Monday, April 29, 2013

Europe Day 6 and 7: Berlin

Stepping off the plane at the Berlin-Tegel (TXL) airport took me back to my childhood. Back to the days when you walked down steps to the tarmac instead of walking through the jetway. It was unexpected, and a little weird. In fact, it was just the perfect level of strangeness and confusion to start off what was a rather puzzling travel experience.

Berlin confused me. The airport was so old fashioned - not only do you walk on the tarmac, but you pick up baggage immediately upon entering the terminal. Despite the old feel of TXL, the city didn't look very old. It just looked stark and unfriendly. Then there was the language barrier. Supposedly people spoke English in Berlin, but the bus driver (among others) refused to verbally respond to my question, and instead pointed to indicate how much I owed him. At the U-Bahn station, there were no barriers to go through, and no one checking for valid tickets. What was with this place? Eventually, it all made sense, but not until my second (and last) day in the city.

Luckily, I have a friend who lives in Berlin, and Mr. N. met me around lunchtime at the Hackeshr Markt Starbucks so he could show me around a bit. We walked around Museum Island, and visited the Pergamon Museum. This museum is home to large pieces of reconstructed history such as the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. It was pretty unreal to see something that was originally constructed in about 575 B.C.

The Pergamon Altar (reconstructed)

My second day in Berlin was spent almost entirely outdoors on a walking tour. I have never been so cold in my life. It was probably only about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and I never managed to get warm because we never walked at a brisk enough pace for an extended period of time. Despite the cold, I was glad I experience the Insider Tour's Famous Insider Walk. We did not see the Memorial Church (at I least I don't remember it), but we did see the Berliner Dome, Checkpoint Charlie, part of what's left of the Berlin Wall, the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Brandenburg Gate, among other sites. I'm not quite sure how I feel about the Insider Tour...the website feels a little misleading to me in the sense that we did not exactly walk by all the places named as "key features," yet it is so highly ranked on Trip Advisor.

Brandenburg Gate

At any rate, I got to take cool pictures on the tour, and I finally realized why Berlin looked both so new and yet so grim. The city had been devastated by bombing during World War II, so a large part of it had to be rebuilt, and then there was the Cold War. I have no idea why I forgot this. Berlin as a whole started to make more sense. It's still changing, and I think it's still trying to find its identity. There is a ton of construction going on, including the rebuilding of a palace the Russians razed.

Part of what remains of the Berlin Wall

The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

I didn't make any new friends in Berlin, but it was nice to catch-up with Mr. N. He showed me a part of Mitte tourists don't really visit, and I got to see some remnants of East Germany (run-down looking buildings), as well as The Kennedys Museum. He also took me to eat Turkish food in a neighborhood I never would have gone to on my own.

A courtyard in Mitte

This city also gave me the opportunity to gain some confidence as a first-time solo traveler. The chance came when I had to get from TXL to my hotel, the Novotel Berlin Mitte. From TXL, I rushed onto a bus which read "S+U Berlin" but neglected to check the line number. Oops. Getting on the right line number would have allowed me to follow the directions I had researched. Getting on the incorrect number forced me into reading the map on the bus and figuring out my own way. Which, ultimately turned out to be a great learning experience and the trip only cost me 2.40 (one way). Which was by far, the cheapest transportation (of course, other than being picked up by Ms. R. in Copenhagen) from airport to hotel on my entire trip.

I can't say that I want to go back to Berlin, but it will be interesting to see other parts of Germany in the [hopefully] near future.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Europe Day 2 to 5: Copenhagen

With H.C. himself, next to the City Hall

Aaah...Copenhagen. I arrived there with a huge inward sigh of relief. You don't even know how happy I was to see my friend, Ms. R! I doubt she even knows. She met me at the airport, and I felt so spoiled and lucky to have such a good friend.

