Tuesday, July 8, 2014

St. Peterburg Russia...need to go back soon

Photos here: St. Petersburg

***

A Russian, Frenchman, Irishman, and me.  Drinking.

Vodka.   Lots of different kinds of vodka.   And some beer, too.

All for national pride.

Sounds like the start of a joke, but this challenge was for real.  I think the four of us covered the hardest drinking nationalities, but we would only distinguish the pretenders from the real men at the end of the last night.  Hint: it wasn’t the Russian.

I really enjoyed St. Petersburg.  I came via the 72 hour visa-free rule, and left regretting not getting a real visa and staying longer.  Even one more night would have made a difference.  And before you get the wrong idea, the drinking was but a small detour in the reasons I fell in love with this city.

I was excited to go to St. Petersburg.  I had been to Moscow before on an “in-and-out” business trip, but that left no impression of the country.  I was eager to experience Russia for the first time.  Moscow may be the political and commercial capital of the country, but St. Petersburg has always been the cultural center.

Getting a Russia visa is cumbersome and expensive.  While researching Helsinki, however, I discovered that Russia offers a visa loophole.  Cruise passengers coming from Helsinki to St. Petersburg are allowed to stay in the country for 72 hours without a visa, provided that they are part of a tour group.  St. Peter Cruise Line of Russia monopolizes this route.  They also provide a sham “City Bus Tour” to solve the tour group loophole issue.  The bus simply shuttles passengers to and from the ship to the city center, without any real “tour.”

I had my moments of anxiety about travel logistics, but it was about the return as opposed to the entry.  I had never been on a cruise before, and I realized that I didn't know how long it would take to disembark and clear customs.  On my return, I needed to catch a flight to Copenhagen, but would I have enough time?  After a bunch of hand wringing and asking around, I managed to figure things out and headed off to the boat.

Even though I had come three hours before departure, I was surprised to see that two burly Russians were already in the cabin.  They stank of stale beer and body odor.  They spoke little English but grunted a lot.  They stripped off to their underwear, turned off the lights, and went right to bed without a word.  I figured they had been partying it up the night before in Helsinki and now wanted to sleep.  I wasn’t going to disturb them, but I wasn't just going to sit in the dark either.  So I left.  You know the saying: don’t disturb sleeping bears.  I took my backpack with valuables, including my laptop, with me, just to be safe.

I found an indoor deckchair, which wasn’t easy because the rains had driven everyone inside.  I sat down and did work for a couple hours.  For dinner, I ate the sandwich I had bought at a grocery store, since the food on this particular cruise line is reputed to be very bad and quite expensive.  Finally, I was on my way to Russia.

From this rather complicated beginning, I had the most marvelous of trips. S t. Petersburg is a treasure trove of cultural and historical sites.  I tend to avoid museums, but I did two, yes two, in this city.  The Russian Museum has the world’s largest collection of Russian Art, and I enjoyed it.

The highlight, however, was the Hermitage.  Only the Louvre and the Met can rival the Hermitage’s collection.  To my surprise, I wished that I had even more time than the half day I allotted to the Hermitage.  I cannot rave enough about this museum, and I was lucky as they were co-sponsoring an extensive modern art exhibit as well for a few weeks.  The exhibits enthralled me.  That was even before I saw a Russian woman walking around the exhibits in a sheer skirt with no underwear!  What?  In a museum?  See if you can find the photo in the album.  It’s hard to miss.  On a serious note, I liked the Hermitage more than any museum in a long time, and hope that I can go back soon.  It’s remarkable when you consider the fact that it was also the Imperial Winter Palace back in the day.

St. Petersburg’s other historical buildings, and the overall streets and canals, were both picturesque and full of history.  The weather didn’t cooperate the first day, so I covered the same route on a later day when the weather turned gorgeous.  Compare the photos.  It’s amazing the difference that good lighting and weather can make.

I also spent half a day wandering the outskirts of St. Petersburg.  Tourists rarely venture out this far, largely because of the language barrier and because the core center offers so much for the visitor. I wanted to see how most average Russians live, so pursuant to a Lonely Planet suggestion, I hopped on the metro and explored a couple areas.

One stop had Stalinist era apartments which contrast sharply to the beautiful buildings serving as living quarters in the core city.  But then again, I had also discovered that many of those “beautiful” buildings in the core city were mere facades; I snuck into the courtyards of some of the structures and discovered decay, crumbling infrastructure, and beat up elevators.  Perhaps on a future trip, I can get to the bottom of all this.

The second stop took me out to the suburbs, where I found that most of the structures were basically shacks that the locals kept up as best as they could.  They didn’t live in huts, but this view reminded me very clearly that Russia is a country with a developing, not developed, economy.   The government wants to project an image as a super power, and the cores of St. Petersburg or Moscow resemble that of any major developed city.  However, just as with the buildings and their shabby back alleys, Russia is not yet a modern economy beneath its gleaming, beautiful surface.  Traveling beyond the tourist center confirmed that.

The food was also quite good.  I tried everything from traditional Russian fare to a Korean restaurant for lunch.  The city is neither cheap nor expensive, so it was fun trying different kinds of places, and I found almost all of them worthwhile.

Now for the vodka.

