Zigzagging Through Europe – Part I

Following our arctic adventures in Iceland and Greenland, we were very much looking forward to spending spring in continental Europe. The next month of our journey was spent zig zagging through other parts of Europe we had yet to discover — Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic. The destinations below are fairly well-travelled, so for this blog post, I will try to skip the things most of you already know and talk about the particularities of my experience and what made each place special (or not) for me. I’ve also split my tales of our European adventures in two parts for shorter reading.

(Note: Our European journey continues to Italy and Turkey, which deserve separate blog entries and so are not discussed here).

Copenhagen, Denmark

At the time of planning our trip, Cam and I had ummed and ahhhed about going to Scandinavia, since Cam had already been to Norway twice and well…Scandinavia is expensive!!! But it turned out that Copenhagen was the most convenient arrival destination from Iceland in terms of the price and flight availability. We limited our stay to 2 nights, to keep costs down.

If there is a simple way to describe our time in Copenhagen, it is that we really only saw the city at night. We were very tired from Iceland / Greenland and changing timezones, so we slept in most of the day. I can hear my architect friends in uproar now, as we didn’t go to see any of the amazing Danish architecture in and around of Copenhagen (please forgive me!).

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Night stroll through the neighbourhoods of the city centre on our way to Christiania

We stayed in a tastefully furnished Airbnb apartment in Frederiksberg, which is a well established, upper market neighbourhood with nice architecture, super clean streets and loads of shopping. On our first night in, we didn’t stray far at all from the apartment. We were definitely too tired to contemplate checking out the nightlife (a theme that would continue throughout our European travels) so we treated ourselves to a very nice Italian dinner down the road. The following afternoon, we walked into town to buy our train tickets to Berlin and to check out Tivoli, a well-known amusement park, however to our disappointment it was still closed for the season.

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Tivoli at night — unfortunately for us, the amusement park was still closed for the season.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in a cafe, waiting for the rain to clear, before heading to Christiania, a free settlement / commune that was founded by squatters in the early 1970s. As you would expect from any free settlement, there is an organic, DIY aesthetic to the place — art, dwellings, shops, stalls and gardens mostly fashioned out of recycled / re-used / reclaimed materials. Christiania is also known for its ‘Green Light District’ — a place where marijuana and hash are sold. It is forbidden to take photographs in the area (so we have none) but can be described as a series of shacks with obscured facades, each with its own queue of customers, leading to a communal breakout area with tables and benches where people can gather, drink, smoke, play music, play board games and generally chill out, surrounded by food and drink stalls to satiate anybody’s munchies.

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Street art in Christiania — it is forbidden to take photos in most parts of Christiania so we were only able to take this photo, which is in the outlying area of the commune.

On the walk back home from Christiania, we passed by a number of Copenhagen’s monuments including the Christiansborg Palace.

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View to Christiansborg Palace

The following day we were heading into Germany and I couldn’t leave Copenhagen without sampling the world-famous Danish pastry. I was referred to Lagkagehuset by Mike (my friend who took us to the amazing bakery in Parque Tayrona in Colombia) and I wasn’t disappointed!

Can’t go to Denmark without eating a Danish pastry! This is pastry cabinet of Lagkagehuset at the main station.

 

Berlin, Germany

Berlin is a fascinating city — it wasn’t until we got there that I began to appreciate how ‘new’ the city really is, having moved forward from World War II and the Cold War to become the modern, cosmopolitan city it is today.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kreuzberg, above a great little restaurant called Mondo Voll. Kreuzberg is a vibrant neighbourhood with a diverse demographic and equally diverse selection of cafes, restaurants and vintage / artisan shops and a young, trendy and bohemian vibe. Gorlitzer Park perhaps epitomises this vibe — here you can find a whole cross-section of the community enjoying beers, playing music, relaxing, riding bikes and people watching in a somewhat gritty park environment.

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View down our street in Kreuzberg

 

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First German dinner – schnitzel, potato salad and beer. So gooood. And yes, that schnitzel is larger than the size of your face.

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Hanging out at Görlizter Park

It is hard to separate thoughts of Germany from the atrocities of World War II. I am no history buff, but based on the various documentaries and films I have seen, I had a pretty fair idea of what happened and didn’t really feel it was necessary to spend too much of our time in Berlin going over all of the terror in the many museums and memorials dedicated to World War II and victims of the Holocaust. We limited our time at The Topography of Terrors, a very in-depth exhibit located where once the Gestapo headquarters and SS command once stood.

