Saturday, December 17, 2005

Battle of the Bulge Memorial Walk, Bastogne, Belgium

Today, Lance and I had the privilege of participating in the annual Battle of the Bulge Memorial Walk in Bastogne, a tradition that spans 28 years. The emcee of the event was a Belgian soldier who served as a translator with Patton’s army. He’s 80 years old and he outwalked the rest of us. I got to talk to him briefly and he’s a remarkable man. ;)

Anyway, the busses departed Geilenkirchen at 5 am. We had a nice luxury motorcoach, so we relaxed and slept most of the way to Bastogne, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from Geilenkirchen. Once there, we discovered that it was quite different from the weather in Geilenkirchen. Bastogne was covered in a blanket of snow. Pretty, but not the most ideal conditions for walking. The men who fought and died here did it in similar weather though (although I believe it was colder), so we were going to tough it out.

After spending a brief time in the start hall preparing for the walk, we made our way outside at 8 am to the starting point. They had 3 walk routes – 6 km, 14 km, and 20 km. Lance and I planned on doing the shortest route, since it was pretty cold outside. We were told we could start later – the 20 km walkers would be going first. But we decided to go with them, since the routes for each distance are marked. I believe most of the group decided to leave at that time also.

It was slow-going, as the route was icy and treacherous. I saw several people wipe out, and just crossed my fingers that Lance and I wouldn’t be included. After awhile though, walking was actually pretty pleasant. It didn’t feel very cold, and we actually started peeling off layers.

Occasionally, there would be stops along the route where you could see re-enactments of the Battle of the Bulge. There were soldiers in foxholes…most of the actors were depicting American soldiers, even though most of them were Belgian or Dutch. There were some American actors there, but not as many. They had places every 5 kilometers or so to get hot chocolate or mulled wine and use a porta potty. When we got to the 6 km turn-off, we decided that we were feeling good, so we would go for the 14.

There were times along the route where it was quite windy, once we reached the top of the hill and were out in the open, not sheltered by trees or hillsides. We just put all our layers back on and trudged onward. Also, toward the end, the last 5 km or so, the snow really started to fall. We had small ice pellets at one point, which stung when they hit you.

The coolest thing about this walk (besides the weather), was that soldiers would constantly come marching by you or jeeps and tanks would be driving up the streets of all the villages around Bastogne. At one point, we even heard machine gun fire. I can’t say the re-enactments were totally authentic though. I saw no Nazis, and all the guys looked pretty happy doing what they were doing. They didn’t make it look like war was hard work. They made it look pretty fun, actually. It was also amusing to see these guys in 1944 military uniforms talking on cellphones and using digital cameras.

Anyway, once we got to the 14 km turn-off, we decided that we could go no further. Lance said he could actually do 20. But I was wet, sore, and getting exhausted at that point. It would have been less of a hardship without the slush and mud all over the paths. We stopped at a tent so I could get a nourishing cup of mulled wine (which was good, by the way, first time I ever had it), and met up with my friend Emily and her husband Jamison, who had gotten way ahead of us on the trail, and we marched on.

Toward the end of our route, there was a Battle of the Bulge Museum and a monument, which you could climb to get great views of the Ardennes countryside. But we decided against both of these things. It was too cold and windy and snowy to climb an open air monument and we were too sore to pass some time in the museum. We tried to finish the route as quickly as we could (it took us exactly 4 hours). The bells were tolling noon as we walked up to the start hall for the completion of our walk.

We had 6 hours at that point until the busses departed for Geilenkirchen. Time enough for a little sightseeing and shopping. But first thing’s first – lunch! There was a cafeteria near the start hall, which happened to be in a mall, so we had lunch there. It was quite tasty, but all of the ordering had to be done in French, since the employees spoke no English. But we managed. I still remember enough French to order food, at least.

I tell you, it felt so good to sit. And sit we did. We stayed there for quite some time.

Afterwards, we walked into town. We stopped in the church to look around, only to find out that a wedding was about to begin (the bride and groom already entered). Ooops. We discreetly walked out.

We poked around in shops and as we were doing so, we noticed the parade about to begin on the main street. So we caught that. It was neat. They had all the actors from the re-enactment and some of the Belgian veterans marching in it, as well as children carrying the state flags from all the states. We had heard a rumor that people would be throwing nuts down from the windows of the town hall (this has to do with the time during the battle where the Germans asked for our surrender, and American General McAuliffe responded with “Nuts!”). Nuts, by the way, were a big theme on souvenirs and there was even a restaurant in the Bastogne town square called “Le Nut’s.” HAHAHA. We missed the nut throwing though.

After the parade, we stopped at a café because Jamison’s knee was hurting. So we had hot drinks and then he stayed there while Emily, Lance, and I did some more looking around in the shops. Finally, we gave up on the shopping, as the snow was coming down harder. We had a couple of hours until we had to meet the bus, so we stopped by the café to pick up Jamison, and then went to an Italian restaurant to eat dinner and wait out the couple of hours for the bus.

It was a snowy ride back, but by the time we reached the German border, the snow gave way to freezing rain. But we got home safe. Sore and exhausted, but safe.

Pictures (which Photobucket seems to want to show in reverse chronological order)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Thorn, Netherlands

Lance and I celebrate our second wedding anniversary in a couple of days, so we decided that we wanted to take a day trip somewhere nearby. One of my friends has been talking a lot about Thorn recently, which is along the Maas River in Limburg, very close to both the Belgian border (less than a kilometer, actually). She mentioned that there was a fantastic pannekoeken (!!!!) restaurant there. Well, Lance and I love our Dutch pancakes, so I was sold. I suggested to him that we should go there for a few hours, and it was well worth the visit.

It took about 45 minutes to drive there, maybe a little less than that. Absolutely easy drive. When we got there, the town seemed pretty dead. There were no cars parked in the town parking lot and there didn't seem to be a lot of people walking around. I told Lance that perhaps everyone was at mass. It was around 10:30 or so when we arrived. We were on the outskirts of town anyway, but I figured there would be more people at the historic town center.

Thorn is known as "the white village" for its whitewashed brick buildings in the center of town. The only building in the center of town that is not like this is the church. The church was built in the 10th century, and was actually an abbey, or a "stift" for quite some time. But the women who lived there were not nuns. They were just the unmarried daughters of the aristocracy, leaving the stift if they married.

There's your little history lesson on Thorn. :)

So we parked and walked into the town center, and as we approached the church, we noticed a lot of men in Renaissance costumes standing at the church entrance. There were kids wearing angel costumes. It seemed that everyone in Thorn was standing around, waiting for something to happen. It looked to us that a parade was about to start. But I wanted to find the VVV (Tourist Information) office, so we followed the signs to get there. I asked the lady at the VVV what was going on, and she told me it was a religious procession. Just then, we heard music starting to play, so we walked back to the church to see the parade finally begin. We had seen banners placed all around with crosses on them, so we figured those banners were marking the parade route.

De Pannekoekenbakker, the place where we wanted to have lunch, was right across from the church and there were already a few people sitting outside in the sun, enjoying their coffee or tea. It was a bit chilly for us to sit outside, so we went inside and grabbed a table. I immediately liked the place. It had a very cozy ambience, even though the inside was very roomy and the tables were pretty private (we've eaten in many a restaurant where the tables were crammed very close together). It had a nice, rustic feel to it, with a little bit of kitsch thrown in (stuffed animals strewn everywhere). Their claim to fame is 230 kinds of pancakes, so we grabbed menus and dove right in. But as we tried to decide what to have, we enjoyed some lovely hot chocolate with whipped cream (warme chocomel met slagroom).

Lance decided on a ham and cheese pannekoeken. I ordered a bacon, cheese and onion (onions in pancakes, you say? Why, it's delicious! These aren't pancakes like what we're used to in America). We ordered seconds on the warme chocomel met slagroom. That is seriously the best hot chocolate EVER.

Our lunch was very tasty and we enjoyed it immensely. But once we were finished, the doings at the church seemed to be over, so we decided to pay the admission fee and walk around. It is much smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside, but it has a gorgeous altar, and we went down in this little room in a sub-basement that had some religious relics, and the body of one of the abbesses was on display in a glass coffin. She died in the 18th century, but seemed none the worse for wear. There was another abbess on display too, but she was nothing but bones. I don't know when she died. Odd and creepy, really, but amongst the bones, hair, and other body parts of saints, they weren't particularly out of place, I suppose.

After our visit to the church, there really wasn't much left to see or do. Since it is a Sunday, the shops and museums are closed. We decided to look into a river cruise, which goes from Thorn to the towns of Wessem and Stevensweert, but when we looked at the time table for cruises, the next one didn't begin until 2:15. It was only 12:45. So we decided to just go home. We mostly came for the pancakes anyway, and for a bit of a scenery change.

On the drive back, we took a different route home that took us off the autoweg (or what you would call the autobahn in German). We drove through picturesque towns and just enjoyed the beautiful, sunny autumn day.


Sunday, September 11, 2005

Karyn in Luxembourg

Yesterday I took an MWR trip to Luxembourg City. MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) is a military organization that plans activities for military and their dependents. Here in Europe, they very frequently arrange coach trips to various destinations. Usually they are day trips, but sometimes the trips last all weekend.

Anyway, the trip to Luxembourg took about 3 hours. We drove through the Belgian Ardennes (past Bastogne) down into Luxembourg, and shortly after passing the border, we were in Luxembourg City. It's the largest city in Luxembourg, but doesn't have the feel of a capital city at all.

When our bus arrived, a tour guide got on and showed us the city's sights. Our first stop - the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, where over 5,000 WWII dead are buried. General Patton is also buried there. He died after the war ended, but his will requested that he be buried there with his men.

There is a Nazi cemetery down the street from the American one. I wanted to go in and look at it, but sadly, the tour did not include that. We did learn that over 9,000 Nazi soldiers are buried in that cemetery, approximately 5,000 of them in a mass grave.

The bus brought us back into town, where the guide pointed out various landmarks. We stopped at the casemates (the city fortifications) to look at the views of the valley below.

