Category Archives: Travel

The Home Stretch

I guess there’s things to speak of for once. Fancy that.

Chris is scheduled to defend his dissertation on the 23rd, just 2 weeks from now. We could conceivably leave just a few days after that, but we’ll be sticking around for a little just to have enough time to sort out whatever might need sorting.

So we booked our flight home (OUR FLIGHT HOME!!!) for December 8th. We’ll have a 5 day layover in Reykjavik, Iceland, which I’m unbelievably excited about. Iceland Air was the cheapest flight available, especially as a one-way flight, and as Hal informed me when he went last month, they offer a free layover of up to 7 days.  We had saved up a little money for a vacation of some kind, as we wanted to see somewhere else besides Germany while we were over here, so Iceland seemed like a great fit as it would add no cost transportation-wise.

And besides, on my list of most wanted travel destinations, Iceland is up there:

  1. Tokyo/Japan
  2. Paris
  3. Iceland
  4. Rapa Nui/Santiago
  5. Norway/Sweden

So, I can finally strike one of those off the list. We had heavily considered Paris, but it was very difficult to do on our budget. And if I’m going to go there, I’d rather do it with the right budget. Which means a minimum of 2 days at Disneyland Paris. At least.

I’m in the midst of booking everything for Iceland now, and I can’t wait. Despite what one might immediately assume, it’s not that cold in Iceland in December. It usually hovers in the low to mid 30s, which is fine. No different than Germany right now.  Just less sunlight at only 6 hours or so. But the northern lights!

After Iceland we’ll continue on to LA via Seattle on the 12th. Just a week later I’ll go to Oregon for a week for Christmas.  And then back to LA for…a while I guess. We don’t know.  It’s all very uncertain, which is kind of OK in a way. It’s been uncertain for a long time, but at least it’ll be uncertain in English.

Oktoberfest

This is the third Oktoberfest since we got to Germany two years ago, and it’s been killing me every time that I haven’t gone.  To be so close, yet to far from one of the world’s biggest and most fabled parties. How could I live here for so long and not go?

Money, mostly. Munich is pretty far from here, and the trains are expensive. And the hotels jack up all their prices for those three weeks. So there’s that. Chris also had no interest in going with me, and I wasn’t going to go alone. Luckily, my friend Shinyee was in the exact same predicament as me. Her husband (also a Chris) didn’t want to go either. So I bit the bullet, decided to use some of the money I had saved up, and go down there for just one night. I found a great rate for a room on Hotwire, which turned out to have a fantastic location (and was a huge discount), so we booked our train tickets, and set out at 7am on Sunday morning.  Four hours later, time to experience Oktoberfest!  Oh, and Munich.

Oktoberfest might as well have started on the train. The train, which was oddly short, was already packed when we got on and we were VERY lucky to get what were the last two remaining unreserved seats. At the first stop, in Kassel, a group of 10 or so got on and just started the partying. They strung up flags across the row, broke out the beer, and starting having a grand old time. Nothing like beer drinking at 7:30 in the morning! When I passed by on my way to the food car I noticed they had a whole spread of Bavarian food and what looked like an entire pot roast out. Even a small boombox playing some oom-pa music. A good start, I guess.

Since it was still morning we started with a walking tour of Munich, from the same company I had used in Berlin, Hamburg, and Prague. Munich must be pretty compact because we didn’t too a whole lot of walking. I had spent one night in Munich before, last year during our little car-centric road trip, but we didn’t see a whole lot. I guess what the walking tour really taught me was that there’s not a whole lot to see.

That being said, Munich is a lovely town, but it has a wholly different feel from other German cities I’ve been to. I can’t really put my finger on why that is, but it’s just a bit different. The buildings are taller, and plainer in some ways, but the styles are all consistent. It doesn’t really have any picturesque, memorable landmarks. The skyline is dominated by the Frauenkirche, which is a pretty ugly church in my opinion. Basic brick Gothic construction and a very underwhelming and plain interior. The Rathaus and glockenspiel are nice and all, but not as impressive as the Hamburg or Hannover ones, for example.  So with downtown out of the way we checked into our hotel and it was off to the Theresienwiese, home of Oktoberfest.

First, and it wasn’t really a surprise, but there was lederhosen and dirndls as far as the eye can see. Not just at the fest itself, but all through town. Every Bavarian has their own set at home, and it’s practically a uniform for those three weeks of the year. I love lederhosen for some reason, and I’m really kicking myself for not buying a pair when I tried them on last month. I wasn’t planning on going to Oktoberfest at that point, and it’s not really an item of clothing you can just wear around an American town without getting quizzical looks. Maybe on Halloween? Besides, leather pants ain’t cheap! And, the dirndl! I’m clearly not an avid fan of breasts, but wow, those things really draw your eye. You’re just compelled to stare right at them.

The trains were packed with people headed down as it was late afternoon, and all the streets from the station to the Wiese were closed and filled with people. Some of the people heading home had clearly had a great time as evidenced by their inability to stand or walk. Roughly 6 million people attend over the 16 days, and while it was busy I get the feeling it was nowhere near as close to the craziness of, say, Saturdays.

A view from the giant swing ride

In many ways, Oktoberfest is like your typical fair back home, only half of it is replaced with massive beer halls. Lots of food stalls, souvenirs, crafts, rides, and games. You can’t go 20 feet without passing gingerbread hearts, the smell of roasted almonds, or big beer mugs and cheesy t-shirts for sale.

We went to Oktoberfest without a table reservation. Mainly because 1) you need a party of 8 to 10 to reserve a table, and we were just 2 people and 2) All the tents tend to sell out a year in advance. Germans love pre-planning! Getting into a tent that night was probably going to be impossible, so we would try to get in somewhere the next day. Instead we started by checking out the rides. Shinyee rode the giant swing ride with me, but that was enough for her and I was on my own for the rest.

I love carnival rides, and Oktoberfest had some crazy ones. I had noticed at a carnival here in Göttingen that the safety standards seemed a bit, well, lax. No barriers between the crowds and rides, for example. You could just run into the bumper cars, or some crazy spinning ride, and get creamed. It smacked of an American lawyer’s wet dream. The giant swing ride, for example, barely stopped long enough for us to on. Instead of waiting for everyone to get off and leave before letting the next group on, we were directed to cling to the outer wall while the ride was in motion. My seatbelt wasn’t even fully buckled before it started rising! Crazy.

