Archive for December, 2010

Berlin (Germany)

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

September 1, 2010 (Wednesday) – September 3, 2010 (Friday):

Bloc Party – “Kreuzburg”:

There is a wall that runs right through me
Just like the city, I will never be joined
What is this love? Why can I never hold it?
Did it really run out in the strangers’ bedrooms?

I have decided
At twenty-five
Something must change

Saturday night in East Berlin
We took the U-Bahn to the East Side Gallery
I was sure I’d found love with this one lying with me
Crying again in the old bahnhof

I have decided
At twenty-five
That something must change

After sex
The bitter taste
Been fooled again
The search continues

Those are the lyrics from Bloc Party’s “Kreuzburg”.  Having heard this song many many times since the album came out several years ago, I never really appreciated the lyrics and its references to areas in Berlin.  They were just random song lyrics about places I’ve never been to.  But now, there are just random song lyrics about places I have been to.  Albeit, for a short two days in Berlin.

Berlin is quite odd.  It’s definitely an European city, but it doesn’t feel like an European city; especially just having visited Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.   To me, Berlin had more of a vibe similar to areas of New York City (without all the high rise skyscrapers).   Very cosmopolitan. Walking around the area where we were staying, Prenzlauer Berg, there were a mixture of both smaller, trendy clothing boutiques and hip restaurants/cafes (“hip”, according to Miriam; because we all know I’m not so hip, what with my same polos since high school).  Perhaps this urban cosmopolitan character exists because this area of Berlin is beginning to gentrify, as are many pockets of Berlin.  Because when you think about it, Berlin (especially East Berlin) has really only been free of restrictive communist rule for only a little over 20 years now.  Aww, so young…so cute.

So, how do you manage visiting a city with such a rich and complicated history in just two days…4 hour walking tour.  That’s how.  Apparently there’s this company, New Europe Tours, that offers free walking tours in various European cities.  All they ask for in return is tips (if so compelled).  Having had a good experience with it in Prague, we tried it again in Berlin.  What did we have to lose, it was “free” afterall.   You’d be surprised with how much of a city you can see in four hours walking.   I feel like we got a good view of most of the major city sites (Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Jewish memorial, Berliner Dom, TV Tower, etc.), in addition to getting historical background color on the city.  It was a good way to spend the late morning.

Not included, however, was visiting the inside of particular sites.  That we would have to do later.  Nor was the East Side Gallery included.  So after the tour, we made our way to the East Side Gallery to check out the art work done on the former Berlin Wall.  Some of the murals were a little out there, but you could tell the common theme in all the murals was peace and tolerance.  A great symbolic use of the former dividing wall.

In the evening we checked out both the Pergamon Museum and Reichstag (with its glass dome and observation deck).   The Pergamon Museum was quite impressive, with its massive reconstructions of Greek, Roman, and Islamic archaeological collections.  In particular were the Pergamon Altar (circa 170 BC) and the Market Gate of Miletus (circa 2nd century AD).  Afterwards, we headed over to the Reichstag, which houses the Parliament and a rooftop glass dome.  The rooftop glass dome, with its spiraling staircase, allows visitors to view the parliament below.  Which symbolically was designed to remind the new democratic government that the people were always higher, watching over them.  So clever, those Germans.

We’re back to Brussels for a day, then London for the weekend before we fly out to Russia.  Our European leg is slowly drawing to a close…

To view more pictures from Berlin, visit the Photos.

Prague (Czech Republic)

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

August 27, 2010 (Friday) – September 1, 2010 (Wednesday):

Prague is a disappointment.  Let me qualify.   Prague is a disappointment because we had such high expectations (based on everyone always saying that Prague is such a great party city).  Prague is a disappointment because everyone says it has such a great nightlife; and we’re two (relative) old fogies who’s traveling for six months and not entertaining every bar/club we encounter in all the cities we’re traveling to on this trip around the world.   Prague is a disappointment because we were just in Budapest a week ago and because Budapest was such an unexpectedly amazing city with beautiful monuments along the Danube and surprisingly vibrant nightlife.

