Archive | October, 2012

What happens in Berlin, stays in… Berlin, October 4-12, 2012

28 Oct

THE woman silently beckons me from my lonely seat in a back room of the bar. I’m the last one left and it’s dim and gritty in here, but no more so than what seems to be the standard in this perplexing city. I follow, touching the outline of a smooth, brass coin through my left pants pocket. She stands behind me and places her hands gently on my shoulders and says ‘Close your eyes, I am going to blindfold you now.’ She has a kind voice. After about 20 steps we stop and she tells me that I am to go inside the doors, place my coin into the slot and wait for instructions. She removes my blindfold, I enter the darkness and hear the doors close behind.

I take the coin from my pocket.

The rules at Peristal Singum are simple. Just breathe, try not to rush. If you start to panic, wait, someone will eventually save you.
20121027-202114.jpg Waiting to enter Peristal Singum

Located inside the Salon Zur Wilden Renate in Berlin’s east-lying suburb Friedrichshain, Peristal Singum accurately summarises for me the past week’s experiences in Germany’s alternative capital – unique, unexpected, sometimes unsettling, but overwhelmingly awesome.

However, like most things Berlin, the appeal behind this playground for adults can be attributed as much to the shroud of exclusivity its’ organisers have created around it as to the quality of the experience itself.

You only need look at the sphincter-like door policy of the majority of nightclubs in the City to understand this concept. Techno club Berghain is world renowned for its fear-invoking bouncers and utterly inexplicable dress-code. The club is inside a derelict building, not unlike the Old South Fremantle Power Station, for those familiar. You walk through a pile of dirt and mud to queue in the cold, inside what looks like a cattle barrier. Then you will come face to face with two or more terrifying doormen, one with extensive barbed wire facial tattooing and grills on his teeth. Depending on what side of bed they got up on that morning (or so it seems) you will either enter or be rejected and the rejection rate can be up to 90% on any given night.

It probably sounds like sour eggs, because the bouncers took one look at us and the tall muscular, blonde one, who looked like his name was Sven, said ‘You’re not coming in here tonight’ and that was it. The dream was over, crushed, annihilated. We were left sobbing by the side of the road, listening to the throbbing bass emanating outward from inside that beautiful, unattainable, brown brick building.

No one can get in, so it must be awesome, right?

We may never know.

We dragged our sorry asses to another club, Cassiopeia and danced with a room full of Rastafari to Reggae music until 5 am and had an unexpectedly awesome night.

In interviews with owners and founders of other door-strict clubs like Tresor and Watergate, the question is always asked, ‘What’s with the door policy?’ The interviewees always reject any claims of discrimination based on nationality, sexual preference etc, simply responding that they like to ‘keep the right mix’ of patrons.

The observance of this attitude gives valuable insight into this City’s sentiment toward its gradual commercialisation.

While overused, the words grungy and gritty are perfect for this still-emerging city. Sebastian, a pretty cool tour guide who showed us everything from the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial to the very window from which MJ dangled baby Blanket in 2002 told us, ‘Berlin is Germany’s problem child.’ It’s no wonder, really, when you look at the way a very important series of events in European history was played out over a short space of time, right in this very City – so very recently.
20121027-201937.jpg Brandenburg Gate
20121027-201945.jpg Holocaust Memorial – very solemn and moving
20121027-202125.jpg Hotel Adlon – made infamous by the Michael Jackson baby-dangling incident

Firstly, much of Berlin was destroyed during the final years of World War II. Hitler’s bunker and place of death lies anonymous and defunct, filled in with rubble, under a weed-ridden and crumbling car park belonging to a group of red-roofed communist era flats.

After the war, when the Allies split Germany into four occupation zones, unfortunate Berlin was also split, with Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall (anti-fascist protection rampart) becoming the poster-child for Europe’s 40-year long Iron Curtain. West Berlin, under Allied occupation, was secluded inside Communist East Germany. While parts of the Berlin Wall remain as a chilling reminder of life under Soviet rule for East Germany, it was the same wall that cultivated present-Berlin’s unique identity. The free-thinking, non-conformist culture that began to blossom in uber-democratic West Berlin exploded into East Berlin after Germany’s reunification in 1990. The West German Government could not restore order to East Berlin immediately and East Berlin was treated like a playground for artists, musicians and creative types, who squatted and utilised disused buildings for hedonistic pursuits.
20121027-202004.jpg Berlin Wall remnant

Despite gradual gentrification to its streetscapes and buildings, referred to by resistant inhabitants as ‘Disneyfication,’ Berlin’s history is rich and its unique culture has remained strong, the main drawcard for travellers and tourists.
20121027-201928.jpg Friedrichshain train station – perfectly grungy

But in my mind, there lies a two edged sword. Some Berliners see this increased tourism and modernisation as a threat to their City’s identity and to their way of life. (The root of Berlin’s crazy club door policies?) But, as Germany’s most debt-ridden City, economically, it could really do with the cash and its Government knows it – implementing the successful advertising slogan ‘Poor But Sexy’ in 2009.

A few (million) tourists and a lick of paint aside, To the outsider at least, Berlin’s grunge-factor is alive, well and as appealing as ever.

