Istanbul: The City That Took Me By Complete Surprise

Istanbul City Bench

When I chose Turkey as the destination for my holiday trip, one key factor was weather.  While I still didn’t expect it to be terribly warm, I was hopeful that the weather would be notably warmer than what I had grown accustomed to in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Little did I know what I was in for: the coldest weather Turkey has experienced in over 25 years.  After diving into my bags and layering on just about every piece of warm clothing I had, I quickly set out to explore the historic district of Sultanahmet which immediately surrounds the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. I have to confess that I was more than a little frustrated by the cold and snow flurries which made visibility difficult.  Still, I decided to take stock of my situation and make the absolute best of it – after all, when was the last time you saw photos of Istanbul covered in snow?  Eager to take care of this rare occurrence, I began to explore the neighborhood..

Blue Mosque in the Snow

The trip was my first to a Muslim country.  It was also my first to an arab-influenced country.  I say arab-influenced country because I know that many Turks don’t consider themselves to be arabs and are regularly frustrated by the mis-association.  As I crunched out into the snow the first time I honestly had no idea what to expect.  I had heard that Turkey was much more liberal, western and progressive than many of the more traditionalist/conservative Muslim countries, but I had no idea just where the boundaries between the two might fall.  Would I see lots of women covered from head to toe in traditional garb? Would beer and alcohol be available – or even legal?   What about pork?  Would people pause during prayer periods to pray in the streets?   Some of these unknowns no doubt seem silly to some of you, especially some of my Turkish friends who have known me for years.  For others, I imagine you likely share the uncertainty I did before my arrival in Turkey.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the Snow

What I found was a city full of surprises. While there were some women in full-body traditional conservative outfits, most wore a headscarf, or nothing particularly unusual – choosing instead to dress as one would find and expect anywhere else in the world.  In truth, there are probably more women dressed traditionally in the heavily-Arab district of Norrebro back in Copenhagen than there are in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.  In part, that’s due to the tourist-centric nature of that part of town.  Mostly, however, it is indicative of exactly what you would expect in any major metropolitan area.  Similarly, despite the loud sing-song of the Muslim call to prayer echoing through the city several times a day, I never saw anyone pause to pray in public. In truth, few Turks even paused as they went about their business. Should I be surprised? Probably not.  Was I?  Most definitely.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

As my time in Istanbul quickly raced by I came to realize just how far off most of my perceptions about Turkey had been.   During our visits to the Taksim area, which is a shopping sector and bar district within Istanbul, I quickly learned that Istanbul has a thriving bar and nightlife scene.  While drinks are relatively expensive, they’re easily on hand in most parts of the city (though perhaps slightly more difficult to find than some other major cities). Perhaps most surprising was that there even seemed to be unofficial open container laws, as long as you were careful and remained within Taksim.  The city was not at all what I expected or what many of the westernized portrayals of Turkey depicted.  Heck, to our total surprise (and dismay) several fellow hostelers and I actually stumbled into (and right out of) what we thought was a bar which ended up being a brothel – located right in the heart of Taksim.

Blue Mosque in the Snow

Now, all of this isn’t to say that Istanbul doesn’t have its conservative districts and idiosyncrasies.  It does, but it’s also nothing like the city I was expecting.  Another aspect that took me by complete surprise was the city’s size.  A review of online literature about Istanbul in preparation for my trip left me expecting a mid-sized capital city with a hearty population in the 10-12 million range.  What I found was a city that locals claim has at least 19 million residents and, given the population density and size of the city, I believe it.  This, and other experiences during the trip led me to realize that  Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities and it is not discussed as such as often as it should be.

Blue Mosque Area and Obelisk

More than that, it possesses a charm that few cities of its size and scale are able to nurture or retain.   Istanbul is a city of empire.  A city of history.  Of wonder. With its well-manicured boulevards and crumbling historic districts, Istanbul befits a city that straddles two continents – two worlds – that has served as the sentry of the Bosphorus for thousands of years.  Despite spending more than a week in Istanbul, I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface.  There are still so many historical buildings, museums, and remnants of the past to explore.  But, it goes far beyond that.  The foods, music, cafes, and cultures of Istanbul are also intoxicating, rich, and complex. I’ll find my way back to Istanbul as soon as the chance permits and as someone who isn’t generally a fan of mega-cities, that is a take away from the city that I found extremely surprising.   If you find yourself considering a visit to Istanbul – don’t be mislead by headlines, silly stereotypes and hear-say.  If you haven’t considered Istanbul and Turkey as a destination in the past – I hope my series on the country will help inspire you to add it to your list and to consider it seriously.   After all, Istanbul is the city of Byzantium and Constantinople – a city that demands every traveler’s attention!

