Barcelona: jamón, Christmas poop, and architecture

December 23, 2018
by Dan

Our bus arrived at Barcelona in the evening. From the bus station we too the metro to where we were staying, Meeting Point Hostel in Sants neighborhood. It was a nice quiet neighborhood without too much going on. A bit far from the tourism center of the town, but we ended up liking the area and it was convenient to public transit. And since we weren’t going into the city center every day it wasn’t a big deal. Plus there were some weird things nearby like a mostly empty model prison and the Parc Industrial with a cool dragon slide.

In my opinion, the most important and distinct thing about Spain is ham. It’s like the bread/rice/noodles of any other country. It’s in exactly every single Spanish dish (true facts). And so to illustrate this potentially exaggerated fact, and to continue our trend of pointing out the crazy vending machines that we find throughout the world, here is a picture of a freaking ham vending machine that we found in Barcelona. Case closed.

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Barcelona also has other things going for it besides ham. Namely, Barcelona is the main city in Catalonia. That means despite speaking Spanish, we didn’t really speak the local language. We were kind of excited to get to speak Spanish again. And yes, most people speak Spanish, but a lot of the signs are in Catalan, which looks to me like a mix of Spanish and Italian. Not too hard to decipher, but it still made menus harder to figure out than I was expecting.

It also means lots of protests for independence. Most everyone outside of Catalonia seems indifferent or against this call for independence from the rest of Spain. I figured there would be more of a split opinion here, but it seems very strongly supported. There were flags and graffiti and pro-independence clothing everywhere. So I avoided that topic of conversation but more on this later.

Finally, since we were there for Christmas season, it meant a whole lot of wacky Christmas traditions. Mostly involving poop. Seriously. This really took me by surprise. Surprise poop!

First up is the local addition to the nativity set which consists of a figure squatting to poop called the caganer. There isn’t a great explanation for why this is the case, but it usually has to do with pooping being some great equalizing factor among humans. I think it’s popular because it’s silly. The figurines are for sale in markets everywhere and often there are pooping pop culture figures to be found (Darth Vader, David Bowie, Hello Kitty, etc).

Next up in the Christmas poop category is something called Tió de Nadal. I thought this meant uncle Christmas but in Catalan tió is log. So Christmas log. It’s got eyes on it and you apparently take care of it during Advent, and then put it on fire and/or beat it with sticks and it will shit out presents. I didn’t read about it too carefully just because I like the version of the tradition as it is in my head currently. The point is, it’s pretty weird and I heard lots of little kids singing the Tió de Nadal song when walking past these decorated logs for sale in the Christmas market. I love that we got to visit at Christmas so we could experience these weird unique traditions.

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Another big feature of Barcelona is the architecture. Antoni Gaudí is from here and his architecture is a big reason it is a tourist destination. Our first encounter was on a run through Ciutadella Park. The park itself is really small and not great for running since most of the park is occupied by the zoo (that you can’t run in). Still it seems like a popular place to run in very small circles. Near the park is the Barcelona Arco de Triunfo. In the park is Cascada Monument, which was a work by Gaudí when he was still a student. It’s a crazy large fountain with really beautiful clear pool. You can also climb the stairs to the top of it.

After the run we wandered around the area a bit. We had some beer and bocadillos (sandwiches, usually ham). Then we wandered some more and stumbled upon this crazy looking building. It was like a small colorful version of the Gherkin in London. It’s called either Glóries or Agbar Tower and was built by a Spanish king in 2005. We also stumbled upon a flea market with a crazy sci-fi looking roof which will be discussed in more detail when we returned for a proper visit.

On the next day we paid a visit to La Boqueria Market. It’s mostly a tourism market, but they have some really nice Spanish products, such as the aforementioned jamón. They also had a bunch of juice vendors with some really delicious flavor combos. My favorite was the strawberry and coconut. These juices were legit cheap. You could find deals for 2 juices for 1.5 eur, which on the global scale of juice prices is pretty darn good. Cambodia still has that beat in terms of price and quality, but this is pretty close and the combination with the coconut milk was a game changer in terms of juice drinking experience.

From there we walked over to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This was a huge disappointment. I have complained already at length about being charged an entry fee (a huge entry fee) to see the inside of the church. So let’s just say we didn’t go inside, but the outside was very pretty.

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We then had some time to kill and we took a break inside a little hole in the wall sandwich and booze shop, which despite being right in the thick of Barcelona tourist  land, was quite cheap and super local. The bartender was dangerously generous with the gin for the gin and tonic. Gin and tonic is super popular in Spain BTW. Also vermouth. After drinks we tried to hit up the Picasso museum when the free vising hours rolled around, but we got turned away since you need to pre-book the free tickets. Makes sense, but it was a bummer to miss it.

The next day we made a return visit to the flea market with the space age looking reflective gold roof. It’s really bizarre. We arrived a bit late in the evening and many of the shops were starting to pack up, but there was still a fair number of shops open. Around the outer edge are proper shops selling fabrics or bootleg clothing. In the center were people with tables (or stuff on the floor) full of antiques and various other broken old things as well as household goods and clothes. I loved it.

Our next failed touristing attempt came we tried to visit the Magic Fountain. I chalk this failure up to translation error of Catalan. I guess I was assuming that it was similar enough to Spanish to be able to get the picture of the visiting hours. So we ended up arriving in time for the summer show, which was at least an hour late for when the winter shows happen. So we missed out on the fountain lighting up to music.

Instead we wandered around the nearby square where some pro-independence protesters were blocking traffic. We made our way to the top of Arenas De Barcelona shopping mall, which looks like a Roman amphitheater with Moorish embellishments, and watched the ensuing drama. There weren’t very many protesters, and police eventually unblocked traffic and then there was some shuffling about and re-positioning of the protesters and police. All in all it seemed pretty tame, and almost no one even had any signs with them.

We decided that we had to see the main Gaudí attraction in Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia Basilica. It’s an epic modern church that still isn’t finished after more than 100 years, but they are working on finishing it. The outside is amazing. It’s weird and imposing and interesting. For example there are bouquets of fruit on spires and dragons. I love it. After so many churches and temples on this trip, this one definitely stands out. I personally like the SW side and Christina was more of a fan of the cave-like NE side. Unfortunately though they’ve put up an ugly security barrier around the church. I’m sure Gaudí would not be happy with that addition.

To see the inside of the church it’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. I’m not so offended by this one since the church is still being built and it’s a huge tourist attraction, but I’m still not keen on paying to enter Christian churches for a number of reasons and the fee was just too high for our budget. So we were lucky to be able to attend mass at the church. It’s free, but only happens once on regular Sundays and other holy days (here is the schedule).

We went early on a Sunday morning. The official queue is supposed to start at 8:30 am for the 9:00 am mass but we got there at 8:15 and were about midway in the group. The mass was an interesting mix of languages. Mostly conducted in Latin, but the readings and homily switched between Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, English and a little bit of German for good measure.

After the mass there were about 10 minutes where we were allowed to hang out inside. The whole group of people pretty much instantly started wandering around photographing after we said our “Thanks be to God” at the end of mass. It is really beautiful inside, with vibrant stained glass casting rainbow light on to the white walls.

The one thing we didn’t get to do, that we would have for the normal 15 euro tour was climb the towers using the beautiful spiral staircases. So I can’t really pass proper judgement, but I think the main feature of the church is the exterior and overall, to see the inside, mass is the way to go though. And to any non-Christians reading this, don’t be intimidated, it’s a rather welcoming set up. Just follow the majority of people when standing or kneeling and know that nobody else there can actually understand what’s going on either.

Since we got up so early, by our standards, to go to mass at Sagrada Familia, we actually had time that afternoon to do a second tourist activity in the same day. We went for a run up to the Montjuic Castle. It was a pleasant but steep run. We chose to go on Sunday because it’s free entry to the castle. I’m really glad we did. There isn’t really anything there to see; I don’t know why they charge an entry fee. But you get a nice view over the city at least and the surrounding area makes the hike up worth it.

From there we ran back down the hill and stopped by the Olympic stadium (fyi: you can run there on the last Sunday of the month). Then we headed down further to see the wacky art deco communications tower nearby in a big open plaza area. It was really cool with the setting sun.

On Christmas Eve we headed out in the evening to do the modernism walking tour that we found online (pdf map). Some of it was kinda cool, some was a let down. But it was a pleasant walk around the city. Many of the buildings you can pay to go inside, but we were happy looking at the outside, and some of the night-time lighting was really cool, especially at Casa Batlló (in blue).

We did the tour in the reverse order, so at the end we arrived at the Palau Theatre. We had purchased tickets to a flamenco show so we got to the see the inside as well. It’s a gorgeous theater with really cool tile work and sculptures and stained glass. Unfortunately the nose bleed seats weren’t the greatest. They needed a little bit more of a step up between the rows. It was a lot of peering around the backs of heads for me. But the show was quite good with really great Spanish guitar music.

The finally, it was Christmas! I was worried that everything was going to be closed leading up to and following Christmas, but it really wasn’t so bad. Most things were just closed on Christmas morning. We had bought enough groceries to carry us easily through the day so we didn’t even go out much.