While West Berlin has caved to the Golden Arches, allowing the US giant to stamp its greasy name just a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, there is some healthy resistance on the other side of town – the promotion van belonging to a schnitzel shop close to the East Side Gallery has the words ‘Fuck Ronald &Co’ emblazoned on the side.
20121027-202014.jpg Checkpoint Charlie – US military checkpoint between East and West Berlin between 1945 and 1989
20121027-202108.jpg Great home made schnitzel burgers… Definitely not Maccas!

But where the rest of the world has McDonald’s, Berlin has Curry-Wurst. Think brotwurst with a slathering of ketchup, all snowed under by… Curry powder. I ate it once, was not a fan, twice and it grew on me, three times, well, you get the rest. Sold in bread or with frites (chips) for about €2.50, I would love to find out if anyone is selling this back in Perth. Kebabs are also a popular fast food in Berlin, with a shop on every corner, all open late to feed the throngs of party goers turfed out from bars and clubs.
20121027-201955.jpg One of many curry wurst shops

Many bars are still housed inside dilapidated buildings, unrecognisable as such from the outside. Other drinking holes are themed in novel ways. With bat in one hand and beer in the other, we played hilarious knock-out table tennis at Dr Pong bar, which is basically two sparse adjoining rooms, one with a bar and the other a ping pong table and a few chairs. This has to be the most innocent fun you can have with 30 complete strangers. At rock and metal bar Last Cathedral, the drinks menu included Absinthe-Red Bull shots and shots with Tabasco, but at least those experiencing impending death from these concoctions could feel at home amongst the skulls, coffins and crypts the place was decked out with.
20121027-202119.jpg Last Cathedral bar – beers poured from skulls!

And if that’s not seedy enough for you, Berlin’s drug dealers do actually hang out in dark alleys in the dead of the night.

On our way home one night we had the pleasure of meeting Willy, a Tunisian ‘Coke’ dealer cum drug mule. He thrust a freshly bought takeaway plate of chicken and chips into my hands and quickly disappeared, apparently to get his wares, hidden in ‘the dirt,’ so he said. So we are standing on the street holding this guy’s dinner, wanting to leave, but not knowing what to do, when he returns, takes back the plate and holds out a chicken loaded fork to myself and Nic, saying ‘eat some, eat some… You are my friends! My mouth hasn’t touched that bit.’

Make of it what you will, but we took ‘in the dirt’ to mean ‘up the back passage’ and were laughing, while walking away with Willy following us, holding out a handful of small, dirt-covered, green packages. It turns out that ‘in the dirt’ actually meant buried in the sand and his ‘Coke’ was in fact white sugar, so it’s no wonder this poor guy had to run drugs between Berlin and Amsterdam multiple times per week to get by!

So Berlin, a wonderful convergence of old and new, freezing cold, where bicycle fever has taken over, a war time wall is now a public art piece, the City’s fairly ugly TV tower is affectionately nicknamed ‘Alex,’ Berlin-style reigns supreme and recycling is king. Love it.
20121027-202101.jpg Bikes chained up everywhere
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20121027-202054.jpg Parts of the 1.6 km stretch of Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery
20121027-202030.jpg TV tower ‘Alex’

HOSTEL
Plus Berlin Hostel, Warschauer Platz 6, Berlin

    Pros:

Everything! Huge rooms with fridge and microwave, pool, sauna, bar and restaurant, at least one awesome bar tender. There was a cat staying in the room next door to us and the hostel kept rabbits. Generally an awesome place to run amok and only 200 metres from Berlin’s answer to Metro’s Fremantle – Matrix Club… Oh wait, that should be in the cons section…

    Cons:

Drinks were pricey in the bar and they kept playing Jazz music when everyone was trying to get amped to go out.
20121027-202022.jpg Hostel room

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 83 hours

Where can I find beer brewed by monks, John Lennon and a clock that wishes your death each hour? I’m glad you asked – Prague, September 29 – October 4, 2012

21 Oct

THERE’S no way that this blog post reviewing our time in Prague could begin with anything other than food and drink.

Boasting the world’s best beer, some of it brewed by monks high on a hill, and a delectable standard of cuisine with a pleasingly Eastern European price tag, I couldn’t find one thing to complain about in this charming Central European City. Unless of course you count leaving it.

Even when our bellies were full of meaty, starchy goodness and we’d had one too many Pilsner Urquell, we could take our food coma wandering through the tranquil, cobbled laneways of Praha’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) to watch the sun set over the skyline at the Vltava River and the world was right again.
20121021-001952.jpg Late afternoon by the Vltava River
20121021-002126.jpg Prague skyline
20121021-002330.jpg Winding streets

Such was the spell that this charming little city cast over me, I even thought the ‘I Heart Praha’ merchandise that I detested in every other city was lovely, not cheesy and I wanted to buy it all. (I didn’t buy any of it, by the way).

We took the almost obligatory free walking tour through the streets of Old and New Towns and the Jewish Quarter on our first morning, guided by the informative and animated Czech native Karel, whose moniker is one of the 400 accepted birth-names in the Czech Republic. Apparently authorities have relaxed the rules a little in the last few years but it was once almost impossible for new parents to name their child outside this list, which is inscribed onto one of Prague’s main tourist draw cards, the hourly-animating Astronomical Clock (built in 1410) in the centre of Old Town.
20121021-001646.jpg The Astronomical Clock, complete with hourly moving, bell jangling, death-wishing Apostles.