The bus tour ended around lunch-time, so we got off the bus, splitting off to do our own thing for the day. The guy who had been sitting next to me on the bus, Nels, asked if I would mind if he joined me, provided I didn't plan to spend my day shopping. I didn't plan to spend my day shopping, so I agreed to let him accompany me.

Our first stop was to find some lunch. We walked into a square with a variety of restaurants. I spied a Chi Chi's and I hadn't had Mexican food in some time. He agreed this was fine, so we decided to split a combination plate of their nachos. Honestly, the food was lousy. Chi Chi's isn't a great Mexican restaurant to begin with, but the overseas ones are really bad. I regret going there to eat. While we were eating (al fresco, I might add, although we were under an umbrella), it started sprinkling a bit.

After lunch, we decided to just walk around for awhile. The sky started darkening and we knew worse rain was coming (I was prepared, Nels was not). We ducked into a church when the rain started pouring down - Eglise St. Michel.

Once the rain let up a bit, we found ourselves going back toward the casemates. You can take tours inside it. There are various tunnels and caves inside where battles were fought. The rain started coming down again, so we decided to get tickets for the casemates tour and then spent the next hour or more walking through pitch black tunnels and going down slippery, narrow, winding stairs.

By the time we left the casemates, the rain had stopped and the sun came out again, so it started to get really muggy and miserable.

After that, we mostly wandered around, stopping for McFlurries at McDonald's. There was a jazz band playing in the square, so we listened in for a few minutes and then moved on.

We toured the Notre Dame cathedral, which isn't nearly as impressive as Cologne's, Strasbourg's, or Westminster Abbey. But it was still pretty.

About 45 minutes before we had to meet up with the bus to go home, we stopped at a restaurant called La Boucherie for drinks. (I wish we had eaten there for lunch. The food looked really good. And it was just 2 doors down from Chi Chi's). They had a new flavor of Cola Light - Sango (orange-flavored) that is being test-marketed in Luxembourg and Belgium. So I ordered that. It was very nice. (I ended up buying a big bottle of it to take home when the bus stopped just outside Liege on the way back).

Even though we didn't do much, we saw a lot of sights, and I could appreciate the things about Luxembourg that weren't particularly touristy. There were a lot of interesting details on both residential and commercial buildings, so I tried to photograph those things. The part of the city that lies in the valley seemed to be largely untouched by tourist traffic, so we enjoyed wandering around there as well. It was peaceful and quiet, with just a few sidewalk cafes and nothing that particularly catered to tourists.

We did a lot of walking, particularly on very steep (wet) cobblestone streets, which was a lot of fun, let me tell you. And there was a lot of stair climbing as well. But what I found to be really interesting about Luxembourg is that you can appreciate it on various levels. The views of the valley from the top of the casemates are equally as wonderful as the views from the valley. And in-between is nice too. I hope my pictures demonstrate that.


Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Lance and Karyn Go to London Town

This was almost two weeks ago, but Lance and I have been moving into another house, so I've had no time to update until now.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Lance and I arrived at London Stansted after a nerve-wracking morning of being stuck in Eindhoven, NL traffic and getting to the airport less than an hour before our flight. The flight was smooth and extremely brief. Getting out of Stansted into London proper actually took longer than the flight. We took the Stansted Express – 45 minutes to Liverpool Street Station. From there, we hop on the tube, take that to Tower Hill, and then switch tubes to get out to Fulham Broadway. Total tube travel time (try saying that 10 times fast) = 1 hour. There were some delays due to security issues, but that seems to be pretty normal since the July 7 bombings.

At one of the tube stops, a pigeon got on, pecked around until the next stop, and then got off. Hilarious.

Once we got to Fulham Broadway and located our hotel, we checked in and decided to search for lunch. Lance decided that he wanted to visit the Natural History Museum, which is in the South Kensington area near a lot of other museums. So we figured we would find a bite to eat there. The first place we saw after leaving the tube station was a crepe restaurant. So crepes it was. And then on to the Natural History Museum.

I should say, first of all, that I wasn’t feeling well our first day there. I had an upset stomach – not nausea, but just not good. But I got through the Natural History Museum as best I could. It was interesting, but I just couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would’ve liked. We saw a good portion of the museum, but not everything. The museum is free and I was very impressed with the quality of it. It was probably the best natural history museum I’ve ever seen. The dinosaur exhibit is impressive. No wonder it’s so popular.

The Victoria & Albert Museum is right by the Natural History Museum, and Lance chose that as a place for us to visit. That surprised me, because it’s mostly art, and he’s not really into that. But there was plenty of interesting stuff to look at. We didn’t get through all of this museum either, but the sculpture room was especially interesting and I also liked the wardrobe exhibits – mostly stuff worn by royalty.

After we had enough of that museum, we decided to go in search of dinner. Lance wanted to eat at the Hard Rock Café, since it’s the original. I wasn’t so particular. I’ve already eaten there anyway. So we took the tube to Hyde Park Corner to go to the restaurant, only to find out that they were closed due to a fire. So we walked all over the area looking for another place to eat. We stopped briefly in Harrod’s so Lance could check it out. And then we continued on…and on…and on… Our walk turned up nothing that either of us wanted to eat (and in London, that’s pretty amazing). So Lance suggested we take the tube back to the area where we started out, and there we found an Italian restaurant. So we had dinner there and headed back to the hotel to shower and rest. We spent the rest of the evening watching crazy British television shows (there’s this one called “Bad Lad Army” that just had us in hysterics) and I had some hot cocoa and cookies from the tea service in our room.

Friday, August 26

Lance’s sister and Dennis were arriving that morning, so we spent all morning in the hotel lobby awaiting their arrival, after having a traditional English breakfast at a little café across the street from our hotel. Their flight was to get into Gatwick at 9, but they didn’t make it to the hotel until almost noon.

Once they got checked in, we gave them some time to freshen up, and then they came and got us at our room.

We figured we would get on our city bus tour, since we had 24 hours to use it after validating the ticket. So we took the tube to Green Park to get on the bus, but since we were so close to Buckingham Palace, and Kim wanted to take the tour of the state rooms, we did that first. Then we got on our bus tour, and it started to get pretty cold and a bit rainy then. We rode up to the Tower of London, got off, and then took our free one-way boat cruise down the Thames. We arrived somewhere near the Parliament building, and we decided to go to Trafalgar Square for dinner. We ended up at the first place we saw – Garfunkel’s – which had a bit of everything: burgers, fish and chips, steak.

After dinner, Kim and Dennis were feeling the jet-lag, so we headed back to the hotel. And that ended day 2. At least for Lance and myself.

Saturday, August 27

Not wanting to have English breakfast again, Lance and I fortified ourselves with 2 day old cinnamon rolls from the Sainsbury's grocery down the street. Ick. At least the tea from the tea service was good (but Lance doesn't drink it, so he'll never know).

Our first stop was to the Tower of London. It took awhile to get there on the tube. We got there pretty early and got on one of the tours with a Beefeater, who was more amusing than you could imagine. It was a really interesting tour, but it didn’t cover the exhibits. So we looked at the crown jewels, and the armory.

Since we had an ambitious schedule, we left there around noon, grabbing quick takeaway lunches from the Tower’s snack counter. We hopped on the tube to St. Paul’s, but when we got there, it looked like there was a wedding about to happen, so we decided against taking a tour. Back on the tube, this time headed for Westminster Abbey. We spent at least an hour in there…probably more than that. I was particularly in awe of Elizabeth I’s tomb, the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Poets' Corner. It really is a magnificent graveyard. You almost forget that it’s a cathedral though because it is so mired down in sarcophagi and memorials – more than any other cathedral I’ve seen. But it’s so fascinating to see them all. I almost stepped on Charles Darwin’s grave. He’s buried under the floor. You can’t walk in there without stepping on someone’s resting place.

We had a 4:30 appointment at the London Eye, so we left around 3:30 or so and walked across the bridge to get there (it’s directly across from the abbey – Parliament). We got there way early and we were ushered into a waiting room to await our tour guide that we paid a bit extra to have. We got a private car with her (along with the few other people who paid extra for the tour guide) and had a really cool half hour ride with a bird’s eye view of all of London’s sights. Very very cool. Seeing Downing Street (the prime minister’s residence) from high above was particularly interesting, because it doesn’t look nearly as impressive on the ground as it does from the sky. I have to admit that I was skeptical about the London Eye. In my humble opinion, it’s an eyesore next to the grandeur of all of London’s great landmarks. But it is an awesome way to see the city.

We capped off our night by having dinner at The Anchor Bankside, a pub that was once the haunt of Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys, and Dickens. We had a nice dinner there and stayed and had drinks as the skies darkened and the London skyline lit up. After having our fill of beer and cider, we walked along the banks of the Thames for awhile, enjoying the beautiful views, the buskers performing in the streets, and the beautiful weather. What a fantastic ending to our trip.

Sunday, August 28

We had said goodbye to Kim and Dennis the night before, since they had a very early wake-up call to move on to their next destination (Stratford-Upon-Avon…*jealous*…I’ve been there before and I loved it so much). Lance and I didn’t have our flight back to Eindhoven until 5, so we had a leisurely morning at the hotel. Then we checked out and took the tube to Liverpool Street Station, which is where we needed to catch the train for the airport. But we hung out there for awhile, had lunch, and attempted to spend some of the pounds we had left. At 1, we took to train to the airport and then spent more money there. I bought a bunch of books and magazines, so I have plenty of reading material to last me awhile now.

As we were arriving in Eindhoven, I was very excited to see the British Royal Air Force Red Arrows lined up on Eindhoven’s tarmac. I saw them perform last year when Lance and I were at RAF Waddington near Lincoln, England for an air show. They are impressive.


Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Johnsons' French Camping (Mis)Adventure

Lance and I just spent a sweltering weekend in Strasbourg, France, where I unwisely decided that we should go camping. Going to Strasbourg itself was a good call, although it is a long drive for a 3 day weekend, but if we had been able to predict the weather far enough in advance, we would've gotten an air conditioned hotel room.

