Month: November 2008

Berlin, Germany: Happy Birthday To Me

As a birthday present to myself, I decided to treat myself to all the wonderous DBGs that the German bakeries could offer. On the way to the Jannowitzbrucke station, I bought myself one such Delicious Baked Good.

The plan was to walk around the city and catch the big attractions, like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, and the dozens of others that make up Berlin’s almost mind-numbing array of historical sites.

First up was the Reichstag, which is Berlin’s government house. A glass dome arose out of the atrium, designed by Norman Foster, and aside from its beauty and imaginative design, it supposedly offered some great views. However, the line for it extended far outside the building and onto the mall, even before the place opened.

From there I went to the Brandenburg Gate, the last remaining of the 18 or so tors that surrounded the city. The Berlin Wall ran just outside of the gate, and the years of communist occupation following the war saw the gate and the area around it severly neglected. Today, however, the gate is a major tourist attraction, and Pariser Platz has been restored to meet and almost exceed its original beauty.

Some kind of public statement/exhibition was taking place right outside the gate, and dozens of female mannequins were set up, all wearing similar blue t-shirts with quotes on the back. Unfortunately, the quotes were in German and I was excluded from the message.

As I walked through the gate, which is blocked to vehicles, I noticed rows of lights on the floor near the columns. I suddenly remembered something I had read in a backpacking magazine in CK, starting the night before Berlin was celebrating the Festival of Lights, where major structures around the city such as the Gate will be lit up.

I passed the British Embassy which, like everything else in Berlin, has a long history behind its current location (fortunately, the city was nice enough to put information plaques in the popular tourist areas giving you the history of that particular area). Further along was the Holocaust Memorial. The exact name is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but not only is that a mouthful to say (type) each time, it makes me cringe.

The memorial consisted of thousands of stone monoliths, some almost tomb-like, varying in height and width, covering a square block. I think the desired effect was to make the area look almost like a cemetery, or a rippling field of tombs. The museum, or memorial exhibit, was underneath the square (again, under the graves, the theme of death). It was around lunchtime and there was a formidable line to get in. There was no entrance fee, but they only let about 10 people in at a time to avoid overcrowding.

I walked further away from the Brandenburg Gate and looked around for Hitler’s Bunker. This was where he made his last stand, a very heavily fortified underground panic room, with space for all his pals, like Himmler. I made a wide loop around the blocks near the Holocaust Memorial, waiting for the large “Hitler’s Last Stand” sign with a big neon arrow. Well, maybe not, but something like that. Finally I found myself facing a large placard with information about Hitler’s Bunker. The description went into great detail about the fortification itself complete with illustrations, and it was even very interesting. Unfortunately it didn’t say anything about where the bunker used to be. I say used to be, because even after discovering the bunker at the end of the war, they didn’t bother keeping it around for history’s sake. Not surprisingly, they wanted to destroy it, and they did. I finally learned that what’s left of the last building Hitler occupied is now a nice patch of grass and a parking lot in front of some apartments.

I walked back to Unter den Linden, the main street going from the Gate and Pariser Platz towards the Berliner Dome and the center of the city.

When I got to the Berliner Dome on Museum Island I was immediately approached by a women wearing what looked like a Muslim head scarf. I thought she was a lost tourist asking for some help with her map since she seemed to have a piece of paper in her hand. She asked if I spoke English and I said yes, then she showed me what she was holding. It was a postcard that had something scribbled on it about being in this country for two months with children, needing money, etc. I told her I didn’t have any money and walked away. As I sat on a bench and took some pictures of the dome, I saw others wandering around approaching tourists and giving them the same routine. As I sat on the bench, a young girl approached me and asked me if I spoke English. “No.” “Deutsch?” “No …” “Espagnol?” “No” “Francais?”

At this point I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing.

“Portughese?”

Finally she walked away and I was left thinking, if you can speak all those languages, what in the world are you doing begging for money?? I should be asking you …

I kept walking past Museum Island towards Hackescher Markt, an area of restaurants and shops near the main Alexanderplatz. I stopped at another bakery and had a disappointing French bread pizza type thing, and a remarkable streusel pastry. I don’t remember the exact name, I think it was something like Schenkestreusel, but it was amazing. It was like a Honey Bun with the buttery, crunchy topping of a cobbler or crumble. As you can see, I really like baked goods.