We were introduced to the Czech enthusiasm for literary export Franz Kafka, taking in a Museum and monuments honouring the ‘Metamorphosis’ and ‘The Trial’ author and a number of cafe’s and eateries themed in a nod to his Modernist works. A mention was also spared for a personal favourite author of mine, the still living, but now French naturalised Milan Kundera.

And when we thought Prague’s artistic offerings couldn’t get much quirkier, there was Cubist architecture. The Czech’s were the only nation to take this Picasso-esque movement and turn it into buildings. Prague is home to two Cubist buildings and the world’s only Cubist cafe – complete with glasses, chairs, tableware and cutlery designed to a Cubist tee. It doesn’t look fantastic, but it’s unique.
20121021-001841.jpg Cubist building with cafe underneath

Now, is anybody hungry?

All the food in Europe was spoiled for us on our first night in Prague at an ironic riverside pub called Atmosphere (Atmoska). While the establishment was without music and displayed sparse decoration to create any, well, you know… the food was amazing. And to check whether it wasn’t just luck that sent my perfectly browned pork tenderloin with bechamel sauce, mushrooms, leek and parmesan (A$8.50) and Nic’s Pikantule – potatoes roasted in butter with bacon, onion, garlic, parsley, seasoned with thyme and feta cheese, with grilled chicken breast, mushrooms, and a pinch of tabasco (A$7) from the heavens, we went back again and it was still amazing. A half a kilogram basket of hot, crispy, herby, fried potato slices with aioli for A$4 – yes please.
20121021-002220.jpg Food at Atmosphere

We popped our Goulash cherries, eating the hearty meat soup from bread-bowls at Betlemska, a traditional Czech restaurant with faces carved out of the chair backs. We walked past later that evening to see a wedding reception underway there.
20121021-002243.jpg Goulash at Betlemska

On a Sandeman’s Beer Tour we ate more Goulash, the chilli kind this time (the beginning of a Goulash love affair), with potato pancakes at tank-pub U Templare, where the equally delightful beer is brewed in-house, cannot be bottled and contains no chemicals or preservatives.
20121021-002305.jpg Tanks at ‘U Templare’ pub
20121021-002258.jpg Chilli Goulash with potato pancakes

The tour set us back only about A$15, four drinks included, with our New Zealand-born tour guide Rachel taking us to four pubs including the Prague Beer Museum. The pub has 30 beers on tap and a corresponding menu that resembles a telephone book, which in the candle-lit corner where our group was seated, was really hard to read. I tried grapefruit beer (quite nice), a beer called ‘Demon’ and forgot to try the chocolate beer. We finished off at the Vodka Bar, which doubles as a museum of communist-era relics.
20121021-002251.jpg Prague Beer Museum, 30 beers on tap!

The bar had a cheeky tip jar, the sign on which read ‘Bad Tippers support prohibition.’
A fortnight-longCzech-wide ban on the sale of hard liquor over 20% alcohol content had been lifted just days previously, after 19 people died anddozens more became seriously ill after drinking vodka and rum laced with methanol.
20121021-002312.jpg Tip Jar at the Vodka Bar

After learning to ‘Prost’ in Germany, we now had to learn the more detailed Czech technique of Na Zdravi, where the two glasses must touch at the top, then the bottom, then onto the table before drinking. Eye contact must be made, or… seven years bad sex.

In between all of this eating out, (which sounds extravagant, but with chef-prepared mains at about A$7 and beers at less than A$2/.5L, it was almost cheaper to eat out than in) there was plenty of naughty snacking on street food. Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know about our enthusiasm for this phenomena. In Prague, the very best wares from a small cart in the main square, came in the warm, sweet, hollow form of the Trdelnik. Made from dough, sugar and walnut, fresh from the spit and sometimes filled wit Nutella, they are amazing. There are also stands selling Czech ham with bread, sausages, potato salad, burgers, crepes, Gyros, fried potato cut into a spiral and served on a stick or around a sausage and the somewhat less compelling Langos – a large deep fried greasy flat bread topped with garlic, tomato sauce and cheese. I wish I had given that one a miss, but overwhelmingly, Czech food wins.
20121021-002228.jpg Trdlnik
20121021-002236.jpg Langos and spiral potato with sausage

Our last day in Prague coincided with a walk across the historic Charles Bridge (construction started 1357) to the very hilly Lesser Town (Mala Strana), home to the Petrin television tower, Prague Castle, the colourful John Lennon memorial wall, plenty of very expensive cars (The Czech Republic is Europe’s biggest methylamphetamine producer), an awesome mirror maze and the Strahov Monastery and Brewery.
20121021-002322.jpg Crossing Charles Bridge to Lesser Town
20121021-002344.jpg John Lennon wall
20121021-002408.jpg Dodge Challenger parked on the street
20121021-004159.jpg 63.5m Petrin tower… Or is it the Eiffel Tower?
20121021-004219.jpg View of River Vltava from the top of the Petrin Tower, after 296 steps
20121021-004339.jpg View of Prague’s old defence wall from the top of the Petrin tower… Did I mention those 296 steps?

