8 August 2012

Munich was a destination partly because we were going in that direction anyway, and also because of the rather famous beer. The views from the train as we got closer in the evening were spectacular. The countryside was a lot more interesting than Northern Germany which mainly seemed to be boring, flat farmland. Bavaria is full of little forests, woods, lakes and idyllic houses and cabins. The laptop stayed firmly shut.

I am still not sure why train stations attract so many drunks and people off their faces on whatever else, but after navigating these predictable staggering obstacles we found the hostel, with less surrounding sex shops than usual. It was another dormitory affair and pretty standard, the bar had Augustiner on draught though which was welcome.

Next day we decided we couldn’t be bothered with the walking tour this time around and spent ages trying to find somewhere to have lunch instead. We found the forbidding looking Chinese place which was supposedly authentic and had a good lunchtime deal. The only waitress in the deserted restaurant didn’t speak English and gestured that the deal did not exist and we’d have to get something from the main menu instead. The only bits in English offered disgusting (sorry, I am only bothered about authenticity to a limit) things like Pig’s Trotters, Ears and Stomach. We made a speedy exit and went to find a Thai restaurant called Zitronengras (Lemon grass) instead.

After a lot more walking and grumbling stomachs and mouths we found it. It was absolute chaos with three staff cooking and serving a horde of poorly queueing Germans in an open plan kitchen. The manager pretended not to speak English (we found out the next day he spoke perfect English!) possibly because he was too busy. However it was almost stupidly cheap and the food was amazing. I asked for a €2 50cl bottle of beer and the manager brought four, I managed to negotiate this down to two and took one out afterwards

A lot of the bits of Munich we walked through weren’t very exciting, so later on we got the S-Bahn (free with Interrail, takes about an hour) to Herrsching, a little town with a big lake. We hired a pedalboat for €13 an hour which was great fun and only enhanced by the fact we didn’t see any other English people. Definitely a good place to get away from smelly cities. In the evening we went for a gigantic Wiener Schnitzel in the studenty Steinheil restaurant. It was definitely not a €9,90 experience to be missed. We fit in a good amount of drinking in the bar later and didn’t even have to make an effort to approach people as they came to us to talk!

Friendly duck in the English Garden

Next day we went back to Zitronengras and then went to the ‘Englischer Garten’, which is a big park with a rapid river running through it. We went for an exhilirating swim (mostly trying to stay above water) with a delightful absence of health and safety. It was good to not be in the UK. Next, the Hofbrauhaus, a massive beer hall with litre beers for about €7 and incredible pork with grated potato, plus an endearing lack of green vegetables common in our German food experiences.

Munich was good but I would have liked to explore more of the surrounding countryside, probably by bike as well as S-Bahn. It would be a great place for a stag do but wasn’t as exciting a city as Berlin or Hamburg in terms of daytime ‘cultural’ stuff from my point of view. It is also pretty expensive for Germany. We were definitely glad we went though. Next stop: Lake Bled in Slovenia.


Munich - Comments

From Bruges to Bavaria

7 August 2012

I’ll admit I wanted to go to Bruges (Brugge, not pronounced the same which can be confusing) because of the scenery in the film ‘In Bruges’. The city is almost all medieval or mock-medieval buildings with cobbled streets. Even the new buildings such as the monolithic post office near the station are fairly tasteful, and there is not a concrete block in sight. There is a lot of bell-ringing going on too at the 83-metre high central Belfry.

Our hostel (‘Passage’) turned out to be basically a hotel, being the first with the free little bars of soap and towels. It had an adjoining restaurant run by the same people, which we went to in the evening on the back of a promise of two free beers for being guests. The restaurant is open to the public too and was very busy which I think is a good sign. We ordered Flemish Stew (beef in dark beer gravy with a jacket potato and assorted veg) and Waterzooi (chicken broth stew with veg and jacket potato). It was defnitely the best food we’ve had so far and incredibly filling.

Afterwards we went for a walk around the city, it was night but the streets are very nicely lit and were very quiet. It didn’t feel unsafe whatsoever though, it was very peaceful. We went to find a bar on the excellent tourist map we’d found. The map is focused on young people and lists many bars and clubs (we didn’t come across any full on nightclubs but there are several music venues). The other side has things to do in the day like going to all the museums with a €1 ticket for under 26’s.

