Venice

The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, the Merchant of Venice, James Bond, Indiana Jones, The Magician King, the masks of the Carnival… filtered through these works and more, the idea of Venice has occupied a place of fantasy-tinged exotica in my mind since childhood. For little Phelan, it was a city of canal-side mystery, where the sound of lapping water was carried by warm breezes. It was a place where moonlight glinted from glazed tiles lining the floors of palaces, and footsteps echoed amongst arches of white stone, painted blue by twilight and framing views of the Adriatic sea.

Ok I’ll stop now, because Carol said I was making this post, and I quote, too… “Froo Froo”. Ahem.

I’m happy to say that for me at least, Venice is still largely full of magic and mystery and venerable history. It’s also a place where you’ll get brained by tourists wielding selfie-sticks if you aren’t careful (Carol had some choice words about what people could do with their selfie sticks). I think that the difference between a tourist and a traveller is the degree of respect given to the host culture, and alas in that sense ‘Tourism’ is alive and well in Venice.

There is something melancholy about watching throngs of visitors clamber over stones and statues older than many countries, while the locals look on with tired eyes. Every moment in Venice is also a moment that the water rises, imperceptible yet inexorably swallowing the city alive. A visit to the cemetery island of San Michele reinforced my impressions of a nobly fading Venice.

It isn’t all gloom though. Venice is unquestionably beautiful, and the slow decay of its buildings somehow enhances that beauty. Away from the crowded hotspots like the Piazza San Marco an entirely different Venice still exists, made up of quiet streets and cool shadows.

There is amazing food, art and history soaked into the architectural bones of the city. The glass of Murano, black cuttlefish pasta, coffee at Caffè Florian, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection… Venice is a place that neither Carol or I will soon forget.

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Amsterdam

Amsterdam! The city of water, vice, and bicycles. It’s a place that never fails to bring out a knowing grin when you tell someone that you are going, and suggestions to *wink* try the coffee (to which I reply that I’m not a big “coffee drinker”. The layers of euphemism start to get a little complicated at this point).  Amsterdam has a long and storied history, too- it was once the center of the Dutch empire, and hosts treasures like the Anne Frank House. It possesses some incredible collections of art like the Vincent van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, as well as a remarkably tolerant culture made up of warm, remarkably tolerant people.

The hotel we stayed at was near the Vondelpark and a 15 minute walk from downtown. The night we arrived we checked in quite late, and there wasn’t anything open nearby for dinner. Carol resorted to buying candy bars and chips out of a vending machine to take the edge off, which prompted a passing hotel guest to foolishly snicker, “Didn’t prepare for the munchies, eh?”. I believe that the hotel maintenance crews are still scrubbing the red paste of his remains from the carpet and walls, such was the force of Carol’s hunger-fueled glare.

Dangerously ravenous the next morning, we set off in search of food and adventure (in that order). To our delight we found a weekend farmers market, and subsequently gorged ourselves on crepes and meat pies. Ignoring the shocked looks of the locals, we wiped the crumbs from our faces and then began exploring in earnest.

The oldest parts of Amsterdam are nestled amongst a series of layered canals, navigable by bridge or boat. We made use of both, dodging speeding bikes and threading through large crowds of tourists as we drifted vaguely towards the city center. After taking a ‘water tour’ on a guide-boat (complete with cheesy automatic narration and amazing views), we set to wandering by foot, directionless and happy.

We visited alleyway bars and cheese museums, and walked down narrow streets lit by dim red lights wreathed in marijuana smoke. We passed groups of nervous looking men milling outside of tall glass windows, shopfronts selling a different kind of flesh. The men appeared to be either gathering their courage or gawking as a wide variety of women wearing the smallest amount of clothing possible beckoned invitingly to them.

We drank in the views of the 700-year-old landscape from canal-spanning bridges, and marveled at the improbably vertical architecture (constructed in such a way as to avoid property taxes historically based on the width, not height, of a building). Most structures were leaning in a manner that was both charming and alarming.

Given the wide variety of things to see (beautiful, trashy, old, modern, and all if it in between), Carol and I were in a frenzy to see as much as possible. In our enthusiasm we ran ourselves a little ragged, so the next day we decided to take it slow. And by take it slow I mean we woke up early to beat the crowds of the Van Gogh museum and browse its bright oily treasures. We did dial it down a little bit after that, topping off a stroll through a spring-like Vondelpark with canalside glasses of liquor called Jenever (a member of the gin family). Content, we watched the crowds of people and bicycles stream by until it was time to catch our plane.