To our disappointment, the Strahov monks who brew the famous beer don’t work at the restaurant and the beer wasn’t that great, but the monk/beer novelty and the pork knuckle and beer flavoured cheese on toast we ate while watching a Korean travel documentary crew filming made the visit well worth it.
20121021-002354.jpg Meal at Strahov Bewery
20121021-002400.jpg Strahov Brewery

Without trying to be insensitive, homelessness has been a source of great intrigue to us on this holiday, probably because the homeless are so visible here. In Prague, they beg differently to anywhere we have seen. They kneel on the concrete for hours, bowing with their heads down, almost touching the ground and their arms up and hands cupped, waiting for change. No matter how many cities I visit or how many homeless people I pass, I am never desensitised to their plight. Happily though, I later heard that an initiative called ‘Pragulic’ had recently started, where the homeless run tours for about A$10, giving visitors an insight into the cities’ gritty underbelly, the unknown backstreets and the reality for Prague’s homeless community.

HOSTEL
Hostel Bridge

    Pros:

Perfect central location near Charles Bridge, friendly staff, kettle with free tea and coffee in the room.

    Cons:

Really uncomfortable beds!

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 75 hours

PROST Bitches!!! Oktoberfest, Munich, September 24-29, 2012

14 Oct

EVER heard the saying quality over quantity? Well, with more than 6.9 million litres of beer consumed this year during 16 days in Munich, Germany, Oktoberfest is definitely not the time for that old adage.
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Bier Bier Bier!

With more than 200 years history under its’ beer-belly sized belt, the annual festival of the frothy stuff has gained infamy into the world’s far reaching corners, but nowhere more so than in Australia, with thousands from the sunny continent making the more than 14,000 kilometre pilgrimage in pursuit of the amber liquid each year.

Oktoberfest has become something of a rite if passage for young Aussies, and, having made it myself this year, it’s easy to see why.

Firstly, where Australia in recent years has condemned and legislated against a culture of binge drinking, Oktoberfest facilitates it, welcomes it with open arms. (Perhaps in foolish overestimation of the personal responsibility factor of its’ overseas tourists.)

I was apprehensive at the thought of five days of drinking beer in one-litre portions amongst a crowd of large Bavarian men, but was eased into proceedings on our first night by a visit to Hofbrauhaus, a large beer hall in Munich, outside the festival grounds.

Established way back in 1859, in 1920 Hofbrauhaus was the location of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party inauguration speech and painted swastikas, remnants of this horrific time in modern history remain on the high, pitched ceilings of the hall, hidden under huge red and yellow wheels which were painted in place after the war. This knowledge, in contrast with the loud and carefree merriment ensuing inside the building, leaves a strange feeling.

Wearing a newly-purchased dirndl, complete with apron and long socks, in keeping with the boys’ (Nic, Luke and Kurt) traditional lederhosen, I shared brotwurst, sauerkraut, crispy skinned pork and German potatoes, quickly learned to ‘Prost,’ (the German way of saying cheers) and downed a couple of litres (called a Mass in German) of the frothy stuff until we were threatened with removal from the establishment by a large and angry waiter and Kurt jumped out of the window.
20121014-132902.jpg
Pork and potato dumpling from Hofbrauhaus

I could finish this blog post here, because the rest of Oktoberfest was basically a ramped-up extension of this night, but I would like to explain a bit further into the magic and appeal behind this giant playground of excess for adults.

Day two, 9 am and the boys are back in (or perhaps still wearing) their lederhosen, which could by this time have been mistaken for a second skin – such was their emotional attachment to the traditional German folk-ware along with the difficulty in actually removing the heavy suede shorts.

We meander our way by foot to the festival, which takes place at Theresienwiese, a meadow south-west of central Munich. Now, to eat and to choose which beer hall out of the 14 huge and impressive structures to hand our souls over to for the day.

Breakfast consists of a chicken schnitzel slapped into white bread (other days brotwurst, or some other dead, cooked or cured animal or a pretzel) and by 10.30 am we are seated at a long timber table in the red and yellow-themed Hippodrom tent, ‘Prosting’ with our first litres of beer. The aim is to be seated as early as possible each day, because by around midday, the halls, some seating 10,000 punters with increasingly glazed eyes, are full. And by full, I mean resembling a single giant, many armed, many legged, shouting, singing, beer devouring monster.
20121014-133008.jpg
Hippodrom hall

The bringing of beers at Oktoberfest is an exciting spectacle in itself. Hall staff, mainly buxom women, can be witnessed in awe, carrying up to eight beers at a time. At eight kilograms of liquid weight, plus another 1.3 kilos for each glass (more than 18 kg total!), combined with squeezing through drunk and disorderly merry-makers, this is no mean feat. They wear whistles around their necks to part the crowds and stern expressions on their faces. They are amazing and should probably be tipped more generously.

Beers cost about €10/litre and ordering anything less than a litre is sacrilege.

