Berlin on Two Fat Wheels

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 265Tuesday, September 11th.

To change things up a bit, I opt to tackle some of Berlin’s sights – by bike.

I find the offices of Fat Tire Bike Tours, at the base of the TV tower, and sign up for one of their tours, which advertises an itinerary through “contemporary” Berlin (which, I suppose, is pretty much the entire city, since most of it had to be rebuilt).

I meet my tour guide, Sophie – a British ex-pat – and a fellow traveller named Doug (also from Britain). We’re soon joined by a young Australian couple, and rounding out our group is an American woman named Joanna (from Washington D.C.).

Europe, Croatia 259The tour we’re taking is called “Berlin Exposed” – which, I suppose, it is. We follow Sophie along side-streets and occasionally onto main ones, until we reach our first stop.

We pause on the dusty, grubby grounds outside what looks like a power station. But it’s Berghain, said to be one of the most well-known nightclubs (if not THE MOST well-known) in the world.

From there, we follow Sophie into a more populated part of town, where we’re given an introduction to street art in Berlin – everything from tags to cartoons, to stencils reminiscent of Banksy’s style of art. It’s on walls, over doorways, everywhere.

Europe, Croatia 273We venture east, to an area off Revalerstrasse, called RAW. It’s a series of small, sketchy-looking warehouses, but house all sorts of markets, bars and other hosted events – an awesome idea. And there are spray-painted images on just about every surface – including a schoolbus sitting off to the side.

But – as Sophie tells us – a lot of street artists still can get in trouble with police for what they do, preferring anonymity. Fellow Fat Bike tourist Doug finds out the hard way when – while trying to capture a piece of street art in progress with his camera – ruffles a couple of feathers.

We carry on, visiting the enormous Tempelhof Europe, Croatia 285Park (the former airport). As an airport, it was probably tiny for its purpose. As a wide-open urban park/greenspace, it’s MASSIVE.

Away from the section of the park that still showcases some of its former function, the former runways have been transformed into surfaces for biking/walking/running/whatever.

We sort split up for about a half-hour; I stick with Joanna. Chugging along the paths, we see people flying kites, windsurfing on skateboards, and guerrilla-gardening – you name it, it’s probably being done! If someone tried to commercialize this space, it would be a shame. Hopefully it never comes to that.

Crossing from east-end Berlin to the west end, we visit a food/fruit market in the Turkish section of town, and have lunch at another huge park.

On the west side, we spot more street art – these ones with more of a socially-conscious bent – and probably one of the few existing squatting settlements left.*

The tour lasts around six hours, but the time and the ground we cover is well-worth it. An added bonus: I gain another fellow travel-buddy in Joanna. We agree to meet the following evening and do something fun in Berlin at night.

The rest of my evening is plunged back into solitude and “administrative” tasks – ie. getting a SIM card that’ll work in my phone, and finding a local supermarket-type set up to find milk and juice – (success on both counts).

Tired, I return to the flat, plop myself in front of the TV, wolfing down my local pizza and drinking pop, which is followed by some red wine and eating a couple of chocolates while attempting to watch “Amelie” – dubbed over into German, of course.

Tomorrow I’ll tackle a museum or two. But tonight, I let the temporary loneliness (probably exacerbated by the red wine), hoping and wondering if Paris will leave me with a better feeling that Berlin has, so far.

*Note: The settlement that I saw – I believe it Kunsthaus Tacheles – was shut down three days after my visit.

A Change of Scenery

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 10th.

I’m DONE with this hostel.

Checkout is a breeze, as is catching the metro to Alexanderplatz – the closest station to the vacation rental at which I’m staying for the rest of my time in Berlin.

It was finding the actual apartment – on a street not too far from Berlin’s city hall – that proves tricky, thanks in part to my lousy sense of direction. By the time I arrive to the flat, I’m almost 45 minutes late and a hot, sweaty mess.

