Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer Styling at Lakeside Retreats

Last December, when we were planning this trip, I stumbled upon this fabulous lakeside town. Having seen countless pictures, I somehow convinced myself I was headed to Switzerland, but to my surprise Annecy was still in France. Lake Annecy and the town of Annecy are on the border between France and Switzerland abutting the foothills of the Alps. The weather in this part of Europe has been uncharacteristically cool with an atypical amount of rain over the past few weeks. Driving from Lyon, we were hit with a few drops of rain and a temperature that didn’t want to quite burst through that 60 degree marker. Knowing that my friends were suffering through over 100 degree temperatures with horrendous humidity, I savored the cool air and donned my pants and sweater. Ok, so maybe I ventured out in shorts and platform sandals, but I clandestinely changed at the petrol station while we pumped gas. But who is counting?
Vielle Annecy
Another feat of directional savvy somehow got us to the Vielle Ville (old village) of Annecy where we parked at the Chateaux atop the hill and took in the picturesque view of Lake Annecy and the colorful town below. We explored the Chateaux – an old castle – and then trudged down the hill to the winding streets of the old town lined by canals from the lake. The water is crystal blue and has that quality only glacier water can give to a lake. I was afraid to get my toe near it as I was certain it would be freezing but I later discovered it was closer to the temperature of the Pacific than I’d expected. If the sun had been beating down, it would have been wonderfully refreshing. We lunched in town while it down poured around us and then walked through the Sunday market with its ever-present fresh chevre cheese, dried and cured meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and tantalizing pastries before wandering to the lake shore to admire our surroundings. Now, in day two of being on a fabulous lake in this region, I am struck by how unbelievable this setting is. I am waiting for the moment when the backdrop falls down like in a movie set and a blank wall stares back at me. It is that surreal.
View from my room at the Abbey Talloires
Our destination for the evening was on the eastern shore of Lake Annecy, the most picturesque part of this 40km route around the lake. The Abbaye of Talloires, another former abbey turned hotel, was our sleeping quarters for the evening. Post Lyon, we were sadly used to ample rooms so the former monks quarters turned hotel rooms were a bit austere in comparison. However, the view out our windows was compensation enough. I kept sticking my head out the window to verify what I was seeing was real. And later in the evening when the clouds parted, it was beyond fabulous. I sat in my room reading my book and enjoying the backdrop, beyond appreciative for the experience and the company, and the opportunity to be sitting where I was. Priceless.
Vevey with Mont Blanc in the background - and a modern art installation
This morning I awoke to that same scenery, the sun hitting the water just right and reminding me of years of waking up on the lake at summer camps and being up in Northern Minnesota….the only difference the Alpine presence in the background! It was time to get up and at ‘em and move on to our next stop – Switzerland (or back to Switzerland.) Winding through the mountains, we jumped onto the lakeside route along Lake Geneva, driving through Nyon, a roman town founded by Julius Ceasar, passing the Olympic park in Laussane, driving along the terraced vineyards of Lavaux painstakingly planted by monks centuries ago and preserved by UNESCO, and stopping for lunch in scenic Vevey.