At about midday,the locals order a standard lunch of quarter chicken and chips to prime themselves for the coming hours of drinking. I say the locals, because the non-German tourists are either too excited by all the strange and wonderful menu options or cannot read the language well enough to choose sensible chicken, and end up ordering €66 platters consisting predominantly of radish. (Our rookie error…)
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€66 platter :/

By early afternoon all plates have been cleared and empty beer mugs are accumulating fast on the tables, alongside the battered feet of a few extra-keen revellers. Most people are by now standing on benches or are otherwise packed into the aisles between tables with little breathing room. Everyone is in traditional dress and singing, usually the wrong words to folk song after folk song and it is not unusual to see the entire brass band in the centre of each hall each scull a litre of beer in perfect harmony. It is a loud, excessive, merry congregation, the ruckus resembling that of an evangelist church service, but the worship taking place here is to none other but the beer.
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Crowds…
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…and more crowds
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Old and new friends

Over the course of the next few days, we manage to consume upward of five litres of beer each day (me five or six, the boys seven or eight or really who knows how much?) and manage to stake out a number of halls including decent stints at the Hofbrau, Schottenhamel Spatenbrau and Hippodrom, with a brief foray into the Lowebrau tent from memory, before spilling out into the crisp night air to contend with yet more crowds and a carnival atmosphere of brightly lit fair rides, the wafting smells of hot food and the gleaming spoils of the many souvenir shops. We devour our fair share of brotwurst, chilli wurst, schnitzel, ham, steak and hot chips (pommes) and make dozens of new, if fleeting, friends. We learn German songs and then quickly forget the words, replacing them with ‘…something in Germaaaannnnn’ We lose each other in the madness and we are reunited, sometimes minutes, often hours later.
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Festival lights
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Schottenhamel-Spatenbrau hall
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Hofbrau hall
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Hippodrom hall

Even in all the excitement, a few festival goers really managed to stand out… We watched this guy (we don’t know him!) stumble past with half a chicken, drop the chicken, pick up the chicken, drop the chicken again – behind a rubbish bin, then pick it up, dust it off and start eating it.
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Despite the ridiculous quantity of liquid we consumed each day – to the point that my kidneys were hurting – we did not once wake up with a hangover, thanks to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, (thank you Beer Gods!) which limits ingredients to water, hops, malt and yeast – no chemicals or preservatives.

The day before we leave for Prague, having already extended our time in Munich by two days, we plan for a final blowout with two of Nic’s high school friends, Joe and Will and Mary, a new friend from Dublin, Ireland. Circumstances dictate we can’t get to the festival until after 3 pm and by the time we arrive the entrance to the Hofbrau hall (Hofbraufestzelt) is already packed about 10 persons deep and about 10 metres across with thirsty revellers clamouring to get in. We stand packed like sardines in the hot sun, periodically being pushed back in a pack by fearful security guards shouting in German, one of whose face has turned so red he looks like he is going to explode. From our understanding it seems like they are saying ‘It is closed!’ but we wait and occasionally a beer wench comes outside and chooses a small group to enter the hall. Half an hour ticks by and we are still crammed together, sweating being pushed around and wondering if we will be here until dark. Suddenly, the guards remove the barrier rope and shout something along the lines of ‘Everybody in!.’ The crowd surges and then stampedes forward through the too-narrow doors of the hall . And the fun starts.
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Joe, Will, Nic – last day of festivities

Oktoberfest organisers estimated that 6.4 million people attended this year’s event, with more than 2500 of those requiring medical treatment in the first week. Luckily we all came out unscathed, any residual liver damage aside, but at least one Canadian festival goer was not so lucky, the man dying after being hit by a tram.
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Real Bavarian girl and boy!

HOSTEL
Smart Stay Station Hostel

    Pros:

Excellent, young staff, good bar/restaurant, good price considering festival time, decent €6.50 breakfast, great atmosphere. Perfect location close to Munich HBF train station and all amenities.

    Cons:

Central heating too close to the beds, too hot at night.

MUNICH
We didn’t manage a walking tour of the City, nor a visit to Dachau concentration camp memorial, which I was really keen to do. But from our brief experience of Munich, we found it incredibly clean, with great shopping, many fountains and friendly people.
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Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz, Munich

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 66 hours

I know this is Paris, but €367 is a bit steep for an Indian meal isn’t it? Paris, France, September 19-24

8 Oct

I GINGERLY fish a discarded cardboard coffee cup out of the bin at the side entrance to Gare de l’Est train station and struggling to contain my mirth, place it on the rain-sodden concrete at Nic’s feet. He has cocooned himself inside the elasticated waterproof cover designed to protect his backpack and is curled up between our pile of belongings and the station’s very cold and tightly locked, metal gate.
20121007-195005.jpg Homeless in Paris

It’s our last night in the city that for years has been almost compulsively hailed for its charm, prestige and ability to bring out romantic tendencies in the most pragmatic of hearts, but the only romance we have witnessed during the last six days has been that between a bucket of fried chicken and the regular customers at our local KFC restaurant. (Free Wifi at KFC for the win.)

It’s true that this night in particular had been a comedy of errors, our visit to Paris culminating in a film-worthy dash down the train platform complete with wailing followed by panting as our escape route to Munich slowly chugged away out of sight. It was 8.22 pm, our train had left without us and there wasn’t another until 7 am. We were so organised, how could this even happen?