Michael – the guy from whom I’m renting the flat – is surprisingly understanding about my situation (as silly as it is). He explains where everything is in the flat (including laundry! yay!) and gives me some suggestions on what to do and see.

After Michael leaves, I take a bit of time to settle (somewhat). I flick on the TV and listen for a while to a little CNN International (it is fairly comforting to hear the sound of English again, if only for a little while), then set off to meet Jennifer in front of Berlin’s Guggenheim Museum (which, according to Jennifer, isn’t very good – but that’s a matter of opinion, right?).

Europe, Croatia 254A brief metro ride and a meandering, roundabout walk eventually gets us to the  Berlinische Galerie (Museum of Modern Art, Photography and Architecture).

The first thing we see – in the open space nearest to the entrance – is this installation with five trees hanging upside-down, in two groups, essentially rotating  around and around as the trees’ needles and branches fall off (over time).

One of the trees has rubbed up against the wall so much, it’s not only left holes in the wall, but has scraped a brown-stained imprint onto the originally white surface, and scratched the paint right off. Each time it scrapes the wall, the branches groan from the friction – a “cry” of sorts.

There are countless other installations and works – films, newspapers, collage, and more traditional forms. But the museum closes before we can see it all.

Jennifer and I then head over to this chocolatier, called Fassbender & Rausch, which has possibly every sort of candy and chocolate under the sky (including chocolate carvings), packed into one shop.

It’s really hard to decide what to choose! But in the end, I get some thank-you cookies for my host Michael, and some chocolates to have with the “welcome” bottle of wine he’s left for me.

Dinner is at this pizza place Jennifer’s been frequenting since her stay in Berlin, where she’s befriended two brothers from Brazil who work at the restaurant. The pizza’s very good, and the brothers – one of whom happens to be returning home to Brazil in a matter of weeks – are so kind.

Tonight’s Jennifer’s last night before returning home, so as we part ways, she kindly gives me her Europe, Croatia 256super-useful map.

On my way home, I finally get a chance to stop at a nearby electronics store to buy a SIM card.

I find the experience extremely frustrating, as the two or three staff members I try to communicate with barely speak English (contrary to what people I know had told me – prior to leaving – about having little difficulty talking to people).

And despite finding a SIM card, the instructions and information is entirely in German. Which, at this point, is about as useful as not having one at all. Sigh.

I return to the flat feeling a bit lonely, but hoping tomorrow’s day of touring around will lift my spirits.

A Berlin Sunday

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 9th.

Europe, Croatia 240Sleep has done wonders for my state of mind – I feel much better than I did over the last few days.

First order of business: cleaning some of my smelly clothes. Not so glamourous, I know. But it would be nice not to constantly smell my own sweat.

The desk staff at the hostel direct me to a laundromat (waschsalon) around the corner – filled with retro-looking front-loading washers.

As I sidle up to one of the washing machines and intently concentrate on the fine-printed instructions on how to use it, this little man appears – seemingly out of nowhere – with an overly cheery, “Hallo!” and startles the shit out of me.

He’s wearing this matchy-matchy patterned vest-and-trouser ensemble, tinted glasses (or are they sunglasses?) and a newsboy cap. If Mick Hucknall and Joseph Ducreux had a baby, it’d be THIS dude.

So Herr Waschsalon helps me with my laundry, speaking mostly in German with a smattering of English. And despite my misgivings (and assumption my clothes will end up shrunken and/or tie-dyed), I’m done in about 90 minutes!

The speedy service means I actually have time to walk around and explore. But what?

I decide to check out one of the Sunday markets suggested by the hostel’s “welcome brochure, following that up with a walking tour suggested by one of my work colleagues from back home.

The Sunday market is more like a flea market of sorts – tables of knick-knacks, used objects and the most random items placed next to the odd local merchant selling their wares. I stroll around, but don’t stay for very long.

I make my way down to the walking tour near the Brandenburg Gate – arriving a bit late, since I’m directionally challenged (and got turned around a bit), but I manage to get there during the guide’s introductory spiel.

