The continuation of my 2015 travel round up. To start with Part 1 of this series, go here.
I’m not a big fan of Brussels. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there when I visited years ago, but from a jaunting tourist’s perspective, the city didn’t give me much that any other area of Belgium couldn’t. My version of seeing that city was chasing photos with three peeing statues (Manneken, Jeanneke, and Zinneke) after having the requisite chocolate, waffles, and moules frites.
So, when friends were visiting us in the spring and wanted to check out other areas within driving distance of Amsterdam, we suggested Brugge as a good way to experience Belgium. We hadn’t been, and although warned it was overwhelmingly touristy, we had heard it was beautiful and a generally better place to tick off all of the requisite culinary Belgian delights.
The city was exactly as expected–full of older-skewing, very large tourist groups following the colorful umbrella raised in their tour guides’ hands. However, it was still very pretty and deserving of its rising status in the mainstream track of places to visit. We didn’t do much; just took a lovely canal boat ride, strolled around the streets and parks, ate, and drank with friends in the sun. I’m probably partial to our time in Brugge because of the surreal moments of getting to travel with my best friends and also run into others while in town 🙂
Milan was hosting the 2015 World Expo, so for that reason we chose the city as the place to visit for my birthday weekend, and also so Uri could reminisce about his last World Expo experience of Brisbane ‘88. 😉
The Expo experience was marred by its crowds. The entry limit was non-existent, and the day’s tickets were disgracefully oversold. Arriving well before the doors opened, we still waited hours to enter, an hour to see the first welcome exhibit, and then by that time each country’s exhibit hall waiting line was a two hour minimum. We ended up standing in line for the Chile exhibit for 2.5 hours, only to see a 5 minute video and walk through a quick hall about the country. After standing in lines for the bathrooms and for a bottle of water, the day was almost over, and we were exhausted by standing in lines in the heat. We were able to enjoy a few alternate areas where we could find shorter lines and some food (Mediterranean pavilion!), but overall it was impossible to get anything out of the experience outside of frustration.
A standout in Milan was seeing the Last Supper fresco mural at the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano. No photos are allowed inside, and viewing tickets must be bought in advance. This actually made the experience quite organized and peaceful. Only 30 of us or so were allowed into the 1-room hall where da Vinci’s Last Supper painting stood. You could really focus for that 30 minutes on your guidebook, or the placards, or just stare up at the painting before you that is so well-known. Before entering, you can also learn about the damage and restorations to the mural throughout history.
While in Milan we also enjoyed the classic gothic Duomo di Milano, the Sforza Castle, and a pretty awesome art exhibition at the Triennale Design Museum called “Kitchen and Invaders.”
We decided to visit Berlin during Christmas Market time. We had a lot to cover in a long weekend–Christmassy stuff, history, culture, and seeing some of Uri’s friends and extended family. We sort of knew that the best part of Berlin–just hanging out and absorbing the goings-on–would not really be done well my first time around.
We spent the first half of our four day trip in Mitte, or the central area, so we could have access to all of the key historic sites. I started off taking a five mile running tour of Mitte’s major sites–Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Museum Island, the Berlin Wall. My running guide, Beate, refreshed my memory on the rich history of Berlin from World War II to the Cold War. It fascinated me. I wished 100 times that my dad was around so I could talk to him at length about it all. My first impression of Berlin’s center is that it was much more modernized than I envisioned. I guess I had pictured more of a Munich, with quaint colored buildings and more cobblestone and walkable alleys, but the center is essentially completely modernized and felt more like New York City’s Museum Mile and Fifth Avenue.
After getting familiar with my surroundings, I ventured back out for an audio walking tour I downloaded, that took me back more thoroughly to the famous sites, plus the sobering Memorial for Murdered Jews, the Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson famously hung Blanket out the window), and down the Unter den Linden. One standout tidbit I learned was how, when East and West Germany were divided, that the West U-Bahn trains would pass through East Berlin stations, which were closed down and henceforth came to be “ghost” stations.
After getting the historic basics under my belt, we went a bit deeper by touring the Topography of Terror (a well-done, if just a bit long, pictorial museum outlining the rise and fall of the Nazis), the East Side Gallery, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. We also took a tour in the parliament’s Reichstag building, and got a closer look inside that architecturally significant dome.
We also experienced Christmastime in Berlin. We discovered two markets — the overcrowded and fancy Gendarmenmarkt and a much more enjoyable one by the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall). The markets were comparable to the Prague markets we visited last year, but I’d take the Prague ones over Berlin, for the thinner crowds and the delicious Prague ham-on-a-spit.
Finally, in the last half of our trip, we got to know some boroughs a bit better, staying with Uri’s cousins in Schöneberg, visiting friends in Prenzlauer Berg, and seeing the memorial Stolperstein plaques of Uri’s family members. We also spend an evening in Kreuzberg. As a former New Yorker, I have an appreciation for Brookyn and the value of its now-mainstream hipster Williamsburg, and its constant rotation of up-and-coming periphery neighborhoods that are still raw, sorting themselves out, and influenced by artists, graffiti, diversity, and so on. In other words, I get it. But I didn’t really get Kreuzberg. I felt extremely unsafe in areas, and it was later validated to us by locals that there are areas that are fine but still some areas you simply do not go to. It did get better for us, though. We started off unknowingly on the more sketchy side, and once we righted ourselves it was more enjoyable. The jury is still out for me on this famously trendy area. It has a lot to live up to for everything I’ve heard about it… but I’m willing to give it another chance on another trip.
So, that takes me to the end of the 2015 End of Year Round Up… a little late now that its February and I’m already on my next trip. Speaking of which: Coming soon! The story of our Amsterdam-to-Austria road trip through Germany!