In planning this trip, I was determined to tick off as many of the sights and attractions that had earned Paris its bountiful reputation as I could. People watch at a cafe on the Champs Élysées, the guide books said. Spend time with your lover in a park over a baguette and a bottle of wine, stroll along the Seine, mingle with creative souls in Monmartre, admire the work of the world’s great artists at the Louvre and of course, climb Le Tour Eiffel… We would do it all, I thought.
20121007-195820.jpg The illusive Eiffel Tower

Upon some good advice regarding queue lengths, we headed south-west from our bed and breakfast (B&B Chambres de la Grande Porte in the 10th Arrondisement, toward the metal asparagus early on our second morning. We had intended to skip the lift and walk to the top, some 1665 steps (we had climbed a lot of things lately, including the Arc du Triomphe’s insane spiral staircase, so we thought we could handle it). As hoped, the line for the only open entrance out of four was short, with only about 20 people in front of us. After being barked at by a security guard for something to do with our daypack, we looked up at the information screen above the cash desk to read ‘Top Closed.’ Well, we had not come half way across the world to spend €13 each and not get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Never mind, we had four more days to tick this one off the list, so we ducked out of the queue and went off to look at some art, or something… (We were later told that just because the three metre long LED information board states repeatedly that the top of the tower is closed, it’s actually most probably open, but hey, that’s Paris for you…)

I’ve gone off on a tangent, but it’s all relative, because by our last day in Paris, we still hadn’t fulfilled our quest to summit Eiffey and ended up heading back for a last ditch effort at about 5 pm, (remember, train leaves at 8.20 and our bags were being held for us at the B&B) dramatically crushing a €12 box of macaroons in the exit gate while trying to get onto the Metro for free. The queue for the single operating entrance was now about 200 metres long.
20121007-200508.jpg Macaroons, pre-accident.

Complete fail, give up, let’s go for Indian instead, we said.

Somehow it’s now 7.40 pm and our dinner down Little India alley (Rue du faubourg Saint Denis) in the 10th Arrondisement has only just arrived at the table. I’m a bit nervous but we are both strangely blasé about this train catching thing.
20121007-200755.jpg Indian meal was delicious – I would recommend Rue du faubourg Saint Denis if you can brave the neighbourhood! Just kidding!)

So that’s the story of how we missed our train to Munich, on non-refundable tickets and how our eventually tasty €30 meal ended up costing €367 (new train tickets) and a night in the cold and wet, involving a live cockroach in my Coke at Quick Burger on the Champs Élysées, for which I received neither apology nor refund, security staff instead trying to make us leave because we had received our meals after 1.30 am, even though we had ordered before 1 am, rendering Quick burger not only slow and useless, but also unhygienic.

Take note travellers – nothing in Paris is open 24 hours, not even McDonalds.

In between all this Eiffel tower hysteria, Nic and I carried on in vain trying to live out the cliche. One day we caught the Metro to a stop within walking distance of Eiffey with the intention of stocking up on a Baguette and fillings and lazing about under his/her? mighty presence for a while… until we realised there was not one Boulangerie (bread shop) in sight… so no baguette for us. We ended up eating our cheese and ham on doughy, processed white sliced bread from an overpriced supermarket. The whole thing was actually quite enjoyable until we were approached about six times by gypsies, first wanting us to sign their dodgy petition, then asking for money, then a sandwich, then actually trying to reach into our picnic to take food. There are Roma Gypsies absolutely everywhere in Paris and I would like to hear from anyone who has been able to enjoy any kind of peace in a public space in that City.
20121007-201138.jpg Sneakily taking a photo of the gypsies in the park

Another day, we thought we should check out the Mona Lisa and of course I wanted that tokenistic photograph in front of the not so ‘invisible pyramid’ that forms the famously recognisable entrance to the most visited museum in the world. It was raining and Nic doesn’t like taking photographs of me a the best of times, so we were already off to a great start.
20121007-201442.jpg Louvre, tick.

Inside the Louvre, Nic ordered a coffee from cafe chain Paul (€3.30, tiny cup) and we waited about 10 minutes to sit down so we could make sandwiches. The high volume of visitors to the gallery dictated that we were soon joined by an elderly man who happily munched on his €12 Waldorf salad, while we spread Nutella on leftover sliced bread with our plastic cutlery and Nic drank his half-filled coffee. (Screw you Paul, worst cafe chain ever.)
20121007-201700.jpg We thought we were lowering the bar by bringing our packed lunch to the Louvre, but €3.30 for this coffee?

When we eventually reached old Mona, we were underwhelmed, but had been told to prepare for it, so it was fun just to watch the 15-deep crowd clamour for a peek inside her diminutive frame. There were camera flashes firing, a lot of nudging and a general buzz of excitement in the room, but was anyone actually looking at poor old Mona? And was she even worth looking at? There was a nice postcard print of her back at the souvenir desk that looked just the same.
20121007-202255.jpg Moshing for Mona

We left pretty much straight after that and ordered steak-frite and hamburger-frite for €10 each at a nearby restaurant, just to stay dry.

Surely, Paris is to be commended for the impeccable grasp it has on its tourism PR, or perhaps travellers like myself were too busy watching episodes of Sex and the City (Carrie and Big, Season 6, I know, I’m ruining my credibility here) or drooling over the seemingly picturesque French landscape (and Lycra-clad manscapes) during Tour de France TV coverage to actually research the place properly prior.