The group is standing near a building close on Pariser Platz, just adjacent to what turns out to be the Hotel Adlon (a.k.a. where the late Michael Jackson dangled his youngest child – as an infant – over the hotel balcony).

The guide’s name is David, and he’s a British ex-pat living and working in Berlin (as a wEurope, Croatia 249riter, I believe). During the four-hour tour, he is at once a source of fascinating facts, and a man with strong political views, which he doesn’t hesitate to share at a couple of points during the tour.

We start away from Pariser Platz, walking through the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe … through a housing complex where, at another point in time, evil once stood … along points where the Berlin Wall used to separate people from their families … and past buildings that at one point in time had been either completely riddled with bullets or completely levelled by shelling.

While moving from site to site, I get to talking with a woman named Jennifer – who, as it turns out, is also American, like Jennifer from Croatia.

The group stops for a 20-minute break; Jennifer and I head to a cafe for some drinks and baked goods. Jennifer has been in Berlin about several days more than I have, and is really helpful in recommending a number of things to do, see and eat.

Of course, in the process of getting acquainted – and waiting for our dessert – we lose track of our tour. It takes a bit of walking around – and Jennifer’s keen senses of direction, deduction and her  super-detailed map – to determine where the group has gone, but we eventually find them.

After the tour, Jennifer and I decide to head to dinner at a Cuban-themed restaurant along Friedrichstrasse. (Turns out this Jennifer is also a picky eater.)

Stuffed from the volume of food, we part ways, making plans to meet tomorrow and check out the contemporary art museum.

Later at the hostel, I try to exercise my social muscle, chatting briefly with a couple of people. But not much more comes of the day. I feel as if I’ve missed that “window” for meeting and establishing friendly ties with fellow travellers. Plus, it doesn’t seem to come as easily as it did five years ago.

I retire to my room and go straight to bed, before that faint pang of loneliness has a chance to ferment.

Hallo, Berlin …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 239The journey from Split to Berlin is long and a bit tedious.

Split’s airport is packed; there’s not a seat to be had, so I spend my wait for the plane standing in one place – trying not to smack people.

When the flight’s finally up in the air, I spend it in some (rare) silence, as everyone around me’s speaking German.

By the time the flight lands, and I grab my luggage, make my way through a customs check and board transit to the hostel at which I’m staying, it’s 10:30 p.m. and I’m absolutely wiped.

Even after check-in, I feel a bit out of sorts. Trying to call home via Skype – normally a breeze – is an exercise in frustration. By the time I get relatively settled, my stomach is growling and whining at me in anger.

I step out for some fresh air and late-night food – in this case, the doner stand across the street. I wolf down that doner like it’s my last meal, and I don’t even feel stuffed.

I retire for the night shortly after that, in hopes this cold shrinks, and I can escape the cloudiness enveloping my tired brain.

Zbogom, Split …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Friday, September 8th.

Europe, Croatia 233I meet the remaining members – Livia, Karen (briefly), Paul, Natalie, Marian, Rob and Richard) for breakfast, then we say our goodbyes.

Marian and I are the only ones not leaving right away, so we wander in and out of shops in the old town. I pick up a couple of souvenirs and – while trying to find cheap knock-off sunglasses – end up buying an expensive pair of Ray-Bans (which I will now have to guard with my life in order not to lose them).

Then – as is always the way – about 15 minutes later, we find the place with the cheapie shade stand, where I buy another pair for 10 dollars.

After wandering up and down a bit more, we decide to take a bit of a breather near the hotel. We see our soon-to-be-former trip leader Livia, and have (non-alcoholic) drinks before she, Richard and Rob take off for the airport, and Vienna.

Marian and I resume our meandering through the streets, even making a stop at the Ethnographic Museum about 20 minutes before closing. The upside? We get a bit of a discount to wander around – just enough time to take a look at the traditional costumes of the country’s various ethnic groups, and getting up on the roof for one last look over the town.

