My friend, Nóra, and I hit the road again in August. This time our destination was Berlin. It was an approximately six-hour train ride from Kolding, the Danish city where we both live. To visit the German capital was among my travel plans for a very long time, and finally the day has come.
I’ve been to many cities in Germany, and I do like so many things about this country: the people with their outstanding diligence and discipline, the language that is music to my ears and the history … oh yes, the history, especially the events of World War II, captivated me at the age of twelve and haven’t let me go ever since. So, I say that it was just about time to see Berlin with my own eyes after hearing and reading a series of stories about this city that, not just in the past but also in the present, plays a crucial role in the life of the European society.
We did our research before we headed south, as always, but of course, there were some lessons in Berlin and about Berlin that we learnt along the way, while we were there. Below I would like to share three things with you for the sake of a better Berlin experience.
1. Where to stay in Berlin?
The decision you make about your accommodation is a major one, when you travel. It is not just a question about the facilities and circumstances of your hotel room, a soft pillow and a clean bathroom. When you choose your accommodation, you also choose the neighborhood that’s going to be your home for a given period of time, a place where you want to feel safe, where you will return every evening after a busy day, where you most likely want to spend some relaxing hours with good food and nice atmosphere. Then why not pick a location that you foreseeably would fit into and feel comfortable in.
When we needed to make up our minds about where to stay in Berlin, we narrowed the options down to Charlottenburg, the clean, historic and elegant district, or Kreuzberg, the young, international and creative. In the end, the latter was the one we took. And I believe Kreuzberg was the right choice, in fact, the perfect choice. Here are some arguments why:
It hosts many nations and provides place for cultural blending. Good example is the weekly organized Turkish Market, where artisan jewelries and bags, locally produced vegetables, fruits and food prepared on the spot can be purchased from vendors not just with Turkish background.
Every five meters – if not less – there is a privately owned and operated gallery, boutique, shop, café, bar or restaurant, which is typically tiny, charming and offers products on fair and reasonable prices.
Kreuzberg is a place, where you meet more locals than tourists. Popular spots are the green spaces of the district, where people take a break from the big city life.
It as a very rich and diversified food culture. You can try a different cuisine every day of the week, if you wish to do so.
2. What can’t you miss in Berlin?
‘Oh, no! Not another Cathedral again!’ is what you might think first. And I totally get it. In every city there is at least one, which is recommended for visitors. No wonder that after the 10th-20th cathedral or church that you see, you kind of lose your interest – especially if you are not particularly curious and engaged about their characteristic architecture and history that lies behind them.
During my travels, I’ve seen so many cathedrals that I cannot even count and remember. But you know what? Berliner Dom is the one that I will probably remember, not just because it is absolutely stunning with its baroque-like architecture, but also because I truly believe that it is the nr. 1 gem of Berlin.
For 5 euros (discounted price with student ID, otherwise 7 euros) you get access not just to the church itself, but also to the museum, crypt and the outer Dome Walkway, which gives a 360-degree view of the city. And I’m sure that the panorama is just as wonderful, if not better, in the dark with the evening lights, as during the day in sunshine and clear sky.
Side note: The Walkway is a great substitute for the popular observation deck in the Television Tower, if you would like to spare some money and kill two birds with one stone.
Right at the foot of the dome is Lustgarten, a public park that seemed like a very popular place to hang out both for locals and tourists. Its central location on Museum Island attracts all those, who would like to take a break from sightseeing and just chill for a couple of minutes or hours. After our visit to the Dome, we’ve spent some time in the park just sitting in the grass, taking some beautiful photos and embracing the vibe of this really cool, cultural spot. Highly recommended for everyone!
3. What rather not to visit in Berlin?
It was the only site in the city that I wish we have skipped. We stopped by Checkpoint Charlie during our walk from the Jewish Museum to the Topography of Terror. Luckily, it was on the way anyways, so we didn’t waste a lot of time on this one. I was very aware of the historical significance of this place, being the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Therefore, I didn’t wanna miss the chance to see it. What we’ve got was a jammed shopping street crammed with people blocking the traffic, with overpriced souvenir shops in every five meters and a wide selection of international fast food chains (no, thanks).
