Portland in Oregon: Sightseeing, Biking, and More

Portland's Bridge
Portland’s Bridge

Our first impressions of Portland were quite muddled, as we arrived late at night. My friend and I took the MAX Light Rail from the airport and then decided on taking an Uber to our AirBnB, as busses didn’t seem to run as frequent anymore after 10pm on a weekday. Ironically, our AirBnB was in the Southeast of Portland, in a neighborhood called BrooklynRead More »

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Spending Two Days in Rome: Day 1

Colosseum early mornings
Colosseum early mornings

Spending 48 hours in Roma, I was hard-pressed to find some interesting things to do and not waste my time on things I was not so keen on doing. From people declaring me outright crazy to the hostel owner who tried to give me a good overview of my “way too short” stay – I am forever thankful for all the input I received. Read More »

Berlin – City of Cities (Part III)

berliner dom und tango tanz

Of course the weather was crappy, no surprise there. But in the very last days it finally turned better – much better. For two days Berlin was as warm as 20 centigrade (70 Fahrenheit) and that made it all worthwhile. But even walking around in the rain slush the first two days wasn’t that bad. I had truly expected worse from so far up north, especially after being hit by snow the first week I was back home!

So by the time we got to the dome, it was peacefully sunny and people were bathing right next to the fountain, which had mysteriously turned on. We even got to see a pair of tango dancers performing right beneath the dome with a group of friends. Berlin certainly withholds creativity, so much to that. When strolling through the streets, we passed landmarks such as the Rote Rathaus and the Marienkirche – a well-known church with a clashing history of Catholicism and Lutheranism.

Alexanderplatz in action
Alexanderplatz in action

And then, finally, we stood in East Berlin: At the Alexanderplatz, where trains come together, trams meet, and subways emerge. It was a bustling center of eager shoppers, street kids with dogs, and tourists snapping pictures of the World Clock. Certainly one of the busier spots in the city, I would say. After this, we dropped by the Radisson Blu Hotel to view the Aquadom – a gigantic aquarium my friend had always wanted to view on her trip to Berlin.

The infamous Aquadom!
The infamous Aquadom!

Saturday night was party time and my first disappointment since my arrival: No glamour in Berlin! Just when I was about to sort through my party dresses and look for fancy high heels, my friend mischievously pointed out that no one dresses up in Berlin but rather tries to dress down. Meaning Sneakers, Shirt and Jeans time. I couldn’t believe it. A city without glamour? Well, it truly exists and it’s called the German capital. I still wore fancy things and was one of the only ones when we went to a house party in Friedrichshain (not without spending 2 hours in the Berlin subway and being distracted successfully by an array of things).

The new in-drink of Berlin? Mate – a common drink made from dried herbal leaf from South America, mixed with anything alcoholic. So after a few Vodka Mates I couldn’t think too clearly but we certainly went to an “underground” club in the middle of nowhere called Rummelsbucht. It was here that we needed a password to be let in and spent over an hour waiting for the doors to open. Since it was supposedly very crowded inside, they only let the crowd in slowly (and a good amount of people were denied access). We weren’t a big fan of neither the audience nor the music and after an hour we simply gave up. Partying in Berlin – so far my impressions are rather mixed. And I am not sure I like the no-glamour thing they have going on!

Kreuzberg
Kreuzberg

Then, on one of my last days, I got to see Kreuzberg – the former hood which has now been converted into a nicer area (at least in some parts). My friend from Berlin claims that in other parts it still is pretty dangerous but where I met up it was more like a hipsterized version of a nice neighborhood. The sun was shining, people were strolling along the small creek called the Spree, and we dropped in for a coffee at a café whose bare existence oddly reminded me of Park Slope or Williamsburg or anywhere else in the world. Except for the prices, these were still pretty low. But then we turned a corner and all of a sudden there were 6 police cars parked in front of an apartment building. The traffic had come to a standstill. There was surely something wrong going on but what it was remains a mystery to me.

Overall, I have to say that Berlin does not appear to be as international as other European cities. Compared to Paris and London, the only foreign people I saw were Russian and Easter European tourists mixed with French, Dutch, and British folks when standing in line for yet another sightseeing highlight. True, we did stop by at this coffee shop where the waitress only spoke English. But I had somehow imagined it to be more crowded with an underground scene of starving artists coming from everywhere, especially New York. Where were all of those Hipsters who moved from Wburg to Germany just to make a living off of under-the-table-work? It certainly felt more like a German city to me than anything but perhaps my expectations where mildly exaggerated…

On top of this, I encountered a few Neo-Nazis who were walking through subway cars. I didn’t like this – at all. Up to that date, I’d only had the pleasure of seeing the skinheads on German news whenever there was yet another political demonstration. So close to Eastern Germany it was just a matter of time to witness them in action.

