Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Europe 2011 Post-Trip

I love airports. I'm a big fan of seeing different airports and how they differ. I am pretty shocked and confused after seeing Berlin's Tegel Airport, which is considered Berlin's primary airport. It's small. I've been in a lot of international airports and this has to be the smallest one I've been in. From my estimate, I could cross through the whole airport and the various "terminals", though they're more like small hallways, in less than 10 minutes just walking. (Maybe even less than 5 minutes)

I'm glad I got to see this place though as it's reminiscent of old air travel in the 1980s when air travel wasn't a major industry yet. Also, it gives me a glimpse at this airport before it closes next year when it is replaced by the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport next year.

Currently back in Vancouver, though I will be airborne again in less than 9 hours. I thought I had a day to rest since I thought I was arriving yesterday. Oh well.

Important lessons from the trip

Be a traveler, not a tourist
To truly immerse yourself in a culture and to have profound experiences, you need to take the path less travelled. Although we usually travel to places because we are drawn to something they are known for, it doesn't mean we should be a tourist and only see that. We should take the course of serendipity and a walk down a random street, take a look at where the locals would go, sometimes the best things are ones that the majority doesn't know about.

Be a flâneur
Don't always be in a rush. Loiter. Stroll. Absorb your surroundings. You don't always have to be moving or getting somewhere. You are here. Enjoy here. Don't just say "yes, I'm here, now let's go".

Embody the concepts of gezellig
Find inviting places. Be a warm, friendly person. Find fun. Be together with friends and family.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 16 - Berlin Day 2

Berlin is a wonderful city. It's very multicultural community and has a deep cultural history.
The day started with getting on a bus ride on the City Sightseeing Tour Buses (they're the big red tour buses). We took the red tour route around the city.

The weather is crazy. There's flash thunderstorms, and then a few minutes later it's clear. Berlin is one of those places where the weather is unpredictable, and there's no possible way you're going to be properly dressed for every situation. One second it's 25 Celsius, warm and sunny, then it's pouring rain in a flash storm and down to about 10C, then back to cloudy at 20C. Do what the locals do, dress light, and then when it rains, just stand to the side, find some cover and wait it out (hopefully in 5-10 minutes it becomes sunny again).

We saw a little bit more of the Berlin Wall today including the well-known Checkpoint Charlie. The Reichstag is a parliamentary building that is still being used today. It's an interesting building considering it primarily consists of older architecture but has modern elements incorporated in when it was reconstructed by the renowned architect, Norman Foster. Foster's re-design includes a modern glass/steel dome that fits on top of the older stone structure and creates a very neat contrast.

 For lunch, stopping at Breitscheidplatz, we enjoyed some of the local German fast street food cuisine, Currywurst. We are a little nauseous at the sight of any more pork knuckles and bratwursts, but this was definitely good to eat as the sausages was delicious and the curry sauce is something unique (and not at all what I thought it was going to taste like).

Alexanderplatz is a high traffic transport hub. There isn't really that much interesting to see though the area is filled with some larger department stores and the Weltzeituhr world clock, and the nearby Fernsehturm Berlin TV Tower.

Ending the bus tour, I stopped off at the Siegessäule (Berlin Victory Column) to take some photographs. It was a long walk back to our hotel going through the Siegesallee boulevard headed back towards the Brandenburg Gate but then cutting through Tiergarten Park back to Potsdamer Platz.

We loved Vapiano so much last night that we went back for dinner tonight. I definitely recommend it. That place is awesome.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 15 - Berlin Day 1

My family is definitely not travelling like Europeans. We look pretty odd hauling our large suitcases around the city streets, train station, and train platforms. Everyone else around us is travelling with small personal-sized suitcases and moving around quickly while we look ridiculous struggling to move our over-sized (and overweight) luggage.

Right now, I'm on the 1027am Deutsche Bahn train headed for Berlin. I'm sitting across a stern-faced German girl. She looks really pissed off and smashing (typing) her keyboard very quickly and loudly.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a breathtaking view and spectacle of glass and steel. The station's interior structure is a marvel of modern engineering and modern architectural styles. Our hotel, the Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz was pretty near the station, though we took a taxi anyway (luckily we found an 8-seater van taxi).