I searched unsuccessfully for a toilet around Hackescher Markt, so then I walked to Alexanderplatz and found one in a large shopping area. It was a pay toilet, but frankly I don’t mind those, at least you know the place will be reasonably clean. After, I sat outside the great TV Tower, read, and took pictures of a church (some church, I stopped making a note of the names a long time ago). Before I left the area I ran back into the shopping mall and bought a pastry from a bakery there. It was what the New Zealanders and Australians would call a “slice”, or what we would call … we don’t really have a name for it, but it’s a soft filling sandwiched between two crunchy biscuit like layers. This one had a chocolate-coconut-hazelnut filling and even though it was good, I started feeling a little sugar-sick by the end of it.

From Alexanderplatz I headed North towards the trendy area of Prenzlauerberg. I popped into the East Seven hostel, and booked a room for the next three nights. I didn’t want to stay in the Singer109 ghost town any more than I had to. I walked back past A-platz and then onto the hostel, making a brief pitstop to pick up some laundry detergent.

The plan (I use this word lightly — as we all know, my “plans” tend to go the other way) was to do laundry and then head out for the night. The hostel had the ultimate backpacker freebie: free washer and dryer. It’s the the El Dorado of amenities, the one hassle that every traveler must deal with, and dreams of those days back home, back when it was something you just take for granted. It sounds silly, but it was the only reason I chose that hostel over any of the other ones.

The problem was (there’s always a problem) that there was no dryer, only the washer. The machine was out of order and there was only a drying rack available. Since I only had until the morning to make sure everything was dry, it wasn’t going to happen.

After some R&R, I got ready and headed out. I took the train all the way back to Friedrichstrasse, near the Reichstag, and walked towards the building to see they ways in which it was lit for the Festival of Lights. But by the time I was out of the station, I had to use the toilet. I didn’t see any public ones, and I wasn’t about to get caught peeing on a government building in Germany, I ducked into a very posh looking restaurant, had a drink and used the toilet. The Reichstag wasn’t decorated at all, and it was disappointing to have walked all that way. I went to the Brandenburg Gate, which was fortunately decked out in trippy changing colours.

The only problem was that there were about 200 other people standing in front of the monument, trying to take pictures. Just as I was about to take a picture from a perfect angle, a small car pulled up right in front of the lens, and a photographer with a tall tripod jumped out and found a position.

From there I walked down Unter den Linden (again), stopping for another beer at a kiosk that ran along the tree-and-bench lined median. The trees along the street had been lit as well, and I admired the view from a bench as I enjoyed my beer (Germany, along with most other European countries, allows you to drink in public. And you can buy beer from pretty much anywhere).

I also stopped at the Berliner Dome (where along with the photo below, I took the current Header Picture), a theatre house and a set of neon lights for the festival itself.

I walked to Hackescher Markt and all the restaurants and cafes, stopping again at a very cheesy beach-themed bar, complete with a sand floor. I chose the cafe with the most German menu and found a table outside. I ordered a glass of wine and some manner of ‘wurst’. I started chatting up the maitre ‘d, who happened to be from the States — Oregon, I believe — though his accent revealed a birthplac somewhere in the Carribbean. I’m still a bit shady on the details, though I only started questioning my memory as I got to know him better, but Richard claimed to be a medical school student in the city, and had been living here for a couple years.

I ate my food and talked to Rich some more, asking him about good places to go out, what it was like being an expat in Berlin and his plans for the future. By the time I finished the meal, his shift was almost done so we decided to get a drink at a bar in Kreuzberg, a very trendy and popular part of the city, and the centre of post-war West Berlin.

As we walked to his car, Rich — who turned out to be quite the talker, especially when the conversation was about himself, usually started by himself — explained to me that his passion lay in music and freestyling rap and rhymes. Oh yes, you heard me correctly.

In fact, as we drove towards Kreuzberg, not only did he treat me to bits of information about the city which I made sure to Wiki-fy later and confirm their veracity, but he would frequently break into homespun lyrics in time with whatever happened to be on the radio. And it was just really awful. All of his attempts seemed to start with “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready …” And so on. I wanted to tell him that the early 90s called and said he could have those lyrics. They don’t want them anymore.

It was starting to get awkward. Rich seemed genuinely nice, energetic and friendly, but the whole ‘budding rap artist’ thing was starting to get to me, and he seemed quite full of himself. We walked around to a few bars, but since it was a Wednesday night, most of them were closing. We finally found a small, cramped pub and had a couple beers. By then I was dead tired from a full day of walking around, so after one beer I was ready to call it quits.

Rich told me about a club that was playing reggae music the next night, and asked if I wanted to come. Eager to experience the Berlin nightlife, despite the less-than-ideal company, I agreed to meet him at the end of his shift the next night.

