Two Days in Berlin at Christmas Time

This December I was lucky enough to jump around to a few different Christmas markets, and I had the best time doing so. I don’t know if I’ve shared this yet, but I am basically obsessed with the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas are basically my happiest times in life, and getting to spend December in various European markets was a dream come true. I had a really hard time deciding which cities to go to, because basically every European city becomes winter wonderland during December (except for Amsterdam, strangely enough). It was a whirlwind trip, spending two to three days each in Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, and Wroclaw.

Also, as great as it was, it started with the journey from hell. I live in Logroño, which has a lot of positives, but a huge negative is there isn’t an airport nearby. My roommate and I, who was also flying to Germany, though to a different city, had to catch an early bus to Barcelona, and after six hours we arrive in Barca just in time to catch the last train to the airport.

After finding the airport, we thought the hard part was over (though sleeping there would be an entirely different kind of difficult). However, as soon as we walked into the terminal, it was obvious something was wrong. It looked like we were walking into the aftermath of a rave. There was trash everywhere. Multicolored fragments of paper all over the ground. I honestly wondered if something really terrible had just happened there. Apparently the cleaning crew had gone on strike four days ago, and not only had no one cleaned or removed any trash since then, but the striking workers had a protest where they basically trashed the airport. Hence all the paper and stickers and graffiti. It honestly looked (and felt) post apocalyptic.

We found the only clean spot in the entire airport by squeezing between one of those mechanical walkways and the wall. A word of warning for anyone else attempting the same thing–they turn the heat either completely off or WAY down at night, and lying on the floor made sleep virtually impossible because of the extreme cold that was coming from the tiled floor.

After a night of absolutely zero sleep, I finally boarded my plane at 6:25 and slept for about an hour and a half before landing in Berlin. G and I timed it nearly perfectly, and he landed about 20 minutes after me, just long enough for me to find his gate. The journey from Berlin Schönefeld Airport into central Berlin wasn’t ideal, as the train only comes twice an hour, once around the :15 mark, and again around the :45 mark. We had just missed the 10:15, and had to wait for the 10:45, which I will not lie, in my tired and messy state I was not super pleased with.

I’ll take a second to admit I was not in a great mood. I was exhausted. I felt so dirty from the airport. I was and had been freezing for nearly nearly 10 hours. I’m not sure either of us was expecting a great day during that 30 minute wait for the train. That said, we went into Alexanderplatz and found a Christmas Market right next to the station. We had some delicious sausage and a glass of warm Glühwein, and I was suddenly feeling much better. We hung around the market for a few hours, eating, drinking, and watching my mood rapidly improve. Guys, Berlin during Christmastime is a dream. It was like being on a Hallmark Christmas movie set. EVERYTHING was decorated. Everything was themed for Christmas. We even found a beer hall that was adorable. It was all wood and rustic, it had a huge tree, Christmas music, and the servers were all dressed in Christmas outfits. And it had a really warm fire that we sat next to. It was the perfect place to wait for our room to be ready.

Eventually, though, it was ready and we headed to our hotel. It was incredible–for Berlin and Amsterdam we used lastminute and managed to book really nice hotels for the same price (or less) than an airbnb.

We left for DasMeisterstück, which is a craft beer and sausage place that has excellent and well deserved reviews. The day before was Gareth’s 27th birthday, and it was a nice, low key way to celebrate. The food was delicious, I tried sour German beer (it was good), and all the beers G tried were excellent (and this from someone who prefers literally any other drink to beer).

After dinner we headed to WeihnachtsZauber at the Gendarmenmarkt, one of the main Christmas markets in Berlin. It was minutes from DasMeisterstück, and I’d recommend combining it with dinner there if you go. That said, I would skip this if I was doing it again. You had to pay to get in, and because it is so well known, it was beyond crowded. I’m not sure if it’s because it was so late, but it was 10 times as crowded as any of the other markets we went to. It was impossible to actually see any of the stalls, and just walking down an aisle took about ten minutes. Other than the amount of people though, the market was beautiful, and I would recommend trying to go in the middle of the day when it might be less packed. (Also I think there is live music/performances in the day time!)

literally filled to the brim with people

The next day I insisted we find breakfast that included eggs, because such a thing doesn’t exist in Spain and it’s basically the first thing I look for when traveling outside the country. We found Wintergarten which was incredible and highly recommended. It was in an old Literaturhaus, and the vibe was great. I’m going to be honest, I got two full meals–eggs and pancakes. I know that’s pretty excessive but the food was amazing and Spain has me feeling constantly breakfast-deprived. Both were delicious.

