Saturday, May 30, 2015

Eurotrip - Osnabruk, Bremen, Hamburg - May 14-17

The Adventure

We had hit a wall. We were both travel weary at this point and we looked at out calendar and say in our final 6 days we were going to go to 5 cities. Morale started dipping.

We arrived back in Osnabruk and had a very relaxed day. It was needed. We sat around, read a little, might have napped. This was in preparation for going to a German barbecue for one of Axel's friend's birthdays.

Most the people we drank with our first night in Germany were there. It surprisingly was exactly like American's BBQs. I was sort of expecting something different since the British do this BBQ light version. But sure enough, there was a 22 inch charcoal grill with pork steaks and sausages on there. We sat around the fire drinking beers, eating meat on bread. Was an all around great time.

The next day we traveled to Bremen for dinner and to meet Axel's best friend. We didn't get to see much of the town, but it had an awesome river running through the middle of it and is the headquarters for Beck's Beer.

From Bremen, we went to Hamburg, which most of the German's agreed is the second coolest city under Berlin.

It's a harbor town. So of course it was rainy and sort of cold. Despite the weather, we took a 3 hour bike tour of the entire city. It was incredible. Something from a movie. Something I didn't think existed.

Hundreds of feet tall cranes lifted shipping containers onto huge ocean worthy ships. Cruise ships, bigger than anything I've ever seen docked to reload supplies. And Hamburg is also the proud city of the second largest red light district under Amsterdam, called the Reeperbahn.

That's right, on our bike tour I soon found myself staring at a walled off street. This is when the tour guide told us that this is where you can get legal prostitues, and since I've never walked the street, I now had to do it because it's tradition.

So, lead by the tour guide, my buddy, and two other German men, I walked through the gates of the world famous Herbertstra├če. Now the reason I went through and Sallie did not is because posted on the gate of this place is a sign that says, "No juveniles under 18 and no women." In fact, every German had a story of some drunk woman wandering down the street and getting beat up by the prostitutes.

So I enter the gate and am greeted by what looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans. The street smells of booze, sweat, sex, cigarettes, and vomit. On either side of the street are shop windows. And these shop windows have sort of cubicals in them where the prositutes sit and show off their goods. If interested, you walk up to the window, knock, negotiate what depraved act you want to commit, and then if a deal is struck, you get invited in.

Luckily for me, it was 10 am, there was only 2 prostitutes, and there was a guy distracting them already. It was an uncomfortable place to say the least.

After the tour took us throught the shopping district, we dropped Axel's car off at his friends house and we took the train back downtown in order to watch the Hamburg football match and have dinner with Axel's friends. Unfortunately, Sallie started feeling a bit sick after spending so much time in the cold and in cigarette smoke. We called the night, hoping to get decent sleep before heading to London the next day.

Leaving Hamburg to go to London, and finally Dublin part 2. 

Hamburg airport really didn't stick out to me at all. I have trouble remembering much, other than the main area is not set up well. A tired Dan and sick Sal wandered back and forth with our luggage looking for the British Airways ticket counter. We found it, we through security, and got on the place. Easy peasy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Eurotrip - Berlin Germany - May 11 - 14

The Adventure

We hit the ground running in Berlin, mostly out of necessity.

Our train arrived roughly 4 hours before we could check into our hotel. Luckily, we packed light and just had our backpacks with us.

The good news was that Brandenburg Gate was on the way, as well as the Tiergarten.

The bad news is that a protest had happened there only a few days before and the police had roughly the half mile around the gate completely blocked off.

Not speaking German and not being connected to German news, Sal and I had no idea. We just thought maybe there was a way you had to go in. So we wandered around the perimeter of the police blockade for a solid 45 minutes before giving up.

This did however allow us to walk through the Mall of Berlin, which is a huge grouping of very old buildings. After eating a quick lunch and getting some coffee, we gave up and went to the hotel hoping we could check in early.

That did not happen. However, I asked if we could get a beer at the hotel bar at noon and the guy smiled at me and said, "But of course, this is Germany."

We sort of got the layout of the city the first night we were there and went by Checkpoint Charlie. It was cool seeing the Checkpoint... but it's also the most miserable place to deal with tourists. It's situated in the middle of a very busy street. The sidewalks are very narrow, and at least 20 nationalities all speaking different languages are fighting to get a picture of the Checkpoint station.