I went on the three big roller coasters. The Alpina Bahn, Europe’s largest movable roller coaster, which was a nice, large turny thing. The Höhenblitz, a spinning roller-coaster in a giant tent with lasers, smoke, fire, and crazy lighting. A truly impressive setup, considering it’s mobile. And the Olympia Looping (pictured above) that was simply awesome. I’ve never gone through loops so fast, and it had a whopping five total, along with plenty of drops and turns. If it hadn’t been so outrageously priced at 8 Euro a ride, I would’ve ridden it a bunch of times.

After getting my fix of the rides we tried to at least see if we could get into a tent. And, big surprise, we couldn’t. Instead we wound up at one of the tables outside the tent. Not the best possible experience, but a decent second. We were at the Löwenbräu tent, whith its giant beer drinking lion out front that roars at you every minute or so.

Ordering was simple. I had a Maß (pronounced “mahss”) of beer, some pork sausage with sauerkraut, and a pretzel. Seems stereotypical enough, right?

Me eating a totally normal sized pretzel

I’ve never liked beer. I still don’t. I really don’t understand why people like it. It doesn’t taste as awful to me as it once did, but it’s certainly not a taste I’d ever describe as tasty. Light beer especially. But, hey, this is Oktoberfest, so I’ll gladly down a whole liter of it. Because that’s the only size available (and they sell about 8 million a year). The Oktoberfest brews come from six local breweries and are made with a slightly higher alcohol content (around 6%) and less carbonation. So it’s easier to drink and faster to loosen you up. More bang for your buck. And since each Maß is 9.40 (about $12), I guess that’s a plus. And, sure enough, that one beer in and of itself gave me a healthy buzz.

It’s the atmosphere that’s really special. Everyone is in a great mood, everyone’s friendly, and you just can’t help but get sucked into it. They pipe music from the live band inside the tent, and everyone sings along and dances. Standing on tables, cheering on those brave enough to chug, and so on. And people do this all day and all night.

The next morning we headed straight back as, without a reservation, that’s your best bet to get into a tent. We walked into a few tents to see which one we might like. It was a hard decision. Some of my students, who are Munich locals, had given me recommendations. The Hippodrom is a colorful and hip place to be. The Schottenhamel is the largest (seats 6,000 inside, 4,000 outside) and oldest. The Paulaner tent seemed nice, while the Nymphenburg tent seemed uptight and dull. Where to go?

Inside the Schottenhamel tent

Instead we chose the Käfer’s Wies’n-Shänke tent, which I had heard was the foodie destination. A much, much smaller tent by comparison, seating only 1,000 or so. It had two levels and, in a rush to simply find an open table, we chose downstairs which kind of had the feeling of a restaurant. Kind of a mistake as, when I later poked my head upstairs, I saw it was a more traditional open space. And, once the band started playing, I’m sure the atmosphere up there was a touch more fun. But no real loss.

Inside the Hippodrom

My God, the food in the tent was amazing. We ordered Radlers, which is half beer half lemonade, instead of just beer. A much, much better choice as the lemonade really cuts out the bitter taste and makes it a smoother drink. The menu was pretty extensive (and pricey), so I chose the traditional half chicken, and Shinyee ordered a mushroom dish with dumplings. My chicken was beyond juicy and mouth-watering, while Shinyee’s had the most amazing tasting sauce. I could’ve sat there and ordered more and more if I had the time and bank account for it. I later learned Käfer’s is a famous catering company/store/celebrity chef and it’s usually one of the hardest tents to get into. All tables are already booked for the 2013 Oktoberfest. So, yeah, a good choice calmer atmosphere not withstanding.

After that it was time to say auf wiedersehen to Oktoberfest and head back into Munich. I had such a great time there, and I hate beer, crowds, and party environments. There’s something about the whole thing that’s just very special. There’s an uglier side to which many of the locals hate, but luckily we didn’t really see it. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Back in town we went to the Englischer Garten, as Shinyee wanted to check it out. It’s the largest urban public park in the world (bigger than Central Park even, to my surprise) and is a long and narrow park with lots of winding paths, lakes, and streams. We stumbled upon the famous surfers as we walked in. Because of a block of concrete in the river it creates a constant wave that locals love to surf. It was really fun to just watch them take turns for a while. But it’s also pretty dangerous as it’s flanked by two concrete walls and people have died after falling before. But they still do it.

 

We walked all through the park, just enjoying the scenery and watching all the dogs (a hobby of mine Shinyee also enjoys, unlike Chris). While stopping to take some pictures of one of the rivers, Shinyee lost her grip on her phone and, in a harrowing few seconds, it fell to the ground and right into the river. Her brand new Samsung Galaxy III. Her very first smart phone. All 700+ Euro of it just plopped right into the river. It was awful.  And it had a lot of great pictures on it too.

The Chinesischer Turm Biergarten

That kind of put a damper on the rest of the afternoon. But it’s just a phone, and nothing could be done.  Oh well.

So that was that. A whirlwind night in Munich and the Oktoberfest. I’m kicking myself this wasn’t my third trip there, but we really didn’t have the money to before. But if you ever get the chance to go to Munich’s biggest, most famous party, don’t pass it up.

Gotha

While walking to and from the gym I noticed a billboard advertising free train tickets (kostenlos probefahren) to a town called Gotha. I knew nothing of the town, but since it was free to go to it could make a nice day trip maybe. We haven’t taken a day trip in a long time, since Christmas at least when we went to Goslar. Mainly because train tickets can be so expensive and we just haven’t had the urge. It would’ve cost 40 euros each for round trip tickets to Gotha, which is highway robbery, frankly.

Anyways, after looking up Gotha online it looked like a nice enough town, so I signed up for the free tickets and we went yesterday. The train ride was only about 70-75 minutes long and took us into the state of Thüringen, south east of here in the former Eastern Germany.

It was pretty clear from the get go this was a dead place. On our walk from the train station into town we saw maybe three people and a few cars. Sure, it was a Sunday and the weather wasn’t amazing (but it wasn’t terrible either, by German standards), but it was still unusually quiet out.

