Sunday, November 27, 2011

Berlin: "Even monkeys know this!"

Early Tuesday morning we caught the Orlybus, right outside our hotel, to Paris-Orly airport for our Air Berlin flight to Tegel. It couldn't have gone smoother: the bus ride was less than half an hour, our packs fit perfectly in the overhead compartments, and we got these delicious fresh pretzels filled with butter as a snack on the short flight.

The cab ride to our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, in former East Berlin, was one of the most entertaining of our lives: every taboo associated with the country's history had come up before we were even off the airport property, and it just went from there. A Berliner of Moroccan decent, he was nine when the wall came down. When asked what it was like, he said that the former East Berliners "just went crazy." Suddenly the world was available to them, and they wanted it in a single bite. "Bananas... They went crazy for them. But they didn't know how to open them. We had to teach them! Even monkeys know this!" While he was definitely hamming it up for us, a picture of the time emerged from the hyperbole.

What sticks with me now is how adrift he seemed: unable to fit in in the city of his birth because of the colour of his skin, his hair -- he told stories about a professor who was excited to supervise his work until they met face-to-face, fares now saying how good his German is and asking when he will be going home, the constant searches every time he travels -- and unable to fit in in Morocco (where his parents have now retired) because he doesn't speak Arabic. He repeated many times how he would leave Berlin after university; go anywhere else in Europe.

In some very small way, I could sympathize with his plight: as friendly as the Brits have been to us these last two years, those constant questions about how long we've been here, when we're going home, etc., ensure that this never truly feels like home. I am more thankful than ever that I do have a place to call home; where everyone sounds like me and... Well, I could go on and on about how much I've come to appreciate Canada, but let's get back to Berlin.

The main purpose of this leg of the trip was to see a few of the 50-odd Christmas markets and 80-odd pubs -- with Around Berlin in 80 Beers as our guide -- the city has to offer. I'll highlight a few of each, quickly comment on the others we visited, and then finish with the other sights we took in in between, during our five days in the German capital.

Note: all the places I'll mention were easily reachable from our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, including what is considered the more remote borough of Spandau; cheaply as well: the passes we used for the whole trip, purchased at a convenience store near our apartment, gave us passage on any train (U- and S-Bahn) or tram, all for little more than €30 each.

Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas Markets)

Topping our list is the WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt, nestling between the French and German Cathedrals. We first happened upon it as the early sunset drew the afternoon fog to evening. It was almost magical, with the festive lights, smells and music, and the bigger city left in the mists. We enjoyed it so much that we stopped by the next day, enjoying delicious fried potato medallions, sausages and mulled wine before making our way to Checkpoint Charlie.

Next up would have to be the market at Charlotteburg Palace. Approaching it at night, walking up Schloss (Palace) Strasse, was a treat; it really was beautifully lit. With a good mix of outdoor stalls and heated indoor shopping, it was easy to spend some time there as well. Some local celebrities seemed to be on hand the night we visited: we turned a corner to find the avenue of stalls lit bright white, cameras following these two wide-smiling folks slowly making their way along, chatting with 'locals' in a clearly staged manner.

Other Christmas markets we visited included:
  • Alexanderplatz: a frequent stop, as it was closest to our apartment. Dominated by an enormous, beautifully-lit replica of a Christmas Pyramid, all in the shadow of Television Tower.
  • Der Grosse Berliner: like a fair or ex, with big rides and shooting galleries amongst the usual stalls and tasty fare.
  • Nostalgischer Weihnachtsmarkt: a nice market in Berlin's historic centre. Chips in a paper cone was a rare (and tasty!) treat there.
  • Potsdamer Platz: surrounded by skyscrapers, including the beautiful Sony Center (more on that later), we learned about the Hungarian origins of trdelnik (a Tea favourite) and bombed down a man-made icy slope in an inner tube!
  • City Weihnachtsmarkt: a bustling market in the shadow of the unique Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
  • Spandau Weihnachtsmarkt: about twenty minutes west of the famous Friedrichstrasse station by commuter train, this was well worth the trip. It had a small town feel and great community spirit. Plus the stalls serving Baileys in cocoa were a big hit. (And there was a great brewpub out there as well; more on that shortly.)
  • Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt in Kulturbrauerei: the last one we visited, with a medieval feel. There was some sort of reading going on in a nearby warehouse; the place had an awesome vibe. I saw German translations of Craig Thompson and Guy Delisle favourites on sale.