Potsdamer Platz is a beautiful area with modern buildings and parks. We are very near the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) which looks amazing in the day as well as at night. Being the tourists we are, we took a ride from the Brandenburg Gate down Unter der Linden on a 7-person CoBi (Conference Bike). It was a fun experience though I'm not sure how much fun I could get from riding on it again.

Dinner was a unique dining experience. We ate at Vapiano on Potsdamer Platz. There is no waiting service for the most part and you have to line up for the food yourself. The food they cook though is amazing. It's simple Italian food with fresh ingredients and cooked on the spot right in front of you.

Walking through the area, we also happened upon preserved segments of the Berlin Wall (near the Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz) where you can still see the original graffiti and structure of the wall. The area is full of things to see including the Sony Center.

I think I could probably stay in Berlin for a month and do nothing but take photographs of buildings and the architecture, both old and new, in the city.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 14 - Cologne/Köln

Today was a transition day as we got off the boat. We took a 5 minute (probably less) taxi ride to our hotel, the Marriott in downtown Cologne.
We have a whole day here before our train to Berlin tomorrow morning so we walked around the old town area. As there isn't much to see, we probably hit everything that's really worth seeing in the town.
Our first stop was the DB Hauptbahnhof or the Deutsche Bahn (German Trains) station of Cologne. The station is quite an interesting place as it feels similar to Amsterdam Centraal in the structure, though it's not quite as big. There's a lot of unique food vendors and I got to try one of the Ditsch mini pizzas which were pretty tasty. An art exhibition was taking place in there too with photos from the World Press Photo 2011 exhibition showing the many winning entries in the competition. The photographs are impressive from a technical and aesthetic standpoint but they were also powerful because of the issues they addressed.

Our next stop was the cathedral of Cologne, Cologne Cathedral, or just Dom. The cathedral is the main highlight of the city and it is a very impressive example of gothic architecture. Upon entering the church, we were able to sit through the second half of a mass. Continuing to walk through Old Town and headed toward the river, we passed by some important city spaces such as Roncalli-Platz (besides the Museum Ludwig and Römisch-Germanisches Museum). We stopped upon an old looking building for our lunch. The restaurant we walked into was the Baxenhaus zum Rheingarten for some pork knuckle and a sip of the local beer, Kölsch. I wasn't really blown away with the food but I found out afterwards that the restaurant is one of the oldest of oldest bars open in town as it has been open since 1276.

There wasn't much else to see/recommended in the town other than the Chocolate Museum, so we made our way to Schokoladenmuseum Köln, which was ironically right beside the cruise boat we were on. None of us really wanted to check out the museum, so we just checked out the chocolate store inside and enjoyed some drinks at the Chocolat Grand Cafe. I got to try some eiskaffee (ice coffee) and the eiskakao (iced chocolate), both drinks were delicious as they had ice cream in both drinks to sweeten them and give flavour.

It was a really hot day and we were already tired in the early afternoon. Walking along the river returning to our hotel, we went by the Hohenzollernbrücke and up the steps to the Philharmonie. At the base of the stairs was a street performer which gathered a big crowd. It was a big let down though as the act wasn't impressive at all (compared to other street acts I've seen), though it was a good break in our tour (as we had no idea where else to go).

There's a conference here that I wanted to go to, the Gamescom 2011 games conference. I saw some people staying at my hotel who were coming back with swag from the conference and I was disappointed that I couldn't go (especially considering I'm here already). There's also the other fact that I'm missing the DesignThinking UnConference in Vancouver right now. Doh.

Cologne is weird. I've noticed that there is a small immigrant population of Asians here and it just seems odd seeing Asians fluent in German. I also noticed an immigrant influence in Frankfurt but it was more of the Eastern European origins such as Turkish and Slavic populations (which doesn't seem as weird as the Asian influx in Cologne).

Our Marriott hotel is awesome, this is the only hotel I've been in where they play ambient/techno in the hallway instead of the standard elevator music fare. Needless to say, I was dancing in the hotel hallway outside my room.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 13 - Koblenz

We have finally entered the Rhine River (and left the Main).

Wowwwwww. This morning was a serious food morning. Breakfast at 9. After breakfast, at around 10:30, there was frühshoppen on the sun deck. That was a tasting of different types of bratwursts/sausages as well as different mustards. Also, toss different types of pretzels in there, and everyone's really full. But shortly after that, 12pm rolled around and it was lunch time. From 9am til 12:45pm, I was eating the whole time. Doh.