That night we found a great craft beer and German food spot called Das Meisterst├╝ck. Our server was a really nice guy that helped us choose from the 130 beers they had at this place. We chatted him up more and he knew St. Louis because of Urban Chestnut. Also turned out that he was a brewer, having done a 3 year apprenticeship, his first designed beer was going to be tapped the next night. He wrote the address of the place on a coaster and told us to come on down.

The next day we hit Museum Island. It's a convenient place with 5 of Berlin's best museums and the Cathedral all located on the same grounds.

These museums blew us away. There weren't ropes holding you back from exihibits. There weren't tons of tourists or field trips. You just walk into rooms and there's ancient Greek and Roman statues just in the room with you.

One of the museums had rebuilt an entire Greek temple entrance and a huge piece of a Babylonian city gate.

It was as if they were throwing Egypt in your face. The museum had just dozens of sarcophagus and papyrus just laying around. And then there was the bust of Nefertiti, one of the most treasured Ancient Egyptian pieces of art. You could feel it in the room. Things were just heavy in there. Everyone immediately went silent when they entered the doorway. (That might have something to do with the 4 armed guards stationed in the room as well)

It was an unbelievable day that we didn't think we could top.

Then came our last day where we wandered the Tiergarten (huge park in the middle of the city) and went to the Berliner Dom. This was one of the most unexpected tours we did. At first, it looked like a larger version of what we saw in Dublin. I was slightly disappointed at the 7 Euro entrance fee. 

Then we started going up stairs. And up more stairs. And more. Every now and then there would be an little exhibit showing the construction of the Cathedral. Then, after the 26th flight of stairs, we opened a little metal door and found ourselves on the roof of the cathedral looking out onto the entire city. It's cliche to say, but we were breathless at what we were seeing.

In America, the fear of litigation would keep most places from even considering this part of the exihibit. But as a German told us on the first night, "I don't get why you put leashes on your children. We just trust our people will do what's right and if not, they will learn a lesson." That seemed to be the philosophy for every place we went. Trust that people won't be idiots. It made the experience much better.

Food and Drink

We had several more doner kebabs and sausages, but one thing that surprised us is the Italian food. Apparently Berlin is a hot tourist destination for Italians and you can find really great pasta everywhere. Fantastic pasta at Rosengarten am Engelbecken and Fontana di Trevi.

We did end up going to Hopfenreich to try the debut from Lenny's Artisanal Ales, a delicious smoked India dark ale and hung out with the brewer for a bit more.

Beyond that, I had so many beers, most better than the last. This was sort of a dream trip for a beer drinker like me who really enjoys German beers more than any other flavor.

Leaving Berlin to go back to Osnabruk

We had planned on doing souvenir shopping on our last morning, but didn't realize there was some sort of German holiday. From what was explained to me, it sounded like Easter. Something about "Christ has risen to heaven." Either way, this meant just about every store in Berlin was closed.

It was also around this time that we realized that 15 days was too much. We were starting to hit a wall and we still had 6 days left.

The train ride back was fairly uneventful. Slightly more full than our way there, but we still were able to secure seats.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Eurotrip - Osnabruk / Dortmund Germany - May 8 - 11

The Adventure

Our buddy Axel picked us up from the train station and showed up the 10 cent tour of Osnabruk. We got to his house, dropped out packages.

I was thinking that we were going to need a nap, but Axel, sensing our energy level instead offered us a beer.

Now, before I launch into how the rest of the Germany trip was, and before you judge me, I have to set out some rules of Germany.

  1. You do not drink tap water. Not in a restaurant, not at home. It's considered cheap and most places won't give you the option. You buy bottles of water. 
  2. Beer is cheaper than water. Yes, water is roughly $3.50 a bottle whereas beer is closer to $3 and you get a bottle deposit of about $.50 if you return the bottle to the vendor. 
  3. Germans drink beer with lunch, dinner, and before bed. Doesn't matter if it's Monday and they are working, that's just how the culture is. BUT, saying that, it seems they do not drink to get a buzz like many American's or the Irish did. 
  4. Beer is served usually by the liter in Germany. To put that in perspective, it's roughly 2.5 standard bottles of American beer. 
Axel's balcony overlooked all of his town. We could see the local cathedral, the town square, the mountains in the distance, and all the green trees. The weather was perfect. Really, this encouraged beer drinking. 