In Russian, vodka is derived from the word for “water.”  And Russians like to drink it as if it were water.  One of my roommates in my hostel was a Russian web game programmer who currently lives in New Zealand.  He emigrated from Vladivostok Russia when he was 19, but often returns to the motherland as a tourist.  We struck up an immediate friendship when he found out how much of a fan I was of New Zealand’s south island.

The World Cup was in full swing.  Due to the time difference, however, the games were not on until late.  But that’s OK, because St. Petersburg was in the middle of their “white nights” summer.  In the summer months, the sun sets, but hovers near the horizon for an extended period so that the skies never seem to get quite dark.  The nights are white.  The locals use this as an excuse to stay out and have a good time until, well, the sun actually rises again.  This is reinforced by the fact that St. Petersburg is a series of islands.  The metro ceases running and the bridges are raised and uncrossable after a certain hour.  Just as in Tokyo, where the salarymen are “forced” to stay out drinking all night if they miss their last train to the suburbs, the local Russians stay out all night if they are “stranded” in the core island.

In any case, we were joined by a primary school teacher from the U.K. and a construction engineer from France.   The first night, we went to a local bar and had a hoot of a time watching the game.  I don’t even recall who won, but everyone was drinking and cheering and booing.  Sure enough, by the game’s end, everyone in the bar was friends with everyone else.  Everyone was also totally s*faced.  To their credit, the Englishman and Frenchman held up pretty well.  I think I did as well.  The Russian?  Well, the Russian was definitely teetering.  Somehow, we managed to drag his limp body back to the hostel.  There was still a lot of touring to do the next day!

The next night was my final night in St. Petersburg.  Ahh, the damn 72 hour limitation.  The USA would be playing in the World Cup quarterfinals, but not until midnight.  We decided to hit some of the more popular non-sports watering holes first.  The Russian claimed that he zonked out the prior night because he had been drinking during the day, so had been way ahead of us in alcohol intake when we started that prior evening.  As juvenile as this sounds, he boasted he would outdrink us all this night.

Now, I like to drink.  And sometimes I get drunk as a result.  But my days of drinking just for the sake of getting drunk are long behind me.  I think the other two guys felt the same, but we humored him and his bravado.  We each beat our chest and boasted about the strength of our nationalities.  It was our own mini World Cup of sorts, but with vodka.

We ended up bar hopping and having a blast.  We met and made friends with many locals, learned and sang a bunch of Russian songs, and had a generally great time.  My favorite bar in St. Petersburg is Fidel (yes, named after that Fidel), but all the bars are largely indistinguishable, including a bar named Barakobama (Russians apparently can’t spell).  It was just pure, good natured fun.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, however, the Russian disappeared.  He wasn’t looking too well, so we figured he just went back to the hostel to sleep it off.  The three of us continued to bar hop until around 2 am, when we headed back to the hostel.  We even caught on the lounge TV the tail end of the USA game which had gone into extra periods.  Overall, this was one of the bigger party nights I’d had in awhile, and quickly fell asleep.

I woke up fairly early the next morning to squeeze in my last bit of sightseeing before I had to head back to the cruise boat.  I felt hungover, but I’ve been in worse shape.  Alas, I stumbled badly when I tripped over something in the common room.  Huh?  I looked down, and it was the Russian.  He was crawled up like a ball on the floor, moaning softly.  I tried to wake him up, but it was hopeless.  I had to get going so I reluctantly left him there.

When I returned that afternoon to collect my bags, I found him semi-asleep on the sofa.  He stirred as I was checking out.  I asked him if he was OK.  He replied that he felt really sick and had been throwing up since the prior night.  I asked him what happened.  He said that he left us because he "met some chicks” at our last bar and disappeared clubbing with them and did a bunch of shots and got wasted as a result.  Hmmmm.  OK.  Sure.  Anyway, he was a nice enough guy so I wished him the best and headed out.  I hope he survives the rest of his trip.  He is a heavyweight drinker in his mind but a lightweight in the real world.

By the way, I think the Frenchman won.  I saw him that morning and he looked totally unfazed.  The Englishman looked like I did, not terrible but surely showing some wear and tear, and a bit of the bleary eyes.  The French guy, however, looked at us with a questioning look, inquiring “what eez the big deal?”  So based upon this small sample, France has the strongest drinkers and Russia the weakest.  France won our mini World Cup.

Overall, St. Petersburg was a great trip.  I feel as though I spent every waking hour on the run, either as a tourist or just out having fun.  And yet, I feel like I only scratched the surface of this complicated, interesting, historical city.   A common tourist complaint is the unfriendliness of Russians.  I found the exact opposite.  Whether in the bars, stores, streets or even the suburbs of this wonderful city, I found most Russians to be friendly and approachable.  I hope to be back soon to continue my adventures.

***
Photos here: St. Petersburg


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Helsinki Finland

Photos here: Helsinki

***

Why Helsinki? 

My One World around the world award ticket (see ATW blog entry) was a great deal, but I had a tough time finding an award flight to take me back home.  Trans-Atlantic award tickets are notoriously scarce during the summer.  British Air had availability, but their extra fees were about $700.  What’s the point of using an award ticket if you have to pay that much for a single leg?