A commentary must be made on the costs in Switzerland (and France as well) - it's INSANE how expensive this country is. A coke at lunch was $9 while a beer was $6 - and the beer wasn't even good. It makes you cringe trying to order even the most mundane starter because nothing is less than $15 and the caliber isn't even worthy of the cost. We filled up half of our diesel gas tank and it was $100 (this was in Euros in France too.) Imagine if we'd had an unleaded tank! When you have a Eurozone that is sitting in a wildly precarious position, the costs of items and the FX rate should have some rational expression in the market. But apparently that memo hasn't reached the French. It must be stuck with that Sanskrit memo about hospitality.
Driving on our expensive diesel, we plugged along the freeway, appreciating the panorama surrounding us. From Lake Geneva, we were headed to Lake Murten. Before arriving, we elected to visit Gruyere, the medieval hilltop town that proffered the name for the wildly famous fondue cheese. That and the hometown of H.R. Giger, the visual artist behind the "Alien" movie series. Totally random yet fascinating especially in the context of a tiny town in the middle of Switzerland. His cafe was like the recreation of the inside of one of the Alien's bodies with spines and insane chairs and floor designs everywhere. Kind of creepy, but I liked it. Love those movies.
Town of Murten
Our final stop for the day, and by far one of the most picturesque, was the town of Murten-Meyriez on Lake Murten. Our accommodations last night were in a 100-year old country house overlooking the enchanting lake and surrounding hills covered in typical Swiss homes. People were out sunbathing, swimming in the lake, boating, sailing, fishing, and just enjoying the outdoors. Our rooms had private balconies overlooking this grand view so we decided to go into town and purchase a picnic to enjoy together. Fresh bread from the bakery, cheese, meats, swiss chocolate and two bottles of wine, and we were a happy crowd. Well, that was until we decided we need a bucket of ice for our wine and some oil and vinegar. The hotel was happy to send it up and then charge us 30 Swiss Francs ($37) for the order! Again, INSANE! We argued, they didn't care, we yelled, they didn't care, we had another sip of our wine and tried to go back to enjoying our view. Really, really enjoying it. At the end of the day, we had a wonderful and relaxing evening and are heading to breakfast this morning where we may leave with some souvenirs in our pockets as revenge. Ha!
View from my room overlooking Lake Murten
Today is my last full day of this adventure in Europe. It has been one of the best trips I have been on in a while with a constant barrage of wonderful sights to see, people to meet, and educational opportunities. And the weather, despite a few rain showers, has been a refreshing reprieve to the heat and humidity of New York. That being said, I gravely miss my friends and loved ones and look forward to being home and back in my routine. I started off the morning here with a nice run along the lake and will go for breakfast before departing for Zurich where we'll spend the night and then fly back home tomorrow morning. See some of you really soon! xoxo

Monday, July 25, 2011

La Vie en Lyon

Considered by many to be the gastronomic center of France, Lyon did not fail to impress with the Halles of Lyon food market, the authentic Lyonaisse Bouchon restaurants, the fragrant and eye-watering patisseries filled with “coussins” and pink pralines, and of course the indelible imprint of a Chef of the Century winner, Paul Bocuse. Second in size to Paris, Lyon’s lure stretches beyond the culinary to entice with, among other things, beautiful architecture, an old town that evokes memories of some far-off Italian village, and a striking Basilica overlooking the expansive city.

From Beaune to Lyon on the country road
Departing Beaune, we chose the scenic route to Lyon, which wound through the countryside and along the canals of the Burgundy region and then into the Beaujolais before eventually winding up to the autoroute and into Vieux Lyon (old Lyon.) But before we got there, we made a pit stop for lunch in Cluny, a town about 30 miles outside of Lyon. The town is legendary for its medieval abbey, once the center of the Christian empire, built between the 10th and 12th centuries. Now, only a fraction of the original vast abbey is still standing, but you can tour the footprint of the site and there are fascinating video recreations you can see as well as tour the still standing transept and bell tower area of the abbey. These remnants impressively represent only ten percent of the overall size of the original abbey, which was the largest church of Christendom until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Quite a fascinating visit if you are in the area.
En route to Cluny
Arriving into any city in Europe with only a travel guide and your sense of a direction is always an adventure. Searching out signs for “Vieux Lyon”, as I maneuvered the perpetual rotaries, was my only direction aside from somehow winding through the old streets up to the top of the hill to our hotel overlooking the vast city. Somehow I steered our huge van (so much for hopes of a sleek SUV) up the steep streets and arrived at Villa Florentine. The few moments of stress and close corners was rewarded with the most spectacular hotel I’ve been to in a long time. And that IS saying something. I basically had my own floor in this hotel and it obviously surmounted the size of my New York apartment by leaps and bounds (both in size, features, and windows,) and it afforded a 180-degree view of Lyon. Absolutely stunning! What wasn’t so stunning were the prices of the beverages – heading down for a pre-dinner glass of wine, our mouths were agape when they quoted an eighteen euro burgundy. We passed.