After that it was Berlin tourism time, and we hit most of the major sights. The Reichstag Building, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust museum and installation, which was incredible but be ready to cry and feel quite low for a while after. They are all within walking distance of each other, though note that if you want to go to the top of the Reichstag Building you should book in advance. From there made our way to the last Christmas market, Berliner Weihnachtszeit, which was the best one. There were little fires to sit by, ice skating, a ferris wheel, and so much mulled wine. It was incredible.

 

Berlin could not have been more perfect and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for some of the best Christmas markets in the world. Our journey continued from Berlin and we took an overnight bus to Amsterdam (though nearly didn’t make it–note that the main bus and train station are not the same, and we were left literally sprinting to the bus!).

Logroño Bike Ride

There’s a tourist office in Logroño right down the street from my apartment. It’s pretty excellent, mostly because they let you rent a bike for free as long as it’s returned by 6:00 pm. What service!

(You also have to be willing to ignore that the bikes are huge, heavy, and sans kickstands, but you get what you pay for, right?)

The tourist office also publishes a handy little book of the best hikes and bike rides throughout La Rioja, and while I have done some pretty epic hikes in Spain so far, I’d been wanting to do the one bike ride that goes through Logroño for months. The weather changed a few weeks ago, and when my friend visited from LA we decided to give it a try!

We didn’t get far. At all. But it was still gorgeous and we had a picnic by the lake, so really, we won.

I tried again the next weekend with my roommate. The issues with this route were the following:

  1. The information packet didn’t provide a more detailed map than the below. The first part was fine as it was on the well marked Camino, and the last leg was on the GR 99, but we were totally on our own from Navarette to Fuenmayor. We ended up lost and on the side of a highway for a while. Not ideal.
  2. The bike ride was labeled “bajo” and estimated it would take 2.5 hours to finish. WHAT! Whoever wrote such lies has CERTAINLY not done this bike ride! It took us a full six hours. SIX HOURS. We got back at 5:51, just barely returning the bikes in time. And easy? The entire ride was uphill, until one very steep hill at the VERY end of the journey. And we live in a mountainous region, so when I say uphill I mean huge inclines.

That aside, it was a gorgeous ride. It was obviously great exercise, and if I were to do it again, I think I’d enjoy it more because I’d be better prepared (i.e. bring more than one bottle of water and ANY food/sunscreen). Also I would definitely ride in the opposite of the suggested direction. It would be one huge hill to start and then mostly downhill the rest of the way. Also when we arrived in Fuenmayor we found a dirt road with a sign saying it would go to Navarrete, and whatever road that was meant to be was not nearly so well labeled coming from the other direction.

I’d recommend this ride, but only going from the other direction, and only if you’re prepared to make a full day of it. If you are, it’ll be gorgeous!

A Thanksgiving in London

As I already posted about, I spent this Thanksgiving in London. I hadn’t been to London in quite a while, and was so excited to go back. I was a little nervous, because traditionally I spend Thanksgiving in America with Katie’s family, and I was worried I’d be homesick and surrounded by Brits on one of my very favorite holidays. That said, it was amazing!

The perfectness started after Gareth felt last minute guilt and agreed to pick me up from the airport. It’s so nice when someone is waiting for you at the gate, and even nicer when that isn’t followed by an hour long night bus (hint, hint x forever). I got in late the first night so we pretty much grabbed some food and went right to bed. Can I say again HOW MUCH I love to, on occasion, eat non-Spanish food? It’s pretty great.

On Friday we had breakfast at one of the best coffee shops in Peckham, and then headed into Greenwich. I used to spend a lot of time there when we were all still in college, but I can’t remember having gone anytime recently at all. It was almost the same as I remembered, except the got rid of the Tex Mex place which breaks my nostalgic Mexican-loving heart.

We wandered around the park, which was gorgeous. I caught a few pokemon, because I’m cool. Then it got too cold and we headed to a pub nearby for beer and mulled wine (guess who ordered what). After that we went to the market where I got a really old map of Massachusetts, and for quite the deal because apparently Gareth is an expert negotiator. We got lunch and an 8 pound bottle of Rioja wine (on sale from 16 and still about quadruple what you’d pay in actual La Rioja), and then went back and tried to sneak in a nap before meeting up with all our friends.

It was a chill night, we had a few rounds, played some pool, and caught up about everything I’d missed in my nearly 10 month absence! Just to put this out there, I have the best friends.