Stephen at Weihnachtsmarkt Alexanderplatz

Pubs and Brewpubs

Tea gave me a copy of Around Berlin in 80 Beers by Peter Sutcliffe a few days before we left, and, for me, it made the trip. There are just so many choices in Berlin -- well, in Germany in general, from what I've seen -- that you need a plan going in. This was reinforced right from the outset, as our first pick, Brauhaus Mitte, was amazing, and my #1 of those we visited. Everything Sutcliffe says is bang-on: you'd never know you're in a mall -- great atmosphere, really -- and while all four of their beers (brewed on-site) in the sampler were tasty, their Hefeweisse Hell was the star. And to top it all off, the meal was excellent as well.

"Tastes like chicken!"
My second choice is a bit tougher. In the end, I'll go with another brewpub, Lindenbrau, for a few reasons: we could see the roof of the beautiful Sony Center from where we were sitting; the one beer they brew, their Hofbrau-Weiße, was excellent; and, most importantly, when Tea asked the waiter to surprise her with a meal, not only did he fail to hesitate, he brought the winning meal in our minds: this beautiful cooked breast of duck. Great spot!

Other pubs we visited included:
  • zum Paddenwirt: a quiet, cosy pub; we'd popped in for a snack, and their soups hit the spot.
  • Mommsen-Eck (Haus der 100 Biere): yeah, that's a hundred beers, all right. Sutcliffe's recommendation was perfect: a rauchbier or smoked lager. The best bit? When I ordered it, the waiter got this big ole smile on his face, "Tastes like chicken!" He wasn't wrong.
  • Berliner Republik: great li'l' irreverent pub. Inspired by Tea's success at Lindenbrau, we all got fowl -- duck, duck, goose as she kept saying all night. Great food, I enjoyed my krug (two?) of Zwick'l, and we stuck around to see the stock ticker of beer prices start up: prices fluctuate based on volumes ordered!
  • Brauhaus in Spandau: as stated earlier, this is a bit out from the centre, but well worth the trip. As Sutcliffe says, their property is almost a neighbourhood, and there's a really warm, welcoming atmosphere. We tried their strong, deceptively smooth Weihnachtsbier (or seasonal specialty) and lighter Havelbrau, as well as enjoying a great supper.
  • Zillemarkt: the 'house beer' Zillebrau (technically, brewed off-site, but specifically for them) was excellent, as were our meals: my cabbage roll was epic! The works of Heinrich Zille are also on display throughout, and well worth a peek.
  • Alois S.: last, but not least, it's more of a restaurant (specializing in tapas, actually) than a pub. Unfortunately, they no longer have the Augustiner Edelstoff on tap, but the brewery's Hell is still very good. We tested it as a late night dessert spot, and, wow, did it blow our socks off. A great end to the trip.
The 'stock ticker' in Berliner Republik

Note: a comment or two about two misses:
  1. Eschenbrau: doesn't open 'til later. I have no excuse, as Sutcliffe lists all the hours for every entry, but as it's a bit out of the way (in Wedding) and I was very disappointed to find it closed, I just thought I'd highlight it.
  2. Willy Bresch: probably because it was so close to our apartment, I took this one for granted. Don't. Set aside a weeknight for it if you can, as it's really small, and, when busy, as it was the Friday we tried to go, incredibly smoky. (And I'm not normally overly bothered by that sort of thing.) A shame, as it's Sutcliffe's favourite pub in Berlin.


Visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial was a humbling experience. Across the street from the remaining section, the view on high really drives home how much more it was than a wall. Historical accounts, both there and at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, were so immersive: they even had some of the modes of escape on display in the latter. Finally, the Window of Remembrance (also at the memorial) seemed to dampen all ambient sound: as I stared at the portraits of all those who died trying to escape, it seemed that nature itself mirrored the solemn moment.

