Seville, Granada, Cadiz … these are the cities that spring to mind when you talk about southern Spain in winter. Cities with rich architectural history, stunning old towns, vibrant cultural attractions and a charm guaranteed to steal your heart. Malaga? Not so much. Unless, that is, you’re on the hunt for ugly cement resorts, overly crowded beaches, shady tourist restaurants, and an old city swallowed long ago by the forward march of industry and excessive tourism. At least, that’s the Malaga I expected. My lazy Google pre-trip search did little to assuage my concerns. Photos from above showed me a modern city with beaches and a skyline marked by the jarring sight of ugly hotel elbowing its way in front of ugly hotel. A perusal of a few top 10 things to do in Malaga lists further cemented my plan to use Malaga and more specifically its airport as a cheap way-station to get into and out of as quickly as possible.…
Berlin is famous for a plethora of reasons. Of those one of the most well known is its character. It is a wild city of contrasts both within the city limits and when explored alongside greater Germany as a whole. In August I had the chance to re-visit one of Europe’s most famous cities. Instead of detailing the experience in words I’ve decided to mix it up a bit and to explore it through art and color. The photos in this post were taken at the various museums on Museum Island, at the Berlin Wall and Hackescher Markt Station.
These are only a limited slice of all Berlin has to offer. What are your own personal favorite parts of Berlin? Have anything I absolutely must visit next time I return to Berlin?
I’ve made no secret of my general lack of passion for the desert so this series of posts will no doubt surprise some of you. Based out of Scottsdale, AZ most of the year, I don’t do a lot of hiking and seldom write posts dedicated to exploring my own back yard. We’ve got a lot of different types of cactus, cat’s claw, dirt, rocks, rattle snakes and scorpions. None of which really reaches out and excites me – a person drawn to running rivers, green mountains, moss covered rocks or sandy beaches and open ocean.
That said, A three day weekend presented itself and I decided to give Northern Arizona a chance while checking out my first US Hostel. I’ve been in Arizona for a long time. Nine years in Sedona, four years in Prescott and another seven plus in various cities around the valley. Prescott holds a special place in my heart for its fun atmosphere, history and spunky nature.
On the other hand Sedona and I have just recently begun to get re-acquainted. After leaving the city at the end of middle school we got a much-welcomed divorce. I lost any/all appreciation for the area’s natural beauty and was at constant odds with the never ending onslaught of star children, boredom, grumpy retired corporate executives and a prolific assortment of people that were…well…quite often batshit insane.
I share this with you because it underscores the often overlooked value of changing your perspective and exploring your own back yard through the eyes of a tourist. Over the years I’ve probably made 50+ trips to Flagstaff to shop or visit College friends. I can navigate my way around, am familiar with some of the popular watering holes and can readily recite local attractions. Despite all that I hadn’t ever truly seen or experienced Flagstaff until this past weekend. A realization which has only just begun to register.
The premise was simple: Drive north. Try a hostel. Be a tourist. Have fun.
I had 3 days, a hand sketched map of Northern Arizona with a few significant points of interest marked and a $19 online booking for 1 night at the Grand Canyon International Hostel in Flagstaff, AZ. From there I’d spend a day exploring the far northern reaches of the state before returning to Flagstaff where I’d crash on and old College buddy’s sofa before heading back to Phoenix the following morning.
The trip started out well. Shortly after mid-day on Saturday I packed up the car, grabbed a water, wiped the sweat from my eyebrows and cranked up the AC. I was off. Me, myself, my thoughts, and an adventure.
The drive north was great. No where near the Memorial Day Weekend traffic I expected. The weather was beautiful – sunny blue skies with a slight breeze. The Scottsdale/Flagstaff leg of the trip on the I-17 was old hat, but I tried to push myself to see it differently…to explore it as a new adventure and experience. The end result was a very pleasant drive which left me drifting along the interstate lost in my own thoughts and the hypnotic feel that goes with a long drive down open roads on a beautiful day.
I reached the city around 4:30 in the afternoon. Scratched my head and looked at my poorly drawn directions before setting off to find the hostel. Before long I found San Francisco Street and made a right turn. The road was blocked by a passing train which caught my attention and drew most of my focus. As I sat filming the train from my diver’s side window a shirtless biker paused briefly. I raised an eyebrow to which he quickly responded, “Dude, you know this street is one way, right?” I quickly muttered a curse about one way streets in Arizona, thanked him for the heads up and flipped a hasty U turn more than a little grateful that the train was still racing by blocking the wall of traffic which no doubt waited patiently on the other side. I was a bit flustered and couldn’t help but laugh heartily at myself. You don’t find many one-way streets in Arizona and yet I’d not only found one but turned down it. It would appear I was working overtime to play the part of the tourist.