The town basically has a big park, a castle, and the old downtown. That was it.  We were essentially ready to leave within an hour, but had to wait a long time for the next train.

The castle, Schloss Friedenstein, is a early Baroque palace built in the mid-1600s and I really hesitate to call it a castle. I’ve seen office buildings that looked more regal in stature. It was essentially a large, rectangular white building on top of a hill. There was a big inner courtyard, two little towers, and it had some art and history museums inside. It looked fairly rundown even, and some of the exterior paint was stained. I didn’t even want to take pictures of it it was so depressing. Since neither of us are big on museums, we skipped going inside and went downtown.

The town center is pretty and nice and all, but it’s nothing special. It was also completely devoid of people.

I have no idea why there’s a horse head in this little alleyway.

The town hall is nice to look at. Bright red and ornately painted on the north side. You can pay 50 cents to go to the top of the little tower. But who pays money to climb stairs? And the view couldn’t have been that great, the castle hill was taller and within view of there.

And call me jaded, but by now there’s only so many cute little town centres with old European looking buildings before they just start to look the same. It’s all just normal to me now. Kind of sad.

So we did what any German does when they have time to spare and the weather isn’t terrible. We had ice cream. Ridiculous ice cream sundae concoctions. Even then we had over an hour to kill, so we wandered around the park for a while and then just waited at the train station.

But the train ride home was the worst. Every seat was already full by the time we got on. Sure, there were some seats that were just taken up by someone’s bag, or had a sleeping person laying over, but I’ve never seen a German willingly hand over these seats. They’re already doing everything they can to signal they don’t want to sit next to you. So we stood in the area between cars with a bunch of other people. When the train first left some water (at least we hope it was just water) leaked out of the ceiling and fell all over Chris. So we moved and basically sat in the wheel-well for the entire ride.

I guess everyone was going to Göttingen like us (where the train ended) as I only saw 3 people get off the entire ride. Plenty more got on, of course. The worst was, when a couple got up to leave I hurried over to grab their seats only to find the two people who were sitting opposite them rushing to fill the empty seats with their bags. Assholes. German assholes.

And, of course, when we got back to town it was raining. Hadn’t rained all day, but once the train got into town it was raining. Go figure.

So that was a bust. Don’t know if we’ll be doing any other day trips before we leave. I’ll probably go to Kassel one more time to see the big art exhibition. And who knows, maybe Chris will crave Pizza Hut enough for us to go to Hannover. But we’re certainly never taking the Regiobahn again. Those trains are the worst.

Kutna Hora

That picture is just inside the entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, a small town about 90 minutes northeast of Prague. I had read about the Ossuary on one of those internet timewaster sites with a million lists of things. Top ten creepiest places or something like that, so I stored it in my small file of interesting places to visit if given the chance. And, since I was in Prague and had the time, I went for it.

The tour company I chose to get me there was pretty sketchy. But I had to book it pretty blindly as I’m not a last minute kind of person and I didn’t want to navigate the Czech train system alone. And the town is large enough that walking it all seemed tiring. So a small, cramped coach picked me up at my hotel and a Czech guy gave us a tour both broken English and Spanish.  I’d hesitate to call him a tour guide though, as he would just say the names of things, but not give any background information on them. So, instead, I found myself eavesdropping on other tour groups.

The Sedlec Ossuary…well, I don’t remember the full history of it. But it’s decorated with human bones. That’s the main point, isn’t it? Something like the remains of 40,000 to 70,000 people lines the walls, ceiling, and corners of the church basement. Most of them having died of the plague, or in the Hussite wars.

Since an Ossuary is meant to store remains, I guess someone thought they’d spruce the place up a bit by using them as decoration. Sure, most of them are in giant bell-shaped piles in the corners, but there are little flourishes. The town seal, crosses, on the confessional booth (long since removed), and the centerpiece of the place, the chandelier. It contains every bone in the human body, and it sure is interesting to stare at.

You’d think it feel morbid and ghoulish to be in there. But it’s not. Sure, there’s that realization that every skull once contained a person. Someone who couldn’t possibly conceive some schlub like me would wander in 400 years later and gawk at his bones. But there are just so many, and there’s something playful about it that makes it interesting. It was done with the intent of respecting the dead, after all.

Kutna Hora, the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is extremely beautiful. It was once a prosperous silver mine and home to one of the first mints to make currency for all of Europe. When the silver ran out nothing much happened there until a big Philip Morris plant opened up. That’s the heart of the town now.

At the top of the hill is Saint Barbara’s Cathedral, a massive gothic thing that, while beautiful, isn’t too different from any other big cathedral I’ve seen.

Next to the cathedral was a pathway lined with familiar looking statues. Seems they like the Charles Bridge in Prague enough to make their own knockoff version. It’s nice, but not the same.

The part of town I really enjoyed was the Italian Court, which was where they minted the coins. There we got a local guide who, though she still spoke broken English, actually knew what she was talking about.

I thought the building itself was just gorgeous. Almost to the point where, if I ever made myself a mansion (something I don’t really aspire to do, actually), I’d think about modelling it after here.

My pictures don’t really do it justice (the lighting was against me), but it was really something. The interior had some exhibits on the minting process, some very old coins, the king’s meeting hall, the king’s bedroom, and the king’s chapel.

We had free time after that, so I just roamed the streets for a while. A nice, small, quiet, and tourist focused town, yet it didn’t feel as tacky as big parts of Prague with the constant souvenir stores. I stopped in a little cafe for a slice of cake as I was starving and watched people. It was great. Should you be in Prague, it’s worth a day trip.

Karlovy Vary, and some other local castles seem like good side trips as well. Perhaps another time.

 

Prague

I do apologize for the delay in posting. I get easily distracted nowadays.

Prague! So pretty.

When we first knew we were moving to Germany, and the idea of trying to explore some of Europe came up, I would constantly joke that we should go to Prague. Not only because it’s close, but because I heard it was cheap. And, for the most part, it is both close and somewhat cheap.