View of vieux Lyon (below) and new Lyon (in the distance)
Our tour around Lyon led us to the top of the hill to visit the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourviere, which housed stunning frescoes on the walls and ceilings, then descending down on the funicular to vieux Lyon where we walked along the famed Rue du Boeuf and then crossing the river Saone to the newer part of Lyon. Our destination was the Halles of Lyon, an indoor market with hundreds of stalls selling much of the ingredients used by Lyonnaise chefs. From oysters to cheese, frog legs to macarons, it was unending….and mouthwatering. The prices weren’t quite so palatable but it’s worth the visit for the visual enjoyment alone.

Lyon is also well known for its shopping and several pedestrian only stores in the newer part of Lyon offer everything from LVMH brands to Facconable, H&M to BCBG, and everything in between. Including several Goth stores. I was struck by a wide variety of youngsters donning goth apparel, hair styles, and make up. I’d thought that fad had run its course, but I guess not. These youngsters (am I aging myself?) surely haven’t visited Lyon’s Textile Museum, Musee de Tissus, where the history of silk and evolution of garments from the Far East to the French’s lavish silk garments are displayed in all their corseted glory (i.e. torture) and stunningly colorful and intricate patterns.

Le Sud - this was half of an appetizer we shared
On our last evening in Lyon we dined at one of the Paul Bocuse Brasseries, Le Sud. Accustomed to the smaller plates of typical French restaurants, the American style portions a bit under whelmed us and, while the food was good, it wasn’t worth writing home about. The piece de resistance of the meal was actually our wine selection, a Gigondas – Pierre Aiguille by Paul Jaboulet Aine. One of their other wines, Parallel 45, is a regular selection for us back in NYC - and quite affordable at $15.

View from my room on Lake Annecy
We found it hard to leave Lyon, but we still had three more days of countryside and lake villages to explore. Our next stop was Lake Annecy in the foothills of the Alps in France (see my view above) followed by two days in Switzerland. But those anecdotes will have to wait as my picnic dinner on my deck overlooking Lake Murten awaits.   

Sunday, July 24, 2011

An aside on Berlin

A comment was made suggesting my effusive endorsement of Berlin could be seen as overlooking the historical significance of this city to many people. Aware that some readers might not know me well enough to know that was a significant consideration during my entire trip there, I wanted to specifically address that thought.

A city as beautiful as Berlin became the heart of one of the most inherently evil empires in history. People of all shapes, beliefs, proclivities, political leanings, and educational pursuits – all simply gunned down, arrested, tortured, or imprisoned and retained in subhuman conditions. World War II was a subject we studied at length in school and one whose message I have always been sensitive to and horrified at its root impetus.

Our book club is currently reading, “In the Garden of Beasts,” a non-fiction book that explores the experience of the American ambassador, William E. Dodd, and his family, in the years of Hitler’s chancellorship and as they watched in slight disbelief and eventual horror as he sequestered power of Germany. Walking along Unter den Linden and through the Tiergarden and past the American Embassy, the experiences that happened in this city were present in my mind and close to my heart.

To visit present day Berlin is to see a city full of life and a very multi-cultural life at that. It is well known as a popular gay destination with a whole culture, bars, and clubs dedicated to the gay population, a population that was terribly persecuted by the Nazis. As mentioned in previous posts, the Turkish population is second only to Turkey. Restaurants run the gamut (with their particular proprietors) of cuisine from all over the world. And people in the streets look like a melting pot of cultures, religions, appearances, and sizes. So, being cognizant of the history is absolutely important when appreciating Berlin, but I think it’s bounced back with fervor. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cote de Beaune....Oui Oui!

My first foray into France was at age nine...just a wee pup traveling to Europe for my first time. On that trip, we went directly to Monaco for a week and then drove north through the Loire Valley, Dijon, and ultimately Paris where we flew home to Minnesota. Let me do math...so, TWENTY-THREE years ago (that's gross - how did I get so old I'm speaking in multiple decades?!), I was in Dijon for the first time. Yesterday was the second time. I drove us in our fabulous Peugeot from Switzerland into France (Bienvenue a France!) for a lunch at Dijon and further travels to Beaune. Dijon could have stayed as a checked box in my first adventure there - a repeat visit unnecessary - but Beaune and the surrounding Burgundy area was phenomenal!