The white guard house on the picture was supposed to be the main attraction. Unfortunately, it was almost unapproachable, mainly because of the crowd of tourists standing in the line to take a quick photo with the ‘actors’ dressed as border guards.
There is also a museum, called Checkpoint Charlie Museum or Mauermuseum, on Friedrichstraße, which presents life in Berlin during the Cold War. We didn’t go in, so I cannot give any input about that, but it might be a better choice for quality experience, than Checkpoint Charlie itself.
I guess it is true to say that it is simply impossible to like everything that you see at a destination. Wherever we go, we always face some positive surprises and disappointments. I had great expectations towards Berlin and thank God, it didn’t let me down. It definitely delivered the two most important things that I am looking for in a city: amazing food on reasonable price and well-preserved historical character.
Last year in August my own, long-awaited American adventure began. My very first stop was New York City – a city truly one of its kind. It is a city that I’ve dreamt about seeing since I was a child. A city that left a deep mark in my heart that will stay there forever to cherish all the memories that those five days in the Big Apple blessed me with. Memories that I share with one of my best friends, Nóra, who was the perfect mate to explore this metropolis with – one of the perks of travelling with a person with similar interests, passions and dreams.
I cannot even count how many times in the past twelve months I went through the 942 photos (to be exact) that we took in New York. What I pondered on every single time I got caught by nostalgia is, whether those five, very short and extremely busy days spent in NYC were enough for us to make the most out of this maybe ’once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity of being there. Whether we were able to cover all ’the must sees’ of the city. And after a while, I needed to admit that my best memories of this place had nothing to do with the must see attractions and the most iconic sites.
Therefore, in this post I am not going into any detail about the view over Manhattan from the top of Empire State Building, the glamour of the giant billboards on Times Square or God forbid about the bronze, Wall Street bull that apparently brings luck by fondling its testicles. No, I won’t talk about any of that. The simple reason for this is that New York was about something else, something greater than that for me. It was the ineffable feeling that constantly hit me when we got the chance to have a little piece of New York City lifestyle, a real sense of place with its ups and downs, its crazy pace, amazing flavors and its incredible diversity being more than 200 languages spoken in this immense melting pot.
Living on Roosevelt Island
The teeny-tiny Roosevelt Island located on the East River between Manhattan and Queens was our home for five days. Its geographical separation from the main land is a gift for its 10.000 inhabitants. Living in such a safe, peaceful, green spot in a metropolis, that carries millions of people of all kinds, is a real privilege.
He island is easily accessible by subway or the one and only commuter aerial tramway in the city. The Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram connects the island with Manhattan, making around 115 trips every day. It is often forgotten by tourists, the island being mostly residential area. It’s cheap, not crowded, gives a different skyline and not least, it was featured in several movies and TV shows, such as Spider-Man (2002), Now You See Me (2013), Anger Management, White Collar and so on.
Our Airbnb host was a Serbian lady, who left Europe because of the Yugoslavian conflicts and settled down in New York in the hope of a more peaceful, happier future. She was the most talkative host that I ever had. She never ran out of stories and good advice about the city, and it was fascinating to hear an expat’s perspective on USA; an expat, who seemingly became a real New Yorker during the course of the years, but in fact she remained European at the bottom of her heart. It always fascinates me to hear locals’ thoughts about the destinations, where I go. This is why I love Airbnb and Couchsurfing – because you learn so much from your hosts; things that otherwise you would probably never find out about the given places on your own.
Walking the streets of Greenwich Village
Every neighborhood in New York City has its own, inimitable charm. I could highlight at least one front-runner spot from each of those that I visited, but instead I just rather walk you through the couple of hours that we’ve spent in my personal favorite, Greenwich Village. The Village, as referred to by locals, is bohemian but still elegant, fun but still sophisticated. It’s a maze, where you gladly get lost without feeling the pressure of obligatory sightseeing. The streets of the Village are comfortably walkable, lively but not suffocating, unlike some other parts of the city.