We left the house around 8:30 am, GPS unit and printed-out instructions in hand. We figured the total drive time would take around 4.5 hours, plus we were stopping at Bitburg AFB along the way to gas up, get lunch, and buy provisions for the trip. We arrived around 11 am at Bitburg. I'm not sure how long we spent there - more than an hour, less than 2.

Back on the road, we realize the instructions Lance printed out were too detailed and also inaccurate. Autobahn numbers aren't matching up with what we have in our directions. By some miracle, we don't get lost, although there are a lot of tense moments.

We arrive at the campground Montagne Verte (translated into "green mountain") at around 4 or so, making our travel time definitely more than 4.5 hours. Montagne Verte is just a couple of kilometers outside Strasbourg, but there is a bus and a tram that go into town. I should add that Montagne Verte is a misnomer. It might be green, but it certainly isn't a mountain.

We set up camp. I think it took a little less than an hour to get settled in. We were assigned a spot very near to the showers/restrooms, which was convenient in some respects, except that we could hear the toilet flushing all hours of the day and night. The people at the campsite next to us were British, and an American came along, saw Lance's truck, and introduced himself to us. We chatted for a bit. He was telling us how he and his wife were spending the summer bicycling through France and they were passing through Strasbourg for a couple of nights. We just thought it was interesting that the first people we met at the campground were English speakers.

After setting up camp and taking a brief rest, we decided to venture into town for dinner. As we were passing a stream that runs along the campground, we saw something that looked like a giant muskrat running toward the water. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get my camera ready in time, so I couldn't get a picture.

We found the tram station and bought our ticket. I think we bought the wrong ticket (we got the family pass that is good for 24 hours, although we found out later that the family pass must include children). But we traveled on it for 24 hours without getting caught, although I would not recommend doing that. They do have random checks. We just got lucky.

Once we were on the tram, I had no idea where to get off. My France guidebook doesn't offer a lot of information on Strasbourg, so I didn't really know where anything was. Once I saw the river, I decided that we should get off at the next stop. So we did. And then Lance discovered that I had no idea where we were, and he got a little upset. I told him that I was just winging it...that we could walk around and just explore and find a place that looked good to eat. But he was growing increasingly cranky (and the fact that it was about 90 degrees probably had a lot to do with it, as he overheats very easily). So after a bit of bickering back and forth about where and what to eat, I led him to the first place I saw after we settled down, which was an Italian place. It was good. I had the Tarte Flambee, which appears to be a local specialty (it was on nearly every single restaurant menu in town). It was basically a pizza without the sauce. Mine had cream, salmon, and onion on it. It was very very good.

After dinner, Lance was feeling more himself, and we decided to just walk along the river, which actually goes around town in a circle. We saw a good deal of the town just along the river. We decided to get some ice cream, so we eventually found ourselves at a kind of expensive Italian ice cream place. After we ate there, Lance wanted to head back to the campground for the night, so we hopped on the nearest tram we could find and made our way back.

Our first night was relatively peaceful. The other campers were courteous and weren't being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night, which was nice. We could hear the toilets though and there were 3 churches in the area that rang their bells every 15 minutes, even in the middle of the night. Also, the outside lights around the bathroom/showers shone into our tent. I didn't get much sleep that first night, even though things cooled down considerably and it was comfortable sleeping weather. Our air mattress seems to have sprung a leak, so it deflated almost completely both nights. Irritating.


We started out with a picnic breakfast on a tablecloth in front of our tent (there was no picnic's one of those "bring your own everything" campsites, although they had nice showers and places to wash dishes and laundry). We went into town around 10 am or so, and the first place I wanted to see was the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. It towers over Strasbourg and is quite an impressive sight from the outside. Lance and I didn't go in with high expectations. Since we saw the cathedral in Cologne, we use that as the measuring stick for which to judge all other cathedrals. I have to say, this was close. We were both very very impressed. The stained glass had such amazing colors. The organ pipes, I thought, were even more beautifully detailed than the ones in Cologne. The astronomical clock was also really cool, although we happened to see the little show of allegorical figures at 10:30, which was just as disappointing as Prague's.

Right as we were finishing up our tour of the cathedral, they started choir practice. It was such gorgeous music, and we were in such a gorgeous setting, that I got a lump in my throat and I got a bit teary-eyed. It really was amazing.

After our look at the cathedral, we decided to get some cold drinks and sit on the steps of the cathedral, watching the people walking around in the square and listening to a guy who was playing the accordian. It was really perfect, although you could tell that the day was about to get really hot.

I decided that our next stop should be Palais de Rohan, a palace right by the cathedral that has an archaeological museum as well as a museum of fine arts and a decorative arts museum. We paid one admission price for all 3. The archaeological museum was somewhat disappointing. The decorative arts museum was mildly interesting, although moreso because we got to actually see the palace as a living space rather than just a museum. We got to see the bedrooms and how the palace must've looked back when it was a residence. In the decorative arts museum, they have the old astronomical clock on display from the cathedral. That was probably the coolest thing in there. We spent a brief time walking around the fine arts museum, but Lance was complaining of boredom, so I didn't get much chance to explore there, even though there were works by some very famous painters. I know he's not into art though, so I was just happy to get to see some of it.

Once we left the palace, it was really starting to get horribly hot. I suggested that a boat tour might cool things down a little. We had a choice between open-air or a covered boat. Lance decided on covered, thinking that it would probably be air conditioned (one would heat like that, it would be like an oven if it wasn't air conditioned). It felt really nice when we first got on, but as the tour got started, it got warmer and warmer and warmer. I was sitting by the vent and I could feel less and less air coming out of it. We started to really bake in there after awhile, which just made both of us even more cranky. By the time we got out of the boat, being out in the open air again felt like a treat.

It was then that I realized the entire trip was probably a big mistake. Lance wasn't having a good time. I wasn't having a good time because I saw how uncomfortable Lance was. I told him that after we found a place to have lunch, we could go back to the campground and just sit out the hottest part of the day...take a long siesta...what have you. Fortunately, there was at least a cool breeze.

We started walking around in search of food, neither of us really knowing what we wanted to eat. When it's that hot, nothing really sounds good. Eventually, I found this rather remote place that served crepes. We were walking down some alley that was pretty much deserted, and I happened to look down a side alley and saw a sign for a crepe restaurant with an arrow pointing down an even narrower alley. So we went down that alley and it opened into a small square that had a couple of restaurants and a postcard shop. The creperie was packed. So we got some crepes and actually had a pleasant lunch. We were sitting outside in the shade, but with the cool breeze, it was pretty nice.

Lance felt recharged a bit after lunch, so he allowed for going a couple of places we saw on the boat tour where I wanted to get pictures. And then we got on the tram and went back to the campground and took a siesta until dinner. But before going back, we stopped at a little fast food joint between the tram stop and the campground that sold Magnum ice cream bars. I'm addicted to the double caramel ones, but they don't sell that kind here in Germany. I remembered finding them in Paris last year. So we looked and they advertised that they had them. Hurray! But when we tried to order one for me, we were told they did not have them. I had to settle for a different ice cream bar instead, which was good, but just not the same. Ah well. All other searches for the elusive Magnum Double Caramels ended with the same result, even though the Double Caramels were pictured on their ice cream posters. I guess they are not carried in that part of France. Phooey. (Oh well...they do sell them in England, so I will be happily eating one a day while in London next month!)

Back into town for dinner, and I was in the mood for doner kebap. We had seen dozens of doner places, but of course, when I actually wanted one, the doner kebap shops were nowhere to be found. We settled on another pasta place that was near the cathedral. And since we were there, we browsed some souvenir shops.

Today (Sunday):

Slept better than the first night. We got up, showered, had our picnic breakfast, and tore down the camp. We took a different route back. The route going there took us through Saarbrucken, which was a scary experience we didn't wish to repeat. So we bypassed Saarbrucken, and had a relatively drama-free drive home. I saw a beautiful chateau somewhere in the Lorraine province of France (note: Strasbourg is in Alsace). We also drove along some beautiful parts of the Mosel once we got back into Germany. I wish I could've taken pictures of all the sights we see along the autobahn.

Stopped at Bitburg again on the way back to gas up and get lunch.

Our drive home was shorter by about 2 hours than the drive there. Also, it was a gorgeous 73 degrees. GAAAAAAAAH!

A note about Strasbourg: it has switched hands between Germany and France many times. As a result, many speak both languages and the culture is a good mixture of French and German. Beer is very popular there, and so are Rhine wines. The food is both French (quiche and cheese plates) and German, with lots of pork and sauerkraut (which is, incidently, Chinese and not German...something I learned yesterday). You see bakeries such as "Schmitt Patisserie/Boulangerie" - a German name with something that is very French. Menus are in both languages (we hardly saw any menus with English on them, but I got by on my rusty high school French...they don't speak English as willingly there). You see many German-style half-timber buildings. One dorm at the Univ. of Strasbourg was named "Gallia" when it was French, and "Germania" when it was German. This name switched back and forth several times. Strasbourg is an interesting mixture of both cultures.


Saturday, July 9, 2005

Architecture, Gastronomy, CHOCOLATE! and shopping in Brussels

Yesterday I went on a day trip to Brussels with my friend Christy. We didn't want the hassle of driving in, so we took the train from Sittard-Maastrict, Maastricht-Liege, Liege-Brussels. The total travel time getting there was not quite 2.5 hours.

We got off the train at Central Station, and immediately tried to get our bearings. We knew we wanted to see the Grand Place, St. Michael's Cathedral, and the Royal Palace, but we weren't really sure where to start first. The highest spire in Brussels is the one on the town hall in the Grand Place, so I suggested that we aim for that. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves standing in one of the most magnificent market squares in Europe, and there was a flower market going on. We stood and gawked and took a few pictures, and then decided to meander around the streets that branched out of the Grand Place.