Other than the aforementioned knicks and knacks, Berlin seems to be a creative city, no sweet talking here. Be it students filming a project for their school or street musicians performing art underground and above – I can only imagine what artistic vibes will ring through the city once summer comes around. Collecting bottles out of trash cans seemed to be yet another hype throughout Germany but especially Berlin. Heck, for 25 cents a bottle I think I’d start doing the same if I needed money. And all this behavior kinda fits the general casualty you witness throughout the city.

And that was it, my time in Berlin. Short, necessary, and mind-enhancing by all means!

Bye bye Berlin
Bye bye Berlin


[For more pictures on Berlin, go to Days Spent in Berlin (3).]

Berlin – City of Cities! (Part II)

At some point during this trip I visited my friend in the Oranienburger Street, which is a quarter that still has some milestones of German history. He pointed out to me that there were certain stones called Stolpersteine (roughly translates to “stumbling blocks”). Engraved on these stones were names of former Jewish citizens, their DOB as well as their reason and date of death. Hadn’t he pointed these out to me, I would have most likely just walked past them without knowing much about them. He also showed me how at many corners you will just find a blank piece of land and told me these were once corner houses. The buildings standing on the corner of a street were common targets of air bombs during WWII and ever since then some corners have not been rebuilt.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial
Jewish Holocaust Memorial

Berlin has a pretty interesting history, come to think about it, and I am glad that I was able to take in so much of it. Such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe, which we visited the other day: An entire field with nameless gray stones of different heights dedicated to the Jewish homicide. I find the idea great but was appalled by the amount of disrespect people showed by just climbing the stones and posing for good pictures on top of the memorial. I would have found it better to personalize the memorial with names of the deceased but of course this must be an impossible project so I find the concept of nameless stones good in a way but also unimpressive at the same time. Such is the case sometimes with modern art – and the Holocaust Memorial has only existed for the past 8 years.

Back to my first day: After visiting the museum, we went on to snap pictures of the Wall, which consisted of two walls with a narrow walk way in between (some things you have to see until you believe them!). I heard there is a great piece in a different part of Berlin and Liz from JustBe.LoveAll.LiveLife has artfully captured the Wall from this part of town in her post out & about in Berlin (see the very last picture!). You can see how it is artfully decorated by graffiti and paintings from famous artists of the city. My local friend told me later-on that the city wants to build a huge mall on the spot where this remnant of the Berlin Wall stands. She has even joined a protestor’s group to prevent this from happening. In any case, the Wall would be hopelessly destroyed – a piece of history never to return. Small chunks of the Berlin Wall are still sold throughout the city, so I was glad to snag a few for friends overseas (the price is relatively cheap compared to the kind of history you are paying for).

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was right around the corner and with it huge amounts of tourists. I thought this picture to be very funny and moment-capturing: A group of Turkish tourists posing with costumed soldiers re-enacting American and German militants. What was especially humorous was that at first it was only two people taking a picture but when the posers said it’s €1 for one picture, the entire family moved in (what a great way to get your money’s worth). There is a Checkpoint Charlie museum which we successfully avoided we found a bit too overpriced for what we were getting out of it. Plus the tourist masses in front weren’t really inviting in terms of waiting time.

After a coffee break and waiting out the rain inside, we ended up at a beautiful, peaceful spot: The Gendarmenmarkt in the middle of Berlin. It is here that you see several different churches all at once in addition to small tourist groups, street performers, and kids performing bike tricks.

Gendarmenmarkt
Gendarmenmarkt

And finally we got the see the Brandenburger Tor, which is pretty much the epitome of Berliner tourism and a symbol worth checking out. Just as we were in front and contemplating which way to go next, a random car stopped in front of us and a party of 12 people exited, carrying a Meditarrenean bride along. She was dressed in a lovely white dress – obviously belonging to a wedding party performing some sort of ritual. Someone turned on the music in the car and the group began dancing in a circle for the length of one song. Until now we have no idea which country this group originated from and what tradition exactly they displayed but if anyone can come up with anything, please let me know. Regardless, this tradition is simply lovely and must be one of the highlights of a wedding when marrying in Berlin.

Brandenburger Tor
Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor

The next day we made our round towards the one and only Reichstag right next to the Gate. Then back towards the Museum Island, while walking along a street called “Unter den Linden”. With fancy souvenir shops, a great Nivea crème store, and lots of embassies on our way.