After getting off the subway at the Flatiron Building, we headed south towards the west side of Lower Manhattan. Our first stop was Union Square Park, where the regularly organized Greenmarket took place. The history of the market goes back more than forty years, by now hosting dozens of farmers, bakers, fishers and of course a mix of costumers, let them be locals or tourists. Just-picked fruits and vegetables, homemade jams and pickles, soft bread and pastries lured visitors to vendors, offering artisan products that cannot be purchased on every corner in the city. The fresh squeezed juices that we tasted, were certainly some uncommonly delicious energy boosters for the rest of the day.
Walking just a little bit further down the street we stumbled upon the legendary Strand Bookstore, which carries more than two and a half million new, used and rare books. Oh my Gosh!!! It was heaven itself. The comforting smell of old paper mingled with the freshly printed copies was more than enough for me to silently wander around the never-ending rows of shelves for hours. Needless to say, the decision about which novel to buy was time consuming and painful in a way. Finally, I narrowed my options to two pieces, both of them being written by New Yorkers about New York. After all, where is a better place to get a hold of the stories born in this city?
After a quick rest and caffeine refill, we headed towards Washington Square Park, a meeting point for the locals and a popular hub for cultural activities. The park is very close to the NYU (New York University) schools and colleges, and I guess this is the reason, why the area was filled with younger people sitting in the grass in groups or alone, chatting or reading, eating their lunch from take-away boxes, who I assume were, at least in majority, students. Families with children were playing and cooling off in the fountain at the arch, trying to make the summer heat stuck in concrete more bearable.
And then there were the daily returning ‘visitors’, playing chess with their buddies or curious strangers, who seemingly spend a significant part of their time in the park. It was fun to sit down on a bench under the shadow for a couple of minutes and watch this lighthearted, idyllic image of the outdoor chess community.
We continued the day in a quieter environment, when we entered the residential area of the Village. Speaking of idyll a second ago; this urban peace is another type of it. Living on these streets could be fantastic; with their tiny green spaces in front of the blocks, the beautiful staircases leading to the front doors, the people enjoying their coffees on their balconies – all away from the hustle and bustle, and yet just a stone’s throw away from the heart of Manhattan. I won’t lie, I could get used to this.
The true reason why we came to Greenwich Village in the first place was to check out two buildings very close to our hearts, both of them being key scenes in our beloved TV shows. I am talking about the Friends’ apartment, where Monica, Rachel, Joe and Chandler lived (theoretically) and Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment from Sex and the City. Actually, in case of Friends, the actors were never filmed in New York City. The show was made in California. This specific building was used just for the exterior shots. Still, it made me really happy to see both of these spots in reality. They kind of authenticated the characters and the plot lines, making the stories more this-worldly.
Watching Chicago – the Broadway Show
This was without doubt my number one. Even though, I was never a theater-goer. Maybe because I haven’t seen a musical before Chicago. This show is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history with its 20 years of unceasing fame. No wonder why. The perfect combination of jazz, dance choreography and talented cast on the stage alone was worth the visit to New York. It humorous, sexy and covertly critical about our society, which made the scenes not just enjoyable but also real. I could watch it again and again and again.
Broadway, as a street in itself, is remarkable with its 40+ theaters showing world-famous stories 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The audience is entertained non-stop and there are really great deals on tickets. While we were standing in the line in front of Ambassador Theater, we were scanning the crowd around us (another thing that we are very good at :D). It was so great to see, how the street brings together New Yorkers and ‘outsiders’- because believe me, you can distinguish them just by appearance. This place is the hotbed of fame, entertainment and absolute amalgamation: a MUST experience.