We found an underground bar (‘T Poatersgat’) where I managed to bang my head on the way in despite thinking that I should avoid doing so. Things improved from there though when we found the massive menu containing hundreds of types of beers. The place was pretty cool and seemed to be mostly local 18-30’s with few foreigners besides us, definitely recommended.

Next day we tried to fit in as many things as possible since we had to leave in the evening. Unfortunately a lot of tourists had now come out of the woodwork and there was a massive queue to get into the Belfry tower so we gave it a miss. We discovered a market with random things like ancient letter openers and wooden swords which would have been amazing to have as a violent child, and got the obligatory waffle which is a local speciality.

We spent the rest of the day looking at various attractions on the map including heavenly chocolate shops. There is a healthy rivalry between Switzerland and Belgium over who makes the best chocolate. I haven’t been to Switzerland but some little chocolate shells we bought in Bruges were amazing and I would like to have the money to try more. Bruges is a great place and we would have loved to stay for longer, however we were now going to Frankfurt for a day to meet a friend of Lucy’s.

Frankfurt was a strange mixture of skyscrapers (financial centre of Germany) and an expansive red light district. As usual, we were staying in a hostel in the red light district for budget reasons. It didn’t really seem very dangerous at all though and it was quite bizarre seeing bankers walking out of sex shows at 10AM the next day.

In the city centre there is a lot of opportunity for shopping if you’re into that kind of thing (I’m not). There was also bizarrely a queue and bouncers outside the Hollister shop. Apparently there is also some classical music and opera going on (ditto). However we did manage to get some Bratwurst with Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) and walk around the river which was a lot more agreeable. It is great the way Germany are not bothered at all about drinking in public whereas the police can be a pain about it in England even when you are not at all drunk. A few fountains and ice creams later we got the train to our next stop – Munich!

From Bruges to Bavaria - Comments


29 July 2012

After a 6 hour journey from Hamburg, we arrived in Amsterdam Centraal, which is housed in a very nice building. We were in the minority of foreigners not interested in going to the ‘Coffeeshops’ to buy cannabis. We stumbled out onto ‘Damrak’, the main street outside the station. It was buzzing with trams and tourists attempting to avoid their angrily beeping progress (including us, by a matter of inches).

We then took a wander through what turned out to be the even more famous Red Light District, which while apparently ‘open for business’, was also patrolled by Politie on bicycles. There is something about bikes which detracts from the intimidating factor and adds to the humorous factor. After a bit we had to reluctantly buy an overpriced drink (€2,50 for a thimbleful of diet coke) from a café to use the toilet. Free public toilets do not appear to exist in mainland Europe, or at least any of the cities we have been to. We also sometimes get irritated looks when we order the cheapest and smallest drink between us.

Later we met some friends who live in Amsterdam and went for some great Dutch (and probably Belgian) beers in a much less touristy pub than the ones lining the main streets. After this we got the tram to their flat and watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony on TV with a tasty Chinese takeaway. The ceremony was a bit bizarre in places but had many undeniably impressive moments. We went to bed very tired but contented.

In the morning we got some tips about where to go and said farewells. We had failed to book the Anne Frank museum and after walking past decided the queue looked non-negotiable, we will have to save it for another time. We did get an excellent chocolate muffin and had a nice walk along the quiet canals which Amsterdam is renowned for. Next stop: Bruges, Belgium.

Amsterdam - Comments

Berlin Part 2

29 July 2012

Later on that day, we went on the Sandeman’s bar crawl which required some involved U-Bahn hopping to get to Oranienburger Straße. The drinking began in earnest after we were warned to not take photos of the numerous prostitutes dotted along the street. It would make pimps quite angry with you. Apparently it’s completely legal in Berlin.

After not-particularly-wanted free shots of Jagermeister (I think it tastes like a mixture of Listerine and Calpol) and navigating past beggars at ATMs (who ever gives them €20?!), we ended up in the ‘Matrix’ club. It was very big and busy but disappointingly did not play any discernibly German music. Eventually we got a taxi back and managed to blag a fare reduction by trying to speak German (‘my friendlys are very drunk’) to the driver.

In the morning I noticed a helpful mosquito had bitten me on the top of my foot, which is a very itchy place to choose. We had to try and book our night-train to Amsterdam, and could not do this online or over the phone. And so we U-Bahn’d to the labyrinthine Berlin Hauptbanhof (main station), which has at least four levels. After waiting for at least 25 minutes an implacable Deutsche Bahn official told us with great finality that all the night-trains were full.