[For more pictures on Berlin, go to Days Spent in Berlin (II)]

Berlin – City of Cities! (Part I)

Berlin Brandenburger Tor
Berlin Brandenburger Tor

My urge to see Berlin had been strongly manifested in the past 5 years. Ever since I’ve visited Paris, New York, and London, I’ve been yearning to check out what my OWN capital is up to. Not enough that living in New York brought with many, well, err embarrassing revelations. “Oh, I love Germany. Berlin is such an awesome city” was the phrase of most Americans I talked to during dinner parties or normal bar chats. New Yorkers love to find something in common with you as soon as they find out where you are from. “Berlin? Yeah, I’ve never been there. How is it?” was my usual response to it in the beginning. As the time went by, I merely swallowed this last remark and played it simple by smiling and nodding whenever Berlin came up. After being back home for two times already and not being able to scoop in a trip to the Hauptstadt, I just knew that this time was the trip of all trips: Time for some Berlin fanciness and me bathing in it!

I was ready to devote 4 full days to my capital and chose those to be at the very end of my trip. So after taking a train up to Cologne and then flying over to Tegel, here I stood: Among the bustling vibes of one of the most notable airports in the German country. From Tegel I went on to Charlottenburg, which is a district that stands for new extravaganza, hipster restaurants, and the one and only Charlottenburg Castle (which unfortunately I did not get to see during my trip! Booh!).

Our first night out was a culinary experience at a simply delicious Vietnamese restaurant. SaiGon Today offered an array of healthy looking dishes and a variety of even healthier fruit drinks. Cocktail-inspired drinks containing no alcohol – they were yummy to say at the very least. And this is where the first surprise came in handy (or rather, no surprise, as I’ve heard of it before): Berlin is cheap! Dirt cheap! Food, drinks, necessities – you name it! Especially if you are into Döners (Turkish delicatessen with lamb meat), you can get these for as cheap as 2 Euros in Germany’s capital. Everywhere else in Germany you’d be paying 3 Euro and up (Trier’s infamous Kepabhouse sold its stuffed bread for a whopping €4.50 on a Saturday night). For a dinner with drinks we paid less than €10 – not bad, folks, not bad at all!

Saigon Today - worth checking out!
Saigon Today – worth checking out!

Saigon Today Berlin healthy drinks

My first full day in Berlin was devoted to catching up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in almost 5 years. The main reason this city was so much fun was because I got to see so many people I hadn’t met in ages – exactly what I needed at the end of my trip to Deutschland. Together we went sightseeing for the first two days or so. And our first stop? Breakfast at the Cafeteria Skyline right around the corner from the Tiergarten. It belongs to the Technical University of Berlin (TU) and goes all the way up to the 20th floor, where you have a great view over the entire city. What else is there to wish for than an excellent panorama showing it all? Thanks to my local friend, I’ve discovered this hidden gem and can only encourage you to go check it out and have a rockstar breakfast for €5 only (coffee and bottled water included).

View from the cafeteria from high above
View from the cafeteria from high above
5 Euro breakfast!
5 Euro breakfast!

We then continued our tourist day and visited the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), which is a rather posh store, reminding me of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s with a touch of Saks Fifth Avenue, right in the middle of the city. Of course we also had to walk up and down the Kurfürstendamm – the most popular street in Berlin as it hosts tons of souvenir stores for tourists but not much else, as I am disappointed to point out.

After buying a few souvenirs, we hopped on the subway, not without difficulty when searching for an ATM for my friend, who has an account with one of the biggest banks in Germany. For some reason, all of the bank ATMs were underground and looked rather shabby than trustworthy. At the Potsdamer Platz we were able to snap a picture of the oldest clock in that spot (probably from the 60ies, since the entire area is relatively new) before we took off to the Topography of Terror. This is a museum-like building right next to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. It shows the history of the Nazi-terror during WWII and the prosecution of the Nazis after the war. It also has some bits and pieces on the Roma & Sinti and other groups who were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

After spending an hour staring at the pictures and descriptions beneath and listening to tour guides discussing this dark piece of German history, I simply had enough. I think we certainly entered overkill mode on this topic when looking at the endless amount of outrageous and brutal pictures which were exhibited. Which made me come to the conclusion that Berlin is most likely the only city in Germany that displays this part of history so accurately. It has an array of museums, history pieces, and other exhibitions on Nazis and Jewish culture during WWII, an era seemingly forgotten in other cities of the country. Since 90 percent of the city was destroyed during the war, Berlin also has a relatively new flair, including buildings and culture. Other tourists consider this city very hip whereas I found it at times rather bland and unappealing than attractive.