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Topography of Terrors — part of the headquarters remain in situ against the Berlin Wall

A visit to the Checkpoint Charlie Black Box gave us great insight into what happened to Berlin post-World War II, and how the city became divided as part of the rise of communism and the Cold War.

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Checkpoint Charlie

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Division of Berlin

East Side Gallery, a series of thought-provoking murals along the remnants of the Berlin Wall provide a reminder of the divide.

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Berlin Wall

 

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Berlin Wall mural

We didn’t experience Berlin’s nightlife — perhaps 10 or 15 years ago I would have made it a must, but after a month of travel and a dwindling appreciation for techno music, I was happy with a nice dinner and some good beer and calling it a night.

A word about the beer — it is very good and very cheap! Now, those of you who know me well know that I’m not much of a beer drinker. In the lead up to Germany (and continental Europe for that matter), and due to beer being cheaper than my favoured whisky, I started ‘training’ myself to drink beer in Colombia (perhaps not the best place to start) so by the time we got to Berlin, I was perfectly capable of drinking — and enjoying! — a 0.5L glass. Our first night in Berlin, at Mondo Voll, we discovered Augustiner Heller lager (I know, its Bavarian) which went perfectly with my larger-than-the-size-of-my-face Wienerschnitzel. The next day, we discovered the bottleshops selling beer for less than €2 and the ability to drink on the street. This made Cam very happy, especially after having been to Iceland, Greenland and Denmark where a decent beer pay could easily set you back $10-15. And what better food to pair with beer than Wienerschnitzel, roasted pork knuckle, potato dumplings, sauerkraut, potato and cucumber salad, and the like? We had food and beer comas all three nights we spent in Berlin.

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Cam’s beer for less than 2 Euro

It’s always great to see a familiar face in a foreign city and I was so pleased to have been able to catch up with my friend Shanon, on a last-minute whatsapp message. I met Shanon ten years ago in Sydney taking hip-hop dance lessons and we stayed in touch via Facebook since. Despite rarely making exchanges over the years, it was so great to reacquaint ourselves, share stories and to realise that we share similar perspectives on travels, studying, relationships and continually moving forward in life. Shanon is doing some excellent work with both in the media and a Rwandan initiative — if only I could understand German to get a better understanding!

Our four days in Berlin left me wanting to return. It is such a huge city, its impossible to do it all in four days but that being said, I was happy with what we chose to experience. Berlin gave me such a great first impression of Germany, I couldn’t wait to experience Munich.

 

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Cam and I caught a Meinfern Bus night bus to Amsterdam which, if you are a seasoned long-distance bus traveller (as we became through our travels in South America), is a cheap and relatively comfortable option for travelling between Berlin and Amsterdam. We didn’t have to worry about changing trains in the middle of the night, although it must be said that the departure and arrival stops are not as convenient as other for other cities. We arrived in Amsterdam very early in the morning (it was still dark), and upon the suggestion of the bus driver that town was a pleasant 2km walk, made the mistake of attempting this with Cam having minimal sleep and heavy backpacks. Perhaps the silver lining of the walk was being able to watch the sun rise over the beautifully still canals of Amsterdam.

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Early morning walk to our hotel

We stayed in a one-star hotel in Rembrantplein (Rembrant Square) aptly named Rembrant Square Hotel. Great location in terms of walking distance to restaurants, shops, cafes, public transports, shops and attractions. Bad location if you are a light sleeper and can’t stand the smell of marijuana, as our hotel was located directly above a ‘coffee shop’ and a nightclub. Those of you who have been to Amsterdam before would know that accommodation is expensive, so we dealt with the smell and the loud noise in exchange for a well-located, well-priced hotel (which even had breakfast included).

Amsterdam is a very charming city, with its lovely canals, ‘dancing’ architecture (i.e. lopsided, sinking structures) and interesting museums.

 

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Our first day was spent taking a boat tour of the canals and afterwards falling asleep on the wharf in the sunshine. We had dinner at a little restaurant called Bistro Bij Ons, which offered traditional Dutch food such as stampot, a big meatball or sausage served on mashed potatoes and vegetables with gravy and bacon.

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Our tour boat

 

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View down the Seven Bridges

 

The following day we met up with my friend Vanida, whom I met through my sister in Santiago, Chile in 2012, and who is currently studying her Masters in Delft. It was great to catching up on her life and experience in the Netherlands, and her experiences travelling to other cities in the Netherlands and also in Belgium. We joked on Facebook that we’d catch up in Amsterdam for drugs and strippers but rather we had a spent a more cultural day visiting Albert Cuypmarkt for some fresh poffertjes (mini Dutch pancakes) and stroop waffle, followed by visiting the Van Gogh Museum, a lunch stop at Bistro Bij Ons and then the Ann Frank Museum. We ended our day at an Italian restaurant, Ponte Arcari which offered great food and rather eccentric service (just don’t order the tiramisu, its very disappointing).