Saturday was our stand-in Thanksgiving day, and what better way to start stretching your stomach than with a classic fry up! After joyfully eating something other than a pastry for breakfast, we headed to the big Sainsbury’s in the hopes they would have all the American stuff I needed for my recipes. Which they did, apart from corn syrup (which I need a disgusting amount of for my chocolate bourbon pecan pie). I substituted golden syrup which was actually a pretty big step down but it worked in a pinch.

I spent the morning cooking the pie and helping (aka watching and criticizing) Gareth prepare the turkey. I met up with some friends at the pub to watch England defeat Argentina, and by the time we got back the kitchen was set up and food was nearly ready. (Thanks, G!)

I’ve never properly hosted a Thanksgiving before. I’ve had one at my place, but never was in charge of making sure everyone had assigned foods and knew what they were making. That said, because my friends put so much effort in, it was all perfect. We had enough for everyone to have seconds, the food was delicious, and I even got like two British people to say what they’re thankful for, which was the biggest surprise of all.

After eating we went to the park and spent about an hour playing 6 on 6 football. It was excellent (and not only because my team won by a lot). Eventually we wandered home and attempted to drink even half the wine that was brought. We played cards and talked about all the new engagements and had a perfect end to the night.

The next morning we watched Gilmore Girls (I want another season!), went to another great coffee place for breakfast, and then I had to leave for the airport. The trip went so fast. It mostly just reminded me how much I love London, and my friends there, and how much I miss it. It’s so nice seeing Gareth all the time, and exploring so many new places, but it was a reminder about how much I love the old ones too. Right now I’m deciding what to do after New Years, because in Spain we have the week after off too. I found cheap flights to Budapest and back to Spain from Vienna. Really cheap. But I could also spend like 5 more days in London, which I know I would love too. It´s hard to make decisions!

I’m writing this on my break before my lass class, and then I rush home, pack, and head to Barcelona. I fly out at 6:00am tomorrow morning for Berlin, and from there will visit Amsterdam, Prague, and Wroclaw. I get back Sunday morning, 10 days from now, and my mom arrives for the holidays on that Wednesday. I am so excited for all that’s coming up. Just once more, in case I’ve not made it sufficiently clear… I love the holidays!

A Weekend in Copenhagen

I’m not gonna lie, when I thought of the European cities I HAD to visit while living in Spain, Copenhagen wasn’t high on the list. Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest? Definitely. Italy? Without a doubt. But Copenhagen? It didn’t really rank.

That was a mistake, and one I’m SO glad didn’t stop me from booking the tickets when Gareth mentioned how much he wanted to go. I’d been to Iceland before, another trip that I was excited for for personal reasons but wasn’t expecting too much from the place itself, and Iceland is now my all time favorite country to visit.

On the flight over from Madrid, everything was announced in Spanish, and then in English. On the way back it was announced in Danish and English. This speaks to the overwhelming privilege English speakers have, when a flight going to/from non-English speaking countries leaves one of those languages out in favor of English. It was also the first time since arriving in Logrono, that I felt like I understood 100% of what was going on. Oh there will be turbulence? Not a problem, because I know to expect it! Drinks service coming around? Don’t mind if I do!

My plane ride was super fun–I was sat next to two girls from Burgos who knew some English, and in a mix of our two languages we chatted throughout the flight. I’m going to visit them when I go to Burgos! About halfway through a man came on the speakers singing a really lovely song in Spanish, and he proposed to his girlfriend! It was so so nice and really romantic.

When I landed Gareth was there waiting for me. I’ve gotta say, nothing will be as hard as LA to London long distance, but seeing each other every few weeks is its own form of torture. We are constantly saying goodbye, and that is really hard! I used to hate people who complained about distance when they could see each other every few weeks, and while I would NEVER go back to what it was before, I will finally admit this version can suck too. That said, if the way we get to see each other is by meeting up in random cities every few weeks, we are so, so lucky.

Our airbnb was a bit outside of the city, but on the main metro line connecting Copenhagen to the airport, so it was incredibly convenient and much cheaper than it would have been had we stayed more central. We only had to ride that one metro the entire time. And much like our trips to Portland and Seattle, we bought a transport pass and then proceeded to walk unchecked onto every train/boat/bus we rode.

The first night we dropped off our bags and headed back into the city. After a few wrong turns and an extra 45 minutes of walking, we ended up in a really hip area our host recommended, and had a delicious dinner and shared a bottle of wine. The whole evening was so nice–the fact that we got lost meant we walked along the canal for ages, checking out the swans and the lights–because Europe doesn’t have Thanksgiving, everything is already decorated and ready for Christmas! It was freezing but everywhere we went was warm and had such great ambiance. Though much like Iceland, Copenhagen was insanely expensive. That romantic dinner? Over $150, which is the most I’ve ever spent on a meal in my life. We decided to not worry about it, and started a system where we kept track of our spending in the krone, so we wouldn’t have sticker shock after every purchase. (Just once at the end of the trip, much better.) Back in our airbnb our host had gone to bed but left us mint infused water and candles lit everywhere. Not too shabby.

