The Sound of Music, The Taste of Coffee and a Miniature Wonderland

Music

It was the day after the Paris attacks and the world was still numb with shock. It was mid-afternoon after a fantastic day spent exploring and I found myself standing in the rain, surrounded by police officers, as a long procession of people made their way past. Despite the police, the mood was relaxed and positive. The protesters streaming by advocated for the rights and humane treatment of refugees. Their rhetoric was one of love, of inclusion, of tolerance, and of being our brother’s keeper. As the tail of the march passed, the officers, who were largely there to ensure the safety of the protesters, jumped on their bikes or horses and made their way forward. Soggy, I continued across the intersection and into the Laeiszhalle.  This building has served as host to some of Germany’s best concerts since it opened its doors in 1908 and was a lovely, elegant structure with a charming interior.

Hamburg's HafenCity

Teatime Classics

Damp from the rain, I made my way to the coat check anticipating that the show, Teatime Classics featuring Trio Adorno, would be a traditional trio performance in the main concert hall. Of course, as you might guess from the name, it was actually a brilliantly different experience.  In place of the main stage in the concert hall, it was held in the bar/reception area. Beneath beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings, a hap-hazard assemblage seating, a piano, and two chairs had been setup at one edge of the room just before the door to the northern wing of the concert house.

As we settled in to enjoy the concert, still a bit unsure what to expect, I sipped one of Hamburg’s signature beverages – the Fritz-Kola, which as it turns out has roughly double the caffeine dosage of your average soda. Eyes wide, I watched the assembled mixture of young children, middle-aged folks, and elderly couples enjoy their cakes, coffee, soda and wine before glasses and empty plates were put to rest and the trio took their positions.

A Weekend Getaway Spent in Hamburg

As I felt gravity suddenly press against me, pinning me to my seat, I enjoyed one of my favorite sensations – the added G-forces that come during takeoff. From my seat on the isle I looked up the row, marveling as I always do at the steep vertical incline and picturing the sight of our mid-sized passenger jet launching itself into the sky. The flight itself almost seemed like a joke. Like a ball thrown by some sort of Norse Titan. No sooner had we reached cruising altitude then the captain pushed the nose forward for us to begin our descent. The flight from Copenhagen to Hamburg lasts just over 30 minutes, making the flight a fantastic convenience and, at a certain level, perhaps a hair silly. It reminded me just how incredible it will be in another decade or two when we finally turn trans- continental flights into similarly brief leaps. My daydreams were, however, short-lived as the seat belt sign flicked on and the stewardesses began to make their vigilant march down the isles.

Chilehaus - UNESCO HamburgIn my previous posts here and here, I talked a bit about my first visit to Hamburg five years ago, and what I was looking forward to on this trip. My hotel, the 25 Hours Hotel HafenCity, was located right in the heart of Hamburg’s new harbor district the HafenCity. While still far from “complete”, this new district is light-years beyond where it was five years ago. With the eventual plans calling for a 40% extension of the downtown area, it’s a massive re-development project that is fairly far along. The architecture is modern, dynamic, and very cool. It’s one of those projects that has managed to feel both utilitarian and futuristic without looking dated or a bit goofy. While it’s still rather quiet at night, the metro stations are brand new and built to handle heavy capacities. The location leaves you a mere 10-minute walk from the historic downtown and area around the Hamburg City Hall. The hotel was also one of the cooler boutique/design hotels I’ve been in, but that may just because the room had a working spinning globe that just happened to be a lamp. HafenCity

After arrival, I immediately launched into an exploration of the area which was my primary reason for visiting Hamburg: the Speicherstadt, Kontorhaus District and Chilehaus.  Our walking guide took us through the older parts of the HafenCity before crossing one of the numerous bridges into the Speicherstadt. The Speicherstadt district is the old warehouse district. It not only manages an old-world industrial beauty but also has a stunning and somewhat brutal history.  Without realizing it, I’d run into the history of the warehouse district in some of the history podcasts I’ve been listening to recently. In retrospect, it’s no surprise given how dramatic the Speicherstadt’s formation was.

A UNESCO Filled Return to Hamburg – Come Follow Along!

In the midst of a beautiful hot, humid and record setting July in 2010 I found myself sitting on a sweltering train (inside a large ferry) headed across the channel from Denmark to Germany on my way to Hamburg. What followed was a very pleasant whirlwind tour through a city that struck me as being far more charming and rich in history and culture than I had expected.  In my preliminary post back then about Hamburg, you get a sense for the positive opinion of the city I was left with and what, I believe, will be an exciting insight into how much the city has changed in fun and exciting ways in the past five short years.