Sevilla – Part I

Christmas has made writing the last few days extremely difficult. Everyone has been engaged in one giant festival here in Cadiz with stores running odd hours, people everywhere, and lots of fun adventures to be had. As I wait for my train to depart Cadiz, I finally find myself able to sit down and share a bit about my time in Sevilla.

After arriving at the hostel, I unloaded my bag and began to get situated. Oasis Sevilla is a fantastic 4-story hostel with a bar and common area on the first floor, rooms on the 2nd and 3rd, and a rooftop terrace with a (cold) pool and nicely equipped kitchen. From the start, the hostel had a warm, friendly feel to it which built camraderie.

I immediately met two German guys and a Swede who were in my room. We made the usual introductions, I checked my email briefly and eagerly dove into the city. The hostel is located immediately off a large plaza containing a mid-sized cathedral. The plaza, divided  into two park areas, was the site of one of the oddest pieces of construction I’ve seen in a long time. One half had been turned into a large walled-off construction zone as they assembled what looks to be some sort of flying sauceresque large building. I cannot for the life of me figure out how or what the end result will be, but it makes for a very odd addition to the skyline. As I was checking my e-mail I talked briefly with a guy who recommended walking down to the river and tracking down some of the graffiti which I put on my to do list for the following day. With no particular direction or location in mind, I set off picking up a bit of tapas in a small tapas bar along the way. I wandered around the zone immediately around my hostel, taking in the huge crowds of people in the streets, the chestnut vendors cooking and hawking their toasty ashen wares and the general hum-drum of a vibrant city alive with life.

By about 8:30 pm I got back to the hostel just in time to join up with a free Tapas and Flamenco tour provided by the hostel. The guide was a German fellow doing an extended stay at the hostel. With some 15 odd people in tow we set out and wound our way through the streets before  arriving at a small tapas bar on a small stone square full of cafes and small shops. In a stampede we set upon the bar, scratching our heads, picking out tapas and passionately wolfing them down with the customary beer that goes with it. After glancing at a menu, I decided to take a different route than the others and asked the waiter/barman for a recommendation. Something different, exciting, and uniquely Spanish. An older gentleman – Fernando – who was sitting next to me at the bar jumped in, and after a quick conference with the barman they picked out a pork tapas for me. When it arrived it was delicious pork tenderloin in a mild olive oil and garlic sauce, over sliced potatoes with whole nodules of cooked garlic. All served with a basket of crunchies and bread and a glass of local beer. It didn´t take long to devour the entire plate.

As we drank and munched away contentedly we all exchanged stories and got to know each other. As it turned out it was our guide’s birthday was at midnight which added to the festive cheer of the evening. As we all relaxed at the table, I chatted with two brother and sister duos, both traveling from the states, as well as an Australian girl who knew one of the sisters. My buddy Rick, whom I´d met in Madrid at the hostel and bumped back into in Sevilla,  joined us … as did several others, including the two Germans and the Swede from my room.

Eventually our guide rounded us up and we again meandered through the city to a bar entrance off a side street. The building was an odd thing. It had an old stone entryway with a fireplace and small stage. There was an outer room with a tin roof, bar, and an expansive set up of two-tiered tables. We quickly re-arranged the tables and in the second (higher) tier set up a long bench of seats. The venue was a kick with old fans hanging from the roof, propane tower heaters, a thick layer of cigarette smoke, fake plant vines, large movie-sized flamenco posters and other odd decorations. The place was dirty, grungy and packed with flavor. Before we knew it everyone had picked up a cheap pitcher of local beer and the tabletop was littered with pitchers, glasses and cameras.