Luckily, Finn Air had business class seats available (only on certain dates) from Helsinki to JFK.  I had no particular desire to see Helsinki, but I needed to get back home somehow.  Originally, I planned just to connect through the airport.

Later, I discovered that I could visit St. Petersburg Russia from Helsinki through a visa loop hole.  I hadn’t considered getting a Russian visa, since the process is both long and pricey.  The country is also so vast that I just ruled it out.  Still, I figured St. Petersburg is Russia’s number one tourist destination for a reason, and if I could visit there visa and hassle free, why not?  See the blog entry for this leg of my trip.

So I ended up booking an overnight in Helsinki.  Later, I also added Copenhagen and Stockholm to the end of my trip, making for a neat Scandinavian side trip.

My time in Helsinki was limited.  I arrived in the afternoon to a gorgeous day.  Scandinavia is the most expensive part of Europe, but I managed to find the Hotel Fabian without bleeding through the nose too much.  The hotel was fine, as was the location.  The city is quite small for a European capital.   Between a late sunset (around 11pm) and the hotel’s free bike rental, I was able to see all of the city that day.

Helsinki is gorgeous, as are its people.  Scandinavians generally are a friendly, laid back, and good looking people.   When summer comes, bringing an end to winter’s perpetual darkness, the locals open up with so much glee it carries you away.   I biked around Helsinki visiting the tourist sights, but had the most fun just sitting around the parks watching, and occasionally talking, to the locals as they celebrated the lovely day.

Taxes throughout Scandinavia make bars very expensive, so most locals just buy alcohol and food at the local grocery store and party outdoors.  Helsinki is no exception.  The area around the Esplanade in particular fills up with good looking locals having a good time.  I keep emphasizing “good looking” not from any lascivious view.  It’s just difficult not to be struck by how blonde, healthy, vibrant, and for some reason young everyone looked.  Not that everyone was a clone.  I met the occasional punker and stoner.  Still, I enjoyed my day in Helsinki.

My meals weren’t as good.  As I mentioned, the city is quite expensive.  The hotel recommended a place around the corner.  When I sat down, the waiter explained they serve small courses and suggested ordering at least six, at E10 per plate.  Together with a glass of wine and some water, I was looking at spending almost E100 (or about $140) at a place that looked fairly average.

Perhaps I should have tried it.  I instead found a Chinese restaurant nearby that had decent reviews.  The place was full, and lots of Chinese patrons were devouring plates of food.  I ordered a beer and a spicy chicken dish.  It set me back about E40, but the food was truly bad.  They used way too much capsicum and overfried the chicken.  I would have walked away but for the fact that I was famished.

Afterwards, I tried a couple of bars, including a karaoke one where the locals were belting out Finnish tunes with gusto.  Finns like to party late, especially in the summer time when it doesn’t really get dark until the wee hours, and it looked like the fun was just beginning. 

I didn’t stay at either bar too long.  For whatever reason, I just didn’t feel like drinking that much.  Sitting at the bar, I did meet a weird Japanese woman.  She was somewhat entertaining just because she was so bizarre.  She would mutter some conversation, and then simply gaze out the window blankly.  Just when one got used to ignoring her, she would interrupt people’s conversation by blurting out some incoherent sentence in perfect English.  She would then tune out again.  I thought at first she might be stoned or drunk, but I ultimately labeled her as just a weirdo.  I beat a fast track out of that bar before someone thought I was responsible for her.

(Separately, I wonder what the Japanese connection, if any, is to Helsinki.  My flight from Paris to Helsinki was at least half Japanese!  I assume some kind of connecting flight back home?  Strange mystery...)

I headed back to the hotel and slept well. 

The breakfast the next day was quite crowded.  I had the day free until the late afternoon when I would catch my cruise to St. Petersburg.  I had intended to work out, but the hotel’s gym is actually located at its sister hotel’s property.  The weather was gloomy and rainy, and I felt lazy.  I wandered the city just a bit, feeling glad that I saw almost all of it the prior day under more beautiful conditions.  For my last meal, I ate at McDonalds, remembering my fiasco from the night before.  I bought a sandwich and a drink for the cruise, and headed for the boats saying goodbye to the city.


Helsinki is a manageable, small, attractive city.  However, it does not compare well to its larger Scandinavian brethren of Oslo, Copenhagen, or Stockholm.  I liked my short stay here, but I don’t see any reason to return any time soon.

***

Photos here: Helsinki

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Driving through the French Country Side

Photos here: French Country Side

***

I’m not a big fan of France per se, but I am a big fan of wine.  Originally, I had some days to “kill” and thought about doing a trip to Tuscany Italy, but couldn’t make the travel ticketing work efficiently.  I considered going to the Bordeaux France region, but the lodging prices were ridiculous during this peak season.  Hence, I opted to rent a car and drive through the country side of the Burgundy and Loire Valley areas, just seeing the sites and sampling wines along the way.

I headed first to Fountainbleu, the second most popular palace in France after Versailles.   I then headed to Auxerre, with its historic churches, and to Vezelay, where the Cathedral supposedly holds the relics and remains of Mary Magdalene.  I made it to Dijon to catch their Music Festival.  It was a riotous good time, but the entire country might have been celebrating a Music Festival that day; I saw signs for festivals on that date in the other towns I visited as well.  I also had one of the best meals of my France stay in Dijon.