Cloisters of Beaune
After a quick hiatus in Dijon, we traveled south to our hotel in Beaune, staying at Hotel Le Cep ("The wine stick") in the historic area of Beaune. Our route to Beaune was along the Cote de Nuits road from Dijon, a route surrounded by beautiful scenery where every inch of landscape is utilized for vineyards, charming towns, sunflower patches, and bike trails. Picturesque doesn't do it justice. There are the canals as well where you can charter boats to take you through the valleys and vineyards, jumping off to bike part of the way or enjoy exquisite culinary experiences, or visit historical sites. It is a plethora of eye candy, worthwhile for any traveler appreciative of nature at its finest. 

Escargot en Beaune
In contrast to my visit in Berlin, I was on a much more relaxed itinerary for the Bourgogne area of France. This entailed discovering Beaune, a surprisingly delightful medieval town surrounded by a protective wall and moat. The pinnacle of our visit was touring the Hospices of Beaune, which was fantastically preserved and fascinating to see in person. The tiled roof can be spotted from afar in town and is characteristic of many roofs in the region. The museum tour has a magnitude of history and artifacts that are invaluable and so interesting from the architecture and painted beams of the "Room of the Poors" to the quite articulate polyptych of The Last Judgement by Rogier van der Weyden. 

Vineyards at Clos de Vougeot
From Beaune, we retraced our steps north and stopped for lunch in what seemed to be the local's diner (which obviously deemed it reputable in my book) just east of Nuits-Saints-Georges, called Au Bois de Charmois. While I wouldn't recommend attempting a glass of wine here (seems that is something relatively nouveau to order wine by the glass here and bottles are either 'house' or exorbitant - not much middle ground), I would suggest a Kir (classical in this region) or a beer, I would absolutely underscore the relevance and fabulousness of their Moulles e Frites. I would have scraped the barrel if that wasn't so uncouth. Fantastique, I say!

Lunch segued to a traipse up to the Clos de Vougeot, which according to a NY Times article was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson in his travails through France. Jefferson was a huge fan of this area and is renowned to have sent many a case of Gran Cru back to the United States for his personal collection. We toured the Clos de Vougeot, which is an incredible museum inundated by fields and fields of vineyards. Original structures, wine presses, impressive wine collections, amazing infrastructure, all avail a visit to this impressive site.
Dinner on the patio
We continued our traipse up and down the Cotes de Nuits stopping in many of the charming medieval towns and exploring the degustacion (tasting) shops to enjoy the products of the region. Returning to Beaune, we decided the preferred plan was a picnic on our patio outside our room with some recently purchased Burgundy wines, sandwiches, and nougat...and our travel books to plan our upcoming trip towards Lyon. The plan proved to be fantastique and scrumptious and our day this morning included an unexpected surprised in the town of Cluny, which has the remnants of the predecessor of St. Peter's Basilica in size and import in this tiny French town. It was a magnificent surprise and definitely worth the trip (it's only about 45km from Lyon) for those in the region. The exhibition is quite high-tech in nature with impressive recreations and visual aides to re-create the mostly destroyed edifice.
A small town outside Cluny

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Berlin to Basel...The Next Leg Begins!

The best year of my life to date (until I moved to New York City two years ago) was my year spent abroad in Madrid, Spain. Eternal friendships, a true sense of independence and experience, immersion in another culture and exposure to a plethora of destinations, languages, and traditions were just a few of the souvenirs of that year. Eleven years later, heading to the East Side Gallery in Berlin, an older couple stopped me to ask for directions. Attempting in German, I shook my head knowing we would get nowhere with my Deutsche. As they walked away, I heard the unmistakable accent of Spaniards and quickly replied, “Pero si hablo espanol!” So there we were, in the middle of Berlin chatting in Spanish and discussing directions to Alexanderplatz. I swear Rand McNally is a distant relative. But that brief moment of Spanish brought back so many great memories of why I love Europe – the constant crisscross of societies, the merger of varied landscapes, mélange of cuisine, and profound history.