Our next goal was to find the Manneken Pis, a celebrated statue of a peeing boy whose image graces the majority of souvenirs in Brussels. You can buy him in chocolate form, and various forms of metal and plastic, in addition to t-shirts, hats, bags, postcards...the list is endless. I'm not quite sure why this little guy is so popular, but there are a lot of things about Europe that boggle the mind.

But we did find him, on some rather un-spectacular side street. What pointed us to his presence was the group of Japanese tourists milling about, and the big Manneken Pis bar and restaurant located across the street (with an replica of Manneken Pis in a waiter's outfit in the window). Manneken Pis, I should add, has many little outfits that he wears sometimes, but when we saw him, he was utterly naked.

Needless to say, seeing him was somewhat anti-climactic.

We just continued walking down side streets, stepping into any shop or building that piqued our interest. Particularly chocolate shops. Many of them give free samples, and just the variety and various designs of the chocolate are enough to make you want to go into every shop just to look at them. Besides the chocolate shops (I eventually bought some chocolates at a place called Devina), there was this store we came across called La Maison du Miel, or "the House of Honey." The smell lured us in more than anything. It smelled like absolute heaven inside, and they sold, obviously, products made of honey - both edible and non-edible. They had soaps, bath ballistics, skin creams, masks, candles, candies, various kinds of honey, vinegars, beers made with honey...the list goes on and on. We spent a lot of time in this place and neither of us walked out empty-handed. They also let you sample the honey.

Anyway, Christy decided that she wanted to find St. Michael's Cathedral, so we eventually made our way there and looked around for a bit.

Then we decided to find some lunch. I don't know how we ended up where we was just some random street that we happened to come across. But we stopped at this restaurant (I can't recall the name of it) and had a very large lunch. I had some Belgian specialty, which was nothing more than meatballs in a tomato sauce with french fries. It was pretty tasty though.

After lunch, we wanted to find the Royal Palace. We eventually made it there, but not before being distracted by a few things. We walked around and took pictures, and then it really started to rain, so we stepped into a cafe and got some drinks while waiting for the rain to subside.

Once it did, we decided to just meander some more. We did a little more shopping. We both bought pashminas at some souvenir shop. I loved the one I bought in Istanbul so much that I had to get another one, and the price was right. We also came upon a Chi Chi's. I thought it was hilarious to see Chi Chi's in the heart of Brussels, but once I saw it, a huge craving for fried ice cream hit, so we went in to share some. It wasn't nearly as good as the fried ice cream served at the US Chi Chi's though.

Once we finished our dessert (as if the chocolates weren't enough), we figured we better make our way toward the train station, since we had about an hour or so before our train was due to leave. On the way there, we noticed a cheese shop tucked away in a little corner. We couldn't resist. Christy had been telling me about this amazing cheese she had in had fig in it. This store had it, and she was so excited. So I bought 3 - two for her and one for myself to try. So after that purchase, we made our way to the train station and came home.

It was a full day, but I think we got a good taste of Brussels, and we want to go back.

Oh...and one more thing worth mentioning, just because I thought it was hilarious. Some Italian guy was trying to pick me up in the Grand Place and was blowing kisses at me. I ignored him, but it was quite amusing!


Monday, June 13, 2005

Czeching out Prague (HA! HA!)

Friday, June 10

After a smooth flight from Dortmund to Prague on EasyJet, we arrived in Prague around 1:30 in the afternoon. After getting our bearings, getting some crowns, and finding the Cedaz Airport Shuttle, we paid to be dropped off at our cost about $20. We were stuffed in a car with a bunch of Germans and a smelly driver. I had to sit next to him in the front seat, and Lance sat next to me. For the entire very scary drive, the driver kept jabbing me in the ribs every time he shifted, and I was digging my nails into Lance's leg. We got into several near-collisions, and the driver continued to increase his speed and weave in and out of traffic, making sharp turns, and convincing me that I was going to die before my 30th birthday. Even Lance was freaked out, and he doesn't scare easily. The driver dropped off the Germans first, and then after a few more nail-biting moments, he had us at our hotel. We did not tip him, although maybe we should've given him a little something for at least getting us there in one piece.

Anyway, we checked into our hotel. I didn't know what to expect, because the rooms all seemed different from the photographs on their website. We were assigned room 11, which was right next to a staircase, so it wasn't the quietest room. But it was beautiful and had a nice, comfortable king sized bed and a huge picture window that overlooked a small backyard garden with a fountain. That also ended up being a problem, because we were on the ground floor and people were sitting right outside our window until late at night, talking and drinking. But it was really only an issue the first night. I also found it interesting that we got so many different television stations: English, German, French, Russian, Czech (of course), and I think Hungarian...even Hebrew (MTV was in English with Hebrew commercials).

After settling into our hotel, we decided to walk around and explore the immediate area, particularly with a mind toward getting a late lunch. We found a Bohemia Bagel Express a few blocks from our hotel in some cute little square, and since I had seen Bohemia Bagel mentioned many times between our guide book and internet sources, we decided to eat lunch there. The menu was in Czech, but there were pictures of everything and the woman behind the counter was very helpful in telling us what everything was. So we both ordered bacon, egg, and cheese bagels and sat on a park bench nearby to eat. We smelled some pot that some of the people around us were smoking, but it wasn't too bad, so we just tried to eat as quickly as we could and I fed a few pigeons and we moved on.

We decided to check out Wenceslas Square, which was only a few minutes' walk from our hotel. So we wandered around there for awhile and then decided to get some ice cream. I got cinnamon, which was good. We decided that we were a little tired, as neither of us had slept really well the night before, so we walked back to the hotel and took a little nap.

Around 7-ish, we decided to check out places to eat on Wenceslas Square. Lance saw a sign advertising an Italian place off the square, so we decided to eat there. There was nobody in there and the prices were really cheap. We were greeted by a really cute Golden Retriever when we came in. We had a really good meal there. But we were both feeling stuffed and kind of gross after our meal, so we went back to the hotel for the night.

Saturday, June 11 - my 30th birthday

Shortly after 7 am, my Mom called from California to wish me a happy birthday. My two brothers sang Happy Birthday to me along with her. I got to talk to all of them. It was a very good start to my day.

We had to pay for breakfast at the hotel, so we decided to go down to the breakfast room first to see if it was worth it. They had the typical spread: meats, cheeses, breads, yogurts, assorted cereals, a couple kinds of eggs, sausages, tea, coffee, juice. So we decided to eat there since we weren't going to get a better breakfast elsewhere (although there was a McDonald's -one of about a million, it seemed - right around the corner from our hotel).

Our first plan for the day was to take the tram to Narodni Trida and find the restaurant where we would be eating that night so that we knew where it was in reference to the National Theatre (where we had tickets to see Giselle). We bought our day passes for public transport, hopped on the tram, and in less than 5 minutes, we were at Narodni Trida. It took only a few minutes to find the restaurant and it was maybe half a block from the theatre. Great! So we walked to the theatre, which is right along the Vltava River, and walked along the river to Charles Bridge, which leads to the Prague Castle complex that looms over the city (I cannot possibly express how unspeakably gorgeous the Prague skyline is).

We got to Charles Bridge pretty early...before the tourist congestion anyway, which was very fortunate. We enjoyed our walk and then we had a huge hike up steep cobblestone streets and stairways to get to the castle. Once there, we walked around all the areas that were free. The castle was pretty crowded and there were long lines to get into everything that charged admission. We didn't feel it was worth it. We were content just to take in the views of Prague below us and listen to a military band that was giving a free classical concert on the grounds.

After all the climbing, we decided we needed a break, so we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for some drinks. I needed to warm up (it was so chilly that I couldn't believe it was mid-June!), so I sipped a cup of hot tea while Lance had a Coke. We just sat for awhile and watched the throngs of tourists that were now clogging up Charles Bridge (it pays to get out early!). Finally, we decided to move on. Our next stop: Petrin Hill.

We walked back to the National Theatre and walked up that bridge to get to the funicular that takes you to Petrin Hill. You could walk up there if you wish, but since we'd already done considerable climbing, we wanted to take the easy way out. So we bought our fares for the funicular and took the ride up there. On the hill, there are some really pretty gardens, a monastery, and a small replica of the Eiffel Tower that you can climb to get good views of the city (we skipped that). We just enjoyed walking around for a bit and seeing what there was to see. We were looking for a beautiful Ukrainian church that was somewhere on the grounds, but we never found it. We finally gave up, and since the funicular tickets were only good for 90 minutes, we came back down. It was going on two by that time and we hadn't had lunch, so we decided to look for a place to eat.

I had heard about this place called the Globe, which is a bookstore/internet cafe. They were rumored to serve a good weekend brunch, so I thought that was worth checking out. It's also a huge expat hangout (particularly for native English speakers). So we walked was just a short distance from the National Theatre (and oh yeah...we took the tram back there from the Petrin Hill area...we were getting sick of walking). They were still serving brunch, so I got the french toast and fruit salad and Lance got an omelet. Yummy. I also checked my email there and I looked around the bookstore, but didn't see anything I couldn't live without.

After that, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit. We had a big night ahead.

Around 5:30, after we had showered and changed into our nice clothes, we took the tram back to Narodni Trida to have dinner at Le Patio, which is the restaurant that I chose for my birthday dinner. It's not only a restaurant, but there is a store in the basement that sells items very similar to what Pier 1 sells. Their stuff is just beautiful. And the restaurant is decorated like that...there were all kinds of really beautiful lanterns hanging on the ceiling...hundreds of them. The restaurant had a very lush decor with an Indian flair. The food was amazing. I ordered a fixed price menu, which came with the soup of the day, a shrimp and spinach risotto, and cheesecake. The soup was beet borscht. Although I was skeptical, I decided to give it a go, and I was glad I did. Oh my God. It was INCREDIBLE. The risotto was absolutely delicious. The cheesecake though...well, it wasn't satisfactory. It was okay, but very citrusy (I thought lemon, Lance thought lime) with a gingerbread crust...not really cheesecake, in my opinion. Lance had the lasagna, which he thought was excellent, and he also had the cheesecake. I think he liked it more than I did though. It was a nice, leisurely dinner since we gave ourselves almost 2 hours to eat. Lance ordered a couple glasses of the local brew, which he decided that he really didn't like (Pilsner Urquell, for anyone who's been there). I just had mineral water.