I made my west along the river, seeing “important” castles and cathedrals, and sampling a lot of wine along the way.  About half way through the trip, I decided to make many of my meals “picnics”, where I would buy from a grocery store a baguette, cheese, some meat, maybe a side salad, and of course, a bottle of wine.  This was an excellent decision.  Perfection may be defined as just sitting in a park bench, a hill top, a river bank or just some greenery next to a vineyard, and enjoying the tasty sandwich and some delicious wine.

One vineyard owner directed me to a nearby hilltop in the “most beautiful village in France.”  I couldn’t find it on the map, but figured it out.  She had commented that the village was where the two rivers connect.  I just had to climb the hill from the local church.  Later, I discovered a sign at the village entrance that translated to “one of the most beautiful villages in France”.  Was that the actual name of the village? If not, who decides that standard?  Either way, it struck me as typical French.


I had a lot of fun driving through the country side.  Thank heavens for Google maps, though, because I would have been hopefully lost otherwise even with the car GPS.  Next time, perhaps I will make it to Bordeaux and bicycle through the area.

***

Photos here: French Country Side


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Essaouira Morocco: Nice!

Photos here: Essaouira

***

I truly enjoyed Essaouira.  Granted, I am partial to the ocean.  I think part of this stems from childhood memories, well, if you can call them memories.  As a very young toddler, I lived near the ocean.  The smell of sea water still evokes reminders of that period in my life.  Not actual memories, more like visual and olfactory flashbacks.  Strange, huh?  Whatever the actual reason, I love the ocean, whether the beaches or hard working seaside fishing villages.  As luck would have it, Essaouira boasted both.

My hotel, the Riad Mailaka, was fine, but compared poorly to the Marrakech riad.  Everything else in Essaouira though exceeded its Marrakech counterpart.  The people were friendlier, even though I still spoke my fake gutteral Arabic.  The medina (or main square) was smaller, but equally vibrant.  Instead of gardens and other sites, the city had a fishing port that was amazing.  I even made a couple friends there, despite the obvious language barrier.

The food, oh the food.  The fresh seafood was cheap and simply delicious, basically cooked fresh to order.  You pick out what you want from the day's catch, and they grill or fry it up for you.  The first place I tried, I had a bunch of sardines, calamari, prawns, and shrimp for about $15.  I thought it was a great bargain, but in fact, I was ripped off!  The huge sardines, for example, should only cost about 10 cents each.  I later found a better stall/restaurant in the main square where I would eat three or four times during my stay there.  They, too, engaged in a bit of petty larceny by gradually increasing the "preparation fee", but each seafood feast still came in at less than $7.  Awesome.  Being a Muslim country, it was hard to get alcohol with the meal.  A beer would have made it perfect, but I can't really complain.

I spent a couple afternoons just lazing on the beach.  It wasn't a great beach by resort standards, but I was able to rent a chair and umbrella for $2.50.  I picked out a book Stoner, which the reviewers called "the best novel you have never read."  Well, I don't actually recall the plot now, but I recall it being OK.  The book killed time while relaxing under the sun.  I also enjoyed watching the locals beach about.

I found a good bar that did serve alcohol, Tauros.  With great views of the harbor and tasty cocktails, I spent a couple evenings there listening to the soft music from the live band.  Overall, the entire stay in Essaouira was quite relaxing and enjoyable.  I highly recommend adding the village to anyone's Moroccan itinerary.

After a week in Morocco, my verdict was mixed.  The country's history isn't as rich as other parts of North Africa, such as Egypt.  The sites were interesting but not inspiring.  The fresh grilled seafood in Essaouira and a couple of restaurants served memorable meals, but the overall food experience was disappointing. Although Kosybar in Marrakech and Tauros in Essaouira were fun and enjoyable, the general lack of alcohol was also kind of a bummer for me.  Having said that, the trip did provide a very different experience from the rest of my trip.  I learned a few things as well.  I even met a couple locals who proved the exception to the rule of unfriendly Moroccans, and I appreciated the opportunity for cultural exchange.  In sum, I probably won't be coming back to this country, but I have no regrets for having made this journey.

***
Photos here: Essaouira

Western Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Photos here: Western Atlas

***
I had decided not to go into the Sahara desert after reading the reviews, but many suggested making a day trip to the Western Atlas mountains that separate the habitable areas of the country from the desert itself.  It takes about 4 hours each way to reach the peak, or a full day of round trip travel.  The hotel staff recommended against using a full day of vacation to get to the peak.  They instead suggested going to the first stop in the mountains, Ourika Valley, which is a bit more than an hour away and where one can still see Berber (or traditional) villages.  Everyone online commented positively on the photo ops.

I booked a bus through Supratours, which I also later used to take to get to the seaside town of Essaouira.  The agent there was very helpful, one of the few truly friendly Moroccans I met.  He gave up his university studies to work because he needed the money.  He said that job prospects were grim in Morocco even with a college degree.  Christian, the hotel owner, made a similar comment about economic uncertainty following the Arab Spring uprisings in the region.  The agent spoke good English, and struck me as a genuinely nice guy.  He even personally met me at the hotel to walk me to the bus pick up point, since the location wasn't obvious.  I hope he goes far in life.