On Christmas we stayed in the hostel pretty much all day except for a short trip outside for a ring work out. That evening we laid out a huge snack spread with all sorts of cheese, crackers, jamón, and pickled items. Then we watched Die Hard, ate, and drank champagne. Merry Christmas!

Then the next day we left for the airport for Morocco. On the topic of getting to the airport (often complicated via public transit) I did some research and only got this handful of copy/pasted SEO tourism sites that I have learned to equally hate and also rely on. In this case they were utterly useless. They all quote some L9 line which leaves from city center and requires a special expensive ticket (which also doesn’t allow transfers to other transit lines). I don’t know why the L9 line exists.

The actual way to get to the airport is to take the R2 train, which conveniently for us stops by Barcelon Sants, and uses the regular transit tickets that allow transfers to all the other public transit lines in Barcelona. It takes the same amount of time as the L9.

The only catch is that the R2 line drops you off at the domestic terminal and we had to take a shuttle bus to the international departures terminal T1. This wouldn’t be a bit deal but it’s a really long shuttle bus ride. I think it was just driving out of the way for fun. There was a sign in the terminal that said it was just a 1.5 km walk, but it took at good 15 minutes at highway speeds on the bus. Anyway, I’m glad I figured out that we could take the normal trains, but very frustrated that the internet didn’t help me out on that one, we only figured this out with the help of the hostel staff.

Once at the airport we were spent our last few euro coins enjoying some vending coffees while we waited to our flight to depart to the final country on our travels: Morocco.

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Paris & Lyon: snails for lunch, the Eiffel Tower, and surprise lions

December 10, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Dan~

With the family we took the Eurostar from London to Paris. Once we got settled into our AirBnB our first order of business was going out to a nearby bakery to score some macaroons. My sister is a bit of a fan and has made some herself, so we had tons of fun trying the bakery versions vs the supermarket ones. Also obtained was wine and baguettes. Fun side note on baguettes: you might think it’s a stereotype of the French, but the number of folks that we saw just wandered down the street with a baguette in hand was astounding.

After dinner we went to attend Saturday evening mass at Sacre Cour. The cathedral is perched on top of a huge hill. The view of the city is phenomenal and we got a nice look at the Eiffel tower all lit up and sparkly. The interior of the church is rather simple except for an enormous mural of Jesus, which was pretty cool.

The next day was our only full day in town with the family, and so we went pretty hard with the tourism. Our first stop was the allegedly most visited museum in the world: the Louvre. I had read that the lines to get in were pretty long, and we were going on a Sunday, which had me worried. We got a late start and arrived at noon, but there were hardly any lines for the security or the tickets!

Once inside we bee-lined as a group to the crowds surrounding the Mona Lisa. From there we split up to explore independently for two hours. Not only is the art in there fantastic, the architecture and lighting plays a big part of the experience. I wasn’t expecting to be so in love with the visit. [Note from Christina: The ceilings of the building were one of my favorite parts!]

I didn’t realize at all how massive the Louvre is. Just walking the whole building at a leisurely pace would probably take the better part of an hour. So there is absolutely no way to see the whole place in 2 hours or, really for the matter, a whole day. Still we all had pretty serious museum fatigue at the end of two hours (this is a real medical condition, trust me, I’m a doctor). We pretty much all agreed that if we were to do it again it would require packing snacks (yes that’s allowed… I know right!?) and maybe taking a strategic nap or two on a bench inside the museum.

After our allotted two hours we wandered off for food. Unfortunately the area around the Louvre really sticks it to you for a simple mediocre meal. Again, I really wish I knew about that snack situation.

Following lunch we paid a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. The outside is super impressive, but I didn’t know much at all about the interior. Turns out, this was what the cathedral level in Time Splitters 2 was based on. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight, but it was fun to recognize while I was there. The stained glass was very impressive.

From there we headed to the Eiffel tower. We arrived a bit after sunset. It was cool to see it all lit up, but we were really hoping to go inside the tower during the day, so that was postponed until the next day. After having some fun photo shoots, we headed home and pretty much collapsed for the day.

The next morning we checked out of the AirBnB and stored our bags in the Gare du Nord station. We were able to get everyone’s things into two large lockers, so that worked out pretty well.

The next item on the agenda was to go out for a proper French meal.

I did some research on this and a ‘proper French meal’ in Paris generally means something super fancy and is described with words like “daring” and “inventive”. Not really what any of us cared about. But I found Le Bouillon Chartier which seemed to be a fine dining experience of classic French food for the common person. The prices were reasonable, the food was tasty, the atmosphere was nice. It was perfect. The main complaint of the place is that it’s busy and they shuffle people in and out too quickly. As a normal American family that wouldn’t typically bother us. But also we were on a tight schedule today so reading complaints about a place with service that is fast (by European standards no less) was perfect for us.

We were the slow part and took a long time to order food. But we were all super happy with what we got. The main event was the escargot. Christina and I were super proud of my sister who tried a snail (there may be a video of this…). My parents had never had snails before, either. My mom went into the meal willing to try just one, but then she ended up absolutely loving them. Way to go mom! And they are really quite delicious.

Then we were on a mission: summit the Eiffel tower or bust. To get into the ticket booth, you have to pass through security. The entire area below the tower is walled off and there is only one entrance on the north east side. Once through security we got worried when we saw the huge line to go up the tower. Luckily that was for the people getting tickets to take the lift up the whole thing. We were planning to walk up the first bit, which is my preferred approach for towers.

The line for the stairs was way shorter, and the tickets are less expensive. We opted to get the tickets that would take us all the way to the top which, no matter what, requires an elevator ride from the second floor viewing platform. It’s possible to buy the tickets in advance but only for the lifts, to walk the steps it seems that you have to buy the tickets in person.

It’s a pretty long hike up to the second stage. We were all worried about the line for the second elevator, but it turns out that it wasn’t so long at all. And the rather small viewing platform at the very top was also surprisingly not very crowded. All in all we spent about 1.5 hrs there. The view from the top is pretty great. I think the most interesting aspect of the city is that the skyline is minimal except for this one patch of skyscrapers off to the NE far from the center of town.

We then went straight back to Gare du Nord station to get the family on their train back to London, and their flight back out of Heathrow. We had a bit of a scary moment when their storage locker was out of order and wouldn’t open, but it didn’t take too long to sort out. So we got them to the Eurostar check in on time! It was really great to have my family join us and see what our life has been like for the last year and a half. I think that they had a good experience, and I hope we inspired some further travel adventures for them. It was great to have you guys visit!

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Once they were on their way, Christina and I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with out Couchsurfing host Anais. We went to meet her and hung out and watched a movie together before bed.

The next day out we didn’t have much planned other than to walk around the city. We really expected to be able to find a nice cafe or library and hang out. This turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. First off cafes are only really open from around 11 am to 5 pm maybe. And even then they are not really places to hang out for very long. It’s more of a midday break sort of thing for French people. That was hard to wrap my head around and I wasn’t super comfortable with the concept of not being able to buy coffee at 8 am. Early morning coffee is not a thing in France, or at least, Paris.

After a pastry at a boulangerie with no WiFi, we found a promising free library near to the Eiffel tower, Bibliotheque Amelie. It was promising mostly because it was open at 10 am… compared to 1 pm for most of the other libraries. The hours kept in Paris were very strange for us. The library is tucked away up a set of stairs inside of some courtyard with government offices. We arrived only to find out that it was closed that day for staff training, but we ended up sitting in the waiting room chairs outside the library and using the WiFi anyway. Plus there was a bathroom and a really cheap coffee machine downstairs, so it all worked out.

We went to take a look at the Champ Elysees, which was pretty boring except for the lights and saw the Arc de Triomphe. By triumph arch standards, it’s pretty impressive. Christina got a short run in before we went to buy some groceries for dinner and meet Anais back at the house.

Christina was inspired by a veggie sushi dish that she had in London which was fake eel sushi made with sauteed eggplant. I was skeptical of recreating this, but it turned out quite perfectly. She just sauteed slices of eggplant in butter and soy sauce and they were amazing. We used apple cider vinegar for the rice and it actually turned out close enough to sushi rice. It was pretty amazing work with limited ingredients.

The next morning we said farewell to Anais (Thank you so much! It was lovely to meet you!) and took off early. We made our way over to the bus station near Bercy. We had some time to kill before our bus. It was cold and the not-open-early cafe situation was pretty dire. Even the Burger King wasn’t open yet. Luckily we were able to pay a visit to the Francois Mitterrand Library. This place is massive, with a forest courtyard in the center. I don’t even know what all is in the four huge towers attached to it.

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To get in you have to go through security. They didn’t mind our huge backpacks even though they were clearly well above the specified limit. There was tons of space to work and free WiFi. It was all very cool and modern. This is definitely a great place to do some work in Paris.

When it was time, we made our way across a cool icy pedestrian bridge to the bus station. It was a bit of a waste land, but they seem to be trying to liven the place up. We hopped on our Flixbus to Lyon.