Chris had a work conference to attend, so I tagged along as it meant his transportation, hotel, and food would all be covered. So we really only had to pay for my food and transport, and it was only 40 Euro each way. Which is a bargain around here. So we took the train to Nuremberg (another town I’ve wanted to visit) and quickly rushed to find the bus that would take us to Prague. And, after a 3 and a half hour drive, we were there.

For the first time…well…I think ever, I didn’t really have any plans for this trip. I knew we would take a walking tour on Tuesday, and I was taking a trip to Kutna Hora on Wednesday, but otherwise it was all a question mark. Hal, who coincidentally was in London at the same time, agreed to meet us there, so I would have a wandering companion while Chris was at the conference during the day.

Our hotel was…a bit out of the way. Four or five stops out of downtown, on the other side of the river, up on a hill. As soon as we got out of the Metro station we were immediately turned around and no idea which way the hotel was. Even one of the drunk locals who offered to help us had no idea which way we should go.

This was going to be a pattern.

I have a pretty decent sense of direction, I like to think. I don’t really get lost much at all. I can’t really even remember too many times where I’ve actually been lost. Unless it’s dark and raining and I don’t know the roads, I can usually find what I’m looking for.

But, man, Prague is confusing. When you’re downtown, there’s no real landmarks to fix on to get your bearings. All the streets curve. They clearly grew organically, and they are a twisted mess. Zig-zagging, ending abruptly, turning suddenly, no clear street signs (as if you could even read them). The tourist landmark signs are no help either as they’re all in Czech and they don’t seem to point to the two biggest places (the Charles Bridge and the town center). The river runs north/south parallel to the city center, then abruptly turns east and makes a U turn.

I got lost every day. Multiple times. It was great, really. That was half the point. I would know the general direction I needed to go and head that way, then invariably get lost and wind up going a different direction. I had the time, and I wasn’t going to end up in a bad neighborhood or anything, so it always worked out. Hal managed better as he’s learned to orient himself based on the sun. Chris, who has no sense of direction, got hopelessly lost the one day he was going to meet me downtown, but found me just in time. It’s a confusing town.

But, wow, is it a beautiful town. A photographer’s dream. Gorgeous cobblestone streets, countless alleys, stairways, churches, towers, and sculptures. You can’t turn around without seeing something beautiful. It’s a great town to wander and just take it all in. That being said, there ain’t much to do besides that. Not a lot of attractions begging to be visited.

The first night Chris and I just wandered Wenceslas Square, which seemed like the most touristy and crummy street. We chose a Czech restaurant with a big picture menu (so Chris could clearly identify everything). Everyone speaks English, of course, and the host had the strangest accent. It almost sounded made up, and even mimicking it is difficult. I had goulash for the first time, which was pretty good. You could get it everywhere, and I quickly learned the next day I grossly overpaid. But whatever. Chunks of beef in a nice sauce with bread and dumplings. Nice hearty food, very similar to German fare.

The next day Hal and I just wandered around, exploring the Castle district. A lot of winding streets going up to the top of the hill where the castle is located, along with a bunch of embassies. We passed a tiny little bakery and got some of these delicious pastries. The sign said TRDLO, but I don’t now if that’s the actual name (Czech words do seem to lack vowels). They were cooked on these spinning cylinders right on the street, brushed with sugar and some other spice. Still warm and fluffy. Delicious.

It seemed every other storefront was a restaurant there, the others being souvenir stores. Unfortunately, since it’s such a huge tourist destination, most of the stores are all the same. The same Prague trinkets and such. Garnet, amber, and crystal shops. Sure, some of them are a little unique, but the more central you get, the more homogeneous it is. It’s a shame. The castle district had some unique stores, and I almost bought a thing or two. There was an awesome three-headed dragon marionette that I loved, but it was pricey and what would I do with it anyways?

The castle itself is large and beautiful (the largest functioning castle in Europe), but mostly just a collection of buildings. It’s impressive, but not awe inspiring or anything. We happened to pass by it  during the changing of the guards, which was cool.

We wound up at a little cafe on the bank of the river by the Kafka museum for lunch. We had an amazing view of the Charles bridge and downtown. It was very nice.

Speaking of the Kafka museum they had an…interesting statue/fountain of two guys peeing. It was automated as well, and the two would, apparently, trace out the borders of the Czech Republic with their streams. Hmmmm.

Dinner was at TGI Friday’s, because we tend to end up at American chain places when we travel (Chris hit up KFC at least 3 times). Usually it’s Pizza Hut, but they didn’t have that. Hal was not enthused, but it’s not a kind of food we can get easily in Göttingen. A ridiculous American style burger was good though.

The following day Hal and I did some more wandering, this time in the Jewish quarter. Unlike most of the Jewish areas in European cities, Hitler didn’t have this one walled up. Seems Hitler loved Prague and wanted the Jewish quarter to remain as is so it could serve as an open air museum to an extinct race. Luckily he didn’t get his way and the area wound up well preserved.

I had most wanted to see the old Jewish Cemetery, but they were charging a ridiculous amount to get in (it included a museum and some synagogues as well, but that didn’t interest me). The small little cemetery has something like 100,000 bodies buried there in about a dozen layers. Since space was at a premium, and they had no other place to bury their dead, they kept adding layers to it. And since Jewish law forbids the moving of a headstone, the place is crammed with them. It’s creepy. We could see the smallest bit from the street though, it would have to do.

I also bought my mom a birthday gift and was my first time ever haggling for something. I, of course, probably grossly overpaid for what I got and immediately felt buyer’s remorse. ‘Cause even after talking him down some, it still wasn’t cheap. Oh well, it’ll make a nice gift.

Hal and I found a small cafe far enough outside the tourist area that it was less than half the price of the first restaurant we went to. It was a gorgeous little place, across the street from an opera house. Art deco/30’s decor, lots of marble, and an old world feeling. It was awesome. I had baked duck on red cabbage with potato dumplings. I wish I had a picture (Hal took one), but it was as tasty as it looked. And dirt cheap, comparatively.

The walking tour was nice. The same company for the Berlin and Hamburg tours we took. Our guide was super friendly and knowledgeable and fun to talk to. Seems Czech is a pain in the ass to learn. Seven cases and sounds found in no other language. Even after living there 7 years she’s considered intermediate at best. Glad I only have to deal with German.