It also happened to be Osnabruk's May Fest. Every May, the town celebrates spring time with 9 days of drinking, eating, and music in the town square. It's a huge deal. Axel told us that 650,000 people came to May Fest in Osnabruk this year.

What happened over the next several hours is a blurry alternating beer, sausage, music, meet someone new, beer, sausage, shots, meet someone new pattern. We met about 12 of Axel's best friends, briefly were lost in Germany without any of our German friends, went to a packed German night club, ended up at some biker bar, and then ate my new favorite food, Doner, at 3 am.

We messed up bad.

The next morning we had to wake up semi-early so that we could drive to Dortmund to see a football (soccer) match. We all hated life. It was a bad hangover that lasted until the ball dropped.

And we found ourselves in a sold out 86,500 standing room only stadium. Sal and I were right next to what's called the Yellow Wall where the biggest fans of the team sing songs the entire 90 minutes, waved flags, shout names in unison. It's indescribable how loud and huge that place was. It was like something out of Harry Potter. Sal and I sat 10 rows back. The image below is from our seats.

We spent our last day in Osnabruk going to Axel's families horse farm. The place was gorgeous. It was one of the few times I thought, "Yeah, maybe I could live on a farm instead of in a city." 

Food and Drink

It was as early as the first night in May Fest that I knew I was about to have some incredible food. We were eating sausages from street vendors and they were better than anything I've had in America. 

The Donar, which is basically a gyro served in pita bread with either Tzatziki or a curry sauce is one of my favorite new foods. This stuff was only $3 and you could get it anywhere. 

Obviously the Germans love their lagers, pilsners, and weizens. All of the beer was just unbelievably good. I understand now why Axel made fun of American beer when he was over here. 

But, the cream of the crop was when we went to Rampendahl

This small brew pub opened in 1430 in Osnabruk and has been making beer since. The best Weizen I have ever had in my entire life was served of course in a liter mug, for about $3. And the food... half the menu was traditional Bavarian (southern Germany) and the other half newer German food. I ordered a pork knuckle, which I've never had before, and the thing was the size of my head and served on a pillow of saurkraut. Just everything about this meal was unbelievable.  

Leaving Osnabruk to go to Berlin

The train strike also ended on Sunday, which was a relief as we were about to get on a train Monday to go to Berlin.

This train ride was much more relaxing. 4 hours across Germany, train was only 1/3 full. Sal was able to nap and I read in peace. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Eurotrip - Dublin to Germany - May 6th - 8th


I hate traveling via airplanes. This is hilarious, because this trip requires me to fly on 7 planes in 15 days.

Surprisingly, the trip to Dublin from St. Louis was not bad. Security went quick, the flight went faster than scheduled, and even though I didn't sleep at all on the plane, we landed in Dublin and hit the streets immediately.

Most of the airports for these cities are fairly far away since you know... the cities in Europe were all built several hundred years before we had airplanes. So there's no way to avoid at least 45 minutes of travel after you get off the plane. Luckily Dublin's bus was incredibly easy to figure out. You hop on and it drives south to all the major spots you would want in the city.

The Adventure 

I have always had a romantic view of Dublin Ireland. One where everyone seems happy. Everything is green. You watch out for your fellow country men and have great pride in it.

This was not what I was greeted with. It was dreary and rainy. Everything was a shade of gray or brown. And there were more Americans and Englishmen than Irish.

It was as if they were trying to be a miniature England. "Yeah, we have castles and cathedrals... They are a bit smaller than those guys over the sea, but its still pretty good."

Irish drinking is a true thing. Every street is lined by shops, and every other shop is a full pub. Its not the sort of drinking Germans do (more on that later). Germans drink to celebrate, the Irish seem to drink to cope with a tough life. There's thousands of years of rough history behind the eyes of every blue collared, stumbling Irishman we came across.

It's easy to orient yourself in Dublin. The River Liffey runs straight through the middle of the city. Most of the spots you want to see are south of the river, but most of the local housing is north of the river. But as long as you could find the river, you could figure out where you were immediately. 