Clock at the Potsdamer Platz
Clock at the Potsdamer Platz


[For more pictures on Berlin go to Days Spent in Berlin (I)]

Trier – Old Roman Home

Trier Altstadt
Trier Altstadt

I do have to say that during this trip, I’ve seen many facets of my old home I wouldn’t have considered to be particularly exciting as they turned out to be. Aside from living close to Belgium and Luxembourg, we also live close to Treve or Trier: Officially the oldest city in Germany – built by Romans and severely influenced by the old Roman culture.

Trier has come into existence as early 2000 years ago – as a city NOT just a settlement. Its per capita rate has been up and down, but remains at a steady 100,000 citizen rate for the past decades.
Now, aside from Trier having some shopping opportunities, bars, and clubs, there is much more to see culturally speaking.

The most striking feature about it is the Porta Nigra, roughly translating to “Black Gate.” The Porta used to be light grey when it was built around 200 AC but over the years it has turned into its distinct black color. Built by the Romans, it has been modified over the years and been fully reconstructed by Napoleon in the 19th century. Since the medieval ages it is officially called “Black Gate” and it has gone through centuries of history one cannot fully comprehend. Among other landmarks of Trier, the Porta was designated a World Heritage Site.

Porta Nigra with a cute sightseeing car in front of it
Porta Nigra with a cute sightseeing car in front of it

The Amphitheater was built around 100 AD and used to host 18,000 crowd-hungry people in the past. It still stands nowadays and is a common place for the so-called Brot & Spiele (Bread & Circuses) during the summer. This is the biggest Roman-inspired festival in Germany, showing gladiator fights and showcasing old Roman stories. Sometimes well-known German actors and actresses participate in these shows, which makes for an even bigger audience.

The Imperial Roman baths were built around 400 AD and show the Roman bathing culture back in the days. Visitors are able to see the different pools, to learn more about its history and to walk around the grounds. It’s an interesting concept, albeit I dare say a bit overpriced (such as most cultural sights in Trier).

Bikes close to the Dom
Bikes close to the Dom

Then you have the Dom of Trier, which is a beauty to look at once you stop by. During the winter months leading up to the holidays you will find a neat Holiday Market around it and the city’s market place. It’s pretty large and vendors come from as far as Luxembourg and Belgium.

During the summer, the city hosts its annual Altstadtfest (Old City fest), which starts at the Porta Nigra and goes all the way through the pedestrian zone until it ends at the Viehmarkt. It’s humongous and you can find many good vendors during the day as well as great wines in the evening. Since it’s usually in June, the weather is warm enough to be walking around outside and taking in the activities. There are bands, entertainers, an amusement park, and much more, meaning you can either go there by yourself or with the entire family.
In addition to this, you will also find many smaller wine fests in the town surrounding Trier, as it lies on the river Moselle, which is a well-known vine region throughout the world. The most striking feature (aside from the red wall when you enter the city) are the amount of vineyards you see once you walk along the Moselle river. Vine fests usually take place in July and August. Trier’s Weinfest is in the beginning of August and if you are really into vine, you should certainly check it out!

Among the Moselle River
Among the Moselle River

Other than the cultural sights and annual events going on, I have to say that Trier is pretty boring. I am not a big fan of their night life, as I’ve already pointed out in Deutschland: The First Few Days back in 2011. True, you can walk past the Karl-Marx-House on your way to bars, but really, who wants that? Most of the time, the places are rather deserted (at least throughout fall to spring) or don’t host a quality audience I can connect to. And the clubs have rather crappy than great music. I guess I am simply over the fact of going out close to home but I also find this to be for a good reason. While I was there in April, I enjoyed taking some good shots and walking in and out of stores but at the same time, I was essentially bored in this city. Trier – worth the visit but move on after!

[For more pictures on Trier, go to Trier – Old Roman Home (I) and Trier – Old Roman Home (II).]

Taking with the Best of My Stay Up North

Montreal consists of several different parts which this city willingly opens up to outsiders. Since coming into existence in the 16th and 17th century, it has changed its name from Ville-Marie to Montreal. The name also refers to the actual Mont Royal, a panoramic platform on top of the city. Discovered by a French legation and since then captured in its fascinating French culture, the main language spoken here truly is French. Francais is everywhere: On signs, in restaurants, on TV, etcetera.