Also found a burrito place, thanks to the tour, and it was the best Mexican food I’ve had yet here. Which is a big deal for me, as I miss it so much. Who would’ve thought?

And, wow, their public transportation system is amazing. One of the few benefits from decades of communist rule. A large subway, tram, and bus system that can take you anywhere you want to go. During rush hour the subways were coming every minute. Crazy! And cheap. Only 24 Crowns for a 30 minute ticket (roughly 15 Crowns per US dollar).

So I’m glad we went. Prague is a gorgeous place to visit. But, man, plan it carefully. We were still technically in the off-season, though there were a lot of US college kids on spring break trips (as well as Italian high-school classes), and it was still pretty crowded. Not overwhelming, but you could sense how unbearably crowded it could get once summer hits. Stick to early spring/fall when the big crowds are there. It must be awful with the heat and the crushing throngs in the small, confusing streets.

Also, frankly, it won’t take more then two days to see absolutely everything. The city center is small and compact and all the landmarks are within walking distance. Not a whole lot of museums to peruse. The big one is closed for 5 years for renovations, and Chris didn’t want to go to the Sex Machine Museum for some reason. Weirdo.

Would I come back? Sure. I hope I do someday.

Next up: Kutna Hora and its many skulls.

 

Hamburg

Went to Hamburg and had a hamburger served by a Hamburger.  Of all the modern wonders.

Hal arrived in to town a week ago.  He flew in to Frankfurt from Spain and had initially planned to spend a day or two there.  Turns out it’s more expensive to sleep there than fly there, so he took an overnight train here and spent a lot of time at the Burger King in the train station.

Since Hamburg is the last major German city we hadn’t been to, and it’s pretty cheap and easy to get there, we decided to go there for a few days.  It’s only 4 hours by slow train (half that on the fast train, but 12x the cost) and we found a reasonable Airbnb place.  There was a brief scare at our layover station in Uelzen when Chris forgot his backpack on the train (which had his laptop and iPad in it), but since it was the last stop and the train simply turned back around 10 minutes later, we were able to get it without issue.  Just added an hour delay to the trip as we waited for the next train.  No big deal.

Our apartment was on a street called Schlump, which still makes me laugh, and was just outside downtown with a subway/bus stop literally just outside the door.  After unloading our stuff we headed back downtown to just wander around for a bit, see what it was like.  The area by the main train station was like a lot of other German city centers.  Lots of stores and people milling about.  But, unlike the cramped quarters of Cologne, the streets here were plenty roomy and the buildings quite large.  We initially started around the Gänselmarkt, which seemed to be the upscale store area.  Chris had taken us there in search of Pizza Hut, which turned out to be a bust (turns out it had been permanently closed, thanks a lot Google Maps).  We wound up at a little Italian place called Ponti which was very good and a decent substitute for the Pizza Hut Chris was searching for.

There was a huge C&A store downtown (C&A is sort of the JC Penny of Germany) that was 6 or 7 floors (that makes for one massive department store).  Hal needed some stuff and I perused the jackets.  Having lost so much weight my winter coat from last year is too big.  I found a long wool coat that I immediately fell in love with and had to have.  It’s probably not quite warm enough for snow, but I just had to have it.  I’ve always wanted to have a long coat, and it looks so good.  Makes me feel like an adult and stuff.

We took some time back at the apartment so Hal could monitor his time lapse camera and stuff.  While sitting and minding my own business on the computer, in the living room, felt a sudden pinch on my shin.  It only took a moment to recognize the sensation and realize I had been stung by a wasp (AKA a yellow jacket) that had crawled up my pant leg.  Probably from when I was on the balcony.  Still, very random and very crappy.  Luckily, I’m not allergic, but there’s a reason I think all bees and their kind are pure evil.  The wasp was promptly squished once I fished it out of my pant leg.  Luckily its stinger had come off as they’re capable of stinging repeatedly.

Shortly after that I forced Hal and Chris to join me in a quick jaunt down to the Reeperbahn, which is Hamburg’s famous red light district (and where the Beatles got their start).  It’s one of those places you go, walk around, and then never return to again.  It was only starting to get crowded, being somewhat early on a Friday night, but I’m still surprised so many strip clubs and sex shops can stay in business right next to each other.  It seemed like every other business on one side of the street was a strip club with people outside trying to convince everyone to come in.  One side street was clearly the gay annex of sorts, but otherwise just lots of clubs and sex shops.  Lots of prostitutes just standing around on corners as well, which took a second to register.  First I thought it was just some women standing around, then remembered where I was.

Hal wanted to get a drink, but it was hard to find a bar that was just a bar in the area.  We finally found a place with a British flag on it and went it.  It was a cramped dive bar that was OK at first, but intolerable once the incredibly loud music started.  We downed our Strongbow Ales and left.  So yeah, that was an experience I guess.

The next morning we headed for a place called Monkey Donuts that was just around the corner as Chris and I were disappointed there were no Dunkin’ Donuts in town.  It seemed like a clone of DD, so it would do.  Unfortunately, it seems to have gone out of business recently and was closed.  We headed downtown and fond a Balzac Coffee instead.  Luckily, they had what was the closest we’ve found to cinnamon buns since we got here, so that was a big plus.

We split ways with Hal so he could get some photo work done without us bogging him down, or vice versa.  We sent to the Rathaus, which is massive (more rooms than Buckingham Palace) and beautiful (it’s the first picture), to meet the free guided tour group.  We had done the Berlin version with the same company earlier this year, and it’s worth the money (i.e. tips only).  The tour took about 3 hours or so and wandered around the usual parts.

Turns out, Hamburg just isn’t that interesting a city.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a gorgeous town and it’s now tied with Munich for my favorite town here.  Would love to go back and spend more time there.  Would love to live there too.  It’s big, but not massive.  Walkable, but with a great transportation system.  Beautiful architecture, both modern and old, and the people seem generally friendly.  Didn’t really come across a bad neighborhood, like we did in Berlin and Cologne, but I’m sure they’re there.  But as far as things to see goes, there’s just not a whole lot.  The town’s history is pretty basic and mildly interesting.  Long story short, after trying to convert Vikings to Christianity (which didn’t go well, duh) they settled on shipping.  There are more bridges there than several major cities combined (over 2,200 apparently).  Most of the city burned down once, cholera killed a bunch of people, was bombed to rubble, blah blah blah, and so on.