After a bit of backtracking I quickly overcame the challenges posed by the one-way streets and found the right cross streets for my hostel. Parked and made my way inside. The guy at the front desk was friendly, checked my reservation and made a face. My heart skipped a beat as he muttered “Oops, looks like there was an issue with your reservation” he paused briefly, then looked up and smiled, “No worries though, your reservation has been transferred over to Dubeau hostel down the street” I grimaced, not sure what to expect and thanked him for the directions.
It turned out that the Dubeau hostel was right around the corner and a great place with a fun vibe. I’ve done dozens of hostels in Europe and Central America but had no idea what to expect in an American hostel. Would they be social? Would they be clean? Would they be youth oriented? As it turns out, the answer is yes. It would seem that hostels are hostels no matter what country you find yourself in.
The hostel was an old converted motel in the shape of a U. The rooms stretched back around a parking area while the bottom of the U consisted of the main office, two kitchens, a dining room, common reading area and activities room with free pool, table soccer and several tables.
I was given a quick tour, then sent out to find my room. The room was nice and clean. It had an en-suite bathroom, and 4 bunk-beds. I quickly chose one of the remaining free ones, and got acquainted with a Brazilian guy who was unwinding after a long bus ride from Canada. We talked about Flagstaff, things to do and see and a bit about Brazil before I set out to explore the town.
The hostel has a great vintage feel, driven home by a large sign mounted on top of what looks like an old radio tower in the front yard. It adds a very western feel which seeps into the surrounding area. The streets south of the railroad tracks between Beaver Street and San Francisco Street are alive with small shops, dive bars and old-nearly abandoned warehouses, accommodation, and apartments. Buildings are either decorated with pealing paint and old sun faded signs or vibrant wall art/graffiti which brightens up alleyways and puts a near constant smile on your face.
As I wandered through the area I found myself pausing regularly to take in entertaining little nuances. Perhaps the most entertaining was an old beat up tourism sign on what looked to be a small abandoned building framed perfectly by a sign for the local strip-club which was across a side street and right next door. The end result was a comical contrast of clashing cultures which perfectly reflects Flagstaff’s eclectic culture.
Before long I found myself crossing back over the tracks and into the city’s main downtown area. A mixture of outdoor shops, restaurants, bars, new age shops, art galleries and coffee shops the whole area is alive with foot traffic and bustling with energy. People are friendly and the sound of an outdoor music performance could be heard drifting from a public square near by. Truly, it’s a great part of town and one that I’d never seen or experienced during previous trips. The area which also holds the town’s bar district (similar to Whiskey Row in Prescott and Mill Avenue in Tempe) was something I’d only seen at night and often only in passing.
From there it was back to the hostel where I quickly struck up a conversation with two guys from the UK – one from England, one from Scotland. As it turned out there were 6 of them, all Royal Airforce/Military on a two week hiking trip out from their military base on Cypress. We quickly hit it off and talked travel, Arizona, US and Mexican food before joining a game of horse shoes (a first for them) with two girls from Durango. As we continued to get acquainted over a beer or two a French Canadian gal joined the group, along with two Germany girls and the rest of the Brits. We shared stories, got acquainted and then got several raging games of table football going before playing some music. Shortly after 11PM I geared up to head to the bars where I was scheduled to meet up with an old College friend. I set off with one of the guys from Scotland in tow. Before long we’d found our way into one of the local watering holes and set to enjoying the local bar scene.
A while later my friend arrived with several of his girlfriends. We got acquainted and continued telling funny stories while laughing heartily as the others tried to decipher Paddy’s thick Glasgow accent. As the night wound down, I shared my plans for the following day with Noelle – one of Ryan’s friends. She expressed interest in the trip and I invited her to join. To my surprise (Given we’d just met and since I’d made it clear I didn’t have a set schedule) she jumped at the opportunity. We set a time to connect in the and then said our goodbyes before heading back to the hostel to call it a night.
Stay tuned to part II of this post for photos and stories of the wild desert north of Flagstaff, Tuba City, Painted Desert, a Man on Rollerblades and Sunset at the Grand Canyon!
Unfortunately, the computers in this hostel are located in the bar area…soo we’ll see how much I get written before I get interrupted and/or can’t focus any more. There are people starting to show up so I imagine it will get fairly rowdy before long.
