpectedly and dramatically fell off the wall. However, after we fetched one of the hostel staff (“that has never happened before… how fantastic”) we were offered different rooms – so no complaints there. The kitchen was clean and well-equipped, and the hostel staff very good at giving recommendations on food and attractions. The hostel had everything going for it, though having stayed at Three Little Pigs hostel before, I would also recommend that. Don’t stay at a hostel called Aletto, though, because their terrifying clown mascot is printed on everything including the bathroom tiles. Scary.

Italy: We stayed in places recommended by our guide book, something of a bible. In Rome we stayed at the ‘Hostel des Artistes’, and in Naples the rather tackily named ‘Hostel of the Sun’ and ‘ Six Small Rooms’, which were indeed small but with catering facilities and a large collection of English DVDs. In spite of ourselves we took full advantage of this and curled up on the sofa in front of Notting Hill with a bottle of wine, home-made pasta and the resident cat. Despite Naples’ somewhat dodgy reputation, all of the places were clean, friendly and cheap: on average 15 euros a night for a dorm room. Whats more it was great to meet other travellers as well as locals- the Receptionist of Hostel of the Sun branded us ‘The Oxford Girls’ (to the slight peevance of the Cambridge grad barman.) We booked most of our hostels online, which is always a good idea, as having to drag a heavy suitcase across an unknown city to an unknown hostel isn’t most people’s idea of relaxation.

What was the nightlife like?

Berlin: While the more intrepid members of our group went out every night, despite having woken up at 3am to get the flight there, I only had one night out in Berlin. However, I loved it. It was cheap and a little kooky, especially in the East, which seems to still be off the beaten track. The bars were lively, some of my friends were delighted to find a cheap shisha café, and we ended the evening in a brilliant club called Caffe Burger, which felt a bit like time travelling back to East Germany. It was grimy as hell and everyone else seemed to be high, but we could dance crazily and fit in perfectly. The only downside was that Berliners smoke inside bars and clubs, and they smoke a lot, so you will stink to high heaven by the time you stagger home.

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Italy: As it was just the two of us we felt no real compulsion to go clubbing, and Italian men are persistent at the best of times. This probably made things a lot cheaper, as we’d get quietly and pleasantly drunk on five euro bottles of wine in the piazzas at night or on the terrace of our hostels. Apart from the odd slight hangover, this never left us incapacitated, and, fuelled by our rapidly developing coffee habit, we were up early and out and about. 

 

 

What to eat?

Berlin: Personally, I love German cuisine. It combines all the fatty, meaty foods that I like. Currywurst (German sausage in curry sauce) is a particular favourite and this can be bought all over the place in varying qualities. However, Berlin is a very international city, and restaurants of all varieties can be found; on our last night we ended up in an excellent Italian place. By the final day we were missing Hassan’s already, but soon managed to find the nearest equivalent, where we sampled the delights of the ‘Turkish Pizza’ (a kebab-meat pizza rolled up into a wrap and served in the standard tin foil). Though everyone was enjoying the local cuisine (except for the vegetarians, I think),  we did not manage to eat out very often; being misers, we saved money by eating in the hostel a couple of times, where we made impressively giant vats of pasta and sauce.

Italy: Italy is great partly because the food is good even when cheap. Naples is significantly cheaper than Rome, which was something of a relief where our budget was concerned. A particular favourite was ‘Di Mattheo’, a rickety little pizza restaurant where the pizzas started at 3 euros and were outrageously large (not to mention delicious). It also has the bonus tourist attraction of being Bill Clinton’s favourite Neapolitan pizza restaurant, if prestige rather than pizza is on your list. The Romans are especially good at buffets, too, and we managed to find a place (somewhat paradoxically called ‘Happy Hour’) that did 7 euro cocktails but its purchase entitled you to as much of the buffet as you could manage. Needless to say we filled our boots. The Piazza Navona and the Campo di Fiori in Rome are also restaurant hotspots, aside from being wonderfully picturesque, and the proximity of the restaurants allows you do to a quick price compare. A word of warning, however: make sure that your ‘pizza’ is a pizza, and not a pizza Romana. Our first lunch was half of a small cheese panini each that even Starbucks wouldn’t be happy to sell you. Rather a crushing affair given that we had just arrived in the Land of Pizza.

So how cheap was it?

Berlin: For this holiday, we were the ultimate scrooges. We spent £34 each on three nights in the hostel, but setting off on our super-early Easyjet flight without any hold baggage (£60 return) ensured that we squeezed 4 days out of the trip. £100 spending money included all meals and all activities, as well as public transport. For about £200, we managed a nice little city break despite having bled our bank accounts dry during the term. Success.

Italy: One of the best things about the trip was that it was ultimately pretty cheap: flights cost around £100, accommodation for seven nights no more than 150 euros and food no more than 20 euros a day.