~Christina~

We were quite surprised to discover that the bus stopped for bathroom breaks every 1.5 hours, and this is a bus that has an on-board bathroom! After the long haul buses in Latin America and Southeast Asia, where at one point we had to argue vociferously for a bathroom stop on a long haul bus with no bathroom, this was a pleasant shock.

We arrived at Lyon and took the metro to our AirBnB, a private room in a shared apartment. Our plan was to just have some downtime and not do much after the visit with the family. Our hosts, Alex and Louisa, were very social folks, and they had friends over a few times during the week, inviting us to join, but mostly we just cooked our meals in and puttered around the house.

One day we went out for lunch to meet Janet, the mother of my friend Matt. Matt grew up in Lyon and is now living elsewhere, but he put us in touch (many thanks!). We met her at Les Gamins de la Place, where we enjoyed savory and sweet crepes with cider, and had a nice chat about travel and research. Thank you so much Janet, it was lovely to meet you.

Despite the cold, we found a time to go for a run in the Parc de la Tête d’Or near our the apartment. It houses a large botanical garden, a zoo, and a velodrome. It was the first time I’ve ever had a surprise lion on my run, which made the pack of deer a little later a bit less impressive.

The velodrome was closed, but we took a peek at it as we ran by, and interrupted our run to visit the botanical garden, which was free.

We made a point to go downtown and have a bite to eat. The main street was lit up pleasantly for Christmas, and the buildings on the Fourvière hill, including the basilica and the court house, also had some very nice architectural lighting.

We ate flat breads and enjoyed happy hour beers at Flam’s Lyon restaurant, which has a all you can eat deal, but I somehow managed to avoid overeating, though exactly how, I’ll never know.

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I returned to the park on another day to do a ring workout, and was very discouraged to discover that though there was lots of playground equipment, there were no monkey or pull up bars to hang the rings on. Also, there were giraffes. Hi.

I nearly gave up, but then I found a nice tree and had a pretty pleasant work out, and I was very proud of myself for managing it despite the cold.

And so, after five pleasantly relaxed days in Lyon, we made our way back to the bus station, and our next destination: Barcelona!

 

 

London & Surrounds: the Eye, the Tower, an enigma machine, and more than one henge!

November 29, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Christina~

Once seated on the Eurostar I fell dead asleep and woke up on the other side of the channel at international arrivals in St. Pancras. From there we made our way to the Piccadilly line and to Uxbridge to visit with my friend Chamini. Chamini is a friend and neighbor from my Japan days, and we got to see her briefly earlier in the trip when we had a long layover in Heathrow.

 

When Chamini got home from work we headed out to The Fig Tree pub for dinner and drinks. I got a pie! Christmas decorations were also in full swing.

 

The next day while Chamini was at work we knocked about the house, then I made my way to Southampton to give a talk to a local chapter of my professional organization.

 

I spent the night in Southampton, and in the morning before going to the university to give my talk, I got to eat a full English Breakfast at my accommodation! There were the usual (for an American) things, like sausage, bacon, and yogurt, but there was also deep fried toast (!), baked beans, fresh tomatoes, and sauteed mushrooms. Asking some Brits later, it sounds like this is more of a special weekend type affair, not a typical daily meal.

 

After giving my talk I returned to Uxbridge in the afternoon. That evening Dan, Chamini and I went to try out a local Asian fusion restaurant Javitri, and tried the famous butter chicken aka Chicken Tikka Masala, which is now considered one of the national dishes of England? It was only okay in my estimation, but later another restaurant would change my mind…

 

The next day the three of us went into town where we paid a visit to Paddington Station and the Paddington Bear statue, got a pint, then saw the Sherlock Holmes house gift shop at 221B Baker St. a formerly fictional address, but no longer!

 

From there we had a nice walk, taking in all the Christmas lights, and made our way to meet my friend Keri! Keri and I were lab mates many moons ago back in college, and we probably had not seen each other since she graduated (she was a year ahead of me) over 10 years ago. Keri’s boyfriend Paul (who was also wearing Feiyue shoes) joined us as well, and we chatted over drinks and got some fish and chips.

 

And here I present to you a photograph of three PhD scientists. Isn’t that nice! So good to see you again Keri, and so nice to meet you Paul! I hope we see each other again soon.

 

After that our little trio returned to Uxbridge to turn in for the night. The next day we paid a visit to a boot sale. The Brits don’t have garage sales, they have boot sales, where traditionally stuff is sold out of the boots (trunks) of vehicles. It’s not a place to buy boots. This was a mix of tables in doors and proper boots out in the parking lot.

 

Next up, we paid a visit to the London Science Museum, where we saw some cool exhibits including historic calculating machines, an enigma machine, and various communication system exhibits, just to name a few. It’s a high caliber museum and free, and I highly recommend it.

 

From there we went to Camden Market to see the sights and get a bite to eat. We enjoyed the food stalls, walked around, had a coffee, the finished up with a pint at a cool indie pub called Black Heart.

 

After that we returned home for our last night in Uxbridge. Chamini, it was lovely to see you and catch up! Thank you so much for having us to stay!

 

 

~Dan~

It was raining the next morning when we departed from Uxbridge. Christina went to the airport to pick up our visitors: my parents and little sister! I headed off with our bags to check into our Airbnb (referral sign up link if you want to score both of us some $$) in the Shoreditch neighborhood.

I preparation for their arrival I made a ploughman’s lunch, which is simple yet delicious. I bought it exactly one at a pub before realizing that it’s the easiest pub food to make for yourself. It’s some bread, a huge slice of butter, an even huger slice of cheese, some raw onions, maybe some ham, and pickles.

The pickles are the tricky bit if you’re outside of the UK. There are two types of uniquely British pickles that I’ve come across. The first is Branston’s, which are diced root vegetables in a kind of BBQ type sauce. The second is piccalilli, my personal favorite, which is a mix of veggies, including cauliflower, in a spiced mustard sauce. It’s all just snack food, but it feels good when an entire country supports me in calling it a meal.

When Christina and the family arrived we settled in and had a nice chat over the food.

 

To keep everyone awake and stimulated so they wouldn’t fall asleep too early, that night we headed back to Camden market. It was a big hit with the family because of all the great souvenir shopping. They had some good deals on souvenirs and the Brits have wonderfully calm markets. The bargaining was easy and no pressure from any of the vendors. We arrived a bit late in the day so some of the shops were “shutting”, but it was still a great outing.

 

The next day we started some whirlwind touristing. In general I think it was pretty manageable for the family, but it was definitely a higher tempo than Christina and I were used to. The first day we went out to see the Tower of London. First off, it’s not a tower so much as a castle, but you say flat, I say apartment, so whatever. On the way we stopped by some ruins of the old Roman wall from the days of Londinium.

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I was a bit nervous about the ticket line at the Tower, but we were in low season and there was exactly zero line for tickets or to enter. We joined one of the free tours lead by a Yeoman (beefeater). While the tour wasn’t super dense with information, our guide was quite entertaining. It was definitely worth the wait, though if it had been actively raining it would have been a bit miserable.

 

The tower of London has some notable features, and one in particular that I would like to mention. They keep a number of ravens with clipped wings at the tower to satisfy some superstitions. One of them decided to glide into the chapel as our tour group was entering. For myself, who am ever so slightly scared to death of birds, it was not entirely a welcome experience. There was also a bit of a kerfuffle when one of the ravens swooped down to snag some school kid’s lunch.

After the tour we wandered on our own. We saw the crown jewels of England. Again there was no line, but apparently there is often a lengthy wait. You get shuffled through rather quickly, but presumably I saw the Kohinoor which England stole from India (or some of their neighbors, depending on who you ask, but I know that India is particularly sour about the situation). Man-made diamonds are far superior so I don’t really care for these things, but I do have a bit of a beef with England for holding on to precious items stolen from its colonies, especially when they are kept in places with entry fees.

From there we visited the area dedicated to torture. I was quite pleased that this exhibit didn’t go into too much detail and was kept small. Finally, we made it to the white tower. Again, not a tower so much as what I would call just a building. But it was one of my favorite exhibits, full of armor and swords and generally cool castle stuff. It was easily my favorite part.

 

When we left the Tower we took a Thames river ferry from the London tower down to the London Eye Ferris wheel. The ferries are part of the public transportation system, incredibly slow, and pretty expensive, but it’s a great tourist thing to do. They are also super posh with a cafe on board and everything. I’m not really sure if they are used in a practical sense for anything but tourists.

At the London eye, I took a break and the rest of everyone went on the ride. I was a bit glad to have the family around for this part. I’m not a huge fan of Ferris wheels, but Christina is. They got on at probably a perfect time. The first half of the ride was during the sunset and the last bit got them some views of the city being lit up for night. They also got a great view of Big Ben covered in scaffolding for repair. JK.

 

For the next activity we broke up into boys and girls. The girls headed off to afternoon tea which consisted of massive pillars of cakes and sweets. Christina had been very excited about having a proper English tea, and my mom treated her for her birthday (thanks Mom!). They went to the Wolseley, which Christina selected based on this London afternoon tea review article. It was everything she had hoped for, including a fancy multi-tier tray.