We arrived in Koblenz at 1pm. Another small town, but with the interesting characteristic of having a fortress on a mountain, Ehreinbreitstein. We took the usual old town tour and also got an interesting look at the local Bundesgartenschau, or BUGA flower festival. It is a flower festival of different types of floral varieties, some interesting floral "garden" arrangements and of course, water parks for kids.
The area was located at the corner of the river so it was a short walk to the giant statue of Wilhelm I that marks the city's edge to the Rhine River (where it meets the Mosel).

Our tour actually included a trip on the cable car ride to the fortress Ehretbreitstein, though we decided to forego it because the lineup to go on the ride had an expected wait time of one hour. We also weren't sure of how long it was going to take for the queue to come back once up top. I went back to the town with my sis to take a look at a store called Commes to check out designer kitchenware.

I LOVE these stores and it's my dream to design kitchenware products for the companies that supply these stores such as WMF, Auerhahn, Peugeot, Alessi, Menu, Alfi, the list is endless. =D

Tonight's dinner was a little bit sad as it's the last night and trading goodbyes with a lot of the friends we've made on the cruise. We were taking up a lot of room after dinner and probably being too loud as everyone was saying farewells and taking photos. Afterwards, we were also taking a lot of photos in the hallway by our rooms as most of us were dressed nicely and having a little photo session. The executive chef walked by and we had a good laugh and shared some beer with him and took some photos as well.

The cruise has been a good experience. It's a little different than my previous experiences on cruises as this one was a river cruise. The clientele is older than my age group, a lot older actually. =P
However, the smaller limit on the number of guests on the boat and the open seating at meal times is good for meeting new people and being able to connect with more people. This is a stark contrast with the large cruise boat, floating city type experience where it's just hard to talk with anyone because there's so many people as well as having fixed seating and you're always talking to the same dining partners. (Most likely from your own group). So, this trip has definitely been a great experience!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 12 - Aschaffenburg/Frankfurt

Today was a quick tour around the town of Aschaffenburg. A castle, and lots of small churches. We took an interesting tour through the prominent castle that is symbolic of the town, the Schloss Johannisburg. One of the most interesting displays inside the castle is a cork museum with the largest rendition (in cork) of the Colisseum from Rome.
The castle has the usual things to see as well: furniture, cabinets, paintings, but it also had an interesting collection of china, guns, and cups/glasses.

We had an early departure of 12:30 so we decided to end the morning with pints of the local beer, Schleppe-Sappel. The beer isn't really to my taste, I was more preferential of what our tour guide Silke ordered, a radler, a mixed drink, of half Schleppe-sappel and half citrus.

Our boat had a second arrival port today. We arrived in Frankfurt at around 6:45pm. After dinner, I took a walk around downtown Frankfurt. I'm not really sure where we were walking around, but we walked down Neue Kräme and walked through some really nice plazas. Most of the shops are already closed but I was really happy window shopping. There was a lot of nice design/furniture/lighting shops in the area. I also got to participate in an interesting art installation I walked by. It was called "Limelight", I think. The installation has a pair of spotlights shining light down on a spot in an open area, though the area was very dark already. There were two "artists" filming the spot and the point of the installation was to record/film the people who interacted with the spotlights.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 11 - Miltenberg

Miltenberg is a small town on the Main, labelled as "Die Perle des Mains" or "the pearl of the Main". We had a walking tour around the old town, though there wasn't much to see except for the main street of Hauptstrasse, the primary shopping lane of the city.
Nearby right outside of town, we visited the Schloss Löewenstein or Lowenstein Castle where we got to take a quick tour around the castle and then have a wine tasting.
On the boat, there was a glassblowing demonstration from Karl Ittig of the Bon Apart Glass Gallery. My dad got a chance to participate in creating a glass ornament and got some free shot of Jägermeister in the process. =D

Tonight's dinner was terrific, but I am absolutely blown away by the dessert. Valrhona Chocolate Soup and Blueberry Sorbet. Well.... YEAH, anything Valrhona is delicious, but I am completely shocked by how good the blueberry sorbet was. (I asked for more =P). I need to learn how to make that sorbet. I will be dreaming of that sorbet for weeks. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 10 - Würzburg

Today was a really short day. There isn't that much to see in Würzburg except for the palace, the Würzburg Residence. The tapestries and murals inside the palace were truly amazing. It's a shame that photography isn't allowed inside the building as the paintings are something to behold. The massiveness of the murals on the ceilings, the stucco work, and the intricate tapestries are incredible and work I haven't seen before in other castles. You can take a look at some images of the rooms online such as the Staircase, the White Hall, and the Imperial Hall.