Eating up the world in New York City
Some say that there are so many eating establishments in NYC that in theory it would take around 23 years to try them all. But in practice I am not really sure that it is possible to eat your way through this city. The choices are enormous, sometimes overwhelming, but at least everybody can find suitable for their taste no matter what culture they belong to, where they are from, what they can or can’t eat by choice, religion or any other reason. It is a paradise for foodies and for all those, who want to try unexplored flavors every time they go out for a meal. Since we both love to eat and taste foreign cuisines, we were constantly on hunt for some promising local spots, where we could get at least a small bite of the New York food culture.
And now, enough said: let the pictures speak for themselves!
Rolling around Central Park
Yes, Central Park is a massive tourist attraction. And a lot more than that. It is the green heart of the city, where you can easily spend an entire day. I wish we knew that before we went there. We rented two bikes in advance for three hours, with the naïve idea that a forenoon is more than enough to roll around the park and see all what we want to see. Well, to our disappointment, the hours flew away like seconds and I can just hope that one day I will return to New York and then I can catch up with everything that I missed.
And I’m not referring just to the sightseeing part of it, but to the whole ‘Central Park experience’. I was fascinated about its multipurpose nature and the numerous different ways people benefit from it. Some use the park for doing sports individually or in bigger groups, others for picnics, or playing, dating or walking their dogs, or the more creatives for drawing, painting, singing and the list goes on and on and on. When we arrived, we sat down for a while, having a couple in front of us, who were sunbathing, a woman behind doing yoga, a man on the side reading the daily news while we were enjoying our cream cheese, salmon bagels in the middle.
The truth is that the traffic in Central Park is heavy. Hundreds of skaters, runners, cyclists pass by on a daily basis, making the roads of the park extremely busy. But when you turn from the path and merge more into nature, you realize what this green oasis could really mean for those living in this loud and accelerated city. Probably because of its role as a shelter from the craziness is why I liked Central Park so much.
It’s one thing to visit New York City, and it’s another to understand it. I gave myself one year to digest what I saw and what I experienced and believe me, I am still not sure how I feel about this place. But what I know is this: try not to be an obvious tourist. Walk a lot and with open eyes, observe, keep the pace, eat local, live with a local and suck it all in. You might get confused and overwhelmed, but this is a part of it. But what you get in return is an experience of a lifetime.
Every second year we organize a family week; a chance to catch up, to relax and to explore Denmark a little bit further with the parents. They don’t visit us very often. In the past six years, they traveled to Kolding just three times, always for a specific occasion, which this year was my graduation in June. Not that they don’t like Denmark. On the contrary, they love it, but you know, life happens and when you move abroad, you need to make some sacrifices. Not being around your family that much is one of them … a major one. Therefore, the less time we spend together, the more I want to make sure that the given time is well-spent. This is why our Danish get-together is about exploring the country and travelling to places that they haven’t been before. This way I can make sure that every visit they make is unique, memorable and an encouragement to come again.
This year we were lucky with the weather. Danish summer usually means less clouds, less rain, less wind than during the rest of the year, with fast-changing temperatures ranging from 15 to maximum 23 Celsius. We cannot take a little sunshine for granted, because an unexpected shower can come anytime, sometimes from crystal clear sky. Fortunately, this year parents’ week was free of unpleasant weather conditions, so we could assemble a diversified itinerary that included cultural, historical and natural attractions as well. The proximity of sites was a top priority, so we moved around the middle region of Jutland peninsula and the southern part of the island of Fyn.
1. Blåvand Strand – on the West Coast of Denmark
Our first stop was Blåvand Strand, an exceptional, soft-sand beach on the west coast of Jutland. Blåvand is a part of the Wadden Sea National Park, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The national park embraces three countries: Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, the latter two being on the UNESCO list since 2009. A rich and unique ecosystem is embedded in and around the Wadden Sea; a dream spot for researchers working on this field, bird watchers, wildlife and nature lovers. It is an inter tidal zone of the North Sea, which goes through continuous transformation due to the powerful waves and currents. The enormous and wide beach marked by sand dunes attract thousands of people every year to Blåvand. It’s the perfect place for water sports, oyster safaris, horseback riding, kiting
or simply for swimming.