While I and most likely other Americans had imagined that the majority of natives fluently speak the language of English, only slightly over 50 percent of fellow Montrealers are able to communicate in Anglais. And when they do, you will most certainly hear an accent; unless you are talking to a particularly skilled young chap. I found this trait rather charming than frustrating, but then I also had the advantage of having learnt French in school and already being acquainted with the one or other foreign phrase. While I did not have trouble communicating in English and being understood, I did on occasion run into the one or other grumpy looking citizen who refused to answer me in English when asking him for a favor (such as taking a picture).

When sitting over a wonderful dish of possibly the best Italian pizza eaten so far (yes, Montreal also has a history of Italian immigrants), I got the chance to speak to a born-and-bred local who was happy enough to tell me more about the Quebecer culture. It is no unusual to start with French in school and then learn English later-on as a teenager (this would explain the accent in most people I’ve spoken to). It is further not unusual to for French Canadians to be regarded as lower class by the rest of Canada and to be looked down upon. This explains the animosity both sides of the country display, according to him, which is a pity if really true and which I never knew about. I must say that I found the Eastern Canadian culture far more interesting than what I have so far encountered from West Canada, but that is still unexplored lands to me.

With so many districts looking like a typical American city, one has managed to stand out to me: The historic part of the Royal Mountain, which I personally find the most interesting. Be it because I like cobble stone paths and nice churches. Be it because it reminded me of some old cities in Deutschland, my home country. Either way, I do not stand alone in this opinion and that must mean something. Past the Rue Saint Catherine and Chinatown, right next to the wonderful Notre Dame you can walk down to this part of town fairly easily.

Le Poutine – the pride of the country!

When I got here on my second day of the trip, I was starving for some good French-Canadian Cuisine. A fellow hosteller had recommended “Le Poutine:” A dish of fries served with gravy and curd cheese. While it was great to try out, it certainly tastes like what it sounds: A fast food dish with a nice topping, filling my stomach only until the evening hours. After walking up and down the main cobble street, I ended up in the Vieux Port, also known as the Old Harbor. It was here that another cultural festival happened to be held that weekend: A Middle-eastern fair which offered a few bands, fortune tellers, and many exotic looking stands.

Beautiful Old Harbor

It was here that I managed to take my first Canadian ferry ride: A boat towards Parc Jean Drapeau, on which the Heavy Metal Festival was being held. Beware, the ferry fee can be quite steep, with 7.50 CAD for five minutes on the water, but it is the definitely the most panoramic way to get over there. Another option would be to simply take the metro to same-named station and evidently pay a lot less. I didn’t see much of the festival, as it was gated off. Instead I was offered discounted VIP tickets by a beardy man with a huge beer belly for the bargain price of a couple hundred dollars. No thanks! The island also has remnants of the Olympic Park from 1976, the year it hosted the famous sport competition. It’s nice to look at and walk around a bit, but not much is out there aside from an amusement park in one part.

And then, finally, I did get the chance to experience Montreal’s night life. Although on a Sunday night out, there was still plenty going on in the streets. With a nice Aussie and a New Jersey girl I managed to navigate my way towards Rue-Saint Denis. Our hostel desk manager had told us of some great bars along this street. I guess I had imagined a strip-like atmosphere a la Mallorca-style: One joint next to another, a buzzing vibe. Not so much this night, on which it was rather dead. So we turned around and made our way to Billy Kun, a cute bar right next to the Mont Royale metro station. They have awesome beer and cocktail specials, which don’t cost an arm and a leg, as, unfortunately, Montreal can do to you. At 1 PM we decided to call it the quits and end my premiere out.

Lacking some necessary nutrients on this trip, I was able to take them all in on my last day there: We stopped by at the Marche de Jean-Talon, a huge fresh market place in the northern part of the city. One stand next to another, seducing us to try peaches, tomatoes, salted cucumbers for free when making our way from merchant to merchant. I highly recommend at least popping your head in here if only for buying some healthy fruit or vegetables and then wandering around the area. Such as we did, when we stumbled across a French-speaking film crew who were pointing their cameras towards, alas, another church!

After two days of exploring, I came to realize: This city is chill! I don’t have to stress myself to get from one place to another or to evade the masses. I can casually stroll the streets without being bumped into and having to excuse myself. The town has some very relaxed vibes and it was hard to let go of those.

Time in Montreal was short but sweet. Looking back, it’s worth a trip that’s so much longer. But it’s all about making the best out of the short time provided and that’s what I’ll keep in memory.

J’ai reve d’une ville de Montreal…