We stop for lunch, then linger in the lobby. And then, off I get to catch my bus to the airport for my next destination: Berlin.

I’m not sure what the next several days will hold. But after spending a week with a bunch of lovely strangers, it will be a bit of an adjustment being on my own.

Skipping Around Split

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 170Friday, September 7th.

We depart at around 7:30 a.m. – a much more respectable start than our departure from Korčula a couple of days earlier.

But unlike the ferry to Hvar, the boat bound for Split seems much more packed, plus the boat’s upper deck is blocked off. So for this trip, a number of us are separated.

And the monstrous Adriatic cold that has been waging battle with my immune system is slowly tightening its grip, making me cough and blocking my nostrils.

When we arrive, there’s another major difference.

Until now, we’ve been staying in vacation apartments. In Split, we’re not only in the centre of the action – within the walls of the old city (Diocletian’s Palace) – but we’re in a hotel. It’s supposedly considered “budget” accommodations, but man, it’s pretty nice.

For this last night, sleeping arrangements change, as a bunch of folks are leaving on jet planes first thing in the morning. Jennifer opts for her own room – no issue – while I bunk with Josie, who’s departing for the Greek islands.

Europe, Croatia 184We get a 90-minute tour of the old town and the remains of Diocletian’s Palace, courtesy of Daniela, a local tour guide. She’s very sweet and quite informative as we navigate our way down side streets, through the souvenir market, and into the sun, past some old walls eroded by time.

We briefly stop to listen to a group of klapa singers, whose beautiful voices fill the square and seem to float upwards through the dome of one of the gate walls.

Near the end of the tour, we stop at the north (or Golden) gate of the old city wall, and we see the enormous statue of Gregorius of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop.

It’s said that rubbing his big toe brings good luck, so the group stops just long enough for me to run over and claim my own bit of good luck.

Following the tour, we’re cut loose. Jennifer and I team up for the afternoon, taking a really long walk out of the town centre, to the Ivan Meštrović gallery (also known as the Ivan Meštrović Palace).

Europe, Croatia 201This building certainly lives up to the “palace” moniker – it’s ENORMOUS.

As we find out when we arrive onto the expansive gallery grounds, Meštrović was a 20th-century Croatian and Yugoslav sculptor, whose works can be found in other parts of Europe, and the U.S., where he moved in 1946 (including in Chicago – see The Bowman and the Spearman).

Probably just as impressive – if not more so – as his sculptures, is the building itself. It’s not only a gallery, but was a villa Meštrović built for himself and his family. It’s beautiful inside and out.

Europe, Croatia 206Sculptures massive and small hang from walls, sit atop pedestals, and dot the grounds around the gallery. The gallery venue faces the water, so the view – with the sun glinting off the water – is just stunning.

After covering the gallery from bottom to top, we go down the road a bit further to Kaštelet-Crikvine – a chapel that Meštrović had restored, complete with courtyard, and a small room that houses wood panels depicting the life of Christ. Those panels took Meštrović some 35 years to complete.

While we’re at Kaštelet-Crikvine, Jennifer goes to snap a picture, and (seemingly) out of nowhere, this guy – a local, and a handsome one at that! – appears out of nowhere, below us. He’s been swimming, and just strikes up a brief conversation with her while he towels off a bit. He even suggests we should take advantage of taking a dip in the area, during our stay.

Following the long, hot walk back to town, we search for lunch and shade. The shade was great. My lunch (a salad) is terrible. But I’m a bit too tired to care.

We then stop in at another art gallery – this time showcasing the works of painter and graphic artist Emanuel Vidović. While the gallery is okay, I’m not wowed by it. (Sorry!)

I take my leave for an ice cream and a brief nap before dinner.

Europe, Croatia 212Our group’s last meal together is situated at an establishment a little bit outside Split’s old town walls. The staff is funny and super-nice. And, as it turns out, one of the servers shares the exact same birthday – which happens to be tonight! – with Aussie traveller Jackie. So a bit of momentary bonding.