The trip to Western Atlas was a bit of a bust.  The good news is there were only three of us on the minibus.  The sites and the weather, however, could have been better.  The sky was very hazy and obscured the views of the mountain.  When the bus came to a "lookout" point to see the mountains we were approaching, we all queried "lookout where?"  Then we could faintly make out the mountains in the horizon.


That set the tone for the rest of the trip.  We drove on and stopped at a local Berber home to have tea, but it struck me as just a tourist stop as busloads of other tourists were there.  We went to see an Argon oil cooperative; it smelled like another tourist trap.  Eventually we made it to the Ourika Valley.  It was pretty, with home run restaurants dotting the small stream that ran through it.  We hiked to the the top of a waterfall, and then walked around the town before heading back.

Overall, the trip was an interesting diversion, and I took a couple of decent photos.  Still, it was nothing special and I probably wouldn't do it again.  If I had the time, perhaps going all the way to the peak to see the desert on the other side would have been worthwhile.
***

Photos here: Western Atlas

Marrakech Morocco

Photos here: Marrakech

***

Why Morocco?  Well, I've never been there, and had a hankering for seeing North Africa.  Most of the Middle East is currently not safe for traveling, so Morocco was a nice compromise.  I knew very little about the country, but my research indicated that Casablanca was uninteresting, while Marrakech was the cultural and tourist hub of the country.

I thought I would spend four nights here, and then move on to the Moroccan sea village of Essaouira for several more days.  In between, I would do a trip of the Western Atlas mountains, which separate "habitable" Morocco on one side and the Sahara desert on the other.  I briefly considered doing a camel trip or a desert soujourn, but the reviews were fairly bad.

I booked the Riad Badi guest house, which is run by a delightful French couple.  Christian and Isabelle take pains to make their guests comfortable, and to inform them about navigating the city.  I recommend this hotel most strongly.

I spent the days in Marrakech doing the touristy things, such as seeing the ruins, the mosque exteriors (non-Islam people are not allowed in), roaming the souks (shopping areas), visiting the gardens, and the like.  I also took a lot a pictures of storks, as they dominate the city's roofline for some reason.  As a pure tourist attraction, the city is so-so.  Not bad, but not outstanding.  When compared to say, Istanbul, Marrakech comes across as a serond tier experience.

Moroccans are also not the easiest people in the world.  They are aggressive, and their cultural norms are so different than ours.  They also kept insisting speaking a few words of Japanese to me, even though they clearly had no idea what they were saying, confusing "ohayo gozaimasu" (Good Morning) for example with "sayonara" (Goodbye).  I have no idea why they mistakenly took me for a Japanese.  I told them I was from Costa Rica.

By the end of my trip, I resorted to inventing my own language to counteract this.  In Arabic, hello is "As-salam alaykom."  I started responding to their Japanese hellos with "Similac Akeem Oulajawon", mixing the name of a baby formula with the former NBA super star.  I thought if I spoke with enough of an accent I sounded vaguely Arabic of some sort.  Indeed, every person thought I was trying to speak Arabic and would respond in a flurry of gutteral speech in trying to strike up a conversation (usually in an attempt to sell me something).  So I tried saying "Osama Bin Laden Hussein Obama", and got the same excited happy response.  Even when I went with "Malcolm X in the Middle", the sales chatter only increased as they assumed they could finally speak to me.  Ahhh, crazy Moroccans.

With a couple of notable exceptions, the food was also not to my liking.  I can't figure out why the food in the region isn't more spicy, as I equate "hot" areas with spicy food (because of the historical need to cover up the taste of spoiling food).

Still, on balance, I was glad I came to Marrakech.  I doubt that I will ever return, but it was a unique experience and I learned a lot as well.  And spending the evenings watching the sun set from the Kosybar with a cold cocktail was actually a lot of fun.


***

Photos here: Marrakech

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Paris in the spring time (well...early summer anyway)

Photos here: Paris

***

Most of this trip had been purely for the sake of travel, but now it was time to do some work.  I was in Paris, which many consider to be the greatest city in the world.  I've always found Paris a bit lacking, and joked that the city wouldn't be so bad if it weren't populated with French people and if they served Italian food.

I spent about a week in Paris, attending a conference and taking some meetings.  That still gave me plenty of time to play tourist, which I had never actually done.  Sure, I had done a bit here and there in the past, squeezed in between a hectic meeting schedule, but not in any focused fashion or with an abundance of time.  So in between a more leisurely itinerary of meetings and a couple free days, I played Typical American Tourist and went to see Notre Dame, the Seine, Eiffel Tower, and all the rest.

As a photographer, I kept recalling what a friend of mine had said: "Whether you actually like Paris, it is the most picturesque with opportunities on every corner."  After a week, I had to agree.  While the weather wasn't always ideal, I left captivated by the city's beauty.  My friend was right; I found something to photograph on almost every corner of the city.

As for the food, I find French food is way overrated, but I did manage to find some quite good places.  Food connoisseurs consider Paris the world capital for fine dining.  I disagree, but food is a matter of personal taste (pun very much intended).

