Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Living the Dream

You know you had a good trip when you didn't have the time or the desire to post a status on Facebook or upload a photo to Instagram. Ok, maybe you sent off a message to your parents letting them know you made it to your destination safe and sound. (That's just the nice thing to do.) But your days (and nights) were so packed full you couldn't be bothered to find wifi, to sum up your experiences in a few words, or to crop and smack a filter on what you were seeing. I mean, it was stunning just the way it was. No filter, not on a screen, not being shared or bragged about. Just being taken in by you. 

That's what happened to me in Berlin. So, get ready for a crazy long post (and all those photos I didn´t post when I was traveling).

Gedenkst├Ątte Berliner Mauer

Yep, Berlin was that special destination I mentioned in my last post. I know I've already said it, but I'll say it again. I'd been waiting years to go! And sure, you're thinking, with all that hype and expectation, there's no way the city could match up.

HA! Think again.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

I decided to go to Berlin alone. A lot of people questioned that decision, but I felt like it was the right thing for me to do. The trip started off terribly though. I mean, just a string of bad luck. From ATMs not working to forgetting my trip notes (thanks Corina for whatsapping those to me!), I headed to the airport in a bit of a scatterbrained rush. I got there with ample time to spare though, and that's when I encountered low-cost airline bullshit at it's finest: my plane was delayed 7 hours! So, instead of taking off at 8pm, we took off at 3:30am. And yeah, I stayed at the airport the whole time. What a start.

But it was awesome from there on out. I was in Berlin about 3 and a half days. I stayed in a great hostel in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood filled with street art, amazing food, and even better nightlife. Roughly planning the trip in advance, I thought I'd have plenty of time to do all the things on my list, like check out super obscure museums and strange tours of abandoned bunkers from WW2. You name it. But, I barely got to scratch the surface. Typical.

Paste up in Mitte

I found myself facing a huge dilemma. Berlin has an incredible history, but it's also got an awesome alternative scene. I felt myself always being torn between these two parts of the city. Should I go to the Stasi museum or check out a local gallery featuring mechanical monsters? Should I get up early or stay out partying like mad? I tried to balance my two interests as best as I could, but in the end I'm just going to have to go back repeatedly. And I'm fine with that. To sum up my trip here are some highlights of the trip as well as some regrets.

Oberbaum Bridge

Highlights: (I'll try and be brief)

So, any of you that have even heard of football probably know that there was a really big game for Spain, specifically for Madrid, the other night. Two Madrid teams duked it out in the Champion's League final. I met some Belgian guys in my hostel, and, with my friend Johanna, we went out to find a place to watch it. Probably every bar in the city was showing the game, but we happened to find a Spanish bar in Kreuzberg where we stood on the street and watched the game on a huge screen. I honestly thought the game was pretty boring until the last bit, where Real Madrid (boo) came out of nowhere and tied the game, making the game go into overtime, where they then scored several more goals. There were fireworks going off everywhere in Kreuzberg, and I know it would have been even crazier in Madrid proper, but I was probably safer in Berlin. Crazy Madrid fans...

So, I stayed in Kreuzberg, which isn´t exactly the tourist center of the city. But, the neighborhood is famous for some great street art. That was one of my top interests in going to Berlin anyway, and it didn't disappoint. Wandering around you'd happen across enormous murals painted on the firewall of apartment buildings. Some were beautiful, others grotesque and strange. Even in Mitte, there are still some places avoiding gentrification where you can find alleyways chock full of paste ups, tags, stickers, and even mechanical monsters. And, of course, the East Side Gallery was amazing! I took an "alternative walking tour" to see a lot of these areas of the city, and my guide was a trapeze artist and hippie that had spent her days after the wall came down squatting and making art in all the abandoned housing around the East side of the city. She paid the equivalent of 5 euro for "rent" in the early 90s in Mitte!

East Side Gallery
I went on a pub crawl my last night in the city, somewhat skeptically because I normally hate those things. But this one was thankfully really fun and not all about acting like the biggest asshole around. We went to weird bars like a Gothic rock club (think lame haunted house + alcohol), a bar with free, old arcade games like Frogger (you can imagine how into that I was), and even to a ping pong bar, where you could rent a paddle for a couple euro and duke it out. To choose who played each game, you'd play "around the world." Everyone would run around the table, hitting the ball until all but two people missed a shot and were out. Not sure if I explained that well... but it was awesome, and I really regretted all those free shots I had ingested. My reaction time was, understandably, terrible.

Every Sunday there's a big flea market with tons of stuff to buy, great food, loads of music acts, and even karaoke. After going out the night before, I dragged myself out of bed and made it to Mauerpark by noon. I stayed for about 3 hours. There was just so much to do and see. The musicians were all really good, the second hand shopping was excellent, and there were people spread out in the grass all over the park just drinking and having a good time. My favorite thing about traveling is when you happen upon something real, where you get to see the locals of whatever city living their lives and being happy. Then maybe you can imagine yourself there as well.

Inside the Reichstag dome


I think I only have two, which is good. The first would be that I didn't rent a bicycle. I had NO CLUE how spread out Berlin is. I'd take a look at the map and think to myself, "Oh, that's only a few blocks. Won't take more than 10 minutes." Right. Try an hour. Distances were incredibly deceiving, and I used Berlin's awesome public transportation system a lot, but I still found myself desperately wanting a bike. Seeing everyone speed by looking, not only cool as hell but in significantly less pain than me, made me curse my stubbornness. Next time.