 

Meanwhile, my dad and I headed off to a pub for a few pints, and we all reconvened at the Lego Store near Piccadilly Circus which has some pretty pretty cool displays.

 

The next morning we woke up early to catch the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. I personally found this to be a miserable experience, but everyone else found it amusing to various degrees. My view was more or less restricted to a sea of tiny mobile phone screens in front of my face. There is lots of pushing and shoving and mounted police shouting at the crowd during the ordeal [Note from Christina: Listening to the mounted officer offering loud verbal beat downs to transgressors was actually very satisfying for whatever reason]. Even during low tourist season in the rain, it was packed. I highly recommend that you never go. But if you do, this guide was pretty useful.

 

From there we got lunch and then we went to visit the Churchill War Rooms. I have mixed feelings about the museum. On one hand, it’s cool to get to go through the actual bunkers were much of the Allied war was directed from. It’s nearly perfectly preserved, since the bunkers were abruptly abandoned at the end of the war. My favorite part was a room full of graphs tracking estimates of various war time supplies of the Nazis.

So that part was pretty cool, but the main museum section was dedicated to Churchill. I find the guy pretty interesting, but I felt like the museum was a bit incoherent. On my own I would have probably prioritized going to the Imperial War Museum because it’s free, but also would have covered more aspects of WWII.

 

That concluded our London visitation, as we had another big destination outside of the city: Stonehenge. This was one of the more logistically challenging aspects of the trip, but I am really glad we did it. While there are some tour companies that take you from London on a day trip and they aren’t too expensive, but we aren’t generally big fans of organized tours. And with 5 people it became economical just rent a car, since there’s no direct public transit available.

To rent the car we went through Enterprise at St. Pancras station. They were really great to deal with. There is one office with like 5 different companies all set up there so it’s probably all about equal. One thing to note about car rentals in London is that the city center is a congestion zone and if you enter it, you’ll be charged about 12 pounds for the day. St Pancras is right at the edge of this zone. Luckily it’s a straight shot out of the city to get to Stonehenge, but you want to be careful not to accidentally make a detour into city center.

We could only include two drivers on the rental and since my mother made the reservation, I was the second driver. Christina and I had gotten used to driving on the left in New Zealand, and I had some additional practice biking in Japan. The catch was now we had a manual transmission. I can drive a manual, our dear Harvey was manual, but with the driver on the right hand side of the car and operating the stick with my left hand, I was uncertain how difficult that switch would be.

As it turns out, it was pretty easy. If I wasn’t already used to driving on the left side of the road, it would have been a lot more stressful. But I had that part down. The shifter and pedals are all in the same orientation, i.e. not mirrored. So it’s still a little backwards and shifting with my left hand was a little awkward, but I just tried to shift without thinking about it and let instincts take over. It worked out just fine.

So we had the car for one day. We got up bright and early and headed off to the small town of Avebury. We were recommended by two people to go here, one of them an archaeologist, because it’s home to an enormous (but less famous) henge and you’re able to walk right up next to the stones.

 

To visit the Avebury henge it’s necessary to pay for parking at the Red Lion pub. It was super cheap, probably because it was off-season. The inn itself has a really epic thatched roof and we had a quick lunch there after our visit to the henge. They had great fish and chips and everyone was super friendly to us yanks.

 

We rushed off from Avebury and did some drive by touristing of the Silbury Hill. I dunno, it was a big mound. It’s not possible to climb and we were tight on time, hence the drive by on the way to the West Kennet Long Barrow, which is an ancient burial tomb that you can go inside. It was most notable to me because it reminded me of the scene in Conan the Barbarian where he finds his sword. CROM!!!

 

 

Then we hustled off to Stonehenge. It was not very crowded this time of year and so there was no waiting and hardly any crowds. Apparently they’ve changed the access recently. There used to be a road going very close to the stones, but now you have to take a shuttle bus from the visitor center. There’s no hot dog stands or tchotchke shops adjacent to it, as we had heard. It was crazy cold and windy when we visited, but we were super lucky that it had stopped raining and we even got some really beautiful lighting before sunset.

 

 

After sunset we headed off to Stonehenge Inn nearby, where we got a crazy good deal for a large 5 person family room. It was a classic inn sort of experience. We checked in and went downstairs to the pub for some dinner and drinks. In the morning we got a classic British breakfast (beans on toast and all that, see Christina’s discussion above).

 

We took off early the next morning to return the car before we headed off to Paris on the Eurostar. We actually got there early enough that we had a few hours to kill. Christina and my sister went off for some conveyor belt sushi and across the street to King’s Cross station to see Platform 9 3/4. It was a total mess with huge crowds of people to look at a wall with a shopping cart buried in it that is no where near any of the actual platforms.

 

[Note from Christina: Just for fun I am throwing in a vintage photo. This is me, at King’s Cross, aged 15, in early 2000.]

That concluded our travels in England! Next up, the family goes to Paris!

 

 

Berlin, Germany: currywurst, running on the tarmac, and the Bundestag

November 20, 2018
by Dan (with short interlude by C)

From Vienna we took a train to Berlin with a short layover in Prague. We have visited Prague several years ago and thought it would be fun to see it with a new perspective. All in all we didn’t have time to see much. We spent most of our time wandering around with our bags in search of a place to eat.

Prague seems to be pretty dead (during November) on Saturdays, especially outside of the main tourist area. And since they aren’t on the euro, we had to find a place that could accept a credit card for payment, which further reduced our options. After much walking up hills, we finally found a small little place to some pilsner and snacks.

We then did exactly one tourist thing: we went to see the very odd Zizkov TV tower. Besides falling hopelessly in love with pilsner, this tv tower is one of the things that I remember most vividly from the first trip to Prague. It’s a weirdly shaped building, like something you would definitely build in Sim City. Apparently people hated it at the time and to make it more likable they added giant crawling babies to the side of it. I think it’s quit emblematic of Eastern European weird and silly. Unfortunately the babies were removed last year for maintenance and haven’t made their way back onto the tower yet.

[Baby-free photo is Christina’s, baby-ful photo is grabbed off the interwebs for your comparing pleasure. You can find more by image searching “tv tower babies”]

After that we made our way back to the train station to continue our journey to Berlin.

We arrived in Berlin late and I was a bit sick, so Christina rushed out for some groceries. The one thing that I find unbearable about Germany is that exactly everything (i.e. grocery stores) is closed on Sundays. I think there is a large enough Muslim population that they would work something out to have half of things closed on Sunday and others closed on Friday. Anyway, I’m glad we arrived with this knowledge from our previous trip to Munich, and that we were able to stock up for Sunday.

When looking at places to stay in Berlin, most affordable options seemed far from the city center. We ended up far on the west side of town at the Schoeneberg location of the Happy Go Lucky hostel. I was not happy with it. It is effectively a massive hotel (hundreds(?) of rooms) where the rooms converted into dorms. There was also no kitchen for guest use, which didn’t help the Sunday food situation. [Note from Christina: The staff we dealt with were very nice, but it was nothing like what we had wanted.]

The crappy hostel, bitter wet windy cold, and being sick weren’t a great start to the stay in Berlin but it all turned around from there. Berlin is a place that a lot of people really rave about, so I was suspicious, but once we started exploring the town, I ended up really liking it and wishing we could spend some more time getting to know the place.

Our first day out, we went to the “abandoned” Tempelhof Airport in the center of the city. I was expecting more abandonment than we found, but it was a lot of fun. This is the airport that was used in the Berlin Airlift to supply the Western half of the city with supplies. It was closed in 2008, but it wasn’t really abandoned so much as re-purposed. Supposedly there is a museum in the terminals, but we couldn’t find this and just encountered a lot of offices and closed doors.

It took a bit of wandering to find our way into the airfield, which was our main objective anyway. We found an entrance along the northern side of the field. Perhaps if we walked around the western edge we would have found the museum? Anyway we just wanted to just go for a run on the tarmac.

It’s a pretty large loop and with the wind and cold on that day we weren’t able to go for long. On a nicer day it would have been awesome to run there and even better to bike. I brought my small skateboard, and we determined that it is not compatible with Christina, who took a tumble off it. The best would be to do wind sports there, if we had that sort of skill/equipment. Because yes, that is a thing that happens there, and we did see someone out windsurfing (on skates?). There are also all sorts of community gardens and little parks.

After the run we went to look for the local specialty: currywurst. We visited Curry & Beer which was recommended to me by someone I met in Bosnia who used to work there. It’s not listed on google maps, but the location is 16 Warshauer. It was a really nice shop with pretty reasonable prices and the owner is really sweet. It’s also in one of my favorite parts of town. [Black frites! Made from fried, truffled, mashed potatoes?]

Now, what is currywurst? It’s a sausage sprinkled in curry powder and then covered in ketchup. So much ketchup. Its really simple and surprisingly delicious. Probably not something I would crave very often, but really nice if you want something different and cheap. We had them a few times at different street vendors. They are also usually served with fries but additional sauce for the fries, like ketchup or mayo, costs extra. That blew my mind. It wasn’t just a couple cents either, it was as much at 0.80 euro. But don’t worry the currywurst is plenty saucy.