I agree with the consensus on one thing: the wine is awesome.  I would return to France later in my journey to tour wine country, but for now, drinking in Paris for a week made me slowly warm up to the City of Lights.

***

Photos here: Paris


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Berlin, Germany (Three days, with a side trip to Potsdam)

Photos here: Berlin

***

I enjoyed Munich, even if it didn’t quite live up to Alan’s description.  I wondered how Berlin would differ.  I left my Munich hotel earlier than I had to, and caught the train to the airport.  As it turned out, the trains were a giant mess on this particular day.  I don’t know what was going on, but several people commented on it when I asked.  Luckily I asked a staff member whether I was waiting correctly, and she directed my to an intermediate train instead since my planned train was not running.  Had I not inquired, I might be still waiting on that platform for my S-Bahn train.

Airport security was once again very tight. I wasn’t groped this time, but the search process was quite thorough for everyone.  Perhaps Obama was in town again, following my travels.

In Berlin, I had booked the Grand Hostel, and they provided fairly detailed instructions on airport transfer.  Basically one takes a bus to the metro, and then gets off at the metro stop about 100 meters away.  I had to make a few inquiries at the airport to find the correct bus stop.  I didn’t know how far I had to ride the bus until I got to the right metro stop, and the driver was an unhelpful gruff.  Fortunately, the electronic signage helped, and I disembarked at the appropriate stop and got on the metro for the 30 minute ride.

My room was not ready when I arrived.  The Grand Hostel is one of the odder establishments.  It really is neither a classic hotel nor hostel, with lots of private rooms in addition to the standard dorm setting.  I’m not sure it satisfies either group as a result.  The clientele ranges from your typical college backpacker to the geriatric set who barely manage the stairs.  The location is not bad, but not ideal either, as it is on the fringe of the center of action.  In fact, the neighborhood looks like a newly gentrifying area, as there is a bit of “grit” along some of the close side streets.


The good news is that the Berlin mass transit system is excellent, once one figures it out, so all the tourist attractions are fairly accessible.

The older set may find annoying the noise from revelers returning in the wee hours, while the younger set may be put off by the senior citizens occupying the seats in the hostel bar.  In fact, one youngster bemoaned to me that this was the “least social” hostel of his entire trip, though I’m not sure why he was complaining to me.  Is that a compliment or insult?

I was a bit annoyed at check in at the hostel’s hidden tax and bed sheet charges.  I don’t recall that being flagged anywhere in the reservation sheet, and this practice differs from most other establishments which clearly highlight other charges.  I didn’t want to let this spoil the mood, so paid the bill upon arrival as they requested, and then left to explore Berlin.

I was very lucky in one sense.  Just as I caught a festival while in Salzburg, I had arrived in Berlin in the middle of a very large International Culture Festival, which took over a huge area very close to the hostel.  It was like being at a huge Spring Fling event in college, and not too dissimilar from Mardis Gras or a mini-Oktober Fest.  Crowds were about just looking to have a good time.

The staff didn’t give me the right area of the Festival, as I came across it immediately while on my way to somewhere else for lunch.  I went into the Festival and walked around briefly, seeing only a corner of it since I planned to return later.  It didn’t look that large based on this quick look-see; I was wrong.


The Jamaican barbecue pit smelled great, so I ordered some spicy jerked chicken for E5, plus a E1 plate deposit.  Huh, a plate deposit?  The BBQ stand didn’t use paper plates but worried about customers walking away with the ceramic ones, hence the deposit.  The chicken was pretty good, but the portions were smaller than I expected.



I walked around and liked the vibe, although I couldn’t understand everything, including some weirdos doing some kind of African exercise, guys rubbing sun tan oil on each other and lounging on the street itself, and a boy be-bop group doing one handed hand stands.



I decided to come back later and explore the Festival in greater detail.

The hostel staff had recommended exploring the Victoria Park neighborhood, describing it as “trendy.”  They also recommended two cheap restaurants.  The first was Mustafas, which offers Middle Eastern fare, but the line was crazy long.  Besides, I was headed later on this trip to Morocco.


The second restaurant was Curry 36, which served the ubiquitous curry brautwurst.  The stuff makes a weird combination, but is all over Germany as cheap fast food.  I had to try it at least once.  I found Curry 36’s version just OK, but it sated my residual hunger after the jerk chicken.


As I wandered the neighborhood after, I realized that Berlin, more than the other European cities, reminded me of NYC.  For example, this particular neighborhood could easily pass as an Upper West Side street.  Other parts of cosmopolitan Berlin ranged from high rised office towers, to grungy art areas, to chic tree lined neighborhoods.  There are some historic buildings, but there is no “Old Town.”  Nonetheless, each neighborhood seemed to have its own distinct feel and personality.  I knew immediately that I would have fun exploring the city.

I came across a market hall, and hoped that it would be like the crowded, hectic ones I had seen in Spain, but this too resembled more a NYC deli area than its Spanish counterpart.


The small Sunday flea market near Victoria Park actually had interesting stuff on display, but I wasn’t in the position to buy anything given my luggage limitations.  Still, I had fun spending part of the afternoon wandering the stalls.


It was late afternoon by this time, so I wandered back to the hostel to unpack since my room would be ready.