The incredibly renovated Neues Museum. Go for the Egyptian Collection. Stay for the architecture.

The other is that I didn't (try) to go to Berghain. If you don't know what that is, it's the "best" techno club in the city with a pretentious, insane door policy that various hipsters proudly tried to explain to me at a house party. I barely avoided punching them in the face. I'll paraphrase their baffling advice:
  • Wear dark colors. (Easy enough, right?)
  • Go there for the music. It's a "musical experience." (Ok, that still sounds good)
  • Don't talk in line. (Uh...ok?)
  • Don't look excited or happy. Don't smile or giggle. Look like you "don't give a fuck." (Right, I'll put on my serious face)
  • Two girls together will never get in. Oh, but a heterosexual couple won't either. Just go alone. 
You can see how I might have been frustrated at the end of all this. I mean, it'd be one thing if you can just walk up and get rejected in 5 minutes flat, but after waiting in line for a couple hours? That would suck. So I went to a smaller, more local club called Chalet, which was really cool in its own right (abandoned old mansion, garden outside, bonfire, etc.) and less hyped up. But at the end of the trip, hearing everyone's stories about Berghain, I know I won't be satisfied until I go back and give it a go.

You can find this throughout the city where the wall used to be

So, yeah, that's Berlin! I feel like I want to go back next month. One cool thing that a lot of Berliners told me was that Berlin doesn't really have a set identity, that it's always changing. So, the Berlin that I got to know could be totally different next year. Makes it the perfect city for endless visits and exploration.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Holy Week in Istanbul

Ever since I went to Marrakech this past Christmas I've been wanting to go to Istanbul. Loads of people I met in Morocco told me that if I liked Marrakech, I'd love Istanbul. Well, I really liked Marrakech and what they said turned out to be true. I absolutely loved Istanbul.

I mean, with views like these, what's not to love?

Last year for my long Easter break I took a solo trip to Budapest and Vienna, which was awesome. This year all the places I was looking to go (Iceland, Berlin, Istanbul...) were markedly more expensive, but with my approaching move back to the States, I figured I might as well go all out. So, 325 euro later I had my round-trip, direct flights from Madrid to Istanbul. That's the most expensive European flight I've booked to date! So, I guess I'm not doing so bad.

Some told me Tulips are from Turkey, but in Prague I was told by a guide that they're from Kazakhstan. Anyone know?

Anyway, getting to the actual trip. I'm ashamed to say I didn't do my pre-trip homework. Sure, I booked a hostel for Matt and I, and I looked up how to get from the airport to the center of the city (using a bus, funicular, tram, and a ferry), but that's about all I did. I had no idea how huge Istanbul is, had no idea how crowded it would be, and, most embarrassingly, had this idea that it would be somehow similar to Morocco based on the associations so many travelers there had made. So, I obviously learned a lot. For example, McDonald's in Istanbul delivers!

The New District's Galata Tower: amazing views and a neat surrounding neighborhood ( or where I smoked the most nargile)

We stayed in Sultanimet, the old, touristy part of the city, which was a pretty convenient base camp to see all the main sights and even to catch the ferries to other parts of the city. We booked a reservation for five nights in Cheers Hostel, which I really loved. It probably had something to do with the Turkish breakfast they served every morning: soft white cheese, cucumber, tomato, olives, hardboiled eggs, and coffee. They also served free tea throughout the day. There's also a terrace with a view like this.

The Hagia Sophia was by far my favorite on Istanbul's must-see list

By staying in Sultanimet, every time we stepped out of our hostel it felt like we were entering Disney World. All the main sights (Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace etc.) had lines out the door that stretched for blocks or, once, across an entire plaza. There was even a museum "fast pass" available. Seriously, it was like a big theme park. It was madness, but despite the crowds, the sights were incredible and worth all the hassle.

Inside the Blue Mosque

We could only take so much of the lines and crowds, so several times Matt and I tried to escape touristy Istanbul. We thankfully succeeded. We spent one afternoon in Kadikoy, a cool, youthful neighborhood on the Asian side of the city filled with markets, bars, book stores, and cute clothing shops. It could have easily passed for an American college town, with more nargile or hookah. Ferries leave from Sultanimet every 20 minutes and tickets only cost 3 lira!

These teal, blue, and white tiles were everywhere!

We also took a ferry up the Golden Horn on Friday to Eyup, a more traditional Muslim area. It was great for people watching, especially considering it was Friday. The mosque there was one of my favorites. There's a funicular that takes you up the hill and we had tea on a terrace overlooking the city.

We stayed in Istanbul for five days, and there was still so much to see and do. It's definitely a place I'll go back to. The prayer calls were beautiful (if you go try to catch it in the park right between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia), the food was delicious (though I wasn't brave enough to sample the mussels being sold on the street), people were incredibly friendly, the culture and history was out of this world, and most importantly, cats were everywhere (and taken care of!). <3

Good look for me?
Stayed tuned for more posts. I'm going to try and catch up and write about all the trips I've been taking since: Prague, a short weekend in Seville, and a very special destination I'll be visiting soon that I've been waiting years to visit!