One thing we quickly found was that most the tourist destinations close at 5 pm sharp in Dublin. The first day, we were able to see Dublinia, a museum to the Irish Viking past housed in the Christ Church Cathedral

The next day was the tourist day. We woke up early and took the Jameson Distillery Tour. (Yes, you can drink early in Dublin, and yes, we did a whisky tasting at 10:30 am.) 

The tour was incredibly interesting, but my favorite part was the tasting. They lined up Jameson (Irish), Jack Daniels, (Bourbon) and Johnnie Walker (Scotch), the top selling brands of each of the types of whiskeys. They wanted you to taste the difference between kinds of whiskey. Man, did the Irish hate Jack Daniels. Everyone of them scrunched up their faces in disgust. 

We then went to the Guinness Storehouse tour. I was most excited about this and then most disappointed in it. They don't actually brew here. So really, they built a huge museum to how beer is made 101, which I already knew. I will say the ending of the tour was great. Top of Guinness tour, you're handed a pint of the black stuff, and you have a 360 view of all of Dublin. 

We then circled back to the Christ Church Cathedral and took a tour of the church proper. It was a very beautiful building, but felt cheapened by tourism. As we went into the crypt, a place where you should be solemn as you look onto people's graves, we were greeted by a cheesy gift shop, a mummified cat and mouse, and loud gawking tourists. 

After eating a disappointing lunch in a former church that was recommended to us, we went to the north side of the river and saw the Dublin Writer's Museum, Dublin City Art Gallery, (where we discovered that Francis Bacon was a crazy man) and Garden of Remembrance, we settled in to have some food and drinks as the 5 pm closure of Dublin attractions quickly approached. 

Food and Drink

Sal and I had done some research before our trip trying to find the actual Irish places rather than the tourist Ireland.

Our first order of business was to find food. We ducked into the first dark pub/restaraunt we walked into once we crossed the river, which happened to be a great spot with homemade Irish food called O'Shea's Merchant Temple Bar.

We drank at the famous Palace Bar, founded in 1823 and Hogans. One thing I was slightly disappointed by is the lack of a beer scene in Dublin. Everywhere had Guinness on tap. Most places had Smithwicks. But the craft beer scene was lacking.

Most of the food we had was very typical of British food. Heavy meat (either roast beef or sausage) or fried fish, and potatos and cabbage. All of it was surprisingly good as the British don't have the best reputation for cooking.

Leaving Dublin to go to Germany

We woke up at 4:40 am to catch our cab and get to the airport in time. Both we and John and Leslie had flights before 7:30 AM. And as a perfect send off, we left Dublin airport at 7:45  where a 30 Irishman bachelor party was drunk as can be in the airport bar.

The flight was easy. I would highly recommend Aer Lingus if you can fly them. The seats were spacious and the crew was incredibly nice.

The problem came when we landed in Hamburg. As it turns out, our train tickets that we purchased in advance were completely in German. We couldn't read them. After we found someone that spoke English and figured out where we needed to be, we waited for our train for 90 minutes.

Then the train changed platforms and we didn't know. You know why the train changed platforms? Because the train conductors were on strike and roughly 75% of all German trains were cancelled. So not only did we have to figure out what train we were on with only 5 minutes left, it was overcrowded to the point of where people were standing in the stairways, up against the doors.

Add the fact that we had all of our luggage, didn't speak the language, were incredibly tired from waking up at 4:40... we were stressed.

Then, after the first stop, some seats opened up. Sal and I sat down.

Something else that wasn't explained to us is that you can pay extra money to reserve seats. There are little LED signs above the seat that tell you if it's been reserved and from what stops.

Sooooo... we sit down, put our luggage in the racks, and Sal puts in her ear plugs, kicks off her shoes, puts on her eye mask, and passes out for the rest of the 3 hour train ride. And then in two stops, there are roughly 6 Germans yelling at us and the seat next to us, in German, because they reserved the seats as we were riding and we were in them. I didn't know what they were saying, finally one German said a word that sounded like reserved, I figured it out, woke Sallie up, she quickly got back into moving mode and we tried to vacate the seats, on this full train, with all of our luggage, with 24 German's crushing us. I have to lift our luggage over everyone's head and we finally find a spot to stand next to the bathrooms.

And then Sallie informs me we left her luggage. So I fight my way back, grab her luggage, and do it all over again. We finish out the last 2 hours in silence, tired and stressed.

Next Episode - Onto Osnabruk.