I then immediately headed to Brandenburg Gate, the key tourist attraction of the city.  To get there, I crossed first to Potsdam Plaza, where I wandered a bit and even saw bits of the Berlin Wall that had been moved here for display.


As I walked from there towards the Brandenburg Gate, I came across some kind of weird concrete garden.  It made for a good photo op, but my mood darkened when I realized it was a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe.


I reached the Gate, and like a hundred other tourists, snapped photos of the icon from a bunch of different angles.  I then walked to the Reichstag and the surrounding canals, exploring more of the picturesque city.



The walk eventually circled back to the Gate, where I got to witness a bunch of jovial (but drunken) Spaniards hit on a group of women who were partying it up bachelorette style.  They were politely rebuffed after a couple of good natured photos.


The Opera House area was very neat, but since it covers three separate buildings, it was hard to take photographs.


I sat for a bit to rest my tired feet before walking over to Checkpoint Charlie.  I am old enough to remember East Germany, the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Checkpoint Charlie symbolizes much of the Cold War, and there was a good exhibit that explained its history.  The checkpoint, itself, however, was hokey.  It seemed that some kind of cheesy company had taken over the place and dressed themselves up for tourist photographs.  Ugh.


The day was getting late so I headed back toward the hostel and the Festival.  I found another park on the way, but it was littered.  In fact, most of Berlin’s many parks seemed a bit garbage strewn, but this one was particularly bad.  I then really noticed that this area was not the greatest of neighborhoods.  I was definitely in the Lower East Side of NYC.


I went inside the nearby grocery store to buy some water, but was puzzled because the store was packed…with homeless people?  I then realized the homeless were inside the store to redeem glass bottles for the deposit money.  The long line of homeless ecologists snaked through the store, and a fight almost broke out between some of them for perceived injustices by their peers.  Still, all of them took pains to be polite to the store’s customers, no doubt because otherwise they would be banned by management.  The Festival, of course, was a boon to these recyclers with mounds and mounds of beer bottles strewn about.


I ended the day back at the Festival.  The music and the partying was infectious, I had a great time going from stage to stage, listening and tapping my feet to the music, and occasionally finding myself dancing along to it as well.  I might have looked silly, but I didn’t care.  It was dark, everyone else was drunk, and I was having too much fun.


My Festival dinner consisted of a steak-on-a-stick, and an awesome pita sandwich.  Perhaps due to my light hearted mood, but I found the food incredibly yummy.


Everyone was drinking and partying, and the Festival was turning into a mammoth crazy lawn party.  Clearly Berlin doesn’t have an open container law, but the thousands of people generally were well behaved even in their drunken stupor.  The place was a ZOO, but quite civil.  I had a blast.

As the night went on, I felt dead tired.  All that walking was getting to me, so all too soon, I trudged back to my hostel and fell sound asleep.

I ended up sleeping in the next morning, but the stupid maid woke me up twice.  Moreover, the hostel’s doors are loud, and the early risers (probably the geriatric set?) kept banging them as they made off for their efficient day of sightseeing.  I was hung over and grumpy.  Eventually, my bleary eyes opened and I made my way to the communal showers to begin the day.

A bright, gorgeous day greeted me.  I decided to spend the day as a tourist, and bought a day metro pass so I could roam as I pleased.  All that walking the prior day saved me a few euros, but my legs were now depleted.  I started back at Potsdam Plaza, and made the familiar short walk to Brandenberg Gate, retaking the photos in much better lighting.


I then hopped back on the metro to see the Space Needle.  At the square, there was a huge gathering.  I couldn’t make out what was going on, but eventually figured out that it was some kind of political gathering for the “Catalan Vote.”  The crowd was very happy, however, as a central figure in the movement was leading the festivities.  I had no idea what the “Catalan Vote” issue is all about, nor did I know who the handsome guy the girls were swooning over is, but I took photos like a good tourist anyway.  I later discovered the guy was Pep Guardiola, a former Spanish soccer star and the current manager of the Bayern Munich football club.


I walked along the river canal toward museum row.  I passed many interesting squares, including one with a church.  I puzzled over the pink waterwork pipes.  Were they functional, artistic, or both?


Along museum row, many people were out just sunning themselves and enjoying the beautiful day.  My hangover had passed and I, too, relished the gorgeous weather.  I had no desire to actually enter any of the museums, so contented myself with just enjoying the day and the outdoor scenery.


I left the museum row and walked over to Hackensher Markt.  The nearby park was interesting with people sunning themselves.  For some peculiar reason, many Japanese expats seem to like this park.  Nearby, a Jewish synagogue caught my eye, but I didn’t enter when I noticed that they charged a fee.

I continued to roam Berlin, and appreciated the abundance of small parks that dotted the city.


Eventually, I headed over to the larger the Mauerpark in the Eberswalder area, where they hold a popular outdoor flea market.  I found the flea market itself to be worthless, but I really enjoyed the park.  As a piece of greenery, the park leaves much to be desired.  However, really good musicians dotted the area.  I found an Aussie duo called Oke and really enjoyed just listening to them in the gorgeous day.  The duo basically travel the world “following the sun,” and play in public spaces for donations to pay for their expenses.  What an interesting life they must lead.