Curry & Beer was right next to this re-purposed warehouse district, which we visited next. I actually don’t know what the area was, but it was everything that I imagined from Berlin. Old warehouses covered in graffiti that are probably “the coolest nightclubs in all of Europe” *said with strong German accent* where you have to stand in line for many hours and wear all black and look to be the most serious nihilistic party person (this last bit was actual, albeit paraphrased, advice for getting into a Berlin nightclub). Basically it was a perfect parody of the Berlin that I had in my head. So rarely in life do naive expectations match the real world that I found this delightful.

The point of this excursion during the day was to find a teledisko, which is a telephone booth converted into a mini-night club. You pay a couple euros and then select a song from the touch screen outside and the door will unlock. Inside you can fit maybe 3 people and try to dance to the song in a tiny space with a fog machine and crazy flashing lights. Probably it would be quite silly fun in the middle of the night of drinking. As it was, we went in the middle of the day and picked a terrible song (you have all of spotify to choose from so come with something ahead of time).

After a few minutes of dancing we headed to see the East Side gallery which is a large section of the Berlin wall that is covered in murals and graffiti. There were a few really cool murals along the way. If it wasn’t so crazy cold we would have probably spent a lot longer walking the length of this section of the wall.

After that we paid a visit to the Allied museum in Berlin. It covered the post war years and the management and reconstruction/rehabilitation of the western half of Germany  as managed by the Americans, French, and English. A large portion of the museum was also dedicate to the Berlin airlift. In general I found the exhibit a bit too feel-good. It felt like propaganda, but there was some interesting facts to be found. They have a plane that was used in the airlift outside. We were too late to go inside, but the cockpit looked plastered over so maybe it wouldn’t have been too interesting anyway.

Ashleigh, friend of Christina’s from high school, came to meet us there. She and Christina hadn’t caught up since probably 2003, and since then she’s become a zoo archaeologist, which was amazing to learn about. We went out for dinner at Heidelbeere tavern which was full of old stodgy Germans, the sort of cultural experience that I always am excited about. They gave us lots funny stares and sour looks when Christina laughed (this will not surprise you if you have heard Christina’s laugh). It was really good to see you Ashleigh!

The next day we arranged a visit to the German Parliament Bundestag building. It’s free to visit, but needs to be arranged in advance. The visit takes you to a huge glass dome above the place were parliament sits. It’s designed to allow natural light and air into the space below. They say that it symbolizes the transparency of the German political system… but most of it is made from mirrored surfaces so I don’t know if they really thought that analogy through enough. Anyway, it was a really really cool space to walk around and take pictures.

[Note from Christina: So many pictures! It’s a treat as both a hobbyist photographer and an architecture fan. There’s also a free audio tour that knows where you are and gives tidbits based on your location on the ramp, and stops talking if you move away from the thing it’s talking about.]

We then continued with a visit to the Brandenburg gate, followed by tour of the relatively new monument dedicated to Jews murdered in Europe. It was a very abstract memorial consisting of rectangular pillars of various heights. It evoked a surreal and disorienting feeling as you walked through it.

We finished off the day by visiting Checkpoint Charley. It was really silly, and more like a Disney reproduction with some guards standing there trying to get money for taking pictures with them. The most comical aspect was the heavy presence of US fast food chains in the area.

That afternoon we moved to 12 Monkeys minihostel. It was a welcome change from the Happy Go Lucky hostel. It was quite tiny (it only sleeps 12) but cozy. There was a basic kitchen and the staff and owner were really delightful and cool to hang out with. Also the location was far superior in terms of getting into town.

Speaking of transit in Berlin, I was rather surprised. I knew already that German train systems are pretty confusing with multiple tariff zones and a dizzying array of ticket types, but usually with all the frustration comes pretty reliable trains. Berlin had all the complexity and none of the reliability. Trains we consistently late and slow. At best it was comparable to DC’s metro system, which is great, if say you’ve ever lived in Florida and public transit is nil, but it’s kind of an embarrassment on a world wide scale.

~Christina’s Fitness Interlude~

As this is the first real winter experience we’ve had on the trip, I’ve had find ways to cope with the cold and get exercise. Sure, Peru was cold at high altitude, but November in Berlin is a different beast. So I went looking for gyms with day passes, and discovered FitX. They offer two free trial visits with an ID for them to hold (I used my driver’s license). I was somehow allowed to do this, so I ended up visiting twice, in two different locations.

They were pretty standard in most ways as gyms go, but two things stood out. One, they have a card system that lets you swipe in and out AND lets you select and use a locker in the changing area with a prox-card-based locking system. There is also an unlimited drinks station (with a house bottle that costs 3 euro from the vending machine) that offers still and sparkling water, and a variety of fruit-flavored sports drinks. I couldn’t resist so I bought a blender bottled and tried all the drinks. Sparkling mixed with the flower-symbol flavor (elderberry?) was my favorite. Also, the Llama mascot is fun.

My one complaint is that people seemed terrible about putting stuff away in the free weights area (and by people I mean dudes, it was mostly dudes). Bluh. Like, finished doing dead lifts and just leaving the fully loaded barbell on the Olympic lifting platform. Grrr. So much grrr. Overall though, I really liked FitX, and would probably buy a membership if I were to live in the area. And it’s good to know you can use it even as a traveler!

~End of Christina’s Fitness Interlude~

Our path out of Germany was one of the few flights that we took during this trip. We used Ryanair, which is a super low cost airline. It’s one of those discount airlines that try to nickel and dime you for everything. This was the first time that I flew one of these airlines in Europe so I went ahead and purchased the all-inclusive ticket, which is ~3x as expensive as the super low cost ticket that they quote, but I felt it was worth it. That way you know what you’re paying for without any surprises.

We were traveling to Belgium and this was not only way faster than bus or train, but it was also significantly cheaper even with the more expensive ticket. It also simplified all the stress about the size of your bag being accepted and all that. The only stress was making sure that we printed off our tickets beforehand. That will cost you 70 euros (!!!) if you want them to print it off at check-in. I really hate stupid games like that, but all in all the Ryanair ticket worked out well for us.

The weirdest aspect of using Ryanair out of Berlin is that you leave out of the Berlin Schoenefeld Airport. It’s not hard to get to, but it’s very strange. Half of it looks like it’s made out of shipping containers like some cool eco-vegan currywurst stand next to the teledisko. The lines were insanely long for everything and at one point we were included in a large group that was led outside into the cold (I put my jacket into checked luggage so this was not fun) like a large pack of confused ducklings, and then told (in German) to walk to some other terminal to check in.

Everything in the airside of the terminal looked like it was under construction and our gate wasn’t assigned until just before boarding. We were shuttled out to the plane and again waited in the cold to board. It was a weird experience, but it all worked out fine in the end.

I really liked Berlin. I think it would be an even cooler place to live than to visit, and I’m quite fond of the place and I look forward to visiting there again.

Vienna, Austria: sausages, waltzing, and famous dead people

November 17, 2018
by Dan

Waiting to greet us upon our arrival in Vienna was a wonderful friend we hadn’t seen in over a year. When we were couchsurfing in Costa Rica we met fellow traveler Kathi, who happened to be from Vienna. So we all made grand plans to catch up in Vienna over a year in the future, and as with most causal plans for the distance future, none of us were totally convinced it would happen… but it did! And it was wonderful!

On our first night Kathi had other guests in town, so she set us up with her friend Felix, who kindly hosted us sight unseen (thank you!!!). He lived out in Ottakring on the edge of town, home of the Ottakringer brewery and the popular Manner wafer cookie. He took us out for some dinner and drinks and we had a great time talking travel. On the way back we found a beer vending machine. They exist outside of Japan! But we couldn’t use these ones because we didn’t have an EU ID card for age verification.

The next day we moved over to Kathi’s place and had a lovely breakfast with her neighbor Sebastian, who turned out to be a regular in the apartment. He made us think of the cool sitcom neighbor, always popping by on some pretext or another to liven up the scene. We had a great time staying with Kathi and cooked a few dinners and ate breakfast together when she was available.

For our touristing activities, we first went out to a few of the local churches. St. Stephen’s Cathedral had really phenomenal architecture. The day we went was a bit foggy and so it was surreal seeing the top of the church disappearing into the fog. The inside was also excellent. The most notable factor was an enormous story book type display thing at the back of the church. I’ve never seen something like this in a church before and I’m not sure of what it was or when it is open, but it was certainly interesting.

We also took a trip to visit the campus of the University of Vienna where Kathi studies. The library was beautiful and the whole campus was ornate well beyond anything that you would expect from a university in the USA. A really cool place to study.

Also nearby the university was another church, Votiv church, and after parting ways with Kathi we went to explore it. The outside just blew my mind. Inside about half of the church was housing some art exhibit that we didn’t visit, but the inside had some nice stained glass.

On our next day in town we took a run along the Donauinsel island on the Danube. It’s an artificial island built from dredging a secondary canal along the river. It was a long cold run, but beautiful and we did alright overall.