The next day was unseasonably warm, meaning it was around 33 degrees. Because of the nice weather, we decided to do all the activities near the canals. We walked to the Little Mermaid statue, and checked out Kastellet, an old (but still functioning) army fortress. Then we took the riverboat metro to Nyhavn, which was my favorite part of the trip. The houses were gorgeous, there were tons of little Christmas market stalls set up, and mulled wine everywhere. Heaven.

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We wandered the area for a bit, and I bought gloves, a Christmas ornament, and we got a magnet to add to our collection. Then we crossed the bridge, and went to Copenhagen Street Food, a market with tons and tons of food stalls. It was insanely busy, and I was super overwhelmed because there were so many different options. I LOVE the food in Spain, but there is no variety. It’s all Spanish food, all the time. I wanted ethnic, and suddenly there were about 100 different kinds. I made us check out each booth while Gareth tried not to kill me, before settling on the first one we saw–BBQ pulled pork and curly fries. Delicious.

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yoko ono had an art exhibit going on

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After eating we had to decide–would we go to Christiania? Christiania is a self proclaimed autonomous region right next to Copenhagen. People basically took over an old army barracks and town in the 1970s, and decided it wasn’t part of Denmark or even the EU. It has its own laws, and has a long history of fights with the Danish police, but it’s also a progressive, artistic, hippy area. We had been going back and forth for a few days. G really wanted to go, I had heard it was seedy, dangerous, and didn’t live up to expectations. We asked our host and she said if we went through the main gates, yes, we would find the seedy side. It’s where all the pot is sold, and it the more sketchy part of town. But if we went in a side entrance, we’d be going into the actual parts of town where people lived. Not tourists looking to buy drugs, but homes and shops and bars. She convinced me, and by pure luck we happened upon one of the side entrances, and we were very suddenly and very obviously no longer in Copenhagen.

Everyone was smoking pot. I don’t smoke and because of a past experience don’t love being around it, so this put my guard up a bit at first. But G got a beer and I (who was freezing) got a hot chocolate, and suddenly I felt so much better. There were families and dogs and everyone we talked to was so, so nice. It was a very laid back, hippy sort of place, and if you relaxed a bit, it was easy to get caught up in the vibe.

That said it was freezing. And it was time to make our last decision. I had asked our host if she had any saunas she could recommend, knowing we’d be walking in the cold all day. She said the best one was in Christiania. That it was all nude, and coed, but it was a place people went with their kids. I think at first I was all for it and G was more reserved, but then as Gareth felt more and more comfortable in Christiania, he was definitely down to try and I was more hesitant, faced with the actual decision. The fact that I was freezing won out, and we headed over.

It wasn’t what I expected, but fit the town perfectly. At first, it was all dudes. Just totally naked dudes. I had to try so hard to look only at their eyes, whereas I never felt like anyone was looking at me where I wouldn’t want them to. It was on the first floor and the windows didn’t have curtains, so people outside could see right in. No one cared. There were people shaving, and showering, and apparently the sauna is used as a community bathing space, especially because some people work in town but live out in Copenhagen, too far from convenient showers, I guess.

We were given a paper bag to write our names on and put our valuables in (the people here obviously trust each other a lot more than I trust the people at my gym at home). G kept giving me chances to back out, and I stripped down to my underwear before realizing no one thought this was weird but me, and as soon as I was naked I stopped feeling weird about it at all. I did something like this in Istanbul, but it was all women and I think I might have kept my underwear on, though I can’t remember. Here you had to be naked. We showered and went into the sauna, where there were other women, some people doing yoga, some people smoking, and other just relaxing. It was REALLY nice after walking in the freezing cold all day, and we stayed for about a half an hour until the heat got too much. When we came out there were kids playing in the pools. It did feel like a community space and not uncomfortable at all.

When we left, we were totally ready to face the cold again. One of the guys who might have worked there, or might have just been a customer, was talking to us about energy and chakras, and it made me sad that Christiania gets such a bad rep. We walked out through the main gate, and passed all the stalls selling things to tourists and I’m so happy we came in a different way and that wasn’t our first impression of the town. We had a great time there.

you can't take pictures inside town, but here outside

you can’t take pictures inside town, but here outside

We went back to Nyhavn and sat under a heater and drank mulled wine and just talked and hung out. It was a really, really nice day. We finished it with hot dogs from 7/11 which sounds gross but oh my god is 7/11 so much nicer in Copenhagen than it is in the states.