To be fair, Paris has some beautiful sights and some impressive monuments, relatively untouched during War. There are a lot of stylish women and even more unflappably stylish middle-aged men (wow!) who could easily draw a crowd to their morning coffee and croissant ritual, even with three day old stubble. But these things have been covered. In detail. And then over again. But Paris also an equally pervasive flip side.
20121007-205420.jpg View of Eiffel Tower
20121007-210535.jpg One of Paris’ manicured gardens
20121007-205841.jpg Champs Élysées from the top of the Arc du Triomphe

As mentioned, we stayed in the 10th Arrondisement, Republique, in a first floor apartment on Rue de Petit Ecuries. The tenth is known equally for its concentration of North-west African immigrants and the dozens upon dozens of hairdressing salons (mainly located along Rue Strasbourg) that they run. The area around Rue Strasbourg and Rue St Denis (we used Strasbourg-St Denis Metro stop primarily) is also crammed with sign upon sign showing Boulangerie (bakery), Boucherie (butcher), Patisserie (cake shop) and Fromagerie (cheese shop). There are also a lot of homeless people chilling out on the corners and in the metro stations of the tenth. In fact, there are more visibly homeless people (and more gypsies) in Paris than anywhere I have ever seen, confirming in my eyes a strongly unhappy dichotomy that exists there.
20121007-202721.jpg Gypsies going through the bins for food

Nic and I were sitting n the second floor of KFC near the Republique Metro stop one day bumming some free Wifi. A Brazilian street parade was progressing down Boulevard St Martin and a homeless man who we had seen a few times, recognisable by his bald head, calf-length, scarlet leather trench coat and robot-like gait was making his way along the pavement. He must have tried to cross the road, as less than a minute later he had been skittled into the middle of the road by a car, which did not stop. He got to his feet eventually, cars still passing around him, and holding his arm, shuffled away and crouched down at the top of the stairs to the Metro.

Among the other homeless people we saw was a couple with a young baby and a man with a dog that had just given birth. The five or so puppies were suckling their mother on a blanket on the side of the road.

As the days of our stay in Paris wore on, more and more often I wanted to take a giant eraser and rub out all the black marks that had formed over the perfectly painted pictures of Paris that I had in my head, which looked strangely like the ones that the dozens of artists hanging out for kilometres along the Seine were peddling to tourists each and every day.

None of these paintings depicted the food wrappers and other general waste strewn along almost every street. They did not convey the noticeable waft of urine that hits the nostrils every hundred metres or so (presumably due to the lack of free or working public toilets anywhere) or the beer bottles and large household items jutting out of monumental fountains.
20121007-203644.jpg Junk in the fountain at Sacre Couer

One morning we woke up to be told that while we were out the evening before, a group of Africans protesting the performance of a Congolese singer had started a riot at the Jazz club right opposite our bedroom window, requiring riot police to attend and eventuating in our street being blocked off for a number of hours. The owner of the B&B had had to close our balcony shutters to avoid damage to his property and to block out the noise.
20121007-203811.jpg Jazz club opposite our apartment. Posters for singer Barbara Kanam are defaced and torn

All of these observations aside, we had an awesome day out in Monmartre, watching street performers like freestyle footballer Iya Traore at Sacre Coeur, ate beautiful crepes at Josselin in Montparnasse district, watched the Eiffel Tower twinkle in the night sky from a vantage point at Metro stop Trocadero, locked our love onto the Pont des Arts and had an equally excellent, albeit messy night out in bar district Bastille, with my cousin who lives in Villemomble, in Paris’ suburban outskirts.
20121007-204343.jpg Iya Traore performing at Sacre Coeur
20121007-204833.jpg Sacre Coeur, busy on Sunday
20121007-204623.jpg Eiffel Tower by night from Trocadero
20121007-205206.jpg Love padlocks on Pont des Arts

Meeting my French relatives again after 23 years was the day that really made the Paris visit worthwhile for me. They live about 25 kilometres north-east of central Paris in Villemomble and Bondy and the opportunity to be reunited as well as seeing how non city-dwelling Parisians live was really special. My cousin and distant uncle, who I am told plays a mean game of Pétanque, took us to a gorgeous suburban bistro close to Villemomble train station, where we tried l’escargot soup (snail), charcuterie (assortment of dried and cured meat), followed by, of course, steak-frite. I love a good and bloody steak and this dish was no exception.
20121007-210722.jpg L’escargot!

Later, in Bondy, my uncle’s sister had prepared a gorgeous tart with pears picked fresh from the tree in the back garden earlier that day, as well as a pot of Turkish coffee, a nod to their Armenian heritage. They are all really lovely and hospitable people and I feel thankful to have met them again after so many years. Perhaps this was the Paris I had been looking for? Perhaps central Paris was the exception and suburbs like Bondy and Villemomble were the rule. I hoped so.
20121007-211524.jpg Home made pear tart
20121007-211540.jpg Family’s home in Bondy

BED and BREAKFAST
Chambres de la Grande Porte, Rue de Petit Ecuries

Pros: included breakfast of bread and croissants with preserves, tea, coffee and juice. Our room was nicely decorated with a king sized bed. Well priced for Paris – cheaper than a six bed dorm in some hostels and we had a shower and vanity in the room.