We finished the run at Leo’s Wurstel Stand. This is a typical Austrian street/drinking food which usually seems filled with cheese. This particular stand came highly recommended (thanks Sebastian!). It was a great introduction to the wurstel. We went all out and got the Big Mama and a second smaller sausage. After ordering we saw that the Big Mama apparently is intended for 4 people. Guess we shouldn’t have also ordered a wurstel box… but we made quick work of it all.

Vienna has a lot to see and we found a few oddball sights that topped our list of places to visit. The first among these was the Museum of Art Fakes. It is a museum that collect and displays forgeries. We learned a lot here, including that there are different classifications of forgeries. Identical forgeries are replicas of actual known artwork. These can be a bit harder to pass off as actual originals if are known to exist elsewhere. More popular though are forgeries that are done in the style of a famous artist and then passed off as a previously unseen work.

I don’t have the art history background to appreciate any of this, but I loved the stories behind the forgers. Typically they are very skilled but disillusioned with the art world and decide to show their skills by making forgeries. The famous forgers become famous in their own right and often their works will be worth almost equal as originals, but unfortunately they often seem to find themselves facing a lot of jail time and tragic deaths. There was even a forgery of a forgery, a work passed off as the work of a forger who had gotten famous. Amazing. Overall it was a great find.

Right next to the Museum of Fakes was the wacky Hundertwasser Haus buildings by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser with architect Joseph Krawina.

We also discovered the tiny Esperanto museum. The idea of a global language fascinates me, but we both kind of thought that Esperanto had died out. It hasn’t and there are a significant number of native speakers. The museum was tiny and, but we did learn a few cool facts. (And Christina got the high score on the Pac Man themed pedagogical Esperanto game, which yes, actually exists.)

The museum attributed the language’s burst of popularity on the expansion of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the kingdom had a large number of languages existing and a common language with Latin and Slavic roots would be a huge benefit to the empire. Apparently the numerous fascist and communist political leaders of that time were not so supportive and the fuss around the world wars squashed further expansion (aside: same with this brilliant calendar system that was gaining momentum at the same time).

There were also some exhibits on other planned languages and all of it was interesting but mostly the museum was posters from Esperanto summits, books written in Esperanto, and pins that Esperanto speakers were encouraged to wear to promote finding other speakers.

Along with our entry to the Esperanto museum we also got entrance to the Globe Museum in the same building and a papyrus museum down the road, but based on our timing we were only able to visit the globe museum. We quickly realized that we actually purchased entrance to the Globe Museum and it was the Esperanto museum that was included in the ticket price.

The Globe Museum was many times the size of the Esperanto museum, with tons of globes of varying sizes. Some of the early globes were intended to educate Europeans about the people in the new world… usually with super racist caricatures. There were also some really cool devices that simulated planetary motion with fun complex gear systems as well as lunar and martian globes.

Over the course of the week we spent a few nights hanging out with Kathi’s friends. The favorite hang out spots were Huerigers, which are local Viennese taverns/wineries. They have some connection with vineyards that are located within the city limits or have some special contract to serve new wine. I don’t really get it and I think the status and term has changed a bit in recent times, but the point is these are awesome local taverns.

The drink of choice was spritzwine, the mix of the house wine (typically white) and sparkling water. I found this to be a delightful mix and only upon careful reflection did I realize that wine spritzers are actually the same thing and definitely something that I’ve seen in the US. But whatever, it was fantastic especially in a group since you would get two pitchers of each fluid and mix your own around the table. I was told that it’s all the same price to order individual spritzwine, but the ‘style’ is better when you get pitchers to share with the group.

The great thing with the huerigers is that they also serve delicious traditional food. Our absolute favorite was krautfleisch which is just sauerkraut and pork.

One night Christina managed to sneak in a work out at Fitness Club ISC, and she was very happy with the facilities there, particularly the squat rack and gymnastic rings.

Christina also celebrated her birthday in Vienna, so we did a few special things to celebrate. First up was a visit to the Vienna Central Cemetery. Such a traditional birthday celebration, but that’s our Christina. We went primarily to see the burial place of the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, but the more popular gravestones belonged to famous Austrian music talents like Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven. Overall the cemetery was phenomenally beautiful. It was a massive place with some really ornate sculptures and a whole seemingly abandoned section that looked exactly like the set of a movie.

After pondering gravestones, we headed off to a Viennese waltz lesson. Christina already knows the dance, but since I’m not so skilled in these areas, a dance lesson was the best way that we could dance Viennese waltz in Vienna. We signed up for a group lesson, but ended up being the only ones there so we go to advance pretty rapidly. It’s a lot of spinning and quite dizzying. I think I held my own. Many circles were made.

For a birthday cake we got the local specialty Sacher Torte. It’s a local invention of a chocolate cake with some apricot jam and a hard chocolate shell. We got ours at Aida, a recommendation from our dance teacher for a place that wouldn’t be too crowded. The Sacher Bakery where it was invented is known for the line out the door. We were very happy with Aida’s and its sacher torte.

In general Vienna is famous for it’s sweets and cakes and cafes as well. The Viennese seem to have quite an affection for cafes and so we visited a few during our stay. They are all over the city. The most notable was Vollpension, which employees pensioners to bake cakes. It’s a noble goal to keep retirees active and to encourage interaction between generations. It was a lovely spot to spend one of our afternoons.

My favorite aspect of Vienna though was definitely the architecture. It was quite similar to Budapest, but just more. More quantity and more crazy statues on every ledge/door/whatever. I usually spend a lot of time looking at my feet when walking, but Vienna definitely kept my head up.

Our last morning in Vienna we got up bright and early for a coffee with Kathi. (Thank you so much luv for having us! It was such a wonderful week!!! xoxo) She had to leave early for work, and after that we made our way to the train station for our next destination: Berlin.

Belgrade, Serbia: Tesla museum, cheap pizza, and clubbing on the Danube (and a ROME-AN BONUS)

November 03, 2018
by Christina & Dan

Christina:

I had to make a short trip back to the US for my professional society, and on the way back to Serbia to meet Dan I had a 12 hour layover in Fiumicino Airport… temptingly close to Rome. So I made my way through immigration, stored my bag at the lockers on the land side, and caught a bus into Rome to do a little touristing while I waited for my next flight.

Of the options for getting into town, bus was the cheapest and took a little less than an hour. There are trains which are a little faster, but the bus is maybe only 20 minutes longer. While on the bus I got online and booked a time slot at the Colosseum, then walked from the drop off point to the Colosseum where I was instructed to get in line for the ticket booths, though I’m honestly not sure why. I got the impression that if I had showed up later, I would have been put in the entry line directly using the confirmation on my phone…

The weather was rainy and windy, so I’m guessing I got to visit on a less crowded day, but as you might expect it was still packed. I enjoyed the architecture, but failed to follow the route properly, and it didn’t matter.

After that I got lunch and paid a visit to the Trevi Fountain (amazing) and the Spanish Steps (less so), before hunkering down with some tea to hide from the rain for a bit and then heading back to the airport.

The bus made it part of the way out of town before getting totally bogged down in nightmare traffic. Because that wind and rain? It had gotten really bad in some areas, downed a lot of trees, and created epic traffic.

After it took 45 minutes to move a distance that I could have walked on foot in 2 minutes, I decided I was better off trying to take a train to catch my flight. I had to argue with the bus driver on Google translate a bit, not sharing a common language, but finally the fact that I hadn’t stored any baggage under the bus convinced him to let me off, and I ran/walked the kilometer to the train station… only to discover that the trains weren’t running either.

And that’s how my 12 hour layover turned into 36 hours.

I arrived at the airport just at the time of my flight’s departure, and Air Serbia basically said “Too bad, you lost your ticket. No transfers/changes.” So, boo Air Serbia. So I booked a new flight online for the next day while sitting on the airport WiFi and I found Litus Roma Hostel, just south of the airport in Ostia. With the help of the airport information desk attendant I found the Cotral bus that went to Ostia for cheap (and was still running late, thankfully), and got a very nice night’s sleep, and then a traditional Italian breakfast in the morning.

The hostel made me think of the Shining, but in a good way, kind of? It was just a huge old building with high ceilings that seemed to have almost no occupants. I was grateful for the presence of my roommate, another long-haul traveler on her way to Thailand,  which helped to take the edge off of how quiet and empty it was otherwise.

It was located right across the street from the beach, so after breakfast I went for a walk and enjoyed the views before heading to the bus station and getting back on the same bus back to the airport. I had an uneventful wait once through security and then got on my flight to meet Dan in Belgrade.

Dan:

When Christina returned we stayed at Tash Hostel/Inn (their actual website is quite a throwback). The location was a great start for our trip in Belgrade. The best part was that it was located basically in a park and we were able to do a ring workout in the outdoor gym.

One of the main reasons that Tash Inn was a great location was that it is super close to the Nikola Tesla museum. We showed up early one day and were surprised by the huge queue to get in. There are tours about every hour, most are in English, and that one was already full. It’s possible to see the museum without the tour, but you pay the same price and don’t see any of the demonstrations (which I later found rather unimpressive). So we waited for the next tour in a nearby bar called Dylan Dog Pub, which is a Serbian pub themed after an Italian comic book set in London 🙂

We just barely made it back in time to the museum to join the next tour. It started off with a strange movie demonstration. It felt a lot like propaganda trying very hard to establish why Belgrade deserved to house the Tesla museum. He is ethnically Serbian, but was born in a city that is now part of Croatia and lived most of his life in the US. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted some cool facts about Tesla. He’s well known for being extremely eccentric, but the museum didn’t touch on this at all. So the movie was a bust in my opinion.