That’s the warehouse district, which was plenty interesting.  I’m sure there’s good shopping there, but we didn’t really find it.  Next to that is the new harbor city (HafenCity) they’re building.  Europe’s largest construction project, scheduled to be done by around 2030 most likely.  Building an entirely new city within a city.  It’s impressive.

The harbor is also quite massive.  But you can’t see much of it and we didn’t have time for a boat tour of any kind.

We hunted around for food after that (we did find a Pizza Hut Express, but it didn’t seem worth it) which took quite a while as everything was absolutely packed.  Every city we’ve been in has had a Block House steakhouse restaurant, and Chris and I have perpetually thought about trying them, but they’re not the cheapest of places.  So we broke down and went after nothing else was readily available.  We both got the “New York Cheeseburger,” which isn’t exactly like anything I had seen back home.  An open faced burger?  Well, more like a big patty on top of garlic bread.  There was bruschetta under the melted cheese, which was wonderful.  We were glad we went as it was easily the best German burger we’ve had since we got here.  Germans suck at burgers.

That pretty building with the wavy glass is the new Elbe Philharmonic Hall.  Like all German construction, it’s over schedule and over budget.  It had an original budget of 28 million Euro, but the architects misunderstood that as their personal budget and spent it all.  But the city loved the design so much they went ahead with the it anyways.  So it was budgeted at 240 million Euro or so, and supposed to open in 2009.  It has a really unique bowl design where the orchestra sits in the middle and the audience rises up around them.  Seems cool.  After some delays it was going to open next year.  Then, just recently, building inspectors gave word that the current design doesn’t seem stable enough and they have to start over.  Or modify it.  Or something.  So now it’ll maybe be 2015 and they’re pushing upwards of 500 million Euro.  Yikes.  It looks nice and all, but as our tour guide noted, she’s yet to see a tourist really blown away by it.

We met up with Hal by the lake in the evening, grabbed some desserts, and went back home for the night.  I wanted to get up really early the next morning to visit the famous fish market that happens every Sunday morning from 5 to 10.  It’s supposed to be a massive, massive market.  Not just fish, of course, but more like a massive fish/farmer’s/flea market.  I’m sure there would’ve been great food and stuff.  But we had to catch the 9am train to get back to Göttingen in time for an appointment, and getting up at 6 or so seemed so daunting at that point.  So I didn’t go.  I regret it, but I was also exhausted by the end of Sunday anyways, so it was probably for the best.  Oh well.

So that was Hamburg.  I’d go back again in a heartbeat if possible.  Just a lovely city with a great vibe.  Clean, pretty, personable.  I loved it.

Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest just started down in Munich (aka München).  We’d love to go and experience it.  But man, is it an expensive prospect.  A ton of money for the train ride, a lot for the hotel, and even more to just go and do things there (a glass of beer is around $12).

Anyone want to send us $500-$600 or so?  I mean, look at these pictures!

Gamescom

When we knew we would be moving to Germany, going to Gamescom was one of the first things to go on our list of things to try and do while living here.  Gamescom is the world’s largest video game convention (they call it a festival).  That isn’t hard, there aren’t too many really going on.  E3 is the world’s most important, but it’s only open to “professionals” (I put professionals in quotations as I’ve been four or five times, and I’m not exactly a professional).  Gamescom, on the other hand, is open to the public.  There are a few halls for trade visitors only, but they’re tiny compared to the majority of the show.

The Koelnmesse is a pretty large convention center (but only the 3rd largest in Germany), and the show fills most of it’s 10 halls.  Compared to E3 though, this show seemed much, much smaller.  Since we knew it would be a pretty crowded show, we decided to buy a discounted evening ticket on Friday to scope the show out before we came for the full day on Saturday.

Unfortunately, it became pretty apparent that we probably wouldn’t be playing much while we were there.  Or seeing a whole lot either.  Despite being an international show, there was a lot more German than we expected (though every staff member we did speak to did speak perfect English, or course), so we could watch presentations but not fully follow them.

There were really only 3 different types of booths throughout the whole show.

1) Wait in line to watch/play one thing

Most of the booths were of this nature, and were the least accessible due to crowds.  The booth would have one large, usually enclosed space where, after waiting in long, frighteningly slow lines, you would go inside and watch a presentation of the game, or get to play it with a group for some amount of time.  The most popular booths were all of this variety.  The Blizzard booth had a large, completely enclosed space for people to play Diablo 3, and another viewable space for people to play Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft (why people would, I don’t know, the games are already out and weren’t previewing anything special).  The line for Diablo 3, which was probably Chris’ most anticipated title (because who knows when it’ll ever come out) had a 4 hour line.  I’m sure it could have been longer, but once it was full they would close it.  Meaning there were people hanging around in a kind of line…line.

Battlefield 3 was what I wanted to see most, but the line for that stretched well over 6 hours (and probably longer) and they would close it early in the day as, well, the line can’t really last longer than the operating hours.  There were two options for that game.  You could play the new Co-op mode on PS3, or play on the 64-player multiplayer map on PC for 18 minutes.  I would’ve killed to do the multiplayer demo, but I wasn’t about to devote a day to doing it.

There were plenty of other things we would have gladly waited a understandable amount of time for (Prototype 2, Modern Warfare 3, Batman Arkham City, Uncharted 3, PSP Vita, Borderlands 2, Zelda Skyward Sword, Assassin’s Creed, Deus Ex, etc.), but they all had a minimum of 2 hour lines.  And boy did they move slowly.  Lots of people brought their own chairs and entertainment, if that should be any indication.  Part of this could be because, for most of the titles, there were no time limits.  People could just play as long as they wanted, which means people are going to play as long as they damn well please.  If these had been limited to, say, 5 to 10 minutes bursts, lines would have moved much faster and more people would have had a chance.

