Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Moscow (Russia)

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

September 6, 2010 (Monday) – September 9, 2010 (Thursday):

Farmer’s son: “Hey Pa, where’s Moscow?”
Farmer: “Why, it’s out in the barn next to Pa’s cow.”

Welcome to Mother Russia! For a former socialist economy, everything in Russia sure is expensive. “Free” economy is a misnomer. Even before we arrived, planning our trip to Russia back in June was expensive, starting with the visa. Whereas most visas (China, Vietnam) were relatively inexpensive, at most $40; and the allowable length of stay was lenient (i.e., 1-month, 3-months), Russian visas were over $200 each and dates of entry/exit had to be exact. Did we really want to pay that, and risk the inflexibility in our travel schedule (planning ahead 3-months in advance)? Obviously the final answer was yes; mainly because I had a good friend living in Russia.  When else might we have the opportunity to have a local show us around Mother Russia.  So onward and upward.

Arriving at the airport in Moscow, you immediately know things are going to be a bit different. Walking towards the passport control area, we notice hordes of people inching their way closer and closer to the passport booths. Clearly, they are all waiting to get through immigration, but there’s no visible sign of organized queuing. Everybody is just nudging their way through the crowd to get ahead as much as possible. I reckon this Russian mentality of “survival of the fittest” stems from communist days where people had to fight and claw their way to get to the bread trucks. If you’re not aggressive and make your way to the front, you don’t eat for the day. So I was game. I didn’t want to hang around and be last. Any empty, unoccupied space I saw, I quickly filled it in. After about 30 minutes we finally made it through immigration, and met up with the taxi driver my friend had arranged to pick us up. Once we got into the car and were trying to leave the airport parking lot, the “survival queuing” continued, only this time with cars. Something told me this was going to be the norm in Russia. Polite and yielding Frank would have to be replaced with ruthless and fierce Frank.

On our first full day in Moscow, we walked over to the Red Square and the Kremlin (which lucky for us, our hotel was directly across the street from the Red Square). We took a tour of the Amoury, which was great because we saw lots of Russia’s historical relics including beautiful, original Faberge eggs, ceremonial thrones and regalia, and original carriages used by emperors /empresses. The Kremlin, itself housed the government buildings, palaces, and the historical churches and cathedrals, many dating back several hundred years.

  

Afterwards, we made our way over to Arbat street (a pedestrian street lined with shops, restaurants, and street-performers. At one end of the street, stood Hard Rock Cafe Moscow. Having never been to a Hard Rock Cafe in my life (yup, amazing), I really wanted to go for some reason. Maybe for the irony – capitalistic (total touristy) chain restaurant in a former socialist and communist state; or maybe just because I was really craving a “real American” cheeseburger. Either way, the meal was delicious and the music was good. Good first day in Mother Russia, she has been kind.

The next day was just as packed: Lenin mausoleum, St. Basil”s Cathedral, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Fallen Monument Park, Peter the Great statue, Pushinskaya (where we just walked down main street and perused inside local specialty shops).  Then we took a brief breather back at the hotel before meeting up with Sergei for dinner. I have to say, the Lenin mausoleum was a trip. Not really knowing what to expect, other than obviously a mausoleum for Lenin, we proceeded through the various security screenings required to enter. We went to the entrance, about a 100 yards from the actual mausoleum, then we were directed to another separate building where we had to check our bag and camera. After dropping those off, we went back to the original entrance, and went through the metal detector.  And only then were we finally proceeding towards the mausoleum.  Once we entered the building, there was no talking allowed, just silence and quiet observation.  Walking towards the center of the mausoleum, where Lenin’s preserved body is laid to rest, feels like walking into the building of Disneyland’s Space Mountain.  There are narrow hallways which are dark with only subtle lighting.  Then once you arrive into the center, you see the shine of light that is highlighting Lenin’s body.  Quite eerie and surreal.  Not only that, but the whole way in and out, you see Russian soldiers standing guard making sure no shenanigans occur.

        

For dinner, we met up with my friend who graciously treated us to a wonderful Russian meal at Cafe Pushkin.  The vibe of the restaurant was really cool, with the decor and staff dressed as one would imagine it would look in Pushkin’s time.  The food was equally impressive; where we had real Russian borscht and dumpling.  And of course, no Russian meal in Russia would be complete without vodka.  The vodka of choice for the evening, vodka infused with cranberry.  mmm mmm good.

  

The next day, we had an afternoon train to take us to St. Petersburg so we spent the day relaxing in our wonderful room planning the next few legs of our trip.  Once thing I definitely noticed about Russia and Russians, they’re like Donald Trump…they love their gold.  Everything (buildings, walls, decorations) seems like is gilded in gold.

Communist era apartment blocks and government buildings marching monotonously into the sky

To view more pictures from Moscow, view the Photos.

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.