Anyway, shortly after 7:30, we decided to head to the theatre for the 8:00 performance of Giselle. I couldn't wait to see the inside of the theatre. But I was actually disappointed. It was small and cramped and I didn't think it was as nice as the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Although it's definitely more beautiful on the outside. We had good seats for the performance - 8th row orchestra - although since the theatre was so small, I don't think there were any bad seats. The ballet was very nice and the orchestra was lovely. I've seen better ballets at home. The Nutcracker is still my sentimental favorite. But it was still well done and I enjoyed it. And I give Lance a lot of credit for being such a good sport. I don't think he hated it.

I wanted to take pictures of the restaurant and the theatre, but there were no cameras allowed in the theatre, so I didn't bother. But so many other people brought cameras anyway and now I wish I had.

After the ballet, we took the tram back to the stop nearest our hotel, and called it a night. I have to say that this was the best birthday I have ever had. It had almost everything I love - travel, great food, ballet, and at least one person I love.

Sunday, June 12

After breakfast, we decided to go to the Museum of Communism, since that was something that Lance really wanted to see. I found it to be pretty boring actually, but he liked it. So that's fine. We really needed to do something that he wanted to do anyway. I'm glad he enjoyed himself. The most interesting aspect for me was watching the films of all the demostrations in Prague in 1989 right before the Velvet Revolution (the day that ended communism in the Czech Republic). It's so hard to believe that all this happened a mere 16 years ago, and Prague still retains some traces of its Communist past.

After the museum, we walked to the Old Town Square. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with this astronomical clock. Every hour on the hour, it gives tourists a show. The 12 disciples come out and there are some characters on the clock that ring bells and move around. So we stood there for 20 minutes waiting (with a swelling crowd) to see this at noon. At then it was over almost as quickly as it began. Lance and I just kind of looked at each other and went, "That's it?" But when in Prague...

The Old Town Square is just beautiful anyway, so it's worth going just to see all the gorgeous pastel colored buildings and to check out the people.

We got drinks and sat on a park bench in the square for awhile, antagonizing some pigeons that were begging for crumbs. Then we decided to take a Vltava cruise. We had seen almost everything we wanted to see anyway...the rest was just killing time.

So we walked up this street that took us through the Jewish Quarter. We got to the river and bought our tickets for the 1:00 cruise. While we were waiting, some stupid drunken ass...well, did something really disgusting in public (what people generally do when they drink too much) that was seen by us and everyone else waiting for the cruise and everyone at the cafe right next to the departure point. Yeah. That was fun. At least I wasn't would've killed my appetite anyway (and that was, thusly, the low point of the trip).

The cruise lasted an hour and it was cozy. Only about a dozen people could fit on the boat and they had blankets for us, which was good, since it was still a bit chilly (although warmer than Saturday).

After the cruise, I was still disgusted by what had happened right before, but I was also hungry. So we walked through the Jewish Quarter in search of food. I snapped a few photos along the way (only one turned out, sadly enough). We stopped at some pizzeria. I got the Italian vegetable soup and the "homestyle mashed potatoes," which were nothing like mashed potatoes. It was a mound of fried-semi mashed up potatoes with fried onions. Still tasty. Just not what I had in mind.

We didn't really know what to do after lunch, since there was nothing else we really had to see. So we just meandered around, poking down any cobblestoned alley that captured our interest. We happened upon a small market, so we walked around there for a bit. Quite by accident, we found the Prague Symphony Orchestra building, which was absolutely magnificent. And we stopped for ice cream bars.

After doing this for awhile, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. We take a lot of afternoon naps when we travel!

At 7, we decided to go to TGI Friday's, since we chanced upon it in our earlier wanderings. I knew there was one in town, but I didn't know where it was and it hadn't occurred to me to even eat there. It was Lance's idea. But we don't get American food that much anymore when we eat out, so it turned out to be a really good idea. I got the chicken quesadilla and I didn't realize how much I missed food like that until I was eating it (although oddly enough, it's not on my list of favorite restaurants when we're back in the States, but you have to take what you can get). Lance got the burger, which made my mouth water, but I was more in the mood for chicken than a burger.

No, we never had Czech food. Honestly, it's not that different from German, and we've had that and it doesn't agree with me.

Anyway, leaving TGI Friday's, we ran into a senior citizen who was lost. He asked us if we lived in Prague, and we said no, but he looked so lost that my heart went out to him and I asked if we could at least try to help him. As it happened, he was looking for the subway station and we were walking there anyway. So we told him to come with us and we got to talking. He's from Dublin, Georgia (not far from Warner Robins, where Lance lived) and he used to be in the Army. He was with a group of other seniors, so he called them over and we all walked to the subway station together and we hit it off pretty well. We even had to get on the same subway, but Lance and I got in a different car. We wished them well (they were getting ready to leave Prague for either Budapest or Bucharest) and they wished us well and we parted ways. It's a small world after all.

Today, June 13

We woke up at 7:30, had breakfast, and then lazed around our room for a bit. The airport shuttle was arranged to come get us at 10, so we had a leisurely morning. We checked out around 9:45 and the shuttle showed up about 5 minutes later. The driver was just as scary as the first one we encountered, only this time, we had the van all to ourselves, so I could at least put on a seatbelt. And this jerk kept honking the horn at anyone that was in his way. He was really obnoxious. So we didn't leave him a tip either.

The flight was REALLY bumpy at first. But Lance wasn't worried (and he's literally spent thousands of hours in the air in a similar jet), so I had no reason to fear. After we got through the clouds, it was smooth.

Oddly enough, it was warm in Prague today. And when we got back to Germany, it was cold. :P Dammit.


Saturday, June 4, 2005

Windmills Aplenty at Kinderdijk

Today I had the pleasure of participating in a volksmarch in Kinderdijk, Netherlands. Kinderdijk is close to Rotterdam and is famous for its 19 windmills, 8 of which are among the largest in the world.
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Kinderdijk (pronounced "kinder - dike") itself is a quaint little town surrounded by canals. This is what a typical backyard looks like in Kinderdijk.
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During the course of our 10 kilometer trek, we were able to stop inside one of the windmills and take a self-guided tour. It's hard to believe that people live(d) in them! I have to say, the museum home that we visited sure is cozy.
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The living area inside the windmill.

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The old cook stove.

All of the windmills were built in 1740 and are extremely well-preserved. Some of them were even operating today, including the one that we visited.
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View from inside the windmill.

More photos here

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Alone in Duesseldorf

Lance is in Iceland right now, so I thought I would take a trip on my own. I hopped on a train this morning and went to Düsseldorf. It’s only an hour away and a cheap fare.

I didn’t have anything particular in mind to do once I got there, so I just wandered around. I had a little map that they gave me at the tourist office. I normally can’t follow maps, but this one was fairly easy to follow and I found my way around pretty easily.

I meandered down the Königsallee, which is the big shopping street (I guess you could say that it’s Düsseldorf’s answer to the Champs-Elysées in Paris). From there, I went to the Rhine, and then met up with the Hofgarten, which is a gigantic park – where a great number of the city’s museums are located. I spent most of my day walking around the area of the Hofgarten. It’s a beautiful park.

The last place I visited before leaving was an art museum that housed some Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky, Magritte, and others. I poked around in a beautiful little church on my way back to the train station.

Düsseldorf is a very modern city. There are very few old buildings left because it was bombed in WWII. As much as I love Europe for its history and centuries-old architecture (especially Gothic), I did find a lot of beautiful things there, especially the sculptures.

I’ll leave it at that.

Photos Here

Friday, April 29, 2005

Karyn's Istanbul Trip - Day 4 and Last Day (April 27 & 28)

After breakfast, we met up with our new guide, Esim, and she took us to the Spice Bazaar. Unfortunately, she didn’t give us much time to look around there. The Spice Bazaar was really cool. You could smell the pungent odor of curry everywhere, and the spices were very colorful. But like the Grand Bazaar, pushy merchants were constantly all over you. I wanted to get some apple tea, but I figured it would be ridiculous to buy from there. Once again, it would be overpriced like in the Grand Bazaar. I was tempted to get some spices too, but I already have so many spices that I don’t have room for more. I also looked at getting some dried apricots, but I thought they wanted too much for them. I walked out of there with a cashmere pashmina. Several in our group had already bought them, and I liked them…they are pretty shawls/scarves. I haggled from 35 lira down to 22. I don’t think that was bad…I paid less than my friends did for theirs (I think it helps that I’m blond and they love blondes). As Ruth and I were leaving the bazaar, a guy popped out of the shop and begged to have his picture taken with me. So he wrapped my pashmina around my head in the Muslim style and posed with me. Then he tried to offer me a taste of the honey he was selling. I told him I was allergic to bees, so I couldn’t have honey.

After the Spice Bazaar, we walked to where we needed to meet up with our boat for the Bosphorus cruise. We spent 2 hours on the cruise, first going up the European side, and then going down the Asian side. Our guide pointed out things of interest along the way. When we turned to go down the Asian side, it suddenly got very chilly and windy (good thing I had my pashmina!), so most of us went on the lower deck, which was an enclosed cafeteria. We stopped for about 10-15 minutes, at a small island which houses what is called the Maiden’s Tower. We climbed up to get some views of Istanbul and then came down and hopped back on the boat to finish our cruise.

After the cruise, we had lunch, once again, at Paşazade. By now, we were all sick to death of eating there, but the food was pretty good and it was included, so what could we do? They served us vegetable soup (pureed veggies), a flaky pastry with vegetables, a giant meatball wrapped in eggplant with rice (I normally am not a fan of eggplant, but I thought this was pretty good), and a flan with chocolate sauce for dessert.