The first victim shot trying to escape after the wall went up in '61

The nearby Chapel of Reconciliation provides a segue for the lasting impression the city left on me: that of a creative hub, still working to reinvent itself. The architecture on display -- the chapel, the Sony Center, and the Reichstag Dome all being excellent examples -- really made a big impression on me. It truly is a beautiful city.

Inside the Chapel of Reconciliation

Speaking of the Reichstag, you have to book tours of the Dome in advance. Luckily we found this out early enough in the trip to book a slot in the morning of our last full day in Berlin. What an impressive structure! That, the view, and the excellent audio guide made for an entertaining and educational hour or so -- from detailing the skyline, to discussion of how the cone reflects light down to the parliament floor and reclaims water, to describing the functions of the government itself. Certainly a highlight of the trip!

Although I was a bit too young (and immature) to appreciate the significance of those views of the Brandenburg Gate in 1989, no one can approach it today, particularly at night along Unter den Linden, free from the weight of history. That evening we then cut across the immense Tiergarten parkland to Potsdamer Platz, the leaves crunching underfoot in the near black adding to the solemnity of the occasion.

Finally, we spent a few hours in the Berlin Zoo as well. Highlights included the hippopotamuses -- one of the young ones stole the show -- the condors -- the whoop, whoop of their wings as they flew from perch to perch was truly awesome -- and the lions at feeding time: nearly wet my pants during the latter, if I'm honest; that cage looked like tinfoil by the time they all finally had their huge chunks o' meat.

Up next: the trip movie!

PS: Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Paris: The Gold Ring

That's a tip of the hat to a great scene in one of my favourite movies, Pulp Fiction, where the one and only Christopher Walken, as Captain Koons, returns a family heirloom -- The Gold Watch -- to five-year-old Butch.

Read on for the story of the ring.

As we knew we only had one day in Paris, we got up early again and caught the commuter train from Disneyland in, our must-see lists in hand. Since Tea and I had been before, we started on Stephen and Nancy's list, after dropping our packs at the hotel. First up was the Catacombs, a block from where we were staying; unfortunately, they're closed on Monday (boo!), so we caught the metro to Île aux Cygnes to see the replica of the Statue of Liberty (a little over a quarter the size of the one on Ellis Island).

The Isle of the Swans was an oasis in the bustling city; a view that seems to be shared by the locals, given all the joggers we saw. From there, we grabbed some delicious baguette sandwiches to go, making our way to the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

The line-up for the first level wasn't bad at all, so we bought tickets and up we climbed. 328 steps. We were rewarded with an amazing view (once we'd caught our breath). Plus, unlike some, I find the structure itself to be beautiful, and much more so when you're amongst it, even. (Tea, Kae and I didn't spend much time there on our previous trip, and didn't go up.)

The Gold Ring

Once we'd walked along the Seine to the Flame of Liberty, that marked a good dent in Stephen and Nancy's list, so it was off to Montmartre. Along the way, as we admired the Alexander III bridge and l'Hôtel national des Invalides in the distance, a woman approached Stephen. In her hand was a gold ring the likes of which I've never seen; truly, it was like a Ring of Power, and all the more so when she began pointing at what I thought was an inscription, asking if it was Stephen's. (Well, it was an inscription -- no, nothing to do with ruling or binding -- but one supposedly indicating its purity; not a name or dedication, as I'd assumed. I only found that out later, after talking with Stephen.)

As Stephen faded back she turned to me, saying she'd just found it, and asking whether it was mine. She was sort of musing, though, it seemed to me, and with what I took to be wonderment, muttered something about bonne chance. Seizing on the chance to use my limited French, I jumped in with, "Ah, oui, c'est la bonne chance!" and made to move on. Well, at that point she started saying that she couldn't keep it, and that I should take it. I was shaking my head, no, no, with my hand up, and she kept pressing, both verbally, and with the ring, on my vertical palm.

I did manage to get away in the end, but it left me feeling a bit down. To this day, I'm so naive, and normally don't fare so well in those situations. Turns out this is very common in Paris (also called The Drop), although this woman never got to the asking for money bit.