Budapest (Hungary)

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

August 20, 2010 (Friday) – August 24, 2010 (Tuesday):

It was bound to happen. Six months traveling, we were bound to coincide with the visited country’s national holidays. The irony is, we left for this trip on July 4th from the US, which was America’s Independence Day. But leaving in the morning on that day, we missed all the holiday festivities (i.e., fireworks). As it were, while we were in Belgium, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (July 21). But fell asleep in our hotel room before the fireworks display started. And now, while we were in Budapest, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (August 20). I think someone is trying to send us a hint and really wants us to watch fireworks this year. So who are we to fight fate. After dinner, we took a stroll along the Danube and watched as fireworks exploded above all along the river. I’d say it was probably a better fireworks show than the one in Cerritos would have been.

Budapest has definitely trumped all the other cities we’ve visited thus far on this trip as our favorite. We loved Scotland for its preserved historic buildings and architecture throughout the city, especially the castle situated atop the hill overlooking the city below. Well, Budapest has all that, plus the added bonus of the might Danube River running through. I can see why people have referred to Budapest as the Paris of Eastern Europe. We came to Budapest without any expectations and not knowing much about Budapest other than it is a major hub for airlines, and after four and a half days in Budapest, we fell in love with the city. The city still has a historic medieval feel, decent (and cheap) food and drinks, vibrant nightlife.

Speaking of Budapest’s nightlife, which we were really didn’t partake in, but kids (high school kids / young adults….I guess they’re kids to us) would pack liquor stores / convenience stores and stock up on drinks, then walk over to the many public parks throughout the city and drink/eat/hang out, while DJs would set up outdoors in the parks and spin loud music into the wee hours. We noticed that the first night and thought that maybe it was just some special rave because of the holiday, but no, we noticed it on several of the other nights too. Very interesting culture.

Our first full day in Budapest was quite packed. We started the day early (nowadays on this trip, early means getting out of the hotel around 10am…though I have to say, Miriam does still wake up around 7am, while I still go to sleep around 3am). We headed off to the Great Market Hall to grab food from the local food stalls, as well as peruse the various knickknacks Hungarian culture had to offer. Paprika. That’s what Hungary is famous for apparently. There was paprika hanging from almost every stall as well as various flavors of paprika powder being sold from almost every vendor. We abstained, and resisted the temptation to buy any. Although, Miriam did find this cute wooden Hungarian container to use for storing salts on the table. Of course, me being the skeptical bargain shopper thought we should wait before buying; afterall, this was only our first full day in Budapest, we might find a better bargain / more selection elsewhere if we wait. We didn’t. Miriam didn’t get to buy it. I’m sure/hope she’ll forgive me one of these days…

As for the rest of the busy day’s activities, we wandered across the Liberty Bridge to St. Gellert Hill, where atop the hill stood the Liberty Statue. Standing at the foot of the hill and spying the seemingly laborious steep steps amid the sweltering heat, we opted the Liberty Statue would best be appreciated from afar at ground/river-level. So instead, we hopped on to the next tram and headed towards the Parliament building, arguably one of Budapest’s most recognized buildings, looks kind of like the British parliament building but with a little Ottoman flair.

And of course as luck would have it, all the tickets to visit inside the Parliament building were given out for the day, presumably swiped by the hordes of tour groups waiting outside selling tour packages of the Parliament building. Wonderful. But I guess what could possibly be so interesting about seeing the inside of a government building. So having bailed on the Liberty Statue and failed on visiting the inside of the Parliament building, the next logical step in our grand quest of touring Budapest was naturally, to go get some ice cream and dessert. So we hopped on the trusty tram (public transportation in Budapest is quite convenient, might I inject here), and headed to Gerbeaud, where we got cake and coffee. With our fill of caffeine and sugar, we were ready for the second leg of the day, visiting City Park, Hero’s Square, the timewheel and walking down Audressy, a lovely tree-lined boulevard home to embassies and estate houses. (Sounds like a lot of activity for one afternoon, but they are all relatively in the same vicinity). Making our way down Audressy, in the direction back to our hotel, we stopped off for dinner at M. Restaurant, a lovely and quaint street-side restaurant serving affordable good food. Back in the hotel room, I spent the evening updating the blog and posted the Amsterdam entry (yup, about a whole month behind). Wish all my days on this trip were as productive, but alas, they are not. At any rate, that was our day sightseeing around Pest. Yeah, I didn’t know either before coming here, but one part of the city is called Buda, and the other, Pest. Hence Budapest. Either quite clever city planners/namers, or really lazy ones. (I live in Cerri, but my friend lives in Tos).

The following days were spent walking around / sightseeing around Buda, Castle Hill, Grand Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephan Basilica. One of the more unique (to the trip, not unique in Budapest) was going to one of the many hot springs / mineral baths. Like Japanese onsens, these hot springs are created by natural mineral waters flowing up from mother earth, nourishing the very bodies honored to soak in such goodness…with the baths predominantly frequented by older people hoping to find some fountain of youth. Not normally accustomed to relaxing in public baths, I found the public baths (we went to Szechenyi bath) not at all too bad. If nothing else, it was a good experience. And fortunately, it wasn’t one of those nude public baths. The onsens in Japan, on the other hand…

To view more pictures from Budapest, visit the Photos.