After lunch, we had free time. The plan originally was to listen to a concert by the world’s oldest army band, but none of us were really interested in that. Our guide arranged a pottery demonstration for those who wanted to go, but I decided not to, lest it be anything like the Turkish rug demonstration with vultures all over me, trying to sell me stuff. I didn’t sleep well the night before, despite my Turkish bath, so Ruth went off on her own to do some shopping and I watched a little television (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Looney Tunes in Turkish) and then took a nap. I knew we were going to be out late that night, so I needed to refresh myself, though having my nap interrupted by the 5 pm call the prayer wasn’t very restful. During that stretch of 5 hours, I also wandered down to a shop a few doors down that I had noticed the day we arrived. I wanted to get some Mother’s Day gifts. So I found something I really liked and it was a reasonable price (I didn’t even have to haggle). I got two. And of course, the guy tried to sell me even more stuff and he was offering me good deals all over the place, but I told him I didn’t have the money and asked him for his business card. I promised to send some business his way, and then he seemed satisfied enough to let me take my leave (though he tried to entice me to stay with some apple tea).

When it was getting close to our date with Umut, I showered, put on makeup, and dressed up really nice. I don’t get the chance to dress up very often, so I put on my cute new skirt and my dressy sandals, and tied my pashmina around me like a shawl. Umut met up with us at the hotel at 7:30 with one of his friends (I guess he wanted to better his odds to 2 against 31) and we hopped on the bus and went to Sultana for dinner and the 1001 Nights show (Sultana, by the way, is the mother of the Sultan).

The place reminded me of a Las Vegas casino. It totally catered to westerners. In fact, I think Tuba, Umut, his friend, and Rabia were the only Turkish people in the audience. Dinner was fantastic though. They served meze, which is an appetizer plate with things such as stuffed peppers, a tiny portion of eggplant salad (again, good), some tzatziki for spreading on bread, some feta, a helping of coleslaw, a bean salad, and a few other things. That, honestly, could’ve filled me up. But then they served chicken kabobs with this absolutely gorgeous spicy rice (I think it had green curry in it…it was a tad hot) and salad. Dessert was a plate with tiny tastes of various desserts: there was flan, a chocolate pudding, and some other unidentifiable but reasonably tasty thing. And they served a plate of fruit with it: sliced apples, and two types of Turkish apricots. One kind was sweet with a consistency of a grape. Another was small and hard like an apple and sour tasting, but the waiter told me to eat it with salt and he sprinkled salt on it for me and popped it into my mouth. It was okay. I also tried some Turkish white wine, which wasn’t bad.

Anyway, the show came on during dinner. We were treated first to a belly dancer, then to Turkish folk dancers, then to another belly dancer, another Turkish folk dance, and then they had some cheesy skit that recounts how the Sultana would choose a concubine for her son’s harem. They picked some people from the audience to help act that out, and some people from our group were chosen (I was sitting far enough from the stage that they didn’t pick me). Then they had to choose the Sultan, so they started picking guys from the audience, and we were screaming for Umut to get up on stage. They only wanted to pick 4 men, and they had 4 picked out by the time Umut made it up there, but once they heard us screaming for Umut, they sent one of the guys back to his seat. HAHAHA. So the guys had to participate in a strong man contest, which is too difficult to explain, so I won’t. Anyway, Umut won. There would have been mutiny if he hadn’t. So he was crowned the Sultan and they put this silly robe and hat on him. It was absolutely hilarious. I laughed until my sides hurt. The actors took him backstage to teach him this really simple dance, and then he had to come out and do this dance, and then they seated him on this throne and the newly chosen concubine did a belly dance for him. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.

After that, we had some more dance acts, and then the final performance – Miss Vena – the finest belly dancer in all the land. She was really really good…far better than the other dancers we had seen. It was amazing what she could do with her body. We were all laughing at this guy sitting across the room from us who kept staring at her, hardly ever blinking, and practically drooling all over himself. His wife was oblivious to it. It was hysterical.

After that, some cheesy Turkish lounge singer came out and started singing badly rendered tunes that represented each of the nationalities in the audience. He sang “New York New York” for the US and “Waltzing Matilda” for the Australians (there were a lot of Australians in town for the Gallipoli ceremony…I know nothing about it) and countless other things. There was polka, there was French music, there was Spanish and Italian. He sang the Beatles. It was really quite awful, but amusing. He couldn’t come up with a song for Canada though, or a song for the Norwegian girl in our group. He decided to give a belly dance lesson and chose some women in the audience for that. So again, several people from our group went up there. After that whole stupid spectacle, the dance floor was opened up, and we all went out there to boogie the night away. The belly dancers from the show came out (dressed in their regular clothes) and danced with us.

One of our group thought it would be hilarious to dress Umut up in the Sultan’s costume again, and then have all of us pose for a picture with him. So we did that. He sat on the throne and we all sat around him – Sultan Umut and his harem (that’s what we kept calling our group for the entire trip anyway). So several of us got pictures of that…Umut wants copies and left his email address with a couple of people, and also hinted that he might like pictures from the Turkish bath (HAHAHA…like you could even have anything on your person in there, especially a camera).

Anyway, it was so much fun. But we didn’t leave the club until about 1:30.

Umut came for us at 9:30. We were all bleary-eyed and dragging from the night before, but some of us had breakfasted and were ready to go. So we checked out of our hotel, hopped on the bus, and he took us to one last place before going to the airport. We went to another high point in Istanbul in an area that is largely populated by very devout Muslims (he said fundamentalist, but I really don’t think so…I doubt there would be so many western tourists there if there were). We had a pretty view of Istanbul from there, particularly the Golden Horn, and there was a café for anyone that wanted tea or Turkish coffee. We also had view of a school, where we listened to them having marching band practice. And we had a view of the largest Muslim cemetery in Istanbul. Muslim cemeteries are really pretty. I should’ve photographed it.
After a half hour or so stay there, we hopped on the bus to go to the airport. Umut gave his goodbye speech to us, and he said that we were the most fun group he ever had. I actually believe he was sincere about this. And he said that the night before had been one of the best nights of his life. We had collected a tip for him in secret, so we presented him with the tip and told him to use it to buy a plane ticket to Germany, and then we could all fight over who gets to have him stay. He honestly made this trip for us. If you have a bad guide, it can ruin everything, but he was a lot of fun and very open-minded (he says he’s a practicing Muslim, but not very devout) and took all of our teasing in great stride. He was also witty with the comebacks. Anyway, he invited us back to Istanbul to come and see him again, and he told us to be sure to bring a single friend next time…HAHAHA. And he said he wanted to shake our hands at the airport to say goodbye to each of us individually, but he would accept kisses too. So most of us kissed him on the cheek and hugged him and his face was covered with lipstick. I think we were all a little sad. Tuba (our Turkish escort that came with us from Germany) called him when we arrived in Düsseldorf to let him know that we made it back safely, and he told her to tell us all hi. I think he’ll remember us for the rest of his life.

So now I’m back in rainy, dreary Germany. My allergies are back. I was spoiled in Istanbul by the gorgeous weather. I’ll never forget this trip for as long as I live.

Pictures here

Karyn's Istanbul Trip - Day 3 (April 26)

After breakfast, we hopped on a really swanky bus and were driven to the Asian side of Istanbul. Our first stop was an Egyptian ambassador’s mansion, which is now a fancy restaurant where a lot of weddings are held. I’m not sure what the point was in going there. There were some lovely views from there, but the upstairs of the mansion was closed and we were only given access to the downstairs, which consisted of some really fancy dining rooms, but nothing particularly special. Again, there were a lot of feral cats on the premises, and I was disturbed to see one adult cat suckling another. Only in Turkey, I guess.

After our visit there, we went to the highest point in Istanbul, which had a nice café where you could sit and order something to drink and take in the view. Ruth and I found it crowded, and we saw a little ice cream stand by the parking lot when we got off the bus, so we walked downhill a piece to get some ice cream. I decided that I also needed a Cola Light, so we went to another little snack stand nearby and I ordered one. He brought out a Pepsi Light, and I explained that I did not like Pepsi, only Coca-Cola, so he actually ran to another snack stand down the way and brought me a Coke! And then he begged me to stay for ice cream, but I told him that I already had some. But he kept ringing his bell and yelling, “ice cream for the pretty lady!” It was funny.

After spending several minutes there, we drove to Beylerbeyi Palace, an Italian and French inspired baroque palace that was once the summer palace of the sultans. It is right on the Bosphorus, where the cool breezes come in. Umut informed us that it would cost 6 lira to bring in our cameras, and that we wouldn’t be allowed to use flash. I debated, but I’m glad I ultimately decided to pay the fee. And I took a ton of pictures (which you will notice, if you look at my photo albums). I was one of the few who paid, so Kate gave me a lira toward the cost as long as I send her the pictures. They came out pretty well. The palace was so beautiful. I have never seen anything like it. We even had to wear blue booties over our shoes to protect the very expensive Turkish carpets that are all over the floor.

Around 2 or so, we headed to some seafood place for lunch. We all figured it would actually be on the waterfront, but it was high in the hills, where if you squinted hard enough, you could see water. It was a lovely restaurant though, and we ate outside. First they served us a Turkish delicacy – warm pickled green beans. They were so incredibly good. Then they served us dolmas – cabbage leaves stuffed with ground lamb meat. We had a lovely salad, and then they brought out our sea bass – scales, fins, and face still intact. I’m a bit grossed out by that, but I tried to look past it and the fish was delicious. Some other not so brave souls had a choice of chicken or meatballs. For dessert – BAKLAVA! One of my most favorite things on earth. I was in absolute heaven. It was an amazing lunch. I was so happy.

One thing I thought was interesting as we were driving around was the extreme opulence and extreme poverty, all located in short distances of one another. We saw houses that were barely standing and really huge fancy mansions, all on the same street. We saw mosques that were crumbling, and huge ones adorned with gold.

After lunch, we went back to the European side and visited the Haghia Sophia. It’s a former mosque that is now a museum and a tribute to Christ, and it has mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in addition to things you would find in a typical mosque. Such an interesting juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam. It was really beautiful, although a good portion of it is being redone on the inside, so there was scaffolding everywhere.