The flamenco show was good, more traditional and with better dancing than the casual flamenco evening I´d stumbled into in Madrid … but lacked some of the character. The performers consisted of two men, one on guitar, one singing and clapping, and a woman who did the majority of the flamenco dance. Her movements were beautiful and flowing all done to an amazing rhythm. At one point the second man got up and joined her in a passionate, tangoesque flamenco which combined the power of a romantic tease with the feel of a bullfight and the paso doble. By midnight the flamenco was coming to an end. We wished our guide a happy birthday finished off the pitchers of beer and made our way to the door. Or next stop was northward to the bar and club section of the town.

The club part of town is around the Plaza de Hercules – a long plaza/parkway full of cafes and shops during the day. In the evening the place comes alive with bars, lounges and discotecas. About 10 strong, we found our way to a rather odd alternative club. The crowd was a bit edgy, and all of the bartenders were female, with short hair and a lot of piercings. Some had mohawks or other similar hair styles. It was all around interesting…if short lived. About 20 minutes after we´d arrived in the packed, shoulder-to-shoulder press some sort of smoke went off. At first we thought they’d teargassed the bar, but despite being unpleasant to breathe and having a slightly orange aftertaste, it didn’t overly hurt, beyond generally being unpleasant. Jostled by the press to get out of the bar, hunkering low to avoid the smoke/fumes, we joined the others as the bar emptied out into the streets. Some sort of fire extinguisher? Hard to know.

After purging our lungs and trying to figure out what had happened, we continued up the street a ways before finally finding another nightclub. Once there, we settled in until 4:30 in the morning when one of the guys got kicked out (apparently for deciding to water the bar). Laughing at the absurdity of it, we decided to round up the troops and head back to the hostel. The walk back was hilarious, with several games of orange dodgeball in the empty streets, using fallen oranges from the heavily-laden trees that line the streets.

Covered in orange juice and smelling of smoke we crawled into bed and prepared for the morning.

The next day started at 11 am. Time is up, I´m off to catch my train. More adventures soon!

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!

Oktoberfest Day 3

After pushing hard the previous two days we took it easy Sunday morning. We slept in until about ten and then kicked around the hostel until about twelve when we went for a bite to eat. After washing up we decided to stop by Oktoberfest and pick up some pictures. From there we planned to head to the old town and explore it in a bit greater depth before booking our train tickets for later that day.

We made the 15 minute walk to the fairgrounds where we took a number of photos, each bought a few souvenir t-shirts and casually wandered about. Eventually we worked up a bit of a thirst and couldn’t resist the urge to pop into one of the tents and poke around. We had heard fantastic things about the Augustiner tent and beer and so chose it. Luckily it was still early enough that the majority of the tents still had openings. We found the Augustiner tent and quickly located a small spot at the end of a bench next to two men and a woman dressed in traditional garb. In usual fashion we started talking to them and in no time had made friends. They helped us flag down our forgetful waitress and even shared a bit of their beer with us while we waited for our own steins when it became necessary to toast to a song.

As we sat and chatted we learned that they had been there since 9 in the morning and were already starting to hurt. One of the guys (the woman’s husband or fiance) went from drunk to partially passed out in the 2 or so hours we sat there with them. The three were incredibly friendly, sharing stories, food, history, harassing each other and all around including us in the fun. When anyone ordered food, it got passed around and shared and as the two foreigners we had to try everything. This ranged from a red cabbage/beet thing, to gravy-covered meat, pretzels, and a herring and onion sandwich. While I didn’t notice a huge difference between the beer in the Augustiner tent and the beer in the Pauliner tents we’d previously visited it was definitely fantastic beer.

The tent itself was incredible, see my photos (facebook – message me if you need the link) for an idea on how big it was and the atmosphere. The barmaids and men were fantastic, no idea how they did it but they would carry 5 or 6 steins at once, sometimes stacking an additional one in the middle on the handles of the others. The whole place smelled of rich food, beer, and people. The energy in the air was ecstatic as everyone was happy and as friendly and hospitable as could be. At one point there was a family who was sitting on the other side of our 3 German friends. I presume they were German and one of their kids – he had to have been 16 maybe 17 had a stein for himself. As we pounded on the table with our elbows, lifted our steins in the air to “prost!” and shouted along he kept pace with his own stein…which was about as big as he was. The funniest part was when it came time for him to leave, we all toasted him and he scuttled the last bit of beer he had to cheers from all of the surrounding tables.