Trip to Bavaria

Sorry for the delay in Blaag posts, we had a busy February. We will make up for it with the prohibitive length of this post. Things that happened:

  • Friends came to visit from London, and one of them saw snow for the first time!
  • Carol stayed up until 4am to watch the Super Bowl. Phelan tried, but did not succeed.
  • We went to Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria (briefly). Let’s talk about the Bavaria:

We started out in Munich and drove to a small town in Southern Bavaria called Garmisch – Partenkirchen, home of the 1936 Winter Olympics. I still can’t really pronounce it.  Major ski events are still held at their Olympic Stadium. We were glad that we chose to visit this cute ski town with the streets lined with Alpine-style houses nestled into the towering Bavarian Alps (much majesty).

We had just enough time to go to the Partnach Gorge when we arrived. It takes about an hour to hike through the gorge and make your way back down the mountain on a (terrifying) cable car. The hike through the gorge showcases crystal clear water ( so clear), amazing ice formations, and tunnels burrowed through the mountain side.

The next day was my birthday and castle extravaganza day!

The road to the Castles Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau lead us through Germany and Austria’s Zugspitze area, a section of the Bavarian Alps containing the tallest mountain in Germany (perhaps unsurprisingly named the Zugspitze). As soon as we crossed over into Austria we were greeted by a snow covered field (moonlighting as a golf course in the summer). The frosted trees framed an awe inspiring view of Zugspitze. Locals were headed out onto the snow-covered golf course for a morning ski. In the distance you could see a town where the ski area literally ran all the way into the streets (the slopes and houses were pretty much merged together).

Eventually the road turned back into Germany and onto Castle Neuschwanstein. I pretty much started jumping up and down like an excited child at the first sight of the castle (which I hope amused the dour parking attendant). The castle is absolutely gorgeous, and the path to reach it takes you through a picturesque Bavarian town (filled with shops containing the exact same set of tourist-centric products. So many beer steins).

Seeing Neuschwanstein has pretty much been a life goal of mine ever since I knew it existed, and the experience was one of those rare cases when reality lives up to expectations. It is in almost every sense a storybook castle: never built for war or defense, Neuschwanstein is the product of a romantic king’s idealized version of what a medieval palace should be like. The castle also has a bittersweet history, as the king never saw it finished (most of the rooms are still not completed) and he died in mysterious circumstances after being declared mad and dethroned.

Neuschwanstein’s sister castle, Hohenschwangau, is a more practical sort of place. Several generations of royal families actually lived there, and as such it has a more utilitarian demeanor. Of course, this is only in comparison to the fairy-tale quality of Neuschwanstein. Hohenschwangau is a magnificent structure in its own right.

After soaking in as much castle-majesty as possible (seriously I feel like I am being a little excessive with the adjectives here but just trust me the views were good), we headed to our hotel for the night. This was an adventure in itself, as we ended up driving down what appeared to be a sidewalk in a park (story for another blog post).

We spent the next day doing a little off-the-grid exploring on our way to the final scheduled castle stop. Naturally, we went off-grid to explore another castle. Driving down the road we saw signs for something called the “Wasser-schloss”, which means “Water-palace” in German. We looked at each other, said “that sounds amazing!” and then promptly veered off the road in pursuit. We began to have second thoughts right around the time a large tractor was bearing down us on a one-way mountainous road but we eventually found the Water-palace and it was charming.

Our final castle of the day was Burg Hohenzollern. You may recall the German word ‘Schloss’ from the previous paragraph as meaning ‘Palace’ in English. ‘Burg’ in German is roughly equivalent to ‘Fortress’. As such, Hohenzollern was not a place of fairytales. Battles have been fought on its grounds, and it has been razed twice and rebuilt three times. Its current aesthetically pleasing incarnation belies the bloody history it possesses. Some savage mystique must still lay about the grounds though, as we saw not one but two impromptu snowball fights break out in the courtyard.

That night, our castle-lust fully sated, we drove down the cobbled streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber to our hotel. Rothenburg is a remarkably well-preserved medieval village, all the more interesting because people actually still live there. The entire thing looks like the backdrop of a movie, but when you peek around the edge and expect to see cardboard, you get more movie. We spent a night and a day there, walking the town walls, exploring the tiny twisting streets and marveling. We weren’t even marveling at anything in particular, we just floated around in a general state of marvel. It was great.

Alas, all things must end (Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof, as the Germans would say). On the upside, our following stop was Switzerland, which will be the subject of our next blog post…

PS: Like the photos? There’s a LOT more where they came from. Check out my photos, and Carol’s photos on Google+.

Upcoming posts

We’ve been pretty silent for the last few weeks, but with good reason! We took trips to Munich, Bavaria, and Zurich, as well as had some friends come visit us. We’ll be posting some updates over the next few days with pictures and stories from these past weeks. Stay tuned.

Berlin

“Berlin is poor, but sexy”
-Klaus Wowereit

As you may have guessed, Carol and I visited Berlin last weekend. Although we only stayed for two days, it made quite an impression on me. The above quote is evocative, but not completely accurate these days. However you want to describe it though, the city is anything but dull.