After Haghia Sophia, Umut took us to a leather showroom, where we were treated to a fashion show. We even made Umut get on the catwalk and model. He looked like a natural up there and he enjoyed our catcalls and whistles. The other male model was embarrassed though because we cheered and whistled every time he came out on stage. He was bright red. It was hilarious. I figured the salespeople would descend on us like vultures again, but they didn’t. They served us some apple tea and let us look around at our leisure, without any pressure to buy. Of course, I wasn’t in the market for anything leather, so I just walked back to our bus and waited for everyone else to join us.

After we were all back on the bus, Umut dropped us off at our hotel and announced that he would not be with us the next day, much to our consternation. Although he said he would be with us at night for the dinner and show at Sultana. He did say, however, that he could be bribed to be with us for a few kisses (he had tickets to a soccer game). But nobody took him up on that. And he made jokes about wanting to join us for the Turkish bath, which we were doing that night with Rabia, our guide from day one.

We were on our own for dinner, but most of us were still stuffed from lunch. I just went to the hotel bar and ordered a salad, which was way too expensive and not very good. Others grabbed a döner kebap from next door (shaved chicken meat in a flatbread) for a mere two lira. I wish I had done that instead, but I was not really even hungry. I just knew that if I didn’t eat something, I would be famished after our Turkish bath.

At 7:30, Rabia met up with us at the hotel lobby. Some people opted out of the Turkish bath, but most of us decided to go. We took the tram up to the bath. It was a weird experience, I must say. Without getting into too much intimate detail, you go into this room that is very hot and humid and lay down on this heated marble stone until you start to sweat (by the way, you are not alone in the room…several other women are in there with you, some laying on the stone waiting to be bathed, and some being bathed). Then you are doused with water, and you are scrubbed with a loofah mitt – HARD - in front, then you turn over and are scrubbed from the back. Then you sit up and have your arms scrubbed. Yes, there is a strange old woman (or if you’re male, a man) who is naked and scrubbing you within an inch of your life. Anyway, after the loofah, you lay on your back again and are doused with water again. Then you are covered with suds and massaged. Then you flip over onto your stomach and are massaged in back – she worked out the kinks in my shoulders and the foot rub felt really good. Then she slaps you between the shoulder blades several times – REALLY HARD – and then she whacks you on the butt, which indicates that you need to sit up so she can suds your arms. Then she rinses you off, and if you want a shampoo, you go into a separate room with her and she shampoos your hair and washes your face. Then you’re done and you do whatever you like…I wrapped myself up in a dry towel and sat in an armchair for awhile. Most people go back into the bathing room and lay down on the marble slab again.

I don’t think I’ll do the Turkish bath again (if an opportunity would ever present itself). There were a few other people that felt the same way, but most of our group loved it. I felt more relaxed afterwards though. And maybe a little less self-conscious.

While we were waiting for everyone else to finish, I sat with a couple of other people at a café a few doors down and enjoyed some fresh squeezed orange juice while the lights came up in Istanbul. Then the call to prayer came on, and we were between 3 mosques, so we could hear it echoing all around us, which didn’t exactly leave me with a peaceful feeling.

After everyone was done and Rabia was getting her bath, we decided that we wanted to walk back to the hotel. It was a beautiful night and it wasn’t that long of a walk. So we left a message with her that we were getting ourselves back to the hotel and we split off into small groups and started meandering. We were startled by the sight of the Blue Mosque lit up at night. It truly is a breathtaking thing. There were a lot of people out – merchants and tourists – and we stopped to browse in interesting shops or watch people making their handicrafts. Some of the men were calling to us, because our hair was still wet, “Ooooh…just came from the baths…nice, clean, pretty ladies!” There was a man on the street making copper etchings…we watched him do it for awhile. I decided to buy a hair barrette from him. His work was beautiful and he wasn’t pushy like everyone else. We had a very enjoyable stroll. And then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep…or something.

Pictures here

Karyn's Istanbul Trip - Days 1 & 2 (April 24-25, 2005)

Istanbul - the most multinational city, the quintessential crossroads of east and west, violent, poetic, melancholy, raucous, fleshy, austere, rapacious, sublime - this seems to me the most fascinating city on earth. - Frances Mayes, from A Year in the World
(Dear Ms. Mayes, I could not agree more).


Well, our trip got off to a strange start. We deplaned and got on a bus to go to the International Arrivals terminal. Some guy got on the bus right before the doors closed and started screaming at the top of his lungs in Turkish. In turn, other people started yelling at him. We were afraid of things getting violent, but fortunately, it seemed the man was just drunk and did us no harm. After we went through passport control and picked up our luggage, one of the men on the bus with us came up to our group and apologized for the drunk man’s behavior. He said that he hoped it didn’t give us a bad impression of Turkey, and the he hopes we enjoy our holiday. He was very nice.

After we found our tour guide, we got on a very nice bus and were taken to our hotel. Dusk was just setting in, and the views of Istanbul were breathtaking. I wish I could’ve gotten pictures, but the sun was setting and they wouldn’t have come out well through the bus windows. Our drive, which lasted about half an hour, took us along the Bosphorus waterfront, past the ancient Roman city wall, Haghia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. We were completely awestricken – audible gasps and “Oh my God” were heard all around the bus.

We got to our hotel, which was located on a very busy street right along a tram route. We gathered in the bar and were given a welcome drink – only fruit juice, but it was very good and refreshing after our travels. Our tour guide briefly went over our itinerary with us and then we were assigned to our rooms. My room, which I shared with Ruth, was on the 7th floor (actually considered to be the 6th floor, as the 1st floor starts one floor above the lobby) and it was at the back of the hotel, thankfully away from the street noises. However, we could hear the boat horns on the Bosphorus, as our room (if you stood on tiptoes and could see above the cement wall right outside our window) had a view of the water. Our room was very cramped and the two twin beds were pushed together, so we basically shared a king sized bed. Otherwise, it was decorated nicely and served us well over our 4 nights there, except for the beds being hard and the pillows practically non-existent.

Dinner was not covered in the expenses the first night, so a small group of us got together and decided to go in search of eats. The hotel recommended this restaurant a block away call Paşazade, which, if we had known we’d be eating 3 more meals there over the course of the next few days, we would’ve avoided. But the food was good and the ambience was nice. There was a woman there playing some kind of string instrument and singing. I ordered the Turkish cheese plate, which was very good. It came with dried apricots and pecans. It was for two people though, so I shared it with Tina, who just ordered some soup. None of us were very hungry, so we stuck with light meals.

Afterwards, we walked up and down that street and peeked at some of the souvenir shops. I was amazed that the places are open so late. In Germany, most places are closed by 8 pm, usually sooner, but here, souvenir shops are open until about midnight or so. I noticed a lot of feral cats running around…over the course of our trip, I will have seen more stray cats and dogs than I’ve ever seen in any one place in my life. It’s really sad. Most of them seem to get food though…they don’t look starved, just mangy and dirty and scabby.

We had a wake-up call at 7 and showered before going down to the Ottoman Restaurant in the hotel for the complimentary breakfast. The breakfast was unlike anything I’ve ever seen: dried fruits, plain yogurt with condiments (honey and cherry sauce), Turkish cheese, meats, orange and peach juices, Turkish delight (a candy), halva (a dessert that they served for breakfast for some odd reason), eggs, cereals, assorted olives, tomato, cucumber, assorted breads, coffee and tea. Some of that stuff may seem really weird for breakfast, but it was actually really fantastic. I’m starting to really like dried apricots. They’re delicious here.

After breakfast, we met up with our tour guide, Umut, who was a different tour guide than the one we had the night before. That’s okay though. Umut (actually a feminine name that means “hope”) is a 25 year old single Turkish guy who was completely undaunted by taking on 31 women. We were his first group of all women, so he looked forward to it. We found him to be absolutely hilarious and insanely cute, with an infectious laugh and a million watt smile.

The first place he took us was the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in the entire world. It’s known for having 6 minarets, more than any other mosque. The purpose of the minaret, by the way, was for the Muslim clerics to climb up them in the ancient times to call people to prayer. Now they have loudspeakers and don’t need to climb the minarets anymore, but the minarets are great for leading people to the mosques. They are very tall and can be seen for miles.

Anyway, we went to the courtyard of the mosque first, where Umut explained some Muslim customs to us. There were people trying to sell things in the courtyard, and they were all over us the minute we walked in, trying to sell us pashminas (scarves) or other assorted things. This would be just the beginning…people approached us everywhere we went, trying to sell us a variety of junk. It got to be pretty irritating. But soon, Umut led us inside the mosque. We had to take off our shoes first and he said that we should cover our heads if we wanted to, as a mark of respect (most of us did). We sat inside and Umut explained how Muslims pray and he pointed out the areas of the mosque where the women go to pray. And he explained why men and women have to pray separately.

The mosque was absolutely beautiful. The inside was covered with vibrantly painted tiles in a variety of patterns. We saw this type of decoration everywhere in Istanbul. I am now in love with Turkish tile. It’s a beautiful art form.

After the mosque, we walked a short distance to Topkapi Palace, home of former sultans and their harems. On the way there, a man in a fancy costume with a big teapot strapped to his shoulder blocked our way and insisted on pouring us tea. His costume was so fantastic and his way of pouring the tea so interesting, that many of us stopped to take his picture and accept the offered tea. It was cold apple tea, very delicious. And then, of course, he asked us for money. I gave him one euro (I hadn’t had a chance to get lira at that point, but they accept euros and American money), which was satisfactory for him. Others didn’t have euro coins and gave him 10 euro bills, to which he gave back liras, and they only found out later that they were ripped off (some of them paid as much as 6 lira – about $4 or so – for a small cup of tea).

Before we got to the palace, we were also distracted by the sight of a young man balancing a big slab of “Turkish pretzels” on his head, so we had to stop and take pictures of that too.