As soon as we got in her car, I knew it was going to be interesting. Right in front of me, stuck to the windshield, was a manual clock (kind of like the ones boutiques use to let you know what time they will be back). From what I understand, these manual clocks are used for parking in the way that we use meters in the US, but they are on-your-honor. Interesting, right?

While Ms. R. explained to me that many restaurants would be closed because it was Easter (I arrived on Good Friday), I noticed how empty the streets were around Copenhagen. It was a strange sight since any holiday in Southern California is an excuse to be out and about. I should note that it was cold, and by "cold," I mean colder than Amsterdam.

After settling in to my very own room, we went out for lunch (food story later), and then on to Christiansborg Palace. This is when the snow really started to come down, and actually stick. But, touring the palace was an indoor thing, and the only other palace I have ever been in is the I'olani Palace in Hawaii. I was impressed with Christiansborg. Everything was so rich in color and decor; and twice fire threatened it. I believe it was during the second fire that fire fighters were not allowed in because the palace floor had just been cleaned. This is why I love history.

Christiansborg Palace

My Copenhagen stay was nice and easy. Ms. R. gave me the best directions and so I got around by myself quite easily when she needed to rest (she's going to be a mom soon), or when she had errands to run (in Copenhagen you need to do your grocery shopping on Saturday, if not, on Sunday, you are SOL). This was also an easy city because everyone I encountered willingly spoke English. But what fascinated me most were the runners. Apparently, Danes like to run. They run even when it's ridiculously cold. I must admit I am a little envious at their dedication and level of fitness.

There were also a lot of people on bikes. I was thinking about doing a bike tour, but it was too cold. Shucks.

Even though it was too cold for me to be on a bike, I did get to see a good amount of sights as I adjusted to the nine-hour time difference. I walked from the Gefion Fountain and the St. Alban's Anglican Church (it's made of flint) to the Little Mermaid statue. The fountain is a pretty cool sight - it is enormous for one, and while it was not running when I was there, I am sure it is amazing when the water flows. The Little Mermaid is kind of a let down. She's not very big, and of course there are tons of people all around. I suggest you read the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story - it is much darker and more interesting than Disney's version.

The Little Mermaid

From the Little Mermaid statue, I walked along the water, and came across a pair of swans! How ironic, considering I had just come from the Little Mermaid statue. In the event that it's not obvious, Hans Christian Andersen also wrote the Ugly Duckling. I continued until I reached the Amalienborg Palace (which is next to where Queen Margarethe II and her husband live). As I walked through the square, I noticed the mass of people to my left - they were waiting for the guard to change. I continued walking toward a copper dome, because I thought it was the palace. Really, it is the Marble Church. It is beautiful - inside and out. I loved the box you see as you exit the church. It reads, "Til de Fattige," which means, "To the Poor."

Interior of the Marble Church

We also visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art gallery founded by beer brewer, Carl Jacobsen. The collection was interesting, but even more intriguing was the tropical garden. I forgot for a moment that it was cold outside. This is where I saw my first Rodin sculpture. Rick Steves says they have one of the original Thinker sculptures; it is miniature compared to what lives in Paris.

The highlight sight of my trip was experienced on a beautiful and sunny Easter Sunday. Ms. R. drove me out to Frederiksborg Castle (I think about 30 minutes outside of Copenhagen). Despite the cold and semi-frozen bits of land and water, this place is beautiful. I cannot even imagine what it looks like in the spring and summer. There are gardens, a moat, fountains...oh, and the castle itself. I recommend you use the free audio guide provided by the castle - the interior of the castle is essentially a museum exhibiting paintings, furniture, and history.

Frederiksborg Castle

What blew me away the most was the Royal Chapel. I have not been in many churches, and this was my third European one. Wow. The chapel dates back to 1620, and while it is ornate, it is breathtaking. The upper level walls are adorned by coats of arms (so cool), and the wooden organ is as old as the chapel. It is still used for royal and commoner weddings.