Vanida and I being getting in amongst the "I Amsterdam" sculpture

Vanida and I being getting in amongst the “I Amsterdam” sculpture

The following night we caught up with Cam’s friend Manon (who he’d met travelling in South America back in 2007) and her friend Dannika for a pub crawl by bike — that is, Cam and I were piggy backed on Manon and Dannika’s bicycles which was exciting and perhaps the only way we would have been game to get onto a bicycle in Amsterdam (the cyclist really are aggressive). A visit to Amsterdam wouldn’t be complete without having a peek and a giggle at the window prostitutes in the Red Light District, so Manon and Dannika took us on a walk to see the most expensive ladies (which are in the narrowest of lanes, offering maximum discretion to prospective clients), and also the “blue-light district” (for non-hetero persuasions). Our last stop was ironically at an Aussie Bar (get the name) followed by sampling the deep-fried mystery snacks at Febo (best enjoyed drunk, as you really don’t want to be consciously questioning what the filling of your croquette might be made of). Sorry, no photos — but for good reason!

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin almost didn’t make it into our itinerary, but I’m so glad it did in the end! It wasn’t very logical to go to Dublin from Amsterdam, geographically speaking. However our timing couldn’t be any better as we would be there for St. Patrick’s Day!

We stayed with our friend Janine, whom Cam met in 2007 during his travels in South America, and her partner John in Monkstown, in the south of Dublin.

If there is anything to be said about the Irish, it is that they are undoubtedly the warmest, friendliest people we have ever met on this trip (so far).

We had arrived at Janine’s house whilst she was still at work, so to kill some time we decided to look for a pub. We asked one of the neighbours, who happened to be walking his kids down the driveway to be picked up, for directions to the nearest pub. As we set off walking, he hollered out to us, and asked if we would like to leave our luggage at his house to save us from carrying our bags to the pub and back. What a kind gesture! It wasn’t difficult to accept his thoughtful offer, given that we could tell he was a decent family man, and likely knew our friend Janine. We left our bags in his hallway after some brief introductions then set off to the local pub.

At the pub, where we discovered how much better a pint of Guinness in Dublin was compared to elsewhere, we were approached by a gentleman by the name of Kevin O’Connor, who was curious to know where we were from, what brought us to Monkstown and genuinely wanted to have a craic with us.

A few Guinnesses and football games later, Janine arrived with big hugs and smiles to take us home, via her neighbour’s house (whom she actually had never met) to pick up our bags. That night for dinner we went to The Purty Kitchen, a gastropub offering amazing seafood dishes, notably a crab claw entree with pomelo and homemade soda bread.

The next day after breakfast, Janine and John took us for hike up Sugarloaf Mountain and left us for the afternoon to relax at home. If there was one question that sealed our fate during our stay, it was “Have you watched House of Cards?”. Being jet-lagged, tired and unmotivated to go out in the drizzly rain, we indulged in watching episode after episode of the Underwoods clawing their way to presidential power.

Hike up Sugarloaf

Hike up Sugarloaf

Janine and her nephew Callum took us to Powerscourt Estate, 47 acres of beautiful gardens, and a drive around Dalkey, with great views of the Emerald Isle and where celebrities including Bono and Enya live.

Powerscourt Estate

Powerscourt Estate

Later that evening Cam and I went to Ginger Man, a pub in town, to meet up with a lovely Irish couple, James and Lorraine, whom Cam had worked with in London. While we waited for James and Lorraine to arrive at the pub, we were befriended by a couple of locals who turned out to be a town planner and an architect, so there was plenty to talk about before our friends had arrived. It was great to be back in a pub catching up with James and Lorraine, being introduced to their circle of friends, and having a craic.

The next day was St. Patrick’s Day! We met up with James, as well as a few of the friends we had met the night before, at Croke Park to watch a hurling match (it was the senior club championship final) and gaelic football, which was entertaining to watch and the stadium itself had a great atmosphere.

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Hurling Senior Club Championship

Hurling Senior Club Championship

Our last day in Dublin was spent in town, walking around the beautiful Trinity College, Dublin Castle and Temple Bar. We found a little shop that had books, coats of arms, and related objects about the various Irish clans — being a Byrne, Cam was fascinated to learn about the paternal side of his family tree and bought a book about the Byrne clan.