Walking through the Charlottenburg neighborhood of northwestern Berlin yesterday morning, I was reminded of the neighborhoods around where I lived in Madrid. It was a Monday morning so the streets were occupied mostly by elderly ladies and a few scant tourists like myself. I was headed up to Schloss Charlottenburg, the palace built by Frederick the Great in the 1700’s. En route, I stopped at BackWerk, a small bakery I’d read about in a Berlin food blog. After some gesturing and pointing, the baker suggested a scrumptious apple pastry for my breakfast. I continued my meandering north to the palace, admiring the beautiful parks, wide avenues, and apartment buildings. This area was occupied by the British during the occupied years, yet the architecture seemed more reminiscent of urban neighborhoods in Paris.
Schloss Charlottenburg
Only the New Wing of the Palace was open as it was Monday so I took the tour of that and then wandered around the beautiful gardens and grounds of the Palace complex. The Palace was severely damaged during the bombing of Berlin but most of the furnishings were saved and they have painstakingly recreated many of the Palace rooms to their original design. It was a quite an impressive reproduction and I would highly recommend a visit here.

Apparently Berlin is the home of the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. That fact becomes quite apparent when you stroll around town and are affronted with an array of Falafel and Kebab shops and Turkish restaurants. This is among the gamut of other cuisines you can select from – French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese, Sushi, etc. I chose to test the Turkish kebabs and stopped for a quick bite in Schoneburg before heading to the East Side Gallery. Maybe my selection was poor, but my lamb kebab was a sad little row of lamb niblets smothered in tomato and yogurt and pieces of fried bread. Meh. I'll take a bratwurst or currywurst over that any day.
East Side Gallery
Departing my lackluster lunch, I headed to what I hoped would be a much more intriguing spot – the East Side Gallery. This is a section of the Berlin Wall that has been converted into a canvas for artists from around the world to re-birth the wall as a declaration of independence and presence from one of oppression and domination. The expressions ranged from straight graffiti to intricate labyrinthine pieces incorporating social and political references, quotations, and caricatures of the communist regime.  As the wall is exposed to the natural elements, many of these artists have been known to return and “touch up” their work to keep it in good order and underscore its relevance.

My affair with Berlin abruptly ended this morning when I caught an early morning flight to Basel to meet up with my travel companions. While sad, I knew the adventure had to continue and that I would return to Berlin again!
Picasso at the Kunstmuseum
As is second nature to the Swiss and Germans, transportation to and from the airport is swift and expeditious. If you have a hotel booked in Basel, you only need to demonstrate your hotel confirmation to secure free travel on the buses and trams during your stay. Considering the cost of things in Switzerland, this is a grand scheme and one I am happy to embrace. Basel has a tough uphill battle for one who has just spent three days in Berlin. There are charming streets to wander and quaint timber homes to adore, chocolate to foster any chocoholic’s urge and the riverside location to appreciate. A visit here demands a several hour stop at The Kunstmuseum, which offers a grand array of masterpieces by Leger, Giacometti, Picasso (rooms dedicated to him), Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, Matisse, Manet, Van Gogh (only a few), Kandinsky, Munch...you name it. And unique pieces at that, especially the Munch's and several of the Leger pieces. 

But it’s no Berlin. That being said, on my quaint walk back from the tram this evening (I MIGHT have gotten off on the wrong stop…Rand McNally fail #1), I admired the silence that prevailed at 9 PM on at Tuesday night. It seemed singular for a city this size and was doubly appreciated for that same reason. Strolling along the damp streets (it rained all afternoon), it was just me, my umbrella/walking stick, and my sandals, clomping along enjoying the post-rain cool air and looking forward to more escapades tomorrow when I depart for the Burgundy region of France. Bon nuit mes chers!
Streets of Basel
PS – Staying in a former Prison tonight in Basel. Slits for windows and slightly close quarters, but this 20-room boutique hotel has reinvigorated a place that must have some intense stories. The door to my room is picture enough. No one will be breaking in to my bedroom tonight!

The Prison Door....to my room.
PPS – If I return to Basel, I’m staying at Le Trois Rois. No question.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Berlin Ist Wunderbar

Life is Tough.
My current setting involves a wonderful lounge chair, view of the Spree River, glass of Reisling, and a breeze blowing through my hair. It’s just about 6 PM here and my third day in Berlin is winding to a close. I’ve had it rough. For anyone that hasn’t been to this fantastically dynamic city, make it a priority. There is so much to see from historical landmarks to an outstanding array of artistic expression, culinary delights (and I mean beyond currywurst and sauerkraut) to stunning architecture, fascinating transit system and melting pot of visitors.