Within the park, I eventually found an outdoor amphitheater.  A band soon gave way to a loud guy who started singing very badly.  He then announced that this was open karaoke mic day, and invited members of the audience to come down and sing to songs he had loaded on his machine.  Almost all of the volunteers were terrible, but the crowd was in good cheer.  It was surprisingly loads of fun just hanging around and singing with these horrible performers.  I spent quite a bit of time there before reluctantly moving on, as there was much more of Berlin for me to see.



High on the list was the Berlin Wall itself.  The longest remaining stretch of the wall is in the eastern part of the city along the river.  I took the metro there, and discovered that the wall is now basically a large canvas for local artists, some good, some interesting, and some neither.  I took my time walking along the wall, thinking about its history.


Around half way, I came across a small square where I couldn’t help but notice a grandmotherly figure who was sunning herself.  She was attractive for her age, and she seemed to know it as she was “popping out” of her bathing suit.  A guy (who turned out to be her boyfriend) was fawning over her.  I struck up a conversation with them.  They were a delightful couple, even though she clearly lied about her age (there is no way she is only 50), but I humored her while she playfully complained that her boyfriend (who spoke very little English) was too old for her.  In her prime, she may have been a beauty, but it was a bit comical (and yet somehow sweet) to see the two of them engage in their antics at their age.


Eventually, I headed back to the hostel.  I am not a big fan of Greek food, but I really didn’t want any German fare and was too tired to wander too far.  The Greek restaurant across the street from the hostel did a vibrant business, so I ate dinner there.  It was actually fine.


The big hostel event for the evening was a pub crawl that would start at 11:30 pm, but I wasn’t sure I would be awake by then.  Besides, I had really enjoyed the Festival the prior night and wanted to return.  I made the right decision, as I had a great time listening to the music and bopping along with the crowd.  I met a bunch of interesting people, and I had a great (and sober!) evening.


As the night ended, I encountered some people who were not as sober.  These idiots decided to climb the tall light tower for kicks, and proceeded to do chin ups from 50 feet high to the cheers of the crowd.  They were lucky they didn’t fall, and that the tower held up to their weight, as the ending could have been tragic.  Ahh, drunken Germans.


I awoke the next morning very tired, as I didn’t sleep well.  The hostel’s breakfast is a bit of a rip off, but I had it for the second time as I was hungry and my options were limited.  I also used the hostel’s facilities to launder my clothes, some of which had started to ferment a bit in the laundry plastic bag.  I checked out, but my flight out wasn’t until the evening as I had the day free.

I headed to the nearby city of Potsdam for the day.  A short journey outside the Berlin, the historic town is a popular day trip.  I knew little about Potsdam, other than it had hosted the important Potsdam Conference at the conclusion of World War II.  The hostel staff gave conflicting and confusing information about the best way to get there, as they first told me to take the metro and then to take the faster regional train.  The online information offered little clarification.

I went to the main train station and inquired directly with the help desk.  They told me that the same ABC ticket would work either on the metro OR the faster regional ticket.  Unfortunately, I had just missed the next regional train, but since the travel time was substantially shorter than the metro (30 minutes versus an hour), I just waited for the next regional train.

Potsdam’s biggest attraction is Sanssouci Palace, the former summer residence of Prussia’s Frederick the Great, and the surrounding park.  I headed directly to the Park and spent the better part of the day exploring it.  I didn’t go into the palace itself or any of the other buildings, but their exterior fa├žade and the surrounding gardens were sufficiently captivating to occupy my time.


When I finished, I headed to Potsdam town itself, as the buildings had looked interesting from the train ride in.  I wasn’t sure quite how to get there from the park, as the maps were confusing, so just headed in that direction.  Eventually, I came across a tourist information booth, who informed me that my ABC pass was good for the local buses that would take me to the center of town.

I wandered about central Potsdam and took photos, before hopping back on the bus back to the train station.


I really enjoyed Sanssouci Park, but by this point, I was utterly exhausted and ready to head back to Berlin.  I caught the regional train, and almost missed my stop in my fatigue.  I got off at Zoological Gardens to see my remaining Berlin tourist attraction, the Memorial Church.  Much of Berlin was destroyed during the war, and its most famous church remains half destroyed.  The open air church stands as a monument both to the war and to the perseverance of Christianity, but I found it otherwise unremarkable.


The refuge sanctum immediately adjacent to the church was kind of interesting


I headed back to the hostel.  I had checked out that morning, but used the communal showers to freshen up before heading to the airport.  I used the metro-bus combination for my uneventful trip to the airport, but once again Air Berlin proved incompetent.  When I went to check in, the staff routed me to a different desk a long walk away at the other side of the terminal, since I didn’t have a boarding pass but had checked luggage.  I could have instead simply printed out a boarding pass from the kiosk right there in front of them, which I only realized when I had walked half way across the terminal.  Grrrr.

Despite Air Berlin’s incompetence, I left Berlin and Germany with a very positive impression.  For sure, Germany is rich in history.  More important, Munich and Berlin were both enjoyable cities to experience, with something for everyone.  Berlin also proved that Alan might be right after all about just having a fun time in the country.  As I boarded the plane, I wondered what it would be like to return for Oktoberfest.  Perhaps I could find out this fall?

***

Photos here: Berlin