The Royal Chapel in Frederiksborg Castle

The last day of my Copenhagen stay was my birthday. We ate lunch at one of the city's top-rated restaurants, visited Nyhaven on a sunny day, and I walked to the Stroget (their giant shopping mall). This also happened to be opening day for Major League Baseball in the states, so my friends had a party. We watched the Yankee game (thank goodness for things like, and ate a ton of food.

Nyhavn on a sunny day

I am so glad I got to see a part of Scandinavia. I love that I got to watch a city go from cloudy weather to bright sunshine. It is amazing to watch a city come alive with people just because the sun is shining (something I take for granted living in Southern California). If it was not for my friend, Ms. R. and her husband, Mr. D. living in Copenhagen, who knows if and when I would have visited. I know it was cheating a bit on the solo trip thing to stay with a friend, but it was just what I needed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Europe Day 1: Amsterdam

One of the many canals in Amsterdam

Amsterdam had me worried. It was supposed to be easy to get around, friendly, and fun, but I was anxious. I think the apprehension came from the fact that Amsterdam was my first stop on this solo trip, and I wondered if I could really handle being on my own in a foreign country. Before the journey however, my distress manifested in my indecisiveness in choosing a hotel, loosely figuring out how to get from and to the airport, and not doing much in the way of research.

I dragged my feet on every aspect about my brief stay in Amsterdam. Hotel wise, I wavered between using a Marriott certificate and staying outside the city, but closer to the airport; and spending money on a room in the city. Eventually, my hesitance paid off (or so I thought), and it turned out that I had enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a night at Hotel Europa 92.

This forced my hand with figuring out what to do in the city. I knew I could rent a bike (yikes), visit the infamous red light district (sort of intriguing), tour the Heineken Museum (yuck), look at the canals, etc. But, I just could not figure out what to do. I had a book on Amsterdam, and it seemed like the best thing to do, given my limited time, was to visit the Van Gogh Museum, and enjoy some Dutch beer.

So, when I got off the plane in Amsterdam (after traveling from LAX to SEA to CDG to AMS), I bought a ticket to get from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station. The train employee said to get on Train 2, which left in three minutes, which I thought I did. Apparently not. Luckily, another American woman was also on the wrong train, and the helpful conductor told us where to exit the train, and what platform to go to, so that we could wait 10 minutes for the proper train.

Waiting on Platform 6 for the proper train is when I realized just how cold it was in the Netherlands. Eek.

Eventually, I made it to Centraal Station, and found yet another transportation employee to tell me where to go. He said to get on Tram 1, 2, or 5 and talk to a worker on the tram to find out exactly where I should exit to get to my hotel. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, not so much.

It turns out that really, you should get on Tram 1. I got on Tram 2, asked for help, and was yelled at because my confusion caused me to ask more than one question. Essentially, I needed to get off of Tram 2, and get on the very next tram (Tram 1). Thankfully, the employee on Tram 1 was very friendly and patient. However, by this time, I was completely flustered. I started walking in the direction I thought I should go in, but could not figure out where I was (it would have been good to know that street signs in many European cities are on buildings, and not on separate posts as they are in the US), so I turned on my cell phone and made use of the $40-40MB international data plan I had purchased from Sprint. 

Finally, my hotel.

My hotel was almost exactly what I was dreading. The room was extremely small, so I had to lift my suit case above a desk because it would not fit in the spacebetween the wall and desk. The bedding seemed clean, but the room itself gave me the creeps. At this moment, I just wanted to sleep through my time in Amsterdam, wake up early, get back to the airport, and head to Copenhagen. But, I forced myself to go out and explore.

My room at Hotel Europa 92

Too bad the girl at the front desk sent me to the most touristy section of the city - the Leidseplein. Before I got there, though, I got lost. What I thought were little alleyways were actually roads. Something I only figured out when I saw cars driving over what I thought were sidewalks. I actually  did not know I was lost until I accidentally ended up in Museumsplein.