Cons: Not the best neighbourhood in town. Not a great opportunity to meet a lot of other travellers. No wifi.
20121007-211556.jpg Our room at the B&B

Time spent so far…
In the air: 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time: about 58 hours

Not what we expected, but not so Bad(alona) after all. Barcelona, Spain, September 17-19

3 Oct

Our two days’ stay in Spain’s party metropolis had all the makings of a successful whirlwind pseudo-weekend away. Despite being situated in Badalona, in the City’s suburban outskirts, the hostel we booked, BE Dream Hostel Barcelona promised a youthful party atmosphere, just 5 minutes walk from the beach and a few metro stops from central Barcelona, with a ping pong table and art supplies to boot.
20121002-225317.jpg

We had heard numerous people rave about Spain’s second largest city being their favourite European hub and we had high expectations coming off the back of an epic week of beautiful sunshine, an indulgence of beer and Sangria and an endless supply of quality food in the country’s capital, Madrid.

It actually turned out to be a bit of a non-event, which I’m inclined to think may have been initiated by the curse of the overnight bus.

For about €30, at least half the price and surprisingly quicker than the slow train and about a tenth of the price of the fast train, bussing from Madrid to Barcelona was an easy choice. Not so easy, however, was gaining any form of rest, comfort or fresh air on the 7-hour trip. I know, cry me a river, but by the time we arrived at Barcelona Nord at about 6.30 am, we were tired, irritable and certainly not amused to find this almost uninhabitable bus station kindly supplied toilet paper to commuters… on the OUTSIDE of the cubicle.

The hostel was easy enough to locate, close to Pep Ventura station and we were able to check in early and start ploughing through a mountain of laundry from Madrid (we were washing in the plastic bin in Madrid), even managing to go food shopping and later whip up a stir fry. We had a wander through Badalona and I was spun out over how suburban it was after being in cities for the previous 3 weeks – there were kids walking home from school, people walking dogs in the park and jogging along the beach, so in that respect it was nice to see how people like us lived in suburbia, but overseas. In the evening, we were keen to crack into the beers (€2 for a six pack of San Miguel in Del Rio supermarket) and chat to other travellers, but apart from a high school group of 50 kids from Holland (to be continued), the hostel seemed fairly quiet, so we downed a few beers on our own.
20121002-223311.jpg
Badalona Beach

We ventured into a grey and overcast Barcelona (not the beach weather we’d hoped for or expected) the next day without much of a plan (mistake #1) and ended up being disappointed by the Erotic Museum (€8 entry) on Las Ramblas (Barcelona’s main ‘happening’ street) and underwhelmed by Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), the Arena Shopping Centre lookout and Olympic Park but we were excited to find La Boqueria market, tucked away off the main street.
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MNAC – Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

20121002-225951.jpg
View from MNAC

20121002-230312.jpg
La Boqueria market

This fresh produce market is teeming with locals and tourists (probably to the chagrin of the locals who are just trying to get their shopping done) and provides the complete sensory overload. Fresh fish, live crustacea, meat, sweets, fruit and vegetables, preserves, nuts, grains – anything you can think of is there and in vast supply… but disappointingly there are no free testers. We spent a good hour and a half in there trying to decipher lung from liver and filming still-moving crayfish and crab sitting on an ice display.
20121002-230603.jpg
An assortment of meats and entrails

20121002-230843.jpg
Grains and cereals

20121002-230951.jpg
Lollies!

In retrospect, we should have just organised a day trip up to the mountains at Monserrat (the Dutch kids said it was awesome) or to the castle, Castell de Montjuic, but we didn’t and instead got drunk by ourselves two nights in a row at the hostel, the second night peaking only when Nic got yelled at by the teachers supervising the Dutch school trip for inciting some sort of bad behaviour (we call it fun, they call it naughty, whatever.)

I think the highlight of our stay in Barcelona was the Madrid vs Manchester City football game. Nic wanted to watch it at the pub and we were going to head into the City but we happened upon a small family-run bar in Badalona called Frankfurter’s, which, true to its name, sells about 20 different types of sausage, as well as some traditional tapas dishes including our old friend Patatas Bravas… and they were screening the game.

At first we thought the owners didn’t want to let us in, because they couldn’t speak English and they thought we just wanted a drink without food, so one of the guys started waving his hand at us telling us to go away. Once we had got past that misunderstanding, we got a good spot at the bar and soon had two fat bratwurst in bread and two beers to devour. We ended up having a lot of fun with the staff and met a Spanish couple who had recently returned from driving around Australia, who helped us translate a little.
20121002-231214.jpg
Wares from Frankfurter’s, Badalona

So, our brief visit to Barcelona was not the one we had envisioned, but after writing this blog post I realise it was actually a nice two-day break from our otherwise hectic trip so far.

HOSTEL

Be Dream Hostel http://www.behostels.com/dream
Av. Alfonso XIII 28B, Badalona, Barcelona, Spain

    Pros:

Comfy beds, well-equipped bathroom (hostel converted from some sort of aged care or disability centre), nice staff, commercial kitchen, decent breakfast included, free Wifi

    Cons:

Hostel is in the same building as a day care centre so from morning to late afternoon, all you can hear is screaming children. Hostel lacked a bit of atmosphere, but maybe because of the huge school group, even though they were really nice kids.

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air: 22 hours.
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time: About 53 hours.