* * *

At the Place de la Concorde we took another detour... for our first Christmas market of the trip! A complete surprise, it was a great way to get us all excited about what awaited us in Berlin. Our tummies full of mulled wine, pastries and smoked fish -- not all at once; trust me, it was awesome -- we hopped the metro to Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.

Om nom nom!
Sacré-Cœur Basilica

Avoiding the bracelet scam, we took a few minutes to enjoy the view and great people watching. The latter continued in spades as we sat outside a café in Place du Tertre, at first for wine, and then, tempted by the smells from the kitchen, for a full meal that included onion soup, beef bourguignon and escargot. Thanks to the heat lamps, we were there well past dark.

Place du Tertre

We then caught the metro back to our hotel, stopping off for a nightcap at the nearby l’Académie de la Bière, specializing in Belgian beer. With friendly staff, a cozy atmosphere and an impressive beer menu, it was the perfect way to close out the day.

l’Académie de la Bière

Up next: Berlin, Germany

PS: Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Disneyland Paris: "I need a Captain EO."

On the Disney property, just behind our hotel
We got up nice 'n' early on Saturday to walk to St. Pancras, which was a breeze with backpacks. (We're seriously wondering if we'll ever vacation with luggage again, in fact.) The Eurostar took us to Lille, where we switched to the TVG (high-speed train) to Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy, inside Disneyland Paris. After quickly checking in at Sequoia Lodge, it was off to the parks, to make the most of our day and a half there.

The all-important "picking of the ears"
Highlights of our time there included:
  • The Christmas tree trimming in the Disneyland Park; we arrived in time for the unveiling.
  • That first glimpse of le château de la belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty Castle) lit up at night.
  • It's A Small World: we all adore that ride. (It was my favourite part of the parks, actually; it satisfies something deep down in me.)
  • Space Mountain: Mission 2: we were expecting something along the lines of the original Space Mountain, 'til we saw the shoulder restraints; it's more like the Aerosmith Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, and all the better for the unexpected thrill.
  • Goofin' around on Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast: the girls had to take care of Zorg, as Stephen and I were too busy trying to screw up each other's shots.
  • The big roaring fireplace, open on two sides, in the Sequoia Lodge; a great way to banish the last of the evening's chill.
  • The Mad Hatter's Tea Cups, lit up beautifully with Chinese lanterns.

Early on, Stephen pointed out the profusion of what he deemed "space coats": puffy, shiny and ribbed, we then couldn't fail to see them, on adults, teenagers, kids, whole families. Maybe the French are starting something.

Finally, the subtitle comes from that 80s ride, which was playing in the Disneyland Park. Stephen told us about how he fell asleep in it the first time 'round, in the 80s, and was looking forward to seeing whether what he remembered was in the movie or just his dreams. Well, needless to say, history repeated itself, and he took Tea with him this time. (It was a euphemism for a nap from then on.)

I found it really interesting, the way it obviously liberally borrowed from Star Wars, as well as the H. R. Giger Alien, while at the same time clearly inspiring those who would design the Borg: particularly their housings and the Queen.

All in all, we had a great time. It was surreal, standing in spots we'd swear we'd been before, only those were now some 7000 kilometres away. We all agreed that Tea summed it up best: while Disneyland Park was a fantastic copy of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, you couldn't help feeling that it lacked depth; like there was something missing, below the surface. (Which is true, of course, as it is smaller.)

Up next: Paris, France

PS: Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

London: "Don't cross Euston Road at night!"

We took the train to London on Friday afternoon to meet Nancy and Stephen, who'd flown in over night. From Paddington, the four of us decided to go straight to the hotel, the Thistle Euston, so Tea and I could discard our packs -- while the specially purchased 40-odd-litre backpacks were working out well, we saw no need to push our endurance right out of the gate.

That accomplished, it was supper time. After picking up our Eurostar tickets for the morning, the reality of the pop-in on a Friday night in London smacked us square in the face: we struck out a number of times before happening upon a sign pointing us to Thai food. Nancy and Stephen were a bit skeptical -- not of the cuisine, I should point out, though it would be Stephen's first taste of Thai -- standing outside the Dolphin, but once we assured them that our favourite Thai back home was also served in a well-worn pub -- specifically, at the Suffolk Arms -- they warmed up to the idea.