Later, an older German man easily in his late 70s who was sitting behind me leaned back and challenged me to a toast. Though his english was very limited, I was able to talk to him for a bit which was really neat. Then, he would periodically lean back into our table and cheer or toast with us. He’d also sing along with one of the three (the guy who was still going strong) and they would collectively sing old drinking songs and bellow them out. Later we also picked up a German doctor who sat sandwiched in with us and reminded me of Mr. Bean…the similarity was uncanny….and he had a french-style pan haircut which made it that much better. The guy was nice, and merrily drank along with us. Another family also ended up sliding in later and though their two young girls were way too young to drink (even by Oktoberfest standards) the parents joined our merriment.

Around 3 we finally succeeded in finishing our drinks and avoiding having more bought for us. We dragged ourselves away from the tent. It was hard, the people were all so warm and the atmosphere so incredible – it almost hurt to leave. Once outside we wandered around a bit, picked up a few more items and some photos then made our way to the rail station. The unfortunate news was that our train options were pretty limited and as always expensive. The good news was after dealing with a complete ass of a rail attendant when I first tried to book my ticket, I talked to a nice lady at another window and got a sleeper compartment for the trip to Prague. Amber found a train back to Cologne later that night that left about the same time as mine. With time to kill we walked into the city center as night fell, ate and explored.

The inner city was beautiful, especially at night with the buildings and cathedrals lit up. We stopped for gelato and then found a 3-person classical street group playing in an alcove (cello, violin, flute). There we paused for a good 20-30 minutes and listened. As with so many other things on the trip it seemed straight out of a movie. Eventually we got back to the train station and hunkered down to wait for our trains. While we waited in the small coffee shop we started talking to a few of the others. The first couple ended up being Americans traveling – we exchanged stories and tips. Then I noticed that the two somewhat rugged travelers (with huge packs) had what I immediately recognized as a fly fishing pole holder. I engaged them in conversation and it turned out they were from Kansas over in Europe backpacking and fishing. Though their fly fishing luck had been really poor we chatted about fishing stories until it was time for my train to leave. They were interesting chaps, each about the size of a mountain . When we all stood up (cafe had closed) they dwarfed me…weird the people you meet, such contrast on the road!

I got lucky for my sleeper car – it was 6 beds, 3 stacked on each side of the cabin and reminded me of what I’d imagined the bunks on a submarine must look like. 4 of the other bunks were filled by a group of Asian American girls who were my age and had just finished some program or another. We got acquainted then settled in. It was somewhat comical as I warned them that I might snore and invited them to nudge me if it was disturbing them. Well at two points during the night I must have been snoring because as I was in a half sleep I remember a pillow from above flying down (I was in the middle bunk) and thwomping me on the head. It was hard to keep from laughing. By a stroke of luck, I just barely fit (and by that i mean my feet only kinda dangled) and I was able to get a good night sleep.

The next morning I awoke in Prague. I’ll continue that story soon.

Oktoberfest @ Munich – Day 1

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Woke up bright and early Friday morning to meet Amber. We connected without any problem and then both made our way to the U.S. consulate so she could apply for a replacement passport. After a long bit in line we connected with our ride, a cool carpool service that they have in Germany. Cost us 20 Euro instead of the 100 a train ticket would have. The driver was a German headhunter from the area on his way to party with some friends. The other guy in the car worked with a local financial firm. The drive across the countryside was beautiful and took about 5 hours. When we eventually arrived in Munich we found our hostel quickly, got checked in, tossed our bags down, made our beds, and headed off to find food and explore a bit.

Bavaria: Munich

*side note* Initially the plan was to spend the night at Oktoberfest, then wake up in the morning and explore the city and the countryside before I headed to Prague and Amber headed back to Cologne. The reality was we discovered room rates were normal the next night (first night was ridiculous) and both extended our stay before leaving late Sunday night.