I realized that it was the first time I had spent my birthday away from friends and family, and the difference was noticeable. As much as we all say “it’s just another day,” I think secretly we love spending that time with people we care about and who care about us. Particularly ones that don’t rap.

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Header Picture Change #13 and #14: Brussels and Berlin

I’m getting ahead of myself, so much so that not only did I post a picture of a place I haven’t written about, I forgot about the mistake.

The mistaken one, number #13, was Brussels. It was an underpass just south of the Gare du Noord and the red light district. I guess you could call it the rainbow district. You know, without the homosexuality.

The second one was Berlin. From the middle of October to the end of the month, the Festival of Lights took place around the city. All the popular tourist attractions, along with several other private and public buildings, were lit up in freaky colors. This building is the Berliner Dome, on Museum Island, near the center of the city. From across the lawn in front of the building, a projector was … projecting images onto the face of the building. It seems there were probably two projectors in work, because during the scene changes, one half of the building would return to its normal appearance. I managed to catch it between takes.

Berlin, Germany: Do I Smell?

My luck seems to have changed, travel was getting easier and more uneventful. To that end, when I arrived in Berlin I found my way to the hostel, Singer109, without as much as a missed train or crosswalk.

The lobby of the hostel looked more like a hotel than anything else. In fact, I had to keep checking the name to make sure I was at the right place. It was just as quiet as a hotel too. I even had the room to myself, for the third time in my journey.  I was disappointed, since I had looked forward to meeting some people and experiencing some of the Berlin nightlife.

I needed to get some dinner, but I didn’t feel like going far from the hostel. Even though I had spent most of the day sitting on buses, trains and station benches, I was tired. I walked back down the alley towards the train station and saw a small stall selling Vietnamese food. The guy running the shop was really friendly and started giving me a line-by-line translation of the menu. I interrupted him and just asked him what he would recommend. He immediately said, “chicken fried rice”. Along with the bottle of beer, the meal only came to 3.70! I was in love …

The food was incredible and filling. I tried to go to the supermarket to buy a couple beers before going back to the hostel, but they didn’t have any refridgerated. I went back to my Vietnamese friend and bought a couple off him. There was a gathering of a few other Germans there, it seemed to be the loyal customers, who questioned me about where I came from and my political affiliations as the owner bagged the beers. One man advised me, “Obama is very good, I think he will win. McCain, the Republicans, they are not so good.” I had never heard so many years of campaigning put so succinctly.

The next day I turned 27.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic: Much Needed R&R

I was supposed to be on a bus out of town the next morning, but I had hoped to extend my stay in CK for another couple days. Why? It was cheap, laid-back, pretty and friendly. I’m not sure there are any more convincing reasons out there.

However a very rude person at the information center (for an information center, they were staffed by the least informative people on Earth), told me that I could not change my bus ticket there, that I’d have to go to Cesky Budejovice, a town 25 km away. She said that maybe I could call them, and ended the conversation there.

I considered calling them, but opted to just drop it. I had my fun, it’s time to move on. And yes, the effort of having to use a foreign payphone to call a bus company, the operator of which may or may not speak english, and change a ticket was just way too much trouble.

I woke up early that Monday to get some sunrise shots of the town. Unfortunately, a thick layer of fog hung around it like smoke in a bar. I went up to the Gardens and saw the town’s workers getting started with their day, at a very unenviable job.

But from the high vantage point of the gardens, I did catch a very eerie shot of the church.

After wasting some time at the hostel, surfing the web and lazing around the dining room, I returned to the gardens, lay on a bench under a tree and listened to music and read.

Later that night, I went back to Antre to get some pictures of the castle from their balcony. I remembered there was a lookout point just 50 meters down the road that might provide a better angle, so I asked the bartender if they do takeaway beers. “You mean bottle?” he asked, and held up a very fancy bottle of beer. “How much?” It proved to be way to expensive, and I found out there was a cheaper option: a large “frat party-style” plastic cup. I took my Beer To Go and got some pictures of yet another castle at night. I’m thinking about doing a Castles of Europe At Night calendar …

As I was chatting with some of the other guests at the hostel I realized I had run out of beer. Then I remembered something Cam had told me about the bar next door. I grabbed one of the earthenware pitchers off the shelf and walked to the small pub that sat next to the hostel. Immediately after walking inside I was led down a narrow and dark set of stairs to a small pub with only a few customers. A large group sat to the right of the stairs finishing their dinner. Another group sat to the left, in front of the bar. The air was thick with smoke and as I approached the bar, one of the chatting women at the table got up and walked behind. I pointed to the pitcher and started telling her that I was staying next door when she interjected, “Oh, hostel, hostel.”