In truth, I’m shocked when I consider that it has been five years. I’ve often toyed with a return trip to Hamburg, but have only recently started re-visiting and exploring the areas close to my home-base here in Copenhagen.  Over the last year I’ve run into Hamburg repeatedly.  It all started with a NYE trip good friends took last year, which I was unable to attend, but which left me listening to grand stories of amazing adventures. Then once again as friends re-located to Hamburg and sang its praises.  Then even more recently during a series of events here in Copenhagen that touted the many exciting things going on in Hamburg. At the event I was reminded that Hamburg has now progressed fairly far into the construction of their fascinating Elbe Philharmonic Hall project, a captivating project that was only beginning to take shape during my initial visit. Even more importantly, earlier this year, the city’s Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus were named as UNESCO World Heritage sites. While I brushed up against these parts of the city in my initial visit, as a bit of a UNESCO World Heritage addict, I made a mental note that I’d definitely be heading back for a more in-depth exploration.

Use Exciting History Podcasts To Revolutionize Your Travel

Exciting history podcasts. That’s right. I used those three words in one sentence without a hint of sarcasm or satire. They’re few and far between, but they do exist and holy smokes will they surprise you and revolutionize how you understand world history and the destinations you’re visiting.

Unless you were a history major (and even then), chances are good that you haven’t done a deep dive into a specific region or civilization’s history since you were a kid.  The history you got as a kid was useful, but also likely full of holes and deeply biased. Upon landing in a new city, it’s common to do a very shallow and cursory dive into the city/country/region’s history but that rarely goes beyond “This wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD.”  Who was Hadrian?  Where does he fit in the greater Roman history?  Why was he building a wall? Who the hell knows. For most of us those are the mysteries that are lost to time – both in the sense that even if we did know the answers we likely forgot them, and if we didn’t …. well, time is precious and even those of us with a desire to read historical texts like Meditations or in-depth period histories rarely find (or make) the time for them.

A Grand New Adventure – Working in Denmark

July 21st, 2011 found me tearfully saying goodbye to my Parents.  I’d just sent three hulking bags through security and had a knot in my stomach that left me sympathizing with Atlas – at that moment we both felt as though we held the world upon our shoulders.  I was about to launch a grand new adventure, one that had a very unknown ending.  A few long hours later I arrived in Denmark and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I arrived in Denmark I only had one contact through a friend of a friend of a friend. In previous posts I’ve talked about how he saved my butt and deserves no small amount of credit for me making it through those first few months (Thanks Søren!). Those stories and so many more are archived here on VirtualWayfarer. They mark grand adventures, realizations, and a slow series of basic decisions – yes, or no – that led me forward. The conclusion of my Master’s marked the end of one grand chapter, just as it gave birth to what came next: the decision that I wasn’t done with Denmark yet, and that I needed to stay. The last year and a half was another chapter.  One that came with incredible challenges, wonderful growth, and the attainment of a number of life goals. Now, with today’s announcement, that chapter winds to a close and another, equally exciting one begins.
The Beach Visit

The News

What’s the big announcement?  Well, have no fear. I’m not pregnant. Nor did I manage to go diving with great whites and get eaten.  In fact, for this news I’m not even leaving Denmark…or perhaps I should say, that IS the news.

8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

An Italian Paradise – Weekly Travel Photo

Exploring Beautiful Orvieto

Italy’s charm never ceases to amaze me.  There’s just something about the storied Italian towns as they sit perched atop ancient hills that oozes romantic thoughts.  It is always somewhat shocking to me how the gritty charm of a city like Orvieto can make something as simple, benign, and uninteresting as drying laundry charming and memorable.   While Italy’s large cities (Rome, Florence, Milan, etc.) may draw the biggest crowds, my favorites have always been the smaller and mid-sized towns.  Many of which have been inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  This photo from the hilltop city of Orvieto showcases one such city.  The contrast between beautiful brick and stone buildings, the charm of crumbling and oft repaired plaster, of teaming flower pots, and of course of freshly washed laundry drying in the Italian spring air ignites my imagination and tugs at my heart strings.

In far too many parts of the world travelers have the opportunity to see history, but find themselves feeling detached or disconnected.  The beauty of these wonderful Italian towns is that they offer that rare and unusual opportunity to feel like you’re not just a casual observer in passing, but actually an active participant in history.  I captured this photo during a far-too-brief spring visit to the city.  It’s history as a pivotal defensive city is rich, and influential.  At times it has been nearly destroyed, served as a papal residence, and  was once home to one of early Rome’s most challenging opponents.  It layers history like layers of delicious delight in a layer cake.  Each new layer adds to the flavor, the depth and the richness of the overall experience.

This photo was made possible in part by the travel experts at  Directline-holidays.co.uk.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – A Danish Windmill in Snow

Copenhagen in Winter

The historic Kastellet military fortification is located in the heart of central Copenhagen. The fortification is hailed as one of the best protected fortifications in Europe and in its heyday connected to the series of ramparts which encircled the historic city and protected it from invaders. While the Kastellet fortification is fascinating and dates back to 1624, what’s more important for the sake of this post is the Windmill situated within the fortress’ sloped earthen walls. This windmill was built in 1847 and replaced a previous windmill that had stood in the same spot for over a hundred years. Unbelievably, the windmill is still working, though it was closed for the winter during my visit.  This photo showcases leftover snowfall, the windmill and one of the city’s many cathedrals in the background on the opposite side of the fortress’s moat.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.