Living in New York, I’ve come to appreciate the subway and bus systems as they are my only modes of transportation (aside from my feet and bike); however, it pales in comparison (think albino pale) to the Berlin transit system. You have the S Bahn and the U Bahn (Subway and elevated train), the M Tram (surface trolley), the city buses as well as extensive biking paths and of course sidewalks for walking. As this city is beyond sprawling, all of these are quite necessary and so easily navigable not to mention the stations are quite varied in their impressive architecture and fastidiously well kept. A friend suggested I purchase the Berlin Welcome card prior to arrival, which has allowed my 72 hours of jumping on and off all these modes of transportation with no need for a new ticket. The card also included unlimited access to all the museums on Museum Island as well as discounts to a plethora of attractions, sites, restaurants, etc. Highly recommend it.

My bike replete with bell and squeaky toy & named Jennifer Aniston
As yesterday was my birthday, I pre-planned a 5-hour bike tour of Berlin and then dinner with friend’s of a friend to watch the US World Cup (let’s not discuss our basic own goal assist…who clears it in FRONT of the goal?!) The bike tour was led by Randall, the hilarious (and quite bright) Australian (no typo) who led us around the city for hours. As the tour was extensive, I’m going to list the major points of interest (no particular order):
·      TV Tower – the TV Tower was built when Eastern Berlin was still isolated and they wanted to compete with the West’s already existent TV Tower. So they smuggled in Swedish engineers (most of the Eastern engineers had fled the GDR by then) and constructed this 365 meter high tower. Ironically, the façade is reflective and at one point in the day when the sun hits it just right, it creates an image of a cross, not an image very in-line with the Socialist leanings of Eastern Berlin. Western Berliners found it quite amusing, referring to the reflection as the “pope’s revenge.”
·      Checkpoint Charlie – this was the US border cross point between East Berlin and the US West Berlin territory. When the wall came down in 1989, the crossing, which had the same scale of the Tijuana crossing station, was torn down and replaced with a museum and mock replica of the crossing station in one of its earlier iterations.
·      Berlin University (re-named Humboldt University) – the Bebelplatz, a plaza located between the Opera House and the University Library is the site of the Buchverbrennung on May 10, 1933, where Joseph Goebbels infamously burned over 20,000 books that conflicted with Nazi ideology. An underground monument echoes the travesty of this night in a room of empty white bookshelves appropriately entitled “Empty Library.”
·      The Reichstag (Parliament) – this morning I was on the U Bahn to Charlottenburg and caught the most amazing glimpse of this building from afar. It’s impressive in size, beautiful in construction and quite striking in it’s apparent strength with Deuthschland flags flapping in the wind and “Dem Deutschen Volke” (For the German People) emblazoned across the epistyle. 
·      The Tiergarden – Berlin’s answer to Central Park replete with exotic animals, vast gardens and walkways, biergardens, and of course nudists. Yes.
·      Brandenburg Tor (Gate) – considered the center of Berlin, this gate is the site of numerous historical occasions including Napolean’s entrance into Berlin (and sequestering of the Quadriga statue in 1806), President Reagan’s encouragement to Gorbachev in 1987 to “Tear down this wall!”, and of course who could forget America’s own, David Hasselhoff’s stunning performance clad in savvy attire.

Biergarden in the Tiergarden
There were many other spots we explored and explanations of historical landmarks like the former location of Hitler’s Bunker where he committed suicide, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Unter den Linden, but I’m sure I’ve lost most of you by now. Despite being from Brisbane, Randall was a wealth of knowledge and has a keen interest in the history of Berlin so we learned so much on our tour and had a really fabulous time. Lunch included a stop at the Schleusen Krug biergarden in the Tiergarden where we dinned in Merguez sausages and Heffeweisen before returning back to our starting point.