She filled up the pitcher and charged me the equivalent of two beers, a little less than two euros. She let the tap run for a while then pulled it close and walked away to chat with her friends. I was confused. I kept eyeing my watch, worried that my pizza would set fire to the hostel I had grown to love so much. She went back to the tap after a minute or so and let it run for a little while longer. Then she stopped again.

Finally, she returned to the tap and touched the back of her palm to the top of the pitcher. At last, I understood. She was making sure that the pitcher was full of beer, not head. I was impressed. Any other bartender in a locals-only pub confronted by a backpacker would’ve given you 1 euro of beer and 1 euro of foam.

I ran next door just in time to slide the pizza out of the oven. As I ate my dinner and drank my beer, I talked to Jane, an Aussie traveler from Melbourne. We started talking about my time in Australia and soon I found myself sharing stories I hadn’t told in a long time, like Ouse, the pub in Sheffield and how I ended up in Wanaka.

We continued the conversation in the room as I packed and were soon joined by one of the group of three girls who shared the dorm. She was extremely young, just out of high school, and the three of them (one of them was probably her sister) were on a trip before starting university. I was amazed at how people so young could make this kind of a trip, but then remembered that I tried to do it myself almost 10 years ago.

I finished packing and went to sleep, not looking forward to my trip to Berlin the next day.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic: Get Lost in the Czech Wilderness? No Thank You.

It seems I had stumbled upon a stretch of good weather in the Czech Republic and I intended on taking advantage of it. The hills surrounding CK were etched with hiking trails, leftovers from the winter ski season. There was one that led up the mountain to Kliet, the largest peak in the area, a 4-hour round trip. It would be perfect for a day’s hike.

I stopped by in town for some fruit and a Delicious Baked Good (for those who don’t know, I have a debilitating weakness for anything out of a bakery), and then walked north out of town and onto the trail to Kliet.

According to the maps and signs, I was to follow the green and white striped markings on trees, streetlamps and curbs, but I soon found that the green and white paint marks were actually yellow. Nevertheless, I walked on. For the first 30 minutes, the “trail” was basically the road out of town. I passed houses and farmland, and workers getting ready for the day.

Near the foothills of the mountains the track finally went under the canopy. Often the trail markers would disappear at a junction and I’d have to go forward and test my choice, and sometimes I’d have to backtrack to correct the mistake. At one point, I faced another such junction, and chose the fork which went down. The path up was marked with a sign that had a picture of a backpacker and a big “No Smoking” cross across it. Uh-oh, don’t like the looks of that …

About 100 meters in I found a very convenient and informative map.

Note the signage about halfway down on the right side of the picture, not very inviting, is it?
According to the map, I had chosen poorly. I backtracked and went up the high path, but only found what looked like a bed and breakfast. A path ran along the left-hand side of the house, but all it seemed to lead to were goats. A small barn with a fenced in yard stood near the parking area for the B&B. A few goats were munching on the grass, and one was daring enough to stick her head out and snap at the tall weeds that bordered her front yard. She looked at me like you would look at a tourist lost in the city.

I went back down to the map and studied it more carefully. Sure enough, there were only two trails: the one I was standing on, which had other signs clearly trails to the other mountains, not Kliet, and the goat the path. I went back up to the house and walked around their lawn, inspecting the area for other trails, half-hoping that the owner would come out and lend a hand.

Having exhausted all other options, the only one left was to power down the small path that lay between the house and the goats. As I passed the barn again, I noticed that all the other goats had gone in except for the one with its head through the chicken wire. It had stopped eating and instead was moaning and turning her head towards the fence. I’m not sure what exactly brought the idea to my head, but I suddenly knew that she was stuck there. I considered just leaving it be and letting the farmer deal with it when he next came outside. But as soon as I thought it, I felt bad and knew I had to do something then. I went up to the goat, who had become agitated with my approach and tried to retreat behind the fence. It was then that my suspicions were confirmed, the silly girl couldn’t get her head through the hole in the wire. I tried to calm her as best I could and slowly grabbed the two pieces of wire behind her ears and pulled up as hard as I could. The wire was biting through my fingers, and as I pulled she tried to yank her head through, but it still wasn’t enough. I gave it one more go, and finally she cleared her head through the octagonal hole and retreated into the yard. I stood up, proud of my good deed and kinda disappointed I didn’t get a bleat of gratitude. I looked forward and saw a much bigger goat with very large pointy horns giving me the goat-equivalent of the Evil Eye and slowly advancing towards me. The Boyfriend, I presume. “Easy there big boy, your girl got her head stuck in a fence, I was just helping her out …”

That small, unmarked path went beyond the B&B, and all the guests who were doing yoga on the back lawn, and widened in the woods where the trail markers picked up. I was thoroughly annoyed having lost so much time because someone forgot to paint green and white stripes on some trees, but also quite glad that it had given me the opportunity to rescue a damsel in distress.