The one thing we did wait for was Dark Souls on the PS3, the sequel to Demon Souls.  The line was short and only took 30 minutes.  But, like its predecessor, it is maniacally hard.  Nobody playing could get more than 1 or 2 minutes in before dying.  It’s designed to be brutal, but it wound up more frustrating as we had waited in line so long  just to be frustrated.  We did also wait in a Kinect demonstration line, as it was only 5 minutes long or so and we had never tried Kinect.  I was hoping to try the new Disneyland game (the titles were assigned randomly), but we got Fruit Ninja 3D.  It was certainly fun, but had slow response times.

2) Big stage with endless presentations

Many of the booths consisted solely of big stages where people would periodically come out, whip the crowd into a nice lather, and throw out free schwag.

Germans, apparently, go nuts for this sort of thing.  We happened to watch one such presentation at the 2K booth as we were under the assumption they would be showing some Borderlands 2 footage (if we knew more German, we would’ve know that was happening elsewhere, despite what the signs said).  Some guys would yell some things, the Germans would yell, pretty girls would walk around the stage, and so on.  But, man, when the free t-shirts went out, people would go absolutely ape-shit for them.  It was strange.  The Razer booth (they make gaming peripherals) was also quite popular because of this.  But maybe because they practically had strippers out on stage most of the day.

Still, it’s still vaguely unsettling to hear so many Germans yelling and waving their arms around in unison like that.

We did go to the stage at the Blizzard booth as they had advertised a “Diablo 3 demo” for noon.  Unfortunately, something must have been lost in translation as, instead, it was just four or five people in big costumes walking slowly around the stage for 20 minutes.  Chris was pissed, as he should be.  I sat it out, so I didn’t even know what was happening really.

3) Open areas with game demos strewn about

The big three all had booths like this, with some aspects of the above thrown in.  The Sony booth was a large open area split up into subjects (dance games, fitness games, sports games, etc.) with people to try.  They had two enclosed areas for people to try Uncharted 3 and the PSP Vita.  We had considered waiting for the Vita, but the line had no indication of how long it was and seemed to move very, very, very slowly.  We did try a Phineas & Ferb game on the Move, but it was nothing special.  Microsoft had no enclosed areas, just lots of places to look at stuff.

Nintendo probably had the most accessible booth of them all.  There was a line to play Zelda: Skyward Sword, which was understandable.  But otherwise there were just a bunch of available games to try without one big line.  As a result we go to try Kid Icarus on the 3DS.  It was alright, but the controls are not left-hander friendly.

These are the kind of booths I’m used to, as they’re most similar to E3.  Sure, some of the biggest titles need dedicated lines, but otherwise everything is just around to try out at your leisure.  And people respect unspoken time limits as a result of other people watching over their shoulder.  It’s just more pleasant.

On the second day the show was crushingly crowded.  To the point that, when we left in he early afternoon, they had shut the doors because the place had hit capacity.  Something like 62,000 people were inside at that point.  The hallways and show floors were absolutely packed.  There were several times where we got stuck in a sea of people and it took a long time to just move forward.  This, coupled with the fact that most Germans are assholes when it comes to this kind of thing, made it infuriating.

The food was also, of course, very expensive.  We didn’t buy any of it because of how we timed our visits, but it really was ridiculous.  The “vending” hall was also a disappointment as there was a grand total of two booths selling things.  Lame.  And, because Germany doesn’t believe in free water, there were no drinking fountains or anything of the sort to be found, meaning you could become dehydrated pretty easily.  Bottles of water were 3.50 for 250ml.  Insanity.

So, while we did enjoy it in a way, it also felt like a bust.  So much of the show happens behind closed doors it seems.  You have to dedicate your time to one or two things a day, otherwise you only get to walk around and just look at stuff from afar.  Or scream and home for a coveted free t-shirt.  Even if they had just made some large screens available to watch the people who were playing, that would be better.  The NCSoft booth was a good example of this as you could watch people play Guild Wars 2 and such without having to wait forever to do so.  The Batman Arkham City booth was the most annoying in this respect as they purposefully put the people in the open, but the screens were aimed so nobody else could possibly see what they were playing.

We wouldn’t go back next year, that’s for sure (and hopefully we won’t be here to do so either).  But it made me really want to take Chris to E3 to see what it’s supposed to be like.  Hell, it makes me want to go to PAX even more now, as that looks far more civilized and fun than this could ever hope to be.  Whatever, lesson learned.

Cologne & Düsseldorf

After a delay in getting our rental car (even though I reserved a car with automatic over a month ago, and checked with them in person a day early to confirm, they still couldn’t get one on hand in time) we hit the Autobahn and started driving west.

There’s a cluster of cities all closely grouped together in the western portion of the country.  The largest is Köln (aka Cologne) but there’s also Düsseldorf, Neuss, Wuppertal, Oberhausen, Bonn, Dortmund, Essen (which is German for food/eating.  I can’t imagine a US town simply named “Food.”  Then again, they also have a town named Schwein, which is German for “pig.”), and so on.  When you look at a map they look so tightly packed around each other compared to the rest of the county.  If I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because of the Rhine river.  But what do I know?  Really we were going to Cologne to visit Gamescom (more on that in a separate post), but I was equally excited to see another of Germany’s many notable cities.

Cologne is sort of like Germany’s San Francisco in that there are lots of young people, lots of hip, fun things to do, and a lot of gays.  It doesn’t share San Francisco’s good looks, however.  Not that it’s ugly, because it’s certainly not ugly.  It’s no Stuttgart.  But there just isn’t much to see.  Like most of the country, the town was bombed extensively during the war, so most of it is rebuilt.  But the downtown area is very cramped.  The main drag has very narrow streets, with very narrow buildings.  And it’s almost as if they don’t care about their appearance as most everything looks like it was built in the 60’s/70’s, and they haven’t bothered to update it.  The pavement, the public fixtures, everything is just unflattering.  Which is a shame.

But the downtown area definitely has a lot to do.  There are a lot of nice shops (like Stuttgart, there’s an explosion of H&M stores there) including the usual chains and some other interesting ones.  Closer to the river there are a lot of restaurants with outdoor patios, all offering Kölnisch beer, Cologne’s own kind of beer.