Trinity College

Trinity College

Lanes of pubs in Temple Bar

Lanes of pubs in Temple Bar

We had slept in pretty late that day, which didn’t leave us enough time to visit the Guinness Brewery or a chance to visit Harper Salon, a successful business that Janine has built for 4 years and which continues to grow. Janine was keen to cut and style my hair to enter into a competition, but unfortunately Cam and I had left the house too late to be able to fit in both walking around the centre of Dublin and making it to Janine’s salon. Nevertheless, Janine gave me a new style cut at home later that night, which I really like and was very appreciative for.

Staying with Janine was like having a home away from home; it was nice to be able to sleep in; to lounge around and watch TV; to prepare home cooked meals; to have a craic with Janine over a hot cup of tea and block of chocolate or with James and Lorraine over a couple of pints of Guinness. Dublin was really about being with friends than it was seeing the sights, but I think in retrospect we ended with a good balance of both.

Brussels, Belgium

The more I think about our time in Belgium, the more fond I am of it. I mean, how can you go wrong in a country that serves the best frites (fries), best beer, best chocolate and best waffles?

We flew into Brussels, which is where we decided to base our stay, with the intention of taking day trips to Ghent and Bruges. We stayed in a top floor Airbnb apartment hosted by a lovely Serbian and French couple in the vibrant and culturally diverse suburb of Saint Gilles, about a 20min walk from the centre of Brussels.

We spent our first evening strolling into town sipping on 11% Chimay beer (for less than €2) and indulging in a cone of deliciously crispy, melt-in-your-mouth frites (otherwise known as French fries, but they are not really French) topped with pepper mayonnaise (amazing combination; I have been craving this ever since) before arriving and marvelling at the splendour of the la Grand Place. It is the most stunning main square I have seen with regard to ornate, gilded architecture.

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The Grand Place at night

It was hard to escape the temptation of the many artisan chocolate shops around the Grand Place, so I gave in a bought a shard of milk chocolate with roasted hazelnuts and another with rice crisps. My only regret was that I didn’t just buy a kilo worth, it was that good!

Irresistible slabs of Belgian chocolate

Irresistible slabs of Belgian chocolate

For dinner we tried to find a non-touristy restaurant serving moules (mussels) and were quite disappointed — we were expecting either the same quality or better than what you would get at Belgian Bier Cafe or Epoque back home in Sydney, but unfortunately this was not the case.

The next day, we discovered a great local restaurant down the road from our apartment called La Boule d’Or, where we ended up having both lunch and dinner thanks to the great food, good beer, good price and super friendly staff, especially the chef or the owner who crouched down at our table with his beer to have a chat with us about our travels and the joy of getting to know a place through local food.

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Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, about 30 minutes northwest of Brussels via train, is a charming and historic canal city featuring castles, cathedrals, belfries and churches. A lot of travellers we came across enjoy Ghent more than Bruges, as it is more relaxed and less touristy. We enjoyed our time exploring the the cobble stone streets and taking an afternoon boat cruise along the many canals. In hindsight it would have been great to stay overnight, however we did hang around after sunset to see the city beautifully lit up.

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Ghent is charming at night

 

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, about 1 hour by train northwest of Brussels via train in the Flemish region, is a picture perfect fairytale city — cobblestone streets, canals, medieval buildings and a beautiful Grote Markt (The Big Square) with its iconic Belfry. Our day in Bruges was blessed with sunny, blue skies and we made the most of it by getting lost in the historic centre and venturing out to the periphery of the historical centre to see the windmills.

The main square in Bruge

The main square in Bruges

The iconic Belfry

The iconic Belfry

A true highlight was sitting on a bench in the sunshine, sharing a freshly made Belgian Liege waffle (caramelized waffle made with brioche dough) topped with melted chocolate and ice cream, which we had bought from a little waffle truck. The waffles are so hot, many customers return to the van with melted forks!

Mmm waffles!

Mmm delicious waffle!

That evening was the Belgian Cup Final (football) between Anderlecht and Bruges, so we joined the hundreds of cheering locals, dressed in their blue and black, in the main centre car park which had been converted to an open air venue complete with big screen, beer and food stalls and a lot of police. We stayed only for the first half before catching our train back to Brussels, and were glad to learn later on that evening that Bruges had won.

Getting amongst the crowds for the Belgian Cup Final

Getting amongst the crowds for the Belgian Cup Final

Up Next…

Our journey zigzagging through Europe continues to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Munich and Innsbruck in Part 2.


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