First – in general. Prague was a very different experience then the other cities I’ve visited. In part due to the Eastern European influence and in part due to the general spirit of the city itself. The elder Czech generations I saw tended to be very hearty looking. You could tell by looking at them that many had worked hard throughout their lives under rugged conditions. In particular I noticed it in a lot of their hands. Both men and women often had rugged, calloused hands with finger nails that showed an existence filled with heavy use and constant wear. The younger generations shared that look to a lesser degree, though as I’d commented previously many of the Czech girls on the subway were quite attractive. Boots seem to be a huge Euro fashion thing currently, especially in Eastern Europe so seemingly every third young girl-woman was dressed in some form of mid-shin or knee-high, high-heeled boot. The locals in general were very friendly and warm. Though there was a huge difference between the locals outside the tourist areas and those within.
The locals located within the tourist sections and working at tourist locals were some of the rudest people I’ve encountered so far on my trip. Brusque, devoid of patience and just generally rude. It was surprising, as one would think they of all people would be polite with their livelihood depending on tourist dollars. From many of them I got the vibe that they didn’t like the direction that tourism had taken the city and in part blamed the tourists for visiting.
Many people talk about Prague as a beautiful city. Which it definitely is, though I don’t feel that it’s as beautiful as everyone claims. Rather, I would say it’s an interesting city with it’s own rich flavors. The river itself, is without question beautiful, as are the old buildings but the skyline is mixed with more modern buildings. Many of which are high rise residential buildings from the 60s, 70s and 80s. From an architectural standpoint I think the two most noteworthy parts of Prague are the monument roofs with their spires and clean lines and the statuary located on the older buildings. Many of the older buildings have incredible figures and statuary over the windows, surrounding the doors, and set at random on the buildings. These figures are typically carved in the very stoic, hard, almost skeletal style that I’ve always associated with the old Soviet Union. They also bring to mind elements of the Chrysler building in NY and that time period. I found them fascinating and beautiful. They have so much emotion which depending on your mood and perhaps the state of the building can come across as either great stoic pride as a modern Atlas steadfast in his vigil while he gladly holds up the world, or alternately as worn and haggard faces that have lived hard lives with a penetrating sadness to them that makes you pity their stone hearts.
Another thing I heard while gearing up for Prague was that it was cheap. Luckily that was definitely the case. Though movies such as Eurotrip etc. exaggerate things a bit, there is a massive difference between the Euro and the Czech Krunar. At about 20 K per dollar a beer or coke typically cost between 15 and 25 K. I could order a full plate of chinese food (rice, chicken, the works – just no drink) or goulash, biscuits and meat for 69 K or so that would leave me stuffed. Though these prices required I leave the tourist section and stray into the city.
Food – as long as it’s not dairy-I’ll eat most things. I usually try and draw the line at eyes, brain or pieces of an animal’s sexual anatomy but depending on my mood and how good it smells I try and keep an open mind. As a result if I’m feeling up to it I’ll ask the waiter or waitress to surprise me with something regional that they think iI should try. It almost always works out and doing it over the years I’ve been served everything from tripe to steak and eggs. I charged my waiter/ress with my meal twice while in Prague and ordered things at random off the menu 4 times. The local Czech food that I ended up with was delicious. One of the meals was breaded chicken, much like a chicken-fried steak, but with real slices of chicken breast and a very different/thick batter served with dumplings and gravy. One of the other meals was gulash- a slice of ham, a slice of beef, and two huge sliced dumplings. Both were delicious. One of the other more interesting things was a large fried potato cake (a huge latka?) with chicken bits in it. It was about a foot long and about 4 inches wide. Regardless of what I ate, be it Chinese (seems to be the Czech version of Europe’s kebab shops or US Mexican), Czech, or just general brats, burgers and random food, it was almost all delicious.
I spent the first two nights of my stay at a hostel a bit outside of town. The hostel was clean, had free internet and friendly people but lacked atmosphere. The common area was closed at 10 and the train ride into town was a pain. When my two nights there were up, i made my way into the heart of town and booked into the Clown and Bard. A boisterous social hostel with a huge 30 plus person dorm room, and then 2 and 5 bed rooms. The hostel had an on site bar, fun playful atmosphere, and a backpacker oriented mentality. The walls of the room were covered in writing, some were quotes, some were profanity, some were insults and some were humorous. Other bits of bedroom graffiti included a giant doodle of Bevis and Butthead, other strange pictures, and a huge face. Despite the graffiti however, the hostel, sheets, and room were all clean.