Next the tour guide showed us some working replicas of some of Tesla’s famous electricity demonstrations. They were pretty cool and the tour guides did as best as they could, but it was a huge crowd of people. Not a great environment to explain what’s going on and the descriptions were a bit oversimplified but still confusing. But there was lots of glowing plasma, so everyone was pleased in the end.

After the tour we were free to wander the museum. It was pretty much just one room of Tesla’s personal effects and a few assorted devices. Finally, there was a room with an orb that houses Tesla’s ashes, which with the lighting it was kinda creepy and cool. But overall the museum wasn’t that exciting.

After a short time at Tash Inn we headed closer to the city center to stay at a nice Airbnb located right next to Republic Square. It’s been a long time since we had an Airbnb that wasn’t a second home being used to collect rent. But there was a lovely family living here and they had some nice recommendations on where to eat, helped us out with navigation, and shared some local cheeses with us. It was closer to a couchsurfing experience and very nice.

Their recommendation for where to find traditional Serbian food was Kod Doglavog. It was very posh with a really cool brick cellar type interior. It was also a bit more than we usually spend on food. We were a bit soured on the experience when the waiter brought us bottled water and opened it as we were insisting on tap water. Hopefully now we learned our lesson and are prepared to battle this tendency to drink bottled water when there is equally potable tap water. Anyway the food was quite good despite these minor frustrations.

We did some searching on our own on another day and found another more laid back Serbian tavern just around the corner called Zlatno Burence. The prices were better so that meant we just went all out and ordered more things. The food has lots of similarities to Bosnian food (I think Bosnian chevapi is better though) and I guess it’s similar to most of Europe’s food in my mind, meaning stewed meat and potatoes, which is delicious. It also reminds me a lot of the sort of stuff my gram would cook. My favorite was the stuffed pickled cabbage leaves. It’s common all over the Balkans, but we didn’t end up eating nearly enough of it.

But by far the most popular food in Belgrade by quantity and availability was pizza. There were pizza stalls all over the streets and they particularly cater to late night partying. Like the last few countries we’ve visited, the parties go all night here. The difference here though is that the streets feel much more lively during the night and pizza and sausage stalls stay open late, whereas Bosnia and Bulgaria seemed totally empty until you walked into a bar at 3 am.

Anyway, the most distinct thing about Serbian pizza is that they provide ketchup and sometimes mayonnaise as a topping. The first time I was presented with this option I instinctively said no with probably some disdain in my voice. But that’s because I’m very opinionated about pizza. Usually I take all the toppings that get offered when I try a new food or ask them to make it like a local.

So when I ordered my next pizza slice I slathered it with this very thin and quite sweet ketchup. I don’t think it’s so good and I didn’t have the option for mayo. My suspicion is that, because the pizza here comes pretty light on the sauce and cheese, ketchup and mayo is kind of a substitute. Not my thing but I would give it a few more fair shots.  Also pictured is me buying a shot of honey rakija from a posh local store on a tourist street that just so happened to be under construction. I just like it as a weird scene.

But speaking of partying, Belgrade is well known as a party place and we partook in a few different ways. Our first night out was a two for one experience. First we showed up at a punk house called Okretnica. It was a bit hard to find. It was described as “underneath the bridge”. As far as I remember it’s roughly next to this local tavern. They were playing some awesome doom metal and it was a great atmosphere, very punk with squatters and cheap beer and tough looking peaceful folks.

Then we went across the street and changed up the pace. Drugstore is a famous techno club that Christina read about in an Finnair magazine on our flight from Japan to Crete.  It’s literally across the street from Okretnica but still a bit hard to find, luckily the punks all helped us out (some of whom also patronize Drugstore).

The building is nondescript and you just climb this long set of stairs. We showed up at around 12:30 am and it was still not very busy but filled up shortly thereafter. Supposedly the building used to be a slaughterhouse but there was no real indication of the former use of the space. It was a fun place to hang out for a bit and I’ve always wanted to go to a rave. I don’t really know what I was expecting. The music was super repetitive, there was lots of awkward dancing and there were crazy lights.It wasn’t really nuts and I’m glad we did it but I guess it’s not really our scene.

On another night we went out to party in pure Serbian fashion at a splav. Splavs are these (maybe permanently) moored river boats that serve as nightclubs. It’s more of a summer thing, but there are a few that are open during the winter. There is a big group of them along the Sava river and I actually don’t know which one we ended up at but it was roughly here.

We chose it because it seemed to be the most authentically Serbian. It was blasting a music called turbofolk which is like a techno version of Serbian folk music. More than a few Serbians turned their nose up at this style of music when describing it. Maybe it’s a bit like country music in the US. I’m not a huge fan of the music I guess, but I still loved the experience.

It’s one of these very Balkan clubs where you are expected to come with a group of people and stand around an assigned table. As a clueless foreign couple we were vaguely directed towards the back of the club where there were a few other small groups not willing to buy bottle service. The nice thing was that we got a great view of the river out the back of the splav and an open window for some fresh non-smoky air.

There was a single singer during our time there. I guess she was singing the turbofolk classics. We had no clue what was going on, but it was awesome people watching and the lights in the place were insane. I think I expected more of this sort of overstimulating lighting situation at Drugstore. I would love to come back in the summer.

On our final day in Belgrade we went for a long run along the river. There is a beautiful running track all along the river. We also included a jog through the Belgrade Fortress. It’s beautifully lit at night and we didn’t get to see the whole thing, but it was definitely worth the detour.

That night we went to a very different type of splav, which houses the Drustveni Centar NNK. This was recommended by some folks that were at the punk house. It’s another kind of art community center. The boat itself had some interesting history. Apparently one of the King Alexsandars and Comrade Tito at one time owned this boat and used it for entertaining. This is the story at least.

Now it’s tied up somewhere around here. It has a rather precarious entry, a leaky roof, and at one point during night we were there it came untied and floated a bit down river before someone realized. It felt very boxcar kids to me. We saw some experimental short films, poetry, and music. It was great experience just being there and seeing a different side of Belgrade.

On our way out of town the next morning we had to leave from the new central train station (Prokop). I purchased the tickets from the old central station and I think I got hit with an upcharge of around 7 euros for buying in advance. Yikes, given the tickets were 15 euros to begin with. Anyway, the point is you can just buy your tickets on the day of, since the train was totally empty. That said, the station is really really new. Like still under construction new. It seemed eerily empty when we arrived. So I don’t actually know where the ticket office is, but apparently it’s possible.

And so we were off for our next destination: Budapest!

Sarajevo: misadventures in bus logistics, Bosnian rock, and a bobsled track

October 29, 2018
by Dan

When Christina took off for a brief trip back to the US I was left with the opportunity to do some exploring on my own. From Sofia to Belgrade, where I planned to meet back up with Christina, is a pretty straight shot, and so I wanted to find some other destination to visit on the way. My top picks were Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Prishtina in Kosovo. Sarajevo is quite a bit out of the way, but Kosovo seemed like there might be some issues passing back into Serbia.

Kosovo only recently declared independence. It’s still a disputed territory and Serbia doesn’t recognize the border. The regional politics in former Yugoslavia still seem very murky and a bit tense to me. I had only very vague understanding how Yugoslavia dissolved, but even after doing a lot of reading and traveling through the area, I still don’t feel like I really understand the last half century here. So I decided to visit Sarajevo.

The journey from Sofia to Sarajevo is not a common route, and there are rarely timetables or any information for buses in the Balkans. To make the journey easier I planned to travel to Nis, Serbia from Sofia since it is a rather large bus hub and in the general correct area.

The bus for Nis left at 7:30 am. I arrived in plenty of time to the central bus/train station in Sofia but gracious, the ticket buying procedure was difficult. There is a huge array of bus companies with ticket stands, but it’s not so obvious where each of them go. So I wandered around for a bit and had trouble getting help from anyone working in the kiosks. Eventually a ‘helpful’ beggar came up and helped me buy a ticket. But then it turns out I got a ticket to Plovdiv, deeper into Bulgaria. I was not amused and time was running out.

Luckily I was able to refund the ticket and a friendly fellow customer pointed me to an entirely different bus terminal across the street. But even there I had trouble finding the actual bus company that went to Nis. It didn’t help that my pronunciation of “Neesh” was terrible. Anyway, I finally found the correct ticket stand Матпу (pronounced “Matpu”) located roughly here.

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Soon I was on my way to Nis and the bus arrived around noon. I inquired about getting to Sarajevo at the ticket office and found out that the only bus to Sarajevo from Nis departs in the morning at 6:00 am. I didn’t mind the stop over and I was glad to get to see another city. I made a last minute reservation at Sweet Apartments for a pretty darn good deal. It was an unnecessarily nice private room and right in the city center.