Having said that, I can see how Prague is such an attraction.   Alcohol is cheap, which to me is a plus.  Also, many parts of the city itself is relatively preserved to evoke a feel of its historical past.   The Old Town portion of Prague had great monuments and churches, not to mention the historic Astronomical Clock.   Meanwhile, walking across the stone Charles Bridge to the Castle District was also very scenic.   Prague had wonderful restaurants with surprisingly good affordable food.   One place (Kolkovna) we liked so much, that we went there twice for during our five and a half days in Prague.

The place we were staying was an apartment-hotel, which was perfect for our needs for the time.   After almost two months of travel – constantly staying in hotels, eating out every meal, doing laundry either at laundromats or in the bathroom sink – staying at an apartment-style hotel with our own kitchen and free in-house laundry facilities, was a much needed boon.   Staying here, we could go to the supermarket and buy local foods/ingredients and have a comfortable “home-cooked” meal.   We liked being able to relax in our “own apartment” that we extended our stay in Prague an extra day.

On one of the days during our stay, we ended up taking a free walking tour of Prague, walking through the streets of Old Town and heading over to the Jewish Quarter.   Overall the walking tour was very informative and gave us a chance to see many parts of the city that we may have otherwise overlooked.   And best of all, it was free! (of course tips were gladly accepted).   We should have looked for more of these free walking tours in the other cities we visited.

On a separate day, we took our own tour of the Prague Castle.   Having been to numerous castles already (I’ve lost count) on this world trip, Prague Castle didn’t seem very impressive.  More impressive, was viewing the castle from afar, and seeing it majestically situated atop the castle hill amid the foreground of the Charles Bridge.

As in Vienna, there were summer concerts held in the various concert halls around the city.   We chose the concert held in Prague’s grand Municipal House.   So on the night of the concert, we arrive and are seated in the concert hall awaiting the start of the 8pm concert.   8pm comes and goes and there’s no sign of musicians.   8:15pm, still no signs.   Now the natives are starting to get restless.   8:30pm (yes, we stuck around) comes and finally some movement up front….it’s one of the ticket agents who sold tickets for the concert – the musicians are “stuck in traffic” and won’t be able to make it, so the concert is cancelled.   He continues to say that refunds will be issued for only certain tickets, and other tickets (apparently sold by another ticket agency (our type of ticket)) won’t get refunds until tomorrow morning.   Of course crowd chaos and yelling ensues, since many people with those tickets wouldn’t be around tomorrow.  (Side note: I actually don’t mind confrontation, even if I’m not party to it and just observing from the sideline.  So I was secretly hoping to see fists of fury flying from the patrons and the agent.  Miriam, on the other hand, likes to avoid all forms.  But alas, no punches were thrown, only shouting.)  So, long story short, we were fortunate enough to come back the next morning before our scheduled train and get our refund.   But I’m sure other tourists were not so fortunate.  In order to salvage a disappointing, but somewhat entertaining evening (watching the crowd chaos and tourist vs. ticket seller shouting matches), we headed over to Celeste for dessert and drinks.   Dessert and drinks were nice, but the main draw for us, however, was just being in the building.   The building was quite unique – designed by Frank Gehry – two adjoining buildings were designed to evoke images of two dancers, a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.   The building was quite pretty when lit up at night.   And after the drama we went through at the concert hall that night, having dessert and drinks was a nice way to cap off the evening…and our visit to Prague.

To view more pictures from Prague, visit the Photos.

Vienna (Austria)

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

August 24, 2010 (Tuesday) – August 27, 2010 (Friday):

Vienna. The Congress of Vienna. The birthplace of classical music. The center of the Hapsburg dynasty. But to me, a city of childhood misrepresentations.