Aside: the funny thing was, later that night, at the Skinners Arms -- great pub, incidentally -- Nancy got talking to this American journalist now based in London, pretty much spitting distance from the Dolphin. He waxed lyrical about a number of subjects, including, importantly, how rough the Dolphin is -- like the Tooth Fairy lost a night's spoils out front come any given Saturday morning, apparently -- and, get this, how we should never cross Euston Road at night. He made to bless us when we squeaked how we'd have to do that very thing to get back to our hotel. Small wonder it was such a steal!

However, never fear, dear reader: we had a fantastic meal at the Dolphin -- so good, in fact, that that was Stephen's meal of choice at the end of the trip as well, back in Cheltenham, although from Thai Emerald (also excellent), as the Suffolk Arms doesn't serve it on Sundays -- enjoyed a few pints at the Skinners Arms and then at the lovely Bree Louise -- they were hosting a Disney themed fancy dress party, and us with tickets for Disneyland Paris the next day; you can't make this stuff up -- and made it back to the hotel safe 'n' sound.

For you real ale fans, highlights of the evening included:
  • Titanic's Anchor: lovely gold, with a big kick of bitter hops
  • Facers' Landslide (gravity fed!)
  • Ascot Ales' Winter Reserve (also gravity fed)
  • Otley's O8: first time I'd tried this "deceptively smooth" beauty

Up next: Disneyland, French style!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bright Lights and Beacons

The view from our roof
Another beautiful weekend is winding down. Friday evening was rather wet, but that didn't stop me from showing a friend, in town for just the day, my favourite pub and chippy. The weather really picked up on Saturday, setting the stage for gunpowder and treason -- or at least much fire in their remembrance. After a bit of hemming and hawing, we settled on taking in the spectacle from Cleeve Hill. A quick stop at B & Q for torches -- i.e., flashlights; should've put that one on our list -- and then we were in it.

It's difficult to describe how surreal it was, standing up on Cleeve Common, lit by moonlight alone, watching fireworks go off randomly all over the town, as far as the eye could see. In some cases we'd wait six or seven seconds before the bangs, pops and crackles (h'm, I'm hungry) would reach us, and then others would fly over our heads in an instant cacophony, as fellow Common squatters joined the party.

Aside: for the movie fans, I kept alternating between that opening shot of the city in Blade Runner, with those flames shooting up, and something out of The Crow, like Devil's Night, almost a week late. Surreal, in any event.

We stopped at a grocery store on the way home and picked up some mulled wine and appetizers for board game night -- a favourite way to spend an evening, now British style, with sausage rolls, egg bites and falafel augmenting the usual Italian meats, cheeses, bread, hummus, chicken wings, etc. We decided to try The Rivals For Catan this time, a two-player take on the better known Settlers... We were both impressed: lots of paths to victory, and for screwing over your rival in the pursuit of it. Plus, once you've mastered the basic game, there are three 'era' expansion packs included.

* * *

We struck out around noon today for Great Malvern, set on conquering the Worcestershire Beacon well before sundown. Tea was brimming with confidence, and would hear none of my burning quads after those first '99 steps' of the Rose Bank Gardens that open the walk. The temperature was perfect: we were just right in our long sleeves, even in the brisk wind on the crests of the lower hills (so long as we stayed in the sun). And the view from the top was fantastic: parts of thirteen counties can be seen on a clear day, apparently, and we certainly had that.

"Yay! We made it!"

The bar in the Great Malvern Hotel
Having worked up an appetite, we made our way to the Unicorn in Great Malvern. An old haunt of C. S. Lewis, it's probably seen better days; still, the staff were really friendly, the roast pork was excellent, and they did have Ringwood Best Bitter on tap. I then convinced Tea that we couldn't leave town without trying a pub from the GBG. The bar in the Great Malvern Hotel was what we settled on; such a homey place, with some interesting ales on when we visited: I tried Sharp's Red Ale, and enjoyed it.

P.S.: I've uploaded a few other pictures from the day, as well.