The big attraction though is the Köln Dom (Cologne Cathedral), that impressive looking structure pictured at the top.  It’s actually the most visited site in all of Germany.  It has the largest facade of any cathedral in the world, as well as the largest free swinging bell.  Something about it though makes it also look short and stubby, to me at least.  Standing at the front and looking up, it was certainly massive, but at the same time wasn’t all the impressive.

It took over 600 years to build (which is probably considered efficient in terms of German construction time) and has only been completed for about 130 years or so.  It was bombed something like 74 times during the war but managed to stay standing.  The theory was that, because the spires were such a good landmark for pilots, they avoided destroying it.

I’ve certainly never been a church this massive, and it’s more impressive inside than outside.  The ceiling just keeps going and going, and the stained glass windows up top are simply gorgeous.  There’s not much going on for much of the interior.  Once you make it to the rear of the church it’s lined with tombs and antiquities of different sorts.  Our visit was brief, but we perused what was there, as well as the crypt downstairs.  The most famous item is the Shrine of the Three Kings, the world’s largest relic, said to contain the remains of the three wise men.  It’s a beautiful gold thing, shaped like a cathedral, and lined with jewels.  Unfortunately, it was surrounded by scaffolding and such as we couldn’t really see much of it.

After that we drove out into the suburbs to check into the apartment we had rented.  Airbnb is great, and this is the fourth time we’ve used the service.  Almost always considerably cheaper than getting a hotel, and it’s nicer to have the personal touch of a host.  Not to mention a private residence is usually much larger than a hotel room anyhow.  Wanting to see as much of Gamescom as possible, we caught a streetcar and headed to the Koelnmesse (convention center) for the rest of the day.

The following evening, after getting a bit of rest, we decided to head back out and went to Rudolfplatz, which seemed to be the gay part of town.  And it was certainly the gay part of town, but that usually doesn’t mean much before 10pm, so we instead walked around looking for other things.  Because of Gamescom they had closed one of the streets and set up some stages with some live music.  We had eaten at an odd time that afternoon, which was unfortunate as there were so many restaurants in the area.  And they all looked so good.  There was a New Orleans diner that looked awesome, but we were in no condition for a full meal.  Instead we went to an Eiscafe and had ridiculous ice cream sundaes for dinner.  Because it’s vacation.

I had wanted to visit the chocolate museum, which is on a sort of mini-island on the banks of the Rhine, but the timing didn’t work out.  Which is fine, I was probably more interested in the gift shop than anything else.  There’s also a mustard museum somewhere in town.

So Cologne was certainly nice, but there’s just not a whole lot to see there.  I’m sure living there would be great, as there’s lots to do over a long term.  But as far as visiting goes.  Meh.  It was just OK.

The next morning we drove to Düsseldorf as I wanted to visit one of the other nearby cities before we headed home.  If Cologne doesn’t care much about it’s appearance, Düsseldorf is the exact opposite.  It’s a beautiful city, expertly manicured, with lots of style.  There’s a long running rivalry between the two towns, and ask any German what they think of people from Düsseldorf and the first thing they say is they “look down their noses at you.”  It’s a snooty place, very rich, and with a lot of arts and media companies.

We parked on Königsallee (pictured above) and just wandered since we knew nothing about the town.  And, it being Sunday, everything was closed anyhow.  But like most German towns, the central part is very compact and very walkable.  There’s lot of pretty buildings and upscale shops.  Tons of nice looking restaurants (a lot of them Irish pubs, for some reason) and is probably your best bet for sushi in the whole country as there’s a large Japanese population there.

The area by the banks of the Rhine was especially beautiful.  Lots of people hanging out, lots of little restaurants and boats with people drinking.  The weather was gorgeous this weekend (for the first time in a long time), so the Germans were out in droves drinking.  Even though it wasn’t even noon yet.

You may notice the top of the tower in the above picture is twisted.  No idea why.  We guessed poor construction.

There’s an iconic Frank Gehry building further down the river that I wanted to see as I love his buildings, so we drove in that general direction until we found it.  It seems like they put all their modern architecture in one corner as there were a lot of interesting buildings here.  One with colorful people shaped…things crawling all over it.  It was nifty.  We parked next to a Bentley, so this part of town must have been swankier still.

The Neuer Zollhof, like all the Gehry buildings I’ve seen in person, are fun to walk around.  There are three buildings next to each other.  One brick, one white plaster, and one stainless steel (pictured above), all in the same wavy style with the windows sticking out.  Cool.

And that was it.  Tired and without knowing where to even really look next we hit the road and drove back to Göttingen.

So we’ve now been east (Berlin), South (Stuttgart, Munich), and west.  All that’s left is north, and I’d like to try and get to Hamburg and/or Hannover for a night or two before my train card expires in November.  Though, like all vacations, this cost more than I expected.  So who knows.  I’d also love to get to one of the islands in the north sea, as they count as part of our state so Chris can get to them for free.  And I miss the ocean.

You can view all of our trip photos through this link.

Travel is Afoot

Tomorrow we get up bright and early (i.e. 8am), pick up a rental car, and drive out to Cologne for the weekend.

Surprisingly, it’s much cheaper to rent a car and drive there than it is to take the train.  The fast train, for the both of us, cost between 120 and 150 Euro depending on the time of day.  And that’s with my 50% discount card.  Yikes.  A car for the weekend, on the other hand, was under 100.

Also, the train takes 4 and a half hours.  Driving should take two to three, depending on traffic and weather.

We’ll be going to see Cologne, of course.  But we’ll barely see it (supposedly there’s not much to see anyhow).

Really, we’ll be going for Gamescom.  Europe’s largest video games show.  And, unlike E3 (the American expo of choice), this one is completely open to the public.  I imagine it’ll be quite crowded.  But who cares.  Chris is quite excited to hit the floor and maybe get a chance to play some new games.

I haven’t decided what we’ll do Sunday yet.  Maybe we’ll see more of Cologne, if we feel like we’ve missed a bunch.  Maybe we’ll go back to Gamescom, if we didn’t get to see everything.  Part of me wants to go to Wuppertal to see the suspended monorail.  But we may go to Dusseldorf, a 20-30 minute drive north, and check our their downtown.  Because why not, I don’t foresee us making it back to this region of the country anytime soon.

Photos and a trip report will follow soon.