Growing up, the word Vienna stirred images in my mind of Vienna sausage and Wiener schnitzel.  But after growing up, I realized, things are not what they seem. Case in point, a wiener schnitzel:

Clearly, something got lost in translation or these were the evil workings of the Madison Avenue Don Drapers.

At any rate, one image of Vienna that proved true were the beautiful building architectures, invoking childhood memories of the architecture I saw in the movie Amadeus.  Our first day in Vienna we spent the afternoon touring Schloss Schoenbrunn, the Hapsburgs’ summer palace.  (I’ve come to learn on this trip, castle/palace translates to schloss or burg).  The exterior of this palace, however, wasn’t as grand as the other notable buildings in Vienna.  Perhaps, it was the paint job.  Whereas most of the other palaces/churches were left “colored” in their natural stone material, Schloss Schoenbrunn appeared to have been given a new coat of yellow paint.   Not a flattering shade for such a grand palace.  But, as the saying goes, you can’t judge a Burg by its color.

Because as it turns out, the interior and the rooms of the palace are what one would expect to be fit for an emperor and empress.   High vaulted ceilings, ornate and regal furnishings, decorations with no spared expense.   Kind of reminded me of my first studio apartment in San Francisco, except exactly the opposite.  One of the rooms we toured in the palace was said to be the chamber in which the young prodigy Mozart performed for the emperor and empress.   Yup, just as I remembered from Amadeus.   I should have just re-watched that movie before we came to Vienna.   We could have just used that as our tour guide.

So, speaking of Mozart, we wanted to take in either an opera or Vienna Philharmonic’s concert while in town.   But apparently, neither have performances in the months of July and August. (I really don’t know why summer is a popular season for tourists to visit Europe, lots of things/places are closed, it’s hot, hotels/flights prices are inflated).  Anyway, so instead, at the opera house (and many of the other performing arts theaters in Vienna) they have a performing ensemble that put on a concert of portions Mozart’s greatest pieces, performed in full Viennese garb (period attire and powdered wig).  It was quite fun.

Oh, I should also mention, our stay in Vienna would be the first time staying in a hostel on this trip.  Although, the room that we got at this hostel was more of a hotel-type room than a typical dorm-style room, with an en-suite bathroom.  Thus far, we’ve been staying in hotels, but apparently hotels in Vienna were expensive, so Miriam found this hostel that got good reviews, with some rooms being more hotel-like.   I’ve stayed in hostels (dorm-room style) before in London and Paris, but for Miriam, this would be her first hostel experience.   So now, at least she can say she’s been hosteling before, though I don’t think she’ll ever want to do dorm-room style where she would have to share the bathroom.

Anyway, the following day we went to the museum at Upper Belvedere.   Vienna, being a city of culture be it architecture, music or the arts, we had to limit ourselves on how many museums to visit.   Otherwise we’d get museum-overdose during our three days here.   So we chose the Art History Museum and the Upper Belvedere museum.   The Upper Belvedere had such great exhibits, highlighted by a huge collection by Klimt and Egon Schiele.  Of course we spent the most time in these collection rooms, and just marveled at Klimt’s arguably most famous work, “The Kiss”.   Another painting that Miriam really liked was Klimt’s “Judith”.  I think the feminist-power story behind the painting is what allured Miriam.  Unfortunately, the museum didn’t allow photos inside so I don’t have any pictures of these works, and of Schiele’s works that we liked.  I really wanted to take pictures, especially because others were taking pictures.  But Miriam wouldn’t let me.   She’s a real stickler for rules.

In the evening, we took a nice stroll from Stephansdom down Graben and Kohlmarkt, then walked around the Hofburg taking in the wonderful buildings.  Later, we took a tram to Rathaus where during the summer months they were holding an outdoor film festival.  Such nice evening weather, great outdoor international food stands, and on this evening, an outdoor screening of a classical music concert.  A perfect way to end a great three days in Vienna.

To view more pictures from Vienna, visit the Photos.