We walked through the market area/downtown of Würzburg where there are numerous churches with really different types of styles including Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and modern. My sister and I spotted a WMF store in the town and we had to drop by to buy something. =D I love WMF

After our shopping stop, we walked over the Würzburg's Old Main Bridge (Alte Mainbrücke) that was lined with statues of people from German history. It's a little reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague. (The group split, so my dad and sis opted for a wine tasting and they got some local Franconian wine.)

Nothing too much to see in Würzburg though it may also have been that we didn't get enough time. We also opted out of an optional excursion to Schloss Weikersheim. I think we have seen enough castles already. :/

Wowz. Tonight's "Epicurean Adventure" dinner was a little crazy. They served 3 different wines over a 6 course meal of traditional German dishes.

Random Notes
-The German locals apparently have an issue in differentiating whether they are Franconian or Bavarian.
-Our Serbian waiter taught us how to say hvala, or 'thanks' in Serbian

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 9 - Haßfurt/Bamberg

Yummmmm. Breakfast was awesome. I tried the Swiss Bircher Müsli and it was a very new flavour I've never had before. The Franconian sausages and the yogurt they serve daily at the boat's restaurant are amazing.

Our boat was docked at Haßfurt and we had to take a 45 minute drive to get in to Bamberg. We walked around the downtown area starting down Lange ßtrasse, where we passed a statue of Leopold II, into the Green Market where we got to see an interesting statue of Neptune/Poseidon. The tour guide explained how most locals wouldn't know the Neptune reference and would probably only recognize it as the man with the fork. Hahaha.

Bamberg is relatively unscathed from the effects of World War 2 compared to other cities as it was not a primary target for bombing.

The first stop on our city tour was a bridge beside some castle building with a set of bridges? I wasn't really paying much attention to the tour guide and really been tuning out. I think I've been to enough cities where the general history isn't really interesting anymore unless there's some weird backstory.
The funny thing about this building is that there are images painted on the wall, but on one of the paintings of a person, there is a wooden leg that sticks out from the building (where the leg would be in the painting). It looks absolutely demented and funny at the same time.

We visited the site of the first beer garden/cellar(Beer Keller) that created the smoked beer (Rauchbier), the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which has been open since 1405. Also, our tour guide showed us and recommended a bakery (bäckerei), the Bäckerei Seel. We worked our way up the cobblestone paths up to the imperial cathedral of Bamberg, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Georg (Dom St. Peter und St. Georg) and to the unfinished palace, the Diözansemuseum Bamberg/ Der Dom zu Bamberg. The palace is unfinished (in the shape of an L) as the duke/prince who was building it ran out of money (it was supposed to be U-shaped). It is now known as the New Residence Bamberg (Neue Residenz Bamberg). Our tour ended in the Rose Garden of the New Residence Bamberg where could have a panoramic view of the city.

Before we went back to the boat, we stopped by the beer house to have a taste of the Rauschbier. It's described as tasting like smoked ham and that for most people, they wouldn't like it after the first two tastes and that they would only start to like it after the third try. This idea was reiterated by the local German lady that my dad was sitting across from (who spoke no English) trying to explain that idea using hand signals and thumbs up/thumbs down. I took a sip and I liked it. I didn't really taste the super smoky taste, it seemed like just a hint of smokiness for me, but rather it tasted like a really dark beer.
We also stopped by the bakery the guide recommended and we couldn't really read any of the signs so we just pointed at random cookies and pastries that we liked. Deeeeeelicious.

Back on board, I enjoyed my lunch with the best fried fish/tartar sauce I ever had. They listed it as breaded fillets of coal fish served with sauce remoulade. Yum. After all the food I've been stuffing myself with, I did a light workout with my sis and mum on the elliptical. Though after that, I went back to the lounge with my sis to partake in high tea and eat some scones. Heehee.