The rest of the walk was nice and the forks in the road were less confusing. The fall foliage was in full effect under those trees, and combined with my iPod, it was just the kind of relaxing day I was looking for. The hills weren’t even that steep either, or if they were, the founding fathers were nice enough to weave an easy, snake-like pattern in the mountainside.

That is, however, until the last 2.5 kilometers. Those were straight uphill, and it was steep. By the time I reached the top I was dripping with sweat and panting like A Biggest Loser. I reached the red and white TV tower that made the Kliet peak stand out so well from the ground, and for a second I thought that was it. Someone said there was a tower at the top and I assumed they meant the TV antenna. And unfortunately, the thing was closed. Well that was a waste. I walked further to see if there was at least a nice lookout where I could take a picture, and that’s when I saw the real tower, and the accompanying restaurant.

The lookout wasn’t much to shout about. Sure, you could see alot of the valley, but at the same time, much of it was also blocked by trees. And the bits you could see were so washed out with the powerful sun that any pictures would be overexposed and useless. On top of all that, the tower, which was supposed to provide the best views (on a clear day you could supposedly see the Alps from there), was closed.

Instead, I wandered into the café looking for a beer and a bite to eat. The ordering counter was busy with people and I was afraid that no one would speak English. The soup they were dishing out looked good, and I was just in that mood, so I simply pointed at another bowl and said “Soup?” The guy spoke limited English and explained it was garlic soup, then filled up a bowl for me. I took a dark Budvar with it.

I went up to a second floor balcony to eat my lunch outside. The only other occupants were a group of four rather drunk middle-aged men. They were laughing heartily, chain-smoking and speaking at the top of their voices. They were acting like men on a Sunday afternoon away from their wives.

I stayed for another beer, read and enjoyed the weather. By the time I got ready to leave, the whole area had been swarmed by bikers, hikers, dog-walkers and car-drivers. The restaurant was packed and the lookout point was teeming with people trying to get that perfect shot which I swear wasn’t there.

Ever the wanderer (see previous examples of how this goes horribly wrong), I decided to take a different route down. When I was lost way back at the B&B, I was smart enough to take a  picture of the map, which I referred to many times after my “shortcut”. Even still, the trail markings were so erratic and easily misunderstood that I was sure that I was on the wrong track. Or that I would soon be lost. I still had a couple hours to go before it got dark, but I wasn’t ignoring the possibility of being lost in the Czech wilderness. It just sounded like something I’d do.

My only comfort came from the other people I passed, mostly in cars (the “trails” were often roads). Finally I reached another map and realized that even though I wasn’t on the track I thought (or should have) been on, I ended up in the right place. I had taken the long way home, and though the rest of the walk was pleasant and calming, by the time I reached town my legs were screaming and I was very tired.

I sat down in the dining room of Krumlov House and surfed the web before considering what to do about the rest of my day. Alejandro, a lawyer from Columbia who was on his way home from studying in Melbourne for two years, had followed me here from Sir Toby’s in Prague, and we chatted before he set off for Berlin. This time, I would be the one following him, since I was headed there myself.

After he was gone, I ate the food he left behind.

I was keen on heading out into town that night, but by the time I got ready, no one was around. I went by myself to a bar down the street called Antre, which had a porch out the back that overlooked the castle, and had a beer. Then I walked around town only to find the whole town had gone quiet. Either that or it’s just too early for someone like me. I stopped at the liquor store and bought very cheap Czech rum and some Diet Coke. Back at the hostel, I stayed up and talked with two backpackers from Queensland. One of them, Conrad, was from Ipswich! I was both excited and baffled that someone from The Switch actually made it out of Queensland, let alone Australia. Let alone the Ipswich City Mall itself, for that matter.

Cam was telling me about a town in Switzerland that had the same laid-back atmostphere like CK, called Lauterbrunnen, near Interlaken. I knew I was headed in that direction and made a note of it. I would reach Lauterbrennan nearly a month later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.