The trip from Hamburg to our hotel near the main train station (the Berlin Hauptbahnhof) took about 3 hours. Taking full advantage of the lack of speed limits on certain sections of the Autobahn, we pushed our little Renault rental up to 174kph, or about 108 miles per hour.

We had booked a walking tour of the city, but had about an hour to kill before it started. So in the interest of exploration we headed in the general direction of the meetup point without a clear plan. Quickly, Carol and I were exposed to the political side of Berlin. A protest against industrialized farming was just ramping up as we walked through the Platz der Republik, with signs declaring discontent with topics ranging from agribusiness to nuclear power. The crowds thickened as we made our way towards the imposing Brandenburger Tor, with large portions of the surrounding streets having been shut down to accommodate the throngs of people.

My impression of Berlin’s passion for political and social issues was further reinforced by the impromptu memorial we passed outside of the French embassy. Flowers, pencils, signs and candles festooned the sidewalk outside of the doors. One offering made a particular impression on me- a full artist’s toolkit of pencils, pens and erasers, all clearly well used but not certainly past their prime. It seemed like a sacrifice of something useful and therefore more meaningful from the previous owner.

The walking tour (when it finally started, delayed as it was by the protests), was a fun experience. Our tour guide (Johnny) was a British expat with a quick wit and encyclopedic knowledge of Berlin counterculture. The tour group itself was a diverse bunch, with visitors from the US, UK, Turkey, Israel, and New Zealand.

Johnny took us all over the city, pointing out street art and hidden bars, making restaurant recommendations and salting it all with bits of historical information. Some of the most interesting discoveries were the brass nameplates embedded in the cobblestones, the Black Mountain art project, stories behind some of the murals on the buildings, a Nazi bunker turned art collection and private residence, and the general funkiness and creativity exhibited all over the city. The whole place is marinating in history and art.

Probably my favorite place was Cassiopeia. Do you like gritty, amazing street art? What about skateboarding (street course, full 14-foot vert pipe, mini ramps and a big bowl)? Restaurants and a beer garden? How do you feel about DIY rock climbing walls, some of which are bolted (safety laws? psssssh) onto the outside of buildings? Nightclubs and music? Cassiopeia has all of this, wrapped in a kind of screw-you punk rock attitude. It was awesome.

Clearly, I was pretty infatuated with Berlin. +1 would Berlin again.

Schwerin and Lubeck

lubeck

First week completed, and then some. After settling into our apartment (did you know that top-sheets are an uncommon thing on German beds!? We had to buy our own from Ikea!) we spent our first full weekend in the cities of Schwerin and Lubeck.

We visited Schwerin first, where we toured the magnificent  palace located there. I got to see a real throne room for the first time, complete with throne and tilted floor (the better to reinforce the position of the monarch in the minds of his supplicants). We spent the night in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, and drove to Lubeck next.

Apparently, Lubeck is where marzipan was perfected, so we sampled a lot of it to make sure this was the case. The old city, complete with medieval gate and close, organic-looking streets was charming and beautiful. Interestingly, Lubeck is very much a living, evolving city. Intertwined with ancient churches and historical buildings are modern stores and apartments. Cars zip down its cobbled streets, creating a dichotomy that was, at times, a little jarring.

Thanks Burlington, and Hallo Hamburg

We spent a lovely two weeks in Vermont enjoying Burlington and our friends while on vacation, but eventually we had to say goodbye. We arrived in Hamburg yesterday, but were exhausted by our flight (which arrived in the morning) and spent most of the day sleeping in our hotel.

We are staying at the Adina, a surprisingly Australian-themed place located in the New City area of Hamburg. Although we were out of commission yesterday, we tried to make up for it and spent today exploring. I got to try out my German with some patient waiters (my German is awful), and drank some coffee (it was good).

From our hotel we headed east, wandering through mostly empty cobblestone streets. It being Sunday, most shops were either closed or open later. Until then, it felt as though we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Passing a large, ornate building we later learned was city hall, we walked through a ‘weisser zauber‘ (translated literally to ‘white magic’ in English). Weisser Zauber are outdoor Christmas-time markets whose vendors sell games, gifts and food. We also headed south towards the HafenCity and Elbe River islands, which contain the Warehouse district. The buildings of the city are a profusion of copper, stone and brick, and many are adorned with gothic flourishes and statuary.

Exhausted by the walking, cold and increasing crowds, we regrouped at the hotel before going out to get some pizza for dinner. It’s interesting to note how stressful even ordering food is when you don’t speak the primary language. Sure, everyone knows that you are American as soon as you open your mouth, but no one wants to look foolish and I found myself feeling slight trepidation before each interaction. I’m sure it will lessen over time as I get used to the language and social norms.