Anyway, we finally got to the palace, and Umut had to get into a long line to buy our tickets, so we waited in a nice little park out in the sunshine and enjoyed the weather. We finally got into the palace, but no pictures were allowed to be taken inside. So I got a few on the palace grounds. The palace is so massive that we couldn’t see it all. So I chose to see the mosque (with reliquaries of Muhammed, such as his foot print and some of the hairs from his beard), and I took a look at the sultans’ jewels and costumes – some of them hundreds of years old.

It was while we were there that I heard the call to prayer for the first time, and it completely freaked me out. At 5:30 am, 1 pm, 5 pm, 8 pm, and 10 pm, the cleric at each mosque gets on the loudspeaker and starts this long, mournful wail in Arabic (I think) that lasts for several minutes. And since there are 2,853 mosques in Istanbul, you hear this EVERYWHERE. It was completely creepy and unnerving, and now that I’m back in Germany, I don’t miss hearing it one bit. It sounded like someone being slowly tortured. Some people in my group found it haunting and beautiful though.

After our visit to the palace, we returned to Paşazade for lunch (the restaurant is owned by the hotel where we stayed, so it’s no wonder we ate there so much). We all had the same menu: some kind of soup, a flaky pastry with cheese, a chicken stew with rice and French fries, and halva for dessert. I thought it was very good, but nothing about it (except the pastry and halva) struck me as being particularly Turkish.

After lunch, we walked up this giant hill (Istanbul is very hilly) to a Turkish rug showroom, where we were given a demonstration on how Turkish rugs are made, the varieties of rugs, and the meanings behind some of the designs. The rugs were beautiful, especially the silk ones, and we were allowed to feel them and walk all over them. The showroom people also treated us to some more delicious apple tea (hot this time). The silk rugs are really cool because you can throw them up in the air and spin them around, and they instantly change color – from light blue to dark blue, from yellow to cream, etc. It was fascinating. Anyway, after the demonstration, the salespeople descended on us like vultures, trying to sell us the rugs. After I managed to get one of the salesmen to leave me alone (he was trying desperately hard to get a sale), I snuck out of there as quickly as I could. Umut pointed out where we could get lira, and he pointed us to the Grand Bazaar just down the street, and told us to meet him back at the hotel at 8:30.

The Grand Bazaar was both cool and very frightening for me. It’s contained inside an old mosque and there are over 4,000 shops, most of which sell similar items. The merchants stand outside their shops and try to tempt you to come in. Many of them do this by flirting, “Hey lady, you are so beautiful. Come and see what I have.” One of the shopkeepers actually proposed marriage! I told him I was already married, and he said he didn’t care. I learned that I have to pretend not to hear them when they’re speaking to me. I couldn’t point at anything in the shops that I thought was pretty, nor could I linger long enough to look at something, or the merchant would be all over me. I couldn’t make eye contact with them either (they think western women are easy and if you look them in the eye, they think it’s an invitation for sex). I wanted to get a peasant blouse and I saw several that I liked, but I was turned off by the salesmen because they kept trying to touch me and provoke me to look at them. They were just too pushy and it made me uncomfortable. Ultimately, I walked out of there with a wedding gift for Marcus and Emily, but even though I haggled over the price, I still think I probably paid too much. And I got a cute woven sunglasses case that looks like a Turkish rug…at least that was cheap. I learned too late that the best prices are outside of the Grand Bazaar. But at least I got better at haggling as I did more shopping.

We met up with Umut at 8:30 to go once again to Paşazade for dinner. He informed us that there was some misunderstanding and that only the last night’s dinner was covered in our expenses (in addition to all the breakfasts and lunches). So some of us were pretty angry about that, myself included. It was not Umut’s fault though, as he didn’t organize our trip. He was just the tour guide, doing what he was told. Some people decided to eat elsewhere, but those who stayed were evidently treated to music and belly dancing. Even the restaurant patrons got up and belly danced. I was actually worn out and feeling a little nauseous when we got to the restaurant, so I left and went back to the hotel for the rest of the night, to rest a little and to read. I think I just had sensory overload.

Pictures here

Sunday, March 27, 2005

ICEing it to Berlin

Friday morning, Lance and I left for Berlin. It’s a huge city, and two days doesn’t even begin to cover it, but we chose it so Lance could have the experience of riding the high-speed train (known as the ICE, or InterCityExpress), something he’s talked about doing since we got here.

The high speed train left a lot to be desired. We were unable to secure seat reservations for the 4-hour ride going into Berlin, and that turned out to be a pain. We paid good money to ride the train, and spent most of the time sitting in the section between train cars. This is where the restrooms are and constant traffic. So we didn’t particularly enjoy the trip, although overall, I would say that riding the ICE feels a lot like riding an airplane. It’s just a bit quieter and you’re a lot closer to the ground.

We arrived in Berlin around 2, and dealt with the confusion of trying to figure out how to get from point A (the Berlin Zoo, which is where the train station is located) to point B (our hotel). The route required two trips: the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, and then the S-Bahn to Anhalter Bahnhof (essentially, they are both subway systems). We made it to Potsdamer Platz and jumped on the S-Bahn, only to discover that we couldn’t get off at Anhalter Bahnhof in the direction we were going…there was construction! So we had to get off at the next stop and take it in the opposite direction to Anhalter Bahnhof. Finally, we got there, and were happy to find out that our hotel was literally right across the street from the S-Bahn station.

So we checked into our hotel, and it was very nice. Reasonably priced, clean, comfortable, microwave, mini fridge, separate bath and shower (really nice DEEP bathtub!), and they left chocolates in our room. It was about a 10 minute walk to Potsdamer Platz, 15 minutes to Brandenburg Gate, 10 minutes to Checkpoint Charlie.

We spent the afternoon after our arrival just walking around the immediate area of our hotel. We came across a section of the Berlin Wall, still in its original location. Right next to it was the “Topography of Terrors” exhibit, located at what used to be Nazi headquarters. We didn’t see that because it was really crowded. But it was essentially a pictorial of Nazi horrors.

We walked up to Potsdamer Platz to check out that area. All the development in the area is really recent. It’s ultra-modern and contains several cinemas, 2 of which are IMAX, a casino, a theater (currently showing Blue Man Group), hundreds of restaurants, and the Arkaden, which is a huge 3 story mall. It’s essentially one of the major areas of town and crawling with tourists.

After our walk, we decided to get dinner at the Italian restaurant right next door to our hotel. Then we walked down the street for some ice cream. We decided to call it a day. Most of the museums were closed around dinner-time and we weren’t sure if the movie theaters had any English language films (we found out later that they did).

We woke up Saturday morning, ate the hotel’s crappy breakfast (just one plain croissant for each of us, and tea for me). We decided to take a city bus tour, one of those “hop on/ hop off” deals. We figured that was the only way we were going to get to see most of Berlin’s sights. We had some time to kill, so we walked around the Arkaden again. Since I had a rather insubstantial breakfast, I went to a bakery and got a “pudding kirsch plunder,” which is this lovely flaky thing with custard and cherry filling. We found the pick-up point for one of the busses, bought our tickets, and waited for it to arrive.

And so the two-hour bus tour began. It was foggy and damp, so it was hard to see things. We were also enclosed, so there was no good way to take pictures. I did manage to get a few good shots through the glass that didn’t have too much glare, but there was so much more that we saw than what I could photograph. We decided that we wanted to get off at Charlottenburg Schloss, which is this huge palace on the edge of town. It was destroyed in WWII but rebuilt and restored to its original splendor. The bus was supposed to stop there, and it did, but not long enough for us to even get off. They announced that they were stopping, Lance and I got out of our seats, and no sooner did we do that than the bus started up again. So we decided to take the S-Bahn back there later in the day. Unfortunately, we never made it back. By the time we saw the other things we wanted to see, it was close to closing time. Too bad too, because there are breathtaking gardens there as well as the interior of the palace.

We got off the bus tour at Potsdamer Platz, got lunch in the Arkaden, then walked up the street to Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps the most famous landmark in Berlin, but there is road construction all around it, so our tour bus didn’t even go by it (they claimed that they couldn’t, but other tour companies were taking people there). But we got to actually walk under it and take good pictures, which is better than seeing it from a bus window. After that, we decided to hit Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie was interesting. But it was also extremely crowded, so Lance decided against going to the museum. We just walked around and snapped a few pictures. Lance checked out the booths selling old Soviet artifacts. He almost bought a Soviet Army hat, but for some reason he talked himself out of it. After that, we decided to hit Potsdamer Platz again to get some breakfasty items and some food to eat on the train. Lance had blisters by then and we were both a little sore, so we just went back to the hotel for the night, only running across the street to the Turkish place to grab dinner to go.

This morning we checked out of our hotel and took the S-Bahn and then the U-Bahn back to the zoo. We wanted to walk around the zoo for awhile, but we weren’t even sure it would be open on Easter. Fortunately, it was, and we spent two hours walking around. Berlin’s zoo is AMAZING! They have giant pandas, which is really exciting (and I got a really great shot of Bao-Bao, which took a lot of time and patience). Their ape house is incredible. They have a special dark exhibit for all their nocturnal animals (I got to see bats actually doing more than just hanging upside down!). They had a seal enclosure and the seals were doing jumps. It was so neat. I think Berlin’s Zoo is one of the best I’ve ever seen. And the grounds are just beautiful – lots of sculptures and statues and fountains. The buildings housing the animals are pretty amazing too. I think I probably took more pictures at the zoo than anywhere else.

Around noon-ish, we went back to the train station and got our luggage out of the locker. I ran into the bookstore to buy some reading material for the trip home ($11 for a freaking English-language magazine…are you kidding me?), we stopped in a grocery to get some drinks (everything is open in the train station on Easter Sunday, apparently). We waited for our train to Dusseldorf. This time, we had assigned seats, so we found our seats and had a quite comfortable trip. I got some sleep. I did a lot of reading. It wasn’t bad at all. It took 4 hours to Dusseldorf and then an additional hour from Dusseldorf to Geilenkirchen, and then we were home.

Anyway, enough of my babble. Pictures! There are 45, so brace yourselves. Again, some of them have glare because I took them through windows, but I did the best I could do. I am quite pleased.

Pictures here