Bavaria: Munich

The first stop was a supermarket for a bit of water. From there we wandered our way toward what we thought was Oktoberfest. Luckily, the closer we got the bigger the crowd and it became easy to find our way. After winding over railroad tracks, across bridges, through small tents, and between buildings we eventually made it to the fairgrounds.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

It’s a pretty incredible sight. The grounds are massive and I cannot even begin to imagine how many people were there. You hear talk of tents…which they are, but they don’t look it. With large wooden facades they are buildings in their own right. Each one able to hold thousands of people. It’s not just tents though… there are amusement rides (everything from a roller coaster to bumper cars), food, souvenir shops…take your pick! The smell of beer, people, and most of all German food is heavy in the air. I was really surprised by the number of people in traditional garb! Despite a ton of tourists, there were still lots of locals dressed in the dresses and leiderhosen for which Oktoberfest is famous. I’m not sure if it was the population, the outfits or the beer, but I was really surprised and impressed by just how attractive most of the girls were in their outfits=) The closest thing I’ve seen is the Renaissance Festival with all the corsets and leather etc…Oktoberfest had more flattering outfits, more cleavage, and better looking girls by far!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Anyhow, we wandered the grounds for a while and eventually found a tent that was not closed off. What I didn’t know is that Oktoberfest actually starts about 8 in the morning and shuts down at about 11 at night. The tents themselves are open for a good part of the morning, then close their doors to newcomers as they fill up. This means that to get in a tent you have to start your day sometime before 12. Luckily for latecomers there are tons of beer gardens attached to the tents which are almost as good. In addition to being unable to get into the tents, we walked around and didn’t see any available seats. It’s a hell of a sight. The tents are huge and typically have a raised area in the middle that has a full band playing. As far as I could tell they only play about 7 songs but the atmosphere and songs are such that you don’t mind in the least. Given that most of the songs are drinking songs and the steins are a liter each it works out perfectly. We made our way to the beer garden at the Paulner *SP* tent and found a small space we could both squeeze into.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The guy sitting across from us was a German from one of the tourist islands in the north and spoke a little English. We ordered our first stein of the night and set to getting acquainted. The whole thing is just a big area full of picnic tables end-to-end in long rows. Everyone is mashed in together, and you just fit as many people at the tables as you can. *You wont get served if you are standing*. The trick to surviving is to eat constantly while you drink, which is made all the easier by the food. It’s incredible, from the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had to stuff I’ve never even heard of.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

As we sat there and got to know Hanz he took a liking to us and told us how I reminded him of his son who was 26. He had traveled around a good bit and owned an Irish Pub in the north. Apparently he also had a line of tourist souvenirs he was working on. He had a few of the slightly defective samples which he gave to us. Each was a small bottle of powerful schnaps with a figure on the top. One for Oktoberfest was a beer maid with ample cleavage and hands full of steins. The other was a big soccer ball – presumably for the world cup. As the night progressed we ended up sandwiched by a group of German girls who had studied in the US…All had excellent English. There was also a middle-aged Italian couple. Hanz would explain some of the toasts, talked about Bavarian culture, Germany, and other random things while we all drank and listened to the music.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

To accompany my 2nd stein I ordered a half chicken. It was incredible. A mix between rotisserie and seared, it was moist but crispy, chicken but well seasoned. I plowed through it while Amber ordered some veggie-friendly thing I couldn’t pronounce. I guess the best way to describe it is as the original mac and cheese….but it was something totally different and a lot better. As the night progressed, I talked a bit to the Italian couple who spoke a little English, trying Spanish words when English failed us. They came from the northern part of Italy and as a result spoke Italian and German fluently. Both were incredibly friendly and warm and eventually ended up ordering a big table platter and a large pretzel. It had sausage links, drumsticks, a full thing of radishes, pretzel sticks, cheeses, etc. The whole thing was piled on a cutting board about 3 feet long and about 8 inches wide. They insisted we help them with it and we all spent the rest of the evening drinking and eating. Around 11 pm things started closing down. I looked at the damage I’d done…about 3 steins…and we started the walk back to the hostel.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

The fantastic thing about Oktoberfest was that almost everyone seemed happy. Just about everyone we met and/or saw were in happy, friendly, and jovial moods…that and just about everyone was absolutely trashed which made the walk home pretty hysterical. As the night was still early, Amber and I decided to wrap around into the inner city a bit and check out the Cathedral and some of the stuff between the fairgrounds and our hostel. At night, gently lit by the moon, with lights cast to accentuate it, the Cathedral located was an incredible nighttime sight. The air was crisp and clear. It was an almost surreal walk home.