I spent the afternoon just wandering the nearby fortress and enjoying the fall weather. A unique feature to the town is that there are what appear to be metro station entrances all over, but the town is tiny. So I went down on of these entrances and found that they are actually huge underground shopping areas. That was unexpected.

The next morning I took off on the ten hour journey to Sarajevo. I felt bad killing so much daylight days with bus travel, but the ride was very scenic. Along the way, the most beautiful town was Visegrad. It was in the middle of this mountainous valley with a river running through the center of town and huge cliffs on either side. There were some beautiful bridges and a church on this peninsula jutting out into the river. I know nothing of the place, but I would definitely travel back there to explore.

I arrived Sarajevo in the early afternoon at the bus station which was a bit far out of town so I went to buy my bus ticket to Belgrade since I was already there. This was important because the buses to Serbia leave from that side of town, which is the Serbian Republic part of Bosnia Herzegovina. I didn’t realize how complicated the governance of the region is, but it’s basically split up into semi-autonomous regions that are mostly separated into various ethnic regions. I’ve read a lot about the modern history of Bosnia and it’s still very confusing.  I don’t understand at all how this is a reasonable solution to the genocide that occurred here in the ’90s or how it’s really any different than the legislative system that was set up after Tito‘s death and crippled Yugoslavia and led to its break up.

Anyway I decided to buy my ticket in advance and encountered something that I didn’t expect in Europe. I was purposefully given the wrong change twice. And I was about to go back a third time because I was charged a higher price than the printed ticket value, but just gave up. Also the information desk told me that the only way into town was taxi. But there is a bus stop that goes directly to city center just a two minute walk up the road. I had let my guard down for this type of stuff and it was a frustrating introduction to the country.

I arrived at Hostel Eternal Flame, which is pretty new I think. It’s located in a theater and maybe they are kind of officially squatting because they aren’t allowed to post a sign for the hostel. Anyway, everyone has trouble finding the place even with the instructions that they send out, but it was a lovely place with friendly guests and staff, and a great location in the city. During that first night I took a wander around and it definitely gave the impression of being a pretty tough city.

But more than anything, the most difficult aspect of visiting Sarajevo was the scars of war. I guess I suspected this going in and the reason that I even know of Sarajevo is from hearing about it as a kid in the news. But I didn’t go to see Sarajevo to learn about the horrors of genocide; I typically avoid that. I think I went because I wanted to see the new recuperated Sarajevo and put a new picture of the city in my head. That’s been the case in a lot of places that we’ve visited, but Sarajevo felt a bit different. To me the city still feels very defined by the awful war in the 1990s.

So I felt a lot of sadness staying there. There are still bombed out buildings and bullet holes here and there. Not preserved as a monument, but just because they haven’t been rebuilt. The city is absolutely covered in cemeteries with very telling dates on the gravestones. You have to stay on designated trails when hiking the surrounding areas because there could still be landmines. The main tourist area has places where mortar blasts have been filled in with a red acrylic as a memorial and they’re not hard to find. The main tourist area is exactly where people were being killed during the siege of the city.

The thing that really stuck in my head during the visit was that if I was someone trapped in city during the siege, I would have been the same age as the kids that had to run out to get water because they were harder targets for the snipers. I don’t really know how true or common that was, but it’s the story that people think of when talking about the siege and just the concept in general got to me.

So I couldn’t bring myself to visit the war museums.

The main site that I wanted to see there was the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics in the nearby hills. I saw video several years back of people taking longboards down the track. It looked insane. And it is insane. I chose to hike up the mountain to the track. It’s a nice hike through some quiet residential parts of town and along the way are some abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. I love abandoned buildings, but these gave me the same sad feeling that the buildings in Kep, Cambodia gave me because they are abandoned as a result of very specific tragedy.

The bobsled track itself was mostly in pretty good condition and there were plenty of tourists in the area that took the cable car up the hill. The graffiti was phenomenal down the whole track. It was difficult to take good pictures, but it was impressive. The walk was really fun and I would come back to run up the track or better yet, if I could get a bike with some decent brakes I would love to ride it down. I would love to visit again.

Inspired by the awesome views of the city from the bobsled track and the fact that there are mountains all around the city, I searched out some other hiking opportunities. The easiest hike from the city is to Skakavac Waterfall. You can actually walk all the way up there from the city center, but it would be a pretty long trek. I took the 69 bus from Kosevo Park in the city center to the town of Nahorevo. From there I hiked to the trail head. It was still a decent distance and pretty steep, and the view out over the city is great.

At the trail head is a mountain hut owned by a guy named Dragan. It’s very rustic and the wind kind of whistles through the building and shakes it. I liked the vibe. He had bean soup that day so I had some of that and a coffee. It was the only thing I ate all day and I’m glad I did. I had already walked almost an hour and the hike to the waterfall from the trail head along the “mountain” trail took another hour. I had read that the “tourist” trail wasn’t very interesting and presumably easier. The mountain trail wasn’t bad but a bit slippery with all the leaves and my awesome shoes from China are already worn flat. But it was fine.

The waterfall is really cool. There isn’t a large volume of water, but the water kind of bounces off all the rocks and mists up. It’s unique. I think it would be cool to swim there on a warm day. As it was, it was a little chilly but really windy, so I kept moving. I came to a larger crossroads without any trail signage. It was a huge picnic area with lots of paths crisscrossing. I took my best guess and I think I ended up going quite far out of the way and hiking through wet grassy areas with pine trees. I felt like I was probably on the wrong trail.

I eventually arrived at a nice mountain lodge and was again at a loss for where to go. I asked a family that was finishing up their meal and they offered to let me hike with them to their car and then drive me down to the city. It was about another hour of hiking and I had a blast talking with them. The guy is a Scot and has been living there since ’94, so it was pretty clear why and I avoided talking about the war. But I’ve since seen his name pop up in some of the credits for documentaries about the area.

Mostly we talked about current political environment and also about how much he loves these mountains. He comes and hikes here every weekend with his family. I was really fortunate to meet up with them.

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One night I went out drinking with some folks from the hostel. It was a bit of a challenge finding a fun bar without the help of a local, but the great thing about drinking in the Balkans is how cheap the beer is. There is still a huge mark up on beer in bars, but the base price of beer is so low (I’m talking like <$2 for half a gallon of beer) that it’s still reasonable on a tight budget to go out to bars.

The place I ended up enjoying the most was actually right next to the hostel called Underground Club and their symbol is like the London Underground. So it obviously wasn’t playing underground music with a set up like that, but it was fun. I went two nights and both times there were bands doing original music or covers in Serbo-Croatian. Bosnian rock is pretty cool. The shows started after midnight so those were some pretty late nights.

On my final day in Sarajevo, after staying up way too late for too many nights I went for a run to the Goat’s bridge. It’s a really nice pedestrian path with some excellent views.

That I headed out to catch the night bus to Belgrade. I was exhausted so I was able to sleep pretty much without problem through the night and had the whole row to myself.

From Athens to Sofia: the Acropolis, churches, Vitosha mountain, and boza

October 16, 2018
by Dan

On our return from Cairo we reversed the express bus route from the airport and headed back to Petaluda house, where we had stayed during our last pass through Athens.

Our general goal was to go to Sofia Bulgaria but we planned an additional night in Athens to make up on the touristing we missed last time. We filled our one-night, two-day stay by visiting pretty much everything on the combined Acropolis ticket. It’s a ticket that covers the Acropolis and several other archaeological sites around the city. I was really uncertain how worth it it would be. The base ticket to the Acropolis was 20 euro and an extra 10 for the combined site (valid for 5 days). OMG that hurt.

First up was the Acropolis and Parthenon, the icon of Athens. It was cool to see the scale of the place and there were excellent views of the city in all directions. Unfortunately there was scaffolding covering one side and a crane sitting in the center. I think the economic crisis kind of just stalled the work that they were doing and so the crane is now a permanent monument to modern construction equipment inside the Parthenon, kind of like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel.  My feeling was that the coolest part of the Acropolis was being able to see it from all over the city.

We started off the next morning with a visit to the Panathenaic Stadium, the stadium used for the ancient Athens games. It has also been restored for the ceremonies for the Athens Olympics and as a finishing point for the Athens Marathon. There is a paid entry, but looking at the stadium over the fence was sufficient for our purposes. Apparently running on the track is possible from 7:30 am to 9 am. Unfortunately we were so beat from yesterday that we used the morning to sleep in and missed that, but it’s definitely something I would prioritize if we come back.

Next we headed to my favorite site on the unified ticket, the Temple of Zeus the Olympian. I am fond of making this ignorant joke that everything to see in Greece is just pillars. It’s pretty true though and this was just pillars. BUT! these pillars were all original and you still get a sense for the scale of the temple, which was huge. And you can get a lot closer than is allowed at the Parthenon. Also the view from here of the Acropolis is excellent. So in my opinion, if there was only one thing to do for cheap on a very short layover in Athens, this would be this. Nearby also is Hadrian’s arch. I know the desire was stupid, but I really wanted to walk under it. Confounded flimsy rope fences.