We went to visit the ‘Topography of Terrors’ museum which lies on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters. Much of the area is in ruins, but there is a mercifully air conditioned museum with a lot of interesting exhibits with chilling history. Definitely worth a visit and it is also free. We then went on to have another walk around the Holocaust Memorial before heading back to our hostel. We made the mistake of trying to take a short cut, and our slightly outdated map did not show us that the line was under maintenance between Franzosischestraße and Friedrichstraße. And hence a half hour journey became an almost two hour journey.

The consolation was that we were to have a barbecue on the hostel terrace with the excellent and free-to-use gas barbecue. We bought some absurdly cheap vegetables and meat in Kreuzberg (I’d say everything was almost if not twice as cheap as in Bristol, UK). Then we made excellent kebabs in the sun and watched a wasp attempt to fly into the barbecue and think better of it after several attempts. At last we had to say goodbye to Berlin and all the great people we had met, and make our way to Amsterdam via an overnight stay in Hamburg (again).

Berlin Part 2 - Comments

Berlin Part 1

28 July 2012

We got into Berlin in the early afternoon, and after navigating the U-Bahn metro found ourselves on Adalbertstraße in the Kreuzberg district. We had no idea how to find our hostel since it seemed to be hidden and the street numbering system in Berlin is different to that of the UK. We walked quite far down the street which seemed to grow increasingly seedier, reminiscent of Hamburg. We eventually found the amusingly named ‘Comebackpackers’ who assured us that the area was in fact safe.

Our room was a 16-bed dorm, with a 13-3 female to male ratio. This is actually a good thing as it usually leads to much less snoring. Another plus was that the Wifi in this hostel actually worked. We had a fairly quiet evening drinking €5 bottles of wine on the terrace with some Canadian and Mancunian girls from our dorm.

Next day we awoke to sweltering heat and decided to make our way to the Sandeman’s tour of Berlin, starting from the Brandenburg Gate. After scratching our heads at the U-Bahn and S-Bahn for a bit we found it, walking past the huge US embassy on the way. There were a lot of tat-touting street vendors in Parisienplatz (in front of the Brandenburg Gate) including men in faux Cold War US Army and West German military uniforms inviting you to pose with their flags for photos. Also bemusingly a woman dressed in a full gorilla costume with flip flops showing underneath, in 38C weather.

At Parisienplatz (the French embassy is on the square) we were given a sample of German humour as the tour guide showed us the statue of ‘Victoria’. It was restored after being stolen by Napoleon with its head altered to look down on the French embassy. The joke is in the name, and we were reliably assured by our American-Finnish guide that German humour did exist but was not funny.

We also saw the Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby from the Royal Suite window. Our guide had looked into staying in the suite, also used by Queen Elizabeth II, and told us it was €15,000 a night. We then walked along Ebertstraße to the Holocaust Memorial, which is a huge area filled with variously sized concrete blocks. The artist did not reveal any meaning behind the number or pattern of the blocks. Walking into the memorial, which dips into a valley in the centre, is very peaceful as traffic noise is blocked out. I liked the memorial as it is intended to allow more individual interpretation than traditional memorials to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. 6 million is very hard to comprehend as a number alone since it is so large.

Next we walked to the site of the Führerbunker, which is now underneath a car park. The bunker was blown up multiple times after the war and is now inaccessible. I found it very strange thinking that only 67 years ago the city was in ruins and rumbling with tanks. On the sides of one or two surviving older buildings I noticed bullet holes in the stone. Many of the ‘old’ buildings had to be extensively rebuilt after 1945.

In the sweltering heat we walked to the former site of the Gestapo headquarters, which is now a museum called the ‘Topography of Terrors’. There is a large section of the Berlin Wall, ironically protected by a fence, adjacent to it. The former site of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two, with a ‘death strip’ in the middle) is marked with twin paving stones. It follows a zigzagging path across the city. Then we trudged on to Checkpoint Charlie, which has a replica border crossing booth, large photos of American and Soviet soldiers on their respective former sides, and its own whole range of Berlin Wall tourist tat such as fake Soviet hats and passport visa stamping.

We (from many places in Berlin) saw the television tower on Alexanderplatz, which is the tallest structure in Germany. It was built in the 60s and was intended as a show of force for the secular East German government. Unfortunately for them, a reflection dubbed the “Pope's Revenge” by Berliners thwarts their secular building ambitions quite spectacularly.

Berlin Part 1 - Comments