The arts: I’d been told that Prague was a very musical city so, eager to take advantage of the exchange rate and wide musical selection I saw several shows. In Prague almost all of the cathedrals & monasteries put on small, medium-sized classical shows. Some are basic with just a few violins and cellos, others use organs, others use small symphonies.
The old Opera House: Romeo and Juliet. It had been a long time since I’d seen a ballet as when the opportunity arises I usually choose to see the symphony or opera instead. As I walked around the city I saw signs for Romeo and Juliet at the old opera house. Initially thinking they might have turned it into an opera-and that it would be awesome to see something in the old opera house-I looked into tickets and found decent balcony seats for a fair price. As I purchased the tickets I learned it was in fact a ballet. I decided to push ahead and give it a go (I had missed all of the actual opera shows in my time window).
The opera house itself was gorgeous. A small round classical building with a beautifully fresco’d roof-the house itself was a slightly different layout than I was familiar with. It had group-general seating in a long swatch down the middle on the floor level, which carried up on to the 2nd and 3rd balconies. The swatch though was only the area straight out from the stage, with all of the side area, except for that up on the 3rd story, being filled by small 6 person areas. The walls and ceiling were all coated in golden figures and the whole room while lit seemed to glow.
Now, as I mentioned earlier ballet isn’t my favorite thing in the world but, the shows I have seen I enjoyed. While this one was not necessarily an exception it was a huge disappointment. It wasn’t until the last 1/3 of the show that I felt like I was actually enjoying it and that the performers got on cue. The set was very plain, with a number of wooden constructions that would have looked a lot more impressive with a little paint. To make it more annoying one of the larger ones had a piece of the paneling coming loose which could have easily been fixed with a few screws. The performers themselves, while obviously skilled, seemed off. In many of the group movements there were visible differences between dancers and (perhaps due to my ballroom background?) I noticed that many seemed to have unstable footing and be constantly adjusting. Also, a number of the moves seemed ballroomesque and to be honest I’d rather see the ballroom version. It’s possible I just was overly critical and/or don’t understand ballet, but I think a large part of the sync and performance quality came from nervousness. At the end of the performance they brought an old lady on stage and introduced her. Apparently she was the original Juliet that had launched the performance years ago. Given her presence…it wouldn’t surprise me if their nerves had thrown the troupe off. To top the experience off I’m pretty sure one of the main dancers was REALLY excited to be performing for 5 or so minutes before he was killed off, though from the look of things it was a whole different type of performance he was hoping for. Watching a bunch of guys leap around in skin tight tights was bad enough…the added bit just generally made the whole experience a bit traumatizing. So, Romeo and Juliet – 2 of 5 stars.
Two nights later I decided to try one of the many shows held around town. I purchased my ticket and then killed some time before making my way to try and locate the building. When I followed the map it took me down a main street, to a side street where an attendant was directing people in through a small doorway. Nowhere to be seen was the classical cathedral or small church I’d been expecting. My annoyance went through the roof as I made my way up a flight of winding stairs and was met by an attendant who took my ticket and seated me in a small room with a fresco’d ceiling, bout 50 chairs, a small stage, and 4 seats for the musicians. Ready to demand a refund, I forced myself to sit tight and give it a chance. The room itself was maybe 75 feet long and the seat I chose was about 5 rows back located directly under the center of the domed fresco’d roof. The fresco was of a multi-story library with teachers, books, railings, and objects arrayed above us. While not captivating it was beautifully painted and with the curve of the dome felt 3 dimensional. About 15 people in total filed in and then the musicians entered through the same door we’d all come in, as you can imagine this added to my annoyance. They sat down on the stage and I found myself looking at 3 violinists and a cellist. They paused and then began to play. Within the first 3 notes I knew I’d been wrong and that the show would be well worth the money. Because of the acoustics and my proximity to the performers the power of the music was incredible. Especially due to my location directly under the middle of the dome. Violin is easily one of my favorite instruments, if not my favorite and this show made left me breathless. They played a number of famous pieces including Canon, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and about 10 other pieces whose names escape me right now. Each one was even more impressive than the last. The hour plus that the show ran, passed in a heartbeat. Where the ballet was a huge disappointment, this show blew even my initial expectations out of the water. Easily a 5 out of 5.
Lot more to share about Prague but the bar is getting too rowdy and I can’t focus any more, so for now. Goodnight!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.