Post bike trip, I ventured over to the DDR Museum, which attempts to articulate in a hands-on visual approach what living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was like. Topics covered range from clothing to education, work professions to living conditions, travel options to beach nudity (given their monotonous – and horrid – clothing options, nudity seems to have been a subversive mode for freedom of expression, and apparently still carries on to this day.)
The Cathedral

The weather has been absolutely fantastic – sun, perfect temperature, no humidity, and a slight breeze. Until last evening when it started to pour (apparently the more typical Berliner weather.) Luckily I had dinner plans with friends and we stayed inside watching the finals of the World Cup and socializing. Although the game outcome was less than sublime, the balance of the day was an amazing entrée to my thirty-second year of life.

Tomorrow I’m off to Basel, Switzerland where I’ll catch up on the happenings from today and whatever my brief visit there brings! 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Being Berlin...Day One!

Willkommen to Berlin

Three years ago I was traveling through Germany and had plans to visit Berlin. But due to an unexpected obsession with Bamberg, we curtailed our time for Berlin and eventually cut it out of the itinerary. Why? Because I knew I would want several days to explore it and wanted to do it justice. Well, I am SO glad I made that decision! Yesterday morning I arrived at Tegel airport, Berlin’s smaller airport just outside the city. Now I know I’m getting older because the usual cross-Atlantic flight that I typically medicate (read: 2 glasses of wine and a Tylenol PM) and sleep through wasn’t quite as pleasant. Might have been the 7 foot tall man sitting to the right of me who desperately (and I didn’t blame him) needed part of my seat for leg room coupled with the darling and precocious four year old boy sitting to my left. He kept asking his daddy (from take off) in his darling English-German accent (father is American and mother is German), “Daddy, how many minutes left?!” Darling for the first hour, not so darling as he swung his legs kicking me periodically through the night. Sigh. One day I’ll be that parent so I only could feel for the dad who tried to answer constructively and not just muzzle him after hour five.

Anyway, I’m here and have had a full day already in this fantastic city! The weather yesterday was sunny, beautiful, no humidity, perfect temperature. The air was amazing to breathe in…not so NYC style. My hotel is a ridiculously German boutique – when I went to shower the water wouldn’t come out. Thinking I was just overtired, I called the concierge and he said in his fantastic German-twinged English, “Vell, the knob is like a joystick, ya? You have to svivvle it, nah?” Well, he was right. I svivvled it and water went everywhere. High comedy.

Before my room was ready, I had several hours to explore Berlin Mitte, which is the area where my hotel was and part of the former East Germany. It’s an absolutely darling and charming area with a lot of galleries, fantastic architecture, plethora of restaurants and stylish boutiques, and depth of history. Clad in my traveling clothes and sans make up (I was hot!), I ventured around Mitte visiting first the Hackeschen Hofe, a series of nine courtyards built in the first decade of the 1900’s to be a cultural center of cafes, stores, galleries, theaters, and cinemas with apartments above. They are amazing examples of my favorite style of architecture, Art Deco, with beautiful mosaic tiles decorating some of the exteriors and charming venues for relaxing with your cappuccino outside. From there I strolled up the Sophienstrasse, a wonderfully restored street, and headed north to the Berlin Wall Memorial. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction so there are many exhibits and ceremonies being held throughout the city. Having grown up studying World War II, The Holocaust, and all the ramifications of Hitler’s Germany, words can’t properly conceptualize a wall that once spanned 99 miles, separating two parts of one city from another. There was a wall of pictures memorializing some of the people who lost their lives trying to escape to freedom in West Berlin. Reading about the peril one faced attempting this feat, being caught in the "Death Strip", or trying to trick the guards to let you through under false pretenses and the repercussions, I could empathize at their desperation.

From the Berlin Wall, I meandered through the streets of the Spandauer Vorstadt neighborhood, one of the most predominantly Jewish areas during pre-war Berlin. The Neue Synagogue was completely destroyed during Kristallnacht and the remnants left as a reminder of the loss and destruction until finally restored in the late 80’s and re-opened as a museum in 1995. The Moorish style gilt and turquoise dome that punctures the sky-line of predominantly low rise buildings is magnificent and must have been even more unique back in the 1930’s.
Berlin Wall Memorial - Bernauerstrasse

I strolled past Tacheles, the pinnacle of the artist colony that is present in Berlin. The entire building and adjacent exteriors is an art project. Pretty avant garde for my taste, but a haven for artists from all over. Previously a shopping center in the 1910’s, the SS and the Nazi’s used it in the 30’s, and post war it housed a cinema and workspace for artists and is now overrun with the expressions of artists from all over.