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The next morning we packed our things and I tried not be sad that the weekend was already over, but excited about the fact that it had been so good and we have plans to do so many more trips like this in the coming year. Our host let us leave our bags and we went up Christiansborg Palace and the Round Tower. The former was free and the latter was I think 2.50 euros, but we both enjoyed the Round Tower more. It was so cool–to get to the top, instead of stairs it’s a stone ramp that you walk all the way up and all the way down. There was a lot more to see here, and the place was well marked with historical info and papers in both Danish and English. Also I caught a squirtle on pokemon go which has been a goal for a really long time.

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original toilet

original toilet

Afterwards we decided to go back to Nyhavn and have more mulled wine and just chill a bit before leaving for the airport. At the start of the main street, among all the stalls, was a hot dog stand. DO NOT GO TO THIS HOT DOG STAND. Please note this was the weekend after the election and I had been having a really hard time feeling any sort of happiness at all. This trip was an escape from the depressing reality my country was now in. Anyway, we decided to get hot dogs. The menu was just pictures of different hot dogs with no descriptions of what they actually were. So I asked him what three different ones were and ordered two of them. He only got out one bun, and as there were some pictured on the menu sans bun, I asked if we could both have buns on our hot dogs. Apparently this was a HUGE INSULT and the guy went off. He really rudely asked me if I was okay with him toasting the buns one at a time, and embarrassed I had offended him so much, I was like, “Yes of course, I was just making sure you knew what we wanted.” He huffed at me and turned to Gareth and started a REALLY sexist and sexual rant about women. It was horrible. We were both so shocked, and then he turned back to me and asked what I would allow him to put on the hot dog. I was so frozen. I think if it had happened two weeks earlier, I would have yelled back. But I was already feeling so defeated and hopeless. I stood there in shock for a moment, said we didn’t want them anymore, and walked just far enough away so he couldn’t see me and burst into tears. Now I wish I had the name of his stall so I could post all over the internet to never give this man your business, but I didn’t plan that well. It was the only hot dog stand on the street. He was a grumpy old man with a runny nose. Those are the details I remember.

UPDATE I found a picture of the stand!

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hos michael, you suck. sincerely, women.

Anyway, after that we decided to just head to the airport. We got in early enough that we were able to get dinner there and play some cards. And though the trip ended on a sour note, it was actually SO lovely and such a nice time, and the mean hot dog man didn’t ruin the trip at all. I highly, highly recommend Copenhagen, and really hope I can go back some day. I think we had the perfect itinerary for just two days, but I’d like to stay for longer. I’m also feeling really motivated to check out Norway, Sweden, and Finland now too!

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European Roadtrip?

One of my favorite things to do is plan, in great detail, trips that I’m not actually going to take. Or, to be more accurate, not take in the immediate future. But I will do a RTW trip one day, and when that day comes I know my route and about how long I’ll stay where, and what will be flights and what will be ground transport. And it will be epic. That was what I spent most of my time doing during the hardest months of unemployment. Planning that RTW trip.

Now, with that very important task completed, I’ve moved on to a road trip around Europe. I roadtripped from Boston to Los Angeles in January of 2010 with my best friends from college, and it was one of my favorite life experiences. So when Gareth got a car last year, I started googling and realized just how tiny Europe actually is. It only takes two and a half hours to drive from Brussels to Amsterdam, or five and a half to drive from Berlin to Warsaw, for example.

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I don’t know exactly when this road trip will happen, but it’s definitely going to. I think it’ll be about two-two and a half weeks (though only 12 days with a car), and renting a car in Brussels and dropping it off in Tallin 12 days later is about $300.

I feel like that’s how much cars rent for in Los Angeles a day.* The ferry from Tallin to Helsinki is only 19 Euros, and there are flights back to London for as little as $80. This feels so doable and not very expensive, minus the fact that gas prices in Europe are crazy high.

Take a look!

Also as I was planning this I got more adventurous and look at this one! What a beauty! Though I can’t find anywhere that has online information about picking up a car in Calais or Brussels and dropping it off in Belgrade. Or even Budapest.

It’s not happening soon but that doesn’t matter in my crazy head. Planning, to me, is half the fun.

*This felt like a huge exaggeration but I just checked Enterprise and to rent a car from Friday-Monday is about $250!