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Once back to the hostel we relaxed a little bit before calling it a night. So it was that day one ended. But, that was just the start!

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

Going to go try and find some food, then get a bit more hammered out. So for now – bye bye!

Berlin – Walking the City’s Streets

Berlin, Germany

Whew, it’s amazing how easy it is to get behind and how hard it is to get caught up! That said, this should hopefully do it. Also, if there’s something you’re curious about, or would like to hear more about – post a comment with what that is and I’ll do my best to answer the question/include the info.

Right now I’m winding down after a good day spent walking around Berlin, during which I saw Checkpoint Charlie, a long stretch of the wall, a war/fire ruined cathedral, and some random parts of East Berlin.

But first – My last few hours in Amsterdam were fairly uneventful. I woke up, scrambled to get everything ready, made the brief walk to the train station, then sat around and waited on my train. The train ride was about 6 hours and about what one would expect. Beautiful countryside, very little leg room and a lot of people. I finished the Four Hour Work Week (awesome book – I highly recommend it) and began on the new Lord of the Rings book which I also have with me.

Upon arriving in Berlin real culture shock set in. While most people (even the occasional brat vendor) speak English the signs etc. are almost all in German. Exit signs are now green instead of red, the bathroom is exclusively called the WC and everything is significantly different. I made the mistake of not having a German – English dictionary, so it was sink or swim time and all 100% up to me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed I did the best thing I could think of – I ate….at Burger King of all places. I was starving and grumpy from the train ride, needed a second to get my bearings – so why not find the one place that was familiar, grab some food, and figure things out.

Berlin, Germany

With a full stomach, I set to the task of finding my way to my hostel – which with the aid of the gentleman who sold me my bus ticket became doable. After standing on the wrong side of the street for a few minutes (in the rain of course) I eventually realized my mistake and found the right stop. Much to my relief the bus stop itself was pretty clearly marked and the bus was even better. It told you, both audibly and visually, what the next stop was…which, given my complete inability to understand anything that was said was probably a good thing.

After getting dropped off, I found a map tied to the subway (didn’t have a Berlin map either at this point…lol) I memorized the route I needed to take to make the 5 or so minute walk to my hostel. The hostel itself was great, nice, clean, good shape, friendly people etc. in fact before I even made it up the elevator to my room I met a Canadian (Ian). As it turned out he was also in my dorm. He immediately invited me out on the pub crawl he and his two traveling companions were planning later that night. I agreed readily.

I got settled, got some food, took a shower, then geared up for the quick trip on the U bahn (Tube) to where the tour started at 9. We were a good 15 minutes late, but found them right away at the bar. I’d say there were a good 30-40 people on the tour mostly foreigners, but a few locals mixed into it. The tour had a few guides, the chief one among them a burly bald-headed German. The guy just oozed character. He reminded me in a lot of ways of an early barbarian. He had a few piercings (including a tongue ring), and a big fur-lined coat. You can drink on the streets of Berlin – as a result about 1/3 of the crawlers had drinks in their hand, even when moving between pubs. Our guide was no exception only he was double fisting 3 large bottles of vodka which he’d pour freely every time we paused at a light, park, you name it. It was reminiscent of a mother sow, chased by thirsty babes.

The tour itself took us to 4 walking distance pubs, then we all got on the tube together and headed to a fun night club which was in old East Berlin. The club was huge, located in a maze of rooms under the railway. It had a giant techno room, modern top 40, then a classic room, as well as 3 or 4 other smaller secondary rooms. In addition to the three Canadians from the dorm, I met a few other travelers – particularly two of the other taller guys on the trip, one from the U.S. and another from New Zealand, and a group of 3 girls from Spain. The 1 (mother hen) kept to herself, but the other two Anna and-I forget the other girl’s name -were super friendly. Anna and her friend made a fun mix. Anna was taller, thin and attractive … her friend was super short, with a little stockier build, bright eyes and a quick smile. The three of us talked, danced, and wandered off and on throughout the night, until my hostel mates and I decided we’d best head home. I bid my new friends adieu and headed out. We got back to the hostel around 3:30 and crashed right away.