From Tacheles, I went to Museum Island to see the Pergamonmuseum and the Alte Nationlgalerie, housing two distinct styles of incredible art. The Pergamonmuseum is renowned for displaying massive ancient Babylonian structures including the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, both massive in size. It was overwhelming to see such works of extreme detail, workmanship, and style in person especially after studying them in Dr. Mauer’s Art History class. Walking across the island, I entered the beautiful building housing the Nationalgalerie, which contains the nineteenth-century section of Berlin’s state art collection as well as a selection of important Impressionist artists.

No visit to Berlin would be complete without a lunch of Currywurst and beer so after my morning of exploration, I sidled up to a great German café in Hackescher Markt and ordered up this specialty of pork sausage smothered in curried ketchup and served with fries. As with New York pizza, there seems to be a great debate over who has the best currywurst, but I’ll leave that for the sausage aficionados. Mine delighted me and although my first Pilsner was nothing to write home about my second Berliner Kindl Bock hit the spot. Lots of flavor, low on bitterness, and just the right hopiness.

The day was rounded out (I know, you’re wondering how I was still going…I got an hour nap in there somewhere!) by a trip over to the Schoneberg neighborhood where I visited the KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus Des Westens – Department Store of the West.) Well, I certainly WISH we had a department store like this one. Each floor was teeming with everything from clothing to furnishings, jewelry to household goods, and the 6th and 7th floors were dedicated to a market that would impress even the biggest food snob. Take the Zabar’s, Fairways, Lund’s, Whole Foods, etc. of the world and ratchet them up a few notches and you get a small glimpse of the offerings of the KaDeWe. I spotted a Budweiser (the Czech original, not the stolen American brand) bar on the 6th floor that proffered a view overlooking the Schoneberg and Charlottenburg neighborhoods so I capitalized for a brief respite.

Rounding out the day, I took the wonderful advice of a friend and headed to the Café Einstein, an Austrian villa in Schoneberg that captures the pre-war Berliner Kaffeehaus culture. Located on a somewhat unassuming street, the villa is impeccably maintained and offers indoor dining, a fantastic old world bar, and a gorgeous garden, which is where I chose to sit and enjoy the evening hours. Since it was almost my birthday, I decided my dinner would consist of a homemade raspberry-pistachio tartlet and a short carafe of Reisling. Why not, right? It was scrumptious and beyond delightful to be in the know about such a classy and historical venue. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my first day in Berlin.

Now it’s day two and also happens to be my BIRTHDAY! Yippee for me…I swear I’m 22 again. I awoke to a call from my bestest friend in the whole world and a delivery at my door of beautiful flowers, breakfast in bed, and champagne from my wonderful boyfriend. What could be a better way to start my day?! Thank you both. Wish you were here with me. On the agenda today is a 5-hour bike tour of the sites followed by a visit to Schloss Charlottenburg and dinner and the US Women’s soccer team playing in the World Cup Finals here in Germany (watching it on TV as it’s in Frankfurt.) I’m thinking it’s going to be another spectacular day.

Please forgive the photos…they are from my blackberry. I sadly forgot the UBS cord for my camera so I’ll upload a selection from the trip once I’m back home (or find a camera store.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Leaving on a Jet Plane!

The time has come! Heading off to Europe today to spend my birthday in Berlin and then off to Switzerland and Burgundy for ten days of traipsing around. I couldn't be more excited. Having lived in Europe for a year and having spent most of my growing up years traveling to Europe, I swoon upon arrival in whatever country I visit there. It's my happy place.

I'm prepared with my stacks of articles, travel books, blog posts, and of course maps. Thanks to the fantastic insight of some very savvy Germans, I have nerdily mapped out my three days in Berlin where I'll be flying solo exploring the city. Please note the fantastic colored sticky arrows. Type A much?

The Jet Plane departs this evening...look for updates soon! XOXO