I forgot to mention, that prior to talking to the Hotel Europa front desk, I had wanted to find the Museum Quarter because that is where I would also find the Van Gogh Museum. That idea was nixed once I found that the museum's collection had been relocated because the museum was under some sort of construction. Of course, since I no longer wanted to go to the Van Gogh Museum, I found it.

My travel fail in Amsterdam

I made my way back to my hotel, consulted a map, and went off in the direction of the Leidseplein. What a let down. Sure, the canals were cool, but the whole area was a giant tourist trap, and I felt like I was shopping the US (Nike, the Body Shop, and more). So, I took some pictures, stumbled upon a Rembrandt statue in a square, and decided to go back to the area around my hotel and find some food.

Rembrandt Statue

Food and beer were found at a place called ZOUK, chosen because it seemed more like a neighborhood hang out than a tourist trap. There, I enjoyed a glass of Brouwerij't IJ zatte, and some food (more on the food later). 

Brouwerij't IJ zatte beer, as served at ZOUK

The next morning, I headed out for an early morning flight to Copenhagen. I opted for a taxi since it was about 5:00/5:30 a.m. Unfortunately, I know the cab driver ripped me off by charging me more than he should have, but what was a solo traveler to do? I paid him his money, but did not tip him. This seemed like the appropriate way to end my stay in Amsterdam, and I was quite happy to be on my way to Copenhagen and my friends.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Two Travel Firsts: Solo Trip and Europe

At Prague Castle (St. Nicholas Church in the background)
Two years ago I did something out of character - I quit my job and moved from the Bay Area back  to Southern California, unemployed. It was something I had to do for my own peace of mind, and letting go of control was something new for me, but it all worked out.

Last year, I decided I needed to once again try something out of my comfort zone, so I agreed to go camping with no running water and no plan, and I re-learned how to ride a bike. So what to do in 2013? Well, I knew my 35th birthday fell on Easter Break (I work at a school), I desperately wanted to be some where "cool" since my 30th birthday was disappointing, and I had a good amount of airline miles to burn. So, my something new for this year was to take a solo trip to Europe.

My first European hotel room - Amsterdam
Over a two week period, I visited five cities - Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague and Paris. It was kind of a whirlwind trip. It was not completely solo in the sense that I stayed with friends in Copenhagen, and had a friend to show me around Berlin, but it was solo enough for my liking. It was exciting and nerve wracking all at the same time. Exciting because I was going to Europe, and got to fly business class almost the whole way.

My confusion in Copenhagen led to my accidental find - the Marble Church

Nyhavn in Copenhagen, on one of the few sunny days on my entire trip
Side note: by "fully maximized", I mean I fully maximized my mileage award ticket, meaning that the maximum amount of transfers, a stopover, a return, and open jaw were used to book this trip. This is how I saw every five cities, and did this entire trip by plane. And for the mileage people out there, I flew on Delta and its SkyTeam partners, except for my leg from Copenhagen to Berlin. That was the open jaw, and I found a cheap ($65) one-way ticket to TXL on Air Berlin. But, back to the nerve wracking part.

Communist slogans still exist in East Berlin courtyards
This trip was not without anxiety. I only speak English. I live in Los Angeles, and happen to love the car culture here; meaning, I do not take public transportation. I am easily frustrated when I am uncomfortable, so there were moments when I had to push myself to get out into a city (Amsterdam being one of those moments). In Berlin, I had to guess my way through public transportation. It was not easy, but in the end I am so pleased that I, as a person who tends to loathe public transportation, was able to figure out.

There were so many amazing things to see, and I plan on writing about each city, but right now, I am focusing on the idea of the solo trip. It was great to not have to consult someone else about a schedule, and to do whatever I wanted. However, like I told my sister, I get bored being my own companion for so long. I can't say that I really want to do this kind of solo trip again, but at least I did it once in my lifetime.

The Charles Bridge in Prague, seen from the bridge tower

The Eiffel Tower as it looks on a cloudy Parisian day