There is lots of food to be had. The antipasti is fantastic. The dinner – sea bass – well … not so much. I’m expecting more … flavour. But honestly, it’s the company that makes the meal, more than anything else.

Before calling it a night, we go in search of one last drink before our group breaks up for good; Jennifer is our first casualty – bowing out due to exhaustion and that she doesn’t do so well with groups. Bon voyage, Jennifer.

The rest of us are indecisive, waffling and dawdling. There are 10 of us to start, until people drop off to pack or sleep.

The five hold-outs eventually end up at a place literally around the corner from the hotel. It’s rammed with people, which sparks more indecision whether to ride it out. In the end, just three of us – Marian, Sanj and myself – keep going and walk out to the main strip – the riva – for one last drink.

And it’s here our trip ends – not with a bang, but with a bit of a half-whimper, half-stifled-yawn.

One sleep and some six hours to kill before this leg of my journey ends, and a completely different one begins.

Baked Goods, Boating and Classy Dining

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Thursday, September 6th.

First thing in the morning, I peek out from behind the shutters.

Everything’s wet.

A group of us are supposed to rent a couple of boats and tour the waters around Hvar Island today. The gray skies above seem to suggest that we should consider other options.

I’m also not feeling like my normal self; this slowly developing cold is sapping my strength and my motivation to get out of bed. I go back to bed and curl up for another 45 minutes.

I eventually meet most of the others on the main strip, who are also doubting whether we can take to the water today. Our trip leader Livia says that – according to someone at the tour information office – the weather is due to clear up by noon.

While we wait out the weather, we opt to drop by a local patisserie that Natalie and Josie discovered the day before. My order of tea and a cookie is just what the vacation doctor ordered;  the former warms my belly, while the latter satisfies my craving for something a bit decadent.

Josie and I hang back at the patisserie while the others wander away – just doing simply nothing. It’s probably one of the first times during our trip so far where we’ve had a chance to do that.

At noon, we meet the others and – as forecast by the tourism folks – the skies are clear.

We split two small rental motorboats between the nine of us, and decide who will be operating the boats. I’m sharing a boat with Natalie, Paul, Mariam and Sanj.

Europe, Croatia 154After a bit of discussion, we elect Paul to be our operator and awkwardly lumber into the boat and wait for the guy from whom we’re renting – a scruffy-looking guy, whose name I can’t remember – to give Paul a brief lesson in operating the boat.

I don one of the lifejackets stuffed in the front of the boat – mostly for my own safety, as I’m not a strong swimmer … but also partially because before Paul gets his “lesson”, Natalie recalls a story in which Paul had previously operated a boat, which he managed to flip over.

So, nope – not really taking any chances.

Luckily for us, Paul aces the mini-lesson and before long, we are on our way.

The scenery from the boat is just lovely, and it’s nice and cool on the water, passing by boats of various shapes and sizes.

Europe, Croatia 159We zip along to a couple inlets. The first is a quiet and calm mini-paradise, with a little resto beside it. The shallow bit is rocky/pebbly, but it’s nice to just sit in.

But about 15 feet from the edge, there’s an immediate drop, which is great for the stronger swimmers like Natalie, Rob and Richard to go take a dip.

Our time at the restaurant starts out light and playful, with lots of laughs. But it’s a bit dampened by the end of our visit, as the guy who runs the resto turns out to be a bit of a dick, charging way too much for a couple of the dishes we order.

No matter. On to the next.

The second inlet looks a lot nicer, but not many of us venture into the water this time around. We return to Hvar by early evening.

My boating posse, along with Jennifer and Josie (who have stayed on dry land for the day), start our evening at this posh-looking outdoor lounge for pre-dinner drinks.

We’re the only ones there – it’s still early – so we spread out and comfortably chill out for a while with our cocktails (why hello there, tasty Kir Royale!).