For us it served more like a place for a long, afternoon walk along the water in a quiet and refreshing environment.
Beside the sea, there are other things to see. For example, there is a lighthouse (which is usually open for the public until 5 p.m. every day) that gives a spectacular view from the top. There are several German bunkers on the seaside, which once were parts of the Atlantic Wall during World War II.
You can find also dozens of low-built houses with well-preserved thatched roofs that give an authentic taste of how traditional Danish summer houses look like. In fact, what fascinated my parents the most was not the sea, beach or bunkers, but the simplicity and beauty of those little houses, which are not swanky at all, but still they are the pearls of this region.
2. Jelling – in Central Denmark Region
The second attraction on our list was Jelling, another UNESCO World Heritage Site on Jutland. This place beautifully represents the Viking Age in Denmark, communicating the history of the country through interactive exhibitions and various monuments, such as the mounds, church, Stone ship, palisade and the house excavations.
There are two engraved stones in front of the church (one from 940) that mention kings, such as Gorm the Old and Harold Bluetooth, who sat on their thrones in Jelling. One of them is often named as ‘the birth certificate of Denmark’, because the runic stone claims that King Harold converted the Danes to Christianity.
There are several events organized in Jelling every year, but during our short visit the entire town was peaceful; just a few tourists wandered around. The whole situation was kind of a ‘back in time’ experience with the complete silence and chain of monuments commanding respect with their pure existence. You can truly feel that great things happened in the past on the very same spot that you are standing.
The museum, called the ‘Home of the Viking Kings’ (Kongernes Jelling) is internationally acknowledged for a very good reason. I, personally, haven’t seen anything like this before. It’s not a traditional museum, that’s for sure. It is more like an interactive space, which digitally displays the stories of the Viking Age in Denmark in a way that it is equally entertaining both for children and adults.
Jelling is not a vibrant tourist attraction in Denmark. It’s the most quit place I’ve seen in this country … which is a big deal, cause everything seems quieter in Denmark than anywhere else. The entire site is absolutely free of charge and it’s definitely worth a visit. It is a great afternoon program, especially for older generations, like my parents’ generation, who prefer short, historically meaningful walks above sightseeing in a metropolis.
3. Egeskov Slot – in South Fyn
The third and the last stop of this holiday was a place that I’ve looked forward to seeing for a very long time. We went to a day-trip to Egeskov Slot, the most well-preserved Renaissance water castle in Europe, located on the island of Fyn.
It was the home of several counts and noblemen in the past, and today it offers a historical and cultural insight into the world of the wealthy and of the poor. The publicly accessible area includes the castle itself, gardens (maze garden, rose garden, English garden, water garden etc.), parks, forests and other old buildings, that by now were transformed into museums.
I was particularly interested in three things: the bamboo maze that is considered the world’s largest of this kind, the view of the castle from the other side of the lake, which I expected to be breathtaking (and I was not disappointed)
and the vintage automobile, cycle/motorcycle and flying vehicle collections to please the men of our little group. And indeed, they became engaged and occupied for some time. We’ve spent more than three hours at this part of the site, because the fathers felt the need to discuss in detail the mechanism of every vehicle that we passed by.
However, we faced the biggest surprise in a completely other section, where vintage furniture, household items and clothes were exhibited from the 1800s. What we realized was that some of the antiques we looked at were very familiar to us. Similar style of furniture is standing still in my grandmother’s bedroom, similar hat has my grandfather worn a couple of years ago and exactly the same type of baking plate is used by my boyfriends’ mom, when she prepares our favorite savory crackers.
The only thing I could think of when I saw these similarities between the Danish past and the Romanian present was that my home country is decades behind Denmark in so many ways. I wish the gap would be smaller, at least just a tiny bit.
All in all, it was a great one week with the parents. Luckily, they are curious about everything, so wherever we brought them, whatever we showed them, they cared, they listened and they enjoyed every minute of the holiday. And all the sites that were left out this time, will be on the top of the list next time. Just come again, as soon as you can!