Sunday, September 27, 2009

Roaming around Europe

Today marks one week since I started my Europe trip. I am writing this on the train from Berlin to Prague -- right now I’m somewhere between Berlin and Dresden. The weather has been beautiful for the most part. It only rained briefly while I was in Copenhagen and has otherwise been sunny to partly cloudy with highs in the mid to upper 60‘s and lows in the low 50‘s.
17th century Nyhavn
I arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning as scheduled. I thought I lucked out and got the last first class seat from Atlanta to Copenhagen, but then, right as they were closing the airplane doors, I was asked to move to coach because the gate agents made a mistake and put someone on a higher standby priority ticket in coach. Since I was the lowest priority ticket in first class I automatically got bumped. Not the end of the world of course, but I sure was looking forward to being pampered in first class!

By reaching out via I met and stayed with a really nice girl, Rikke, who lives in Sydhavn which is two quick stops on the regional train from Copenhagen’s central station. With the exception of getting back and forth to Rikke’s apartment, I was able to walk the entire city over the course of two full days. Copenhagen is a very pedestrian and bike friendly city; it is quite flat and the major attractions are centrally located and easy to find with a good walking map. One note though -- there are very few signs in English but most Danes, particularly those under 40, speak good English and didn’t seem to mind helping if asked.
couchsurfing (in this case sleeping on the floor) in Denmark
Of the things I did, some of the most interesting/enjoyable were walking through Christiania (a counter-culture/commune type neighborhood), climbing the spire of Our Savior’s Church in Christianshavn, strolling the canal in Nyhavn, and eating a delicious and very Danish meal (smoked herring, liver paste) at Restaurant Amalie near the Amalienborg Palace.
view from Our Savior's Church
On Wednesday I took an afternoon train to Malmo, Sweden (only 30 minutes from downtown Copenhagen). Malmo is a compact town with everything walking distance from the train station. After a look inside St Petri’s church and a nice stroll on the pedestrian-only street which runs through the middle of town, I decided to give my feet a break and spent the remainder of the evening in the main library catching up on email and uploading photos.
St Peter's Church in Malmo
The overnight train to Berlin bears mention primarily because, shortly after leaving Malmo, the entire train boards a ferry where it stays in the cargo hold for the long ride across the Baltic Sea. As there are no seats on the train, only sleeping compartments, everyone passes the 8+ hours lying flat. I happened to be on a top bunk in a compartment with six beds in two tiers of three beds each. I shared the tiny compartment with four other people.
a 6-berth sleeper cabin
I intercepted Greg at Tegel airport on Thursday morning. His flight from JFK actually arrived almost an hour early, but luckily I had been able to get online at the main train station in Berlin and noticed his imminent arrival so made sure to catch an earlier bus to the airport.
We were able to check into our hotel, City Pension, early which is always a huge advantage when dealing with jet lag. After a nice hot shower and a couple of hours of sleep, we were ready to make our first foray into the city by early afternoon. Per Rick Steves’ advice, we used Bus 100 for a self-guided orientation tour, then had a nice walk around Alexanderplatz and along Unter den Linden. As most museums stay open late on Thursdays and some are also free after 6 pm, we took advantage of the opportunity to tour the Bode Museum (sculpture, religious art) and then the Gemaldegalerie (European paintings). Due to a long wait for our food at a biergarten, we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 11 pm.
We switched from art to history for our remaining two full days in Berlin. Our sightseeing on Friday included the German Historical Museum, Berlin Cathedral, Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and remnants of the Berlin wall. We were on our feet the entire day so after eating a tasty Indian meal near the Friedrichstrasse train station, I was ready to get back to the hotel, take a shower and go to bed. Unfortunately, we caught a regional express train that skipped our stop and the next stop was another 10+ minutes out of the city. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except the next train returning to the city and stopping at our station was not for another hour! So much for turning in early. It was midnight by the time we got in bed, tired but unscathed.
Berlin Cathedral
Berlin is a city for remembering the past but also embracing the future (for better or worse). Thus our sightseeing on Saturday included the Victory Tower, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Intending to go underground at Unter den Linden only to have a look at one of the ghost subway stations (unused while the wall was up), we came across a Hooters sign advertising their new location by the Tiergarten S-bahn station. Due to political rallies (see below), track closures, and buses not running, it took a major effort to get to the restaurant. Then, interestingly enough, we discovered that Hooters corporate headquarters had flown over six trainers from South Carolina, Kansas, and other U.S. states to deal with the high turnover of wait staff since the location opened late this summer. The girls had been there one month and were flying back home today. I could write pages of observations about the hour and a half we were there, but suffice it to say that I’m not so sure the trainers had accomplished much!
Today is actually election day in Germany. By 8 pm tonight, the final votes will have been cast in the once-every-four-years election for members of Parliament. Since we are traveling today, we spent a leisurely morning enjoying our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, then packing and catching up online before heading to the train station. When we tried to store our large backpacks at the Hauptbahnhof, we discovered all the lockers were full and there was a long line at the luggage counter. So we opted to keep our packs with us and walked across the Spree River to the Reichstag. Not finding a suitable place to sit and relax in the shade, we backtracked to the banks of the Spree and sat in lounge chairs (this reminded me of Paris Plage but without the sand) and drank beer until it was time to go back to the station to catch our train to Prague. As I finish typing this (after many distractions including eating a sandwich and taking photos of the Elbe River towns along the German/Czech border), we are now only 30 minutes from Prague. It’s the golden hour for photographers, with the diffused light of the setting sun making the buildings glow a soft yellow/pink.
lounging on the Spree
For links to all of my photos, click below:

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