Europe, Croatia 167Dinner’s at a Croatian/Mediterranean fusion restaurant at the end of the main drag, called Divino.  And “divino” it was. Everything, from the amuse-bouche, to our appetizers and entrees, are absolutely delicious.

Except for Miriam, we all take a pass on dessert – because we’re heading back to our new, favourite patisserie from earlier.

After stuffing ourselves with more sweet baked goods, some of us walk (or, in my case, waddle) around a bit longer, drifting past the bars and party-goers, ogling an ornate yacht or two, before shuffling off to our rooms.

One more day, and one more destination awaits – the town of Split.

Hvar and Away …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, September 5th.

It’s about 5:30 a.m., still dark and wet from the overnight rain shower.

We’re waiting down near the water for the early morning ferry to the island of Hvar – known to some as “the party island”.

The boat arrives at around 5:45, and we depart around 6 a.m. It’s a huge vessel, and actually kind of comfortable. We even get to see the sun rise as the ferry makes an interim stop to drop off and pick up more passengers.

We’re in town and on dry land with our bags by about 8 a.m., where we were greeted with our room assignments.

And more stairs. Which we should be used to by now.

But it seems the stairs here are steeper than in Dubrovik and Korčula combined. It’s certainly enough to make Josie – who’s lugging an enormous suitcase – cuss in exasperation.

The rooms at the apartment complex we’re staying at seem even smaller than in Korčula, but they have that cute, family-run feel to them.

Europe, Croatia 125The day is young, so we assemble after dropping off our baggage to grab breakfast near the square, then we break off into group to take a look around.

I go with the larger group, who take a stroll through the small market behind the church, and then from shop to shop lining the tiny side streets. I buy some turquoise-coloured stud earrings that catch my eye.

As the day progresses, our group gets smaller and smaller; Sanj and I partner up, taking a peek into a local gallery (which was average, but not overly impressive for our artistic tastes), walk along a path that takes us along the town’s outskirts, and then back into town for lunch.

It starts raining sometime past noon, while we’re seated under a patio umbrella at one of the restaurants in the square. We wait to see if it subsides, but it just gets heavier. We spot Livia trying to stay dry, and motion her over to our table, before the rain turns torrential.

As we make the best of the situation by chatting, my lids grow heavy and I feel my head begin to bob. This is rain’s hypnotic effect on me, no matter what part of the world I’m in. It’s definitely nap time.

Following my solid two-and-a-half-hour siesta back at the apartment complex, I rouse with a slightly dry, scratchy throat – the price I must pay for dunking my head in the Adriatic.

Europe, Croatia 143I go to meet ten of my tour-mates – we’re paying a visit to the fortress overlooking the town. We make a brief grocery run for wine and snacks, then walk/hike the winding path to the top.

The view of Hvar is spectactular, especially as the sun starts to set and the lights below come on and start twinkling in the twilight. The wine, snacks and company of my tour group members are a perfect combination.

We descend into town for dinner. Natalie has made reservations for three different places, but in the end we decide to try a slow-food restaurant we hear is highly recommended.

It’s probably the best meal we’ve had on the trip so far, if not in a deadlocked tie, with the meal we had in  Pupnat.

Our waiter – a young guy who says we can call him “Fluffy” (absolutely adorable!) – is a great, accommodating server. He patiently answers all our questions and explains how things worked. He’s also very engaging and extremely helpful – at the end of the meal, he’s even kind enough to find me some coarse salt for my throat, which has become even scratchier as the hours pass.

Europe, Croatia 146A group of us break away and search side corridors in search of a place to grab cocktails.

We head down the main strip, ogling a couple of flashy, multi-million-dollar yachts docked in the marina along the way.

We pass a lot of the obvious “boom-boom” bars, eventually finding a more lounge-y establishment. A little pricey, but the cocktails are decent. (I kind of recall ordering a science-experiment of a cocktail called a Zombie – anything to fool myself into thinking I’ll kill the germs!)

It’s just the beginning, though. Tomorrow, we’ll cruise the nearby vicinity by boat!