Germany - Berlin

After sleeping in a bit, taking a nice shower, and a good bit of water I headed into the city to explore. The girl at reception recommended I see the Museum Isle, which I headed to first. There I walked through a fun flea market, before finding myself in front of the Bode Museum. Not really having a clue what I was doing, or what it was about (it looked pretty, and seemed interesting) I wandered in. I found out much to my surprise that a student day ticket for the entire island was only 6 Euro and decided to explore.

Germany - Berlin

Well, turns out I guess that the Bode is kinda important…so guess it was a good decision. The Museum itself was gorgeous and in it there were a number of beautiful pieces of art as well as a pretty interesting coin exhibit. I have to admit though, that a lot of the stuff was from cathedrals and religiously oriented. After the 5th gilded depiction of Jesus on the cross, I got a bit bored and moved through to the older sculpture.

The following were the ones that really stood out: A marble dancer mid-step. This was a larger piece located in the center of the room, the life-size carving was of a beautiful, robed woman with arms upraised with cymbals on her fingers. The position, flow, and composition of the piece reminded me of a belly dancer mid-dance.

A sequence of small bronzes – about the size of a cat-were incredibly realistic, detailed, and beautifully cast. They ranged from depictions of a beautiful woman and fawn holding each other to a mighty lion with a bull in its maw as the two fought.

Berlin, Museum Island

From the Bode I wandered down and off the island briefly (no other option) before coming to a bridge back onto the Isle that dumped me in front of a building based heavily on greco-roman architecture. Though most of the exterior columns were wrapped in scaffolding the building still struck me as incredible. In fact the whole island is pretty awesome. Not sure – but I have a hunch if you pull it up in Google Earth you’ll see what I’m talking about. Fascinated by the architecture I walked into the plaza, scratched my head and decided as far as museums go that this one seemed as good as any other. Turns out, it was the Alte National Gallery. Had no idea about the Alte part, but was able to figure out the National Gallery bit. Turns out they had a big French exhibit going on right now.

Berlin, Germany

In the National Gallery the most captivating part was again a beautiful marble of a woman with angel’s wings. This life size crystalline masterpiece was captivating. The emotion, presence, and beauty of the sculpture was fascinating. The wings in particular were beautifully worked and the statue itself was positioned next to/under a window which accentuated it.

Germany - Berlin: Dancer

Beyond that the paintings were fun, some were beautiful, some were ugly, others were just odd. I’m not a big impressionist fan, so the vaguely outlined paintings depicted with smeared paint and random brush strokes for the most part didn’t really hold me. They did however, have some fantastic realist pieces which were incredible. I forget names, etc. but a number of the large wall-sized pieces were fantastic. It was also fun to see pieces by a number of the more famous artists.

From there, more than a little tired I wandered through Berlin a bit more before finding my way back to the hostel where I wrote the other updates, took a nap, and eventually made an easy night of it.

Berlin, Germany

Today I woke up and headed to a stretch of the East-West border that I’d been told had a large chunk of the wall still intact. While the wall was intact, and a lot of the graffiti was still visible, it was hard to tell what was new, what was old and what was significant. The wall itself was impressive, and the difference between the east and west definitely is something else. From there I crossed the bridge and wandered a bit, before finding lunch and a tube station that would take me the rest of the way to Checkpoint Charlie. CC was a tourist trap and the line for the Museum was too long to make it worth bothering with, so I saw it, looked around, then moved on pretty quickly.

My next-final destination was the Zoo Garden area and the famous pillar-monument square, which is centered around the golden lady and her pillar. I started in the middle of the park or so, which resulted in a long, beautiful walk through the forest/garden along a canal, before eventually finding my way to the pillar.

Monument Square and Museum Isle were both really impressive. They are so organized and gigantic in scale! It seems like it’s one of the few places post Rome where things like that have been done.

On that note, my fingers are tired and it’s time for some more food, and to finish booking my next destination – Frankfurt.