I finally got to experience the essence of river cruising when I finally went to the top deck to take a look at the boat going through the process of transferring between the river locks (to a different height of the river). The second part of the essential river cruising experience is to duck when the boat passes by, or rather goes under, a low bridge. I pretty much had to be down flat on the ground in order to not get hit. =D

I've been impressed with the cooking on the boat so far, but I think tonight was a one off. There was some weird issue with the kitchen (I'm guessing) as no tables were receiving their entrees for what seemed like an unusually long period. After the kitchen finally got the food out, I was less than thrilled with my duck breast.

I am hoping that this will be the exception as I've been thoroughly satisfied (prior to tonight) with all the delicious food (that I know I am probably sounding like a broken record of how delicious everything is ;]).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 8 - Nuremberg

Yum yum. Today was a delicious food day. In the morning on the boat, they offered a special apple beignets for breakfast. It was delicious. I'm so far been really impressed with the food service on the boat. My guess is that since it's a smaller boat, there are less people to cook for so the chefs can personalize and pay more attention to each dish (as opposed to bigger cruise ships, which have thousands more dishes to cook and thus lose quality control on higher volume).

Nuremberg(Nürnburg) is a city in Southern Germany, second largest city in the German state of Bavaria (next to Munich)
The first stop on our city tour of Nuremberg was the Nazi Party Rally Grounds. We started the day with a tour of all the Nazi related sites of Nuremberg as the city is very tightly linked to Nazi history as the site of the rallies as well as being the location of the Nuremberg war trials were conducted. We also visited the site of the incomplete Nazi rally grounds that was only partially constructed (that is now the site of the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände /Documentation Centre). Got to take a quick glance at the building where the Nuremberg war trials were held (courtroom 600), but only from the outside.

As there is nothing much to see in this city, the tour included a 30 min stop at St. John's Cemetery to look at some elaborately decorated graves especially of famous Nuremberg citizens such as Albrecht Dürer. Similarly, having a visit to the Kaiserburg Castle or Nuremberg Castle was boring. There wasn't much to see as the castle wasn't really impressive at all (other than the fact that it's a castle), but it did have an awesome view of Nuremberg (as stated by the tour guide of having the best view of the city).

The rest of our day in the city was free time in the Old Town area. We started with eating some delicious Lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie, from the market stalls in the town square. As it was around lunch time, we opted to stay in the city (instead of going back to the ship) and eat at a local bratwursthaus, Bratwursthäusle. The pork hock was AMAZING, as well as the potato soup, the potato salad, the sauerkraut, and especially the sausages. The bratwursts are DELICIOUS! As is the obvious case as that is what Nuremberg is famous for.

After taking a short walk around the Old Town checking out the stores, eating some gelato, and seeing some of the old bridges in the area like the Fleischbrücke.

If you're ever in Nuremberg, definitely eat some Lebkuchen and Nuremberg bratwursts!
Tomorrow, we're headed to Haßfurt! (I think)

Europe 2011 - Day 7 - Prague To Nuremberg

Today was a relatively boring day as it was a transfer day. Before our bus departed at 1PM. We got to walk around the downtown area where my family bought some last minute Czech souvenirs.
The bus transport took us from our hotel in Prague across the Czech/Germany border to our cruise boat's dock outside of Nuremberg (or Nürnberg) somewhere in the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

We'll be docked here until tomorrow night since there's still a day tour of Nuremberg tomorrow.
Woohoo Germany!

A few notes about the Czech Republic and Prague:
I've made a realization why a lot of my photos inside the old town of Prague always looks good - most of the buildings are yellow, brown, pink - earthy hues which contrast very well with the blue sky, and creates a complementary, or triadic colour scheme.

I'm a little sad that I am ecstatic about seeing all these design principles in real life (that I studied/learned recently at school) and I am unable to have a serious discussion on every little instance and spark of wonder that I have of these moments. I tried to explain the principles of a city built for people and what the instance/example I saw to my sister but the topic goes way above their heads. =/
-Czech counts their floors starting from 0. Anything above, counts up from 1 (so the second floor is 1) and the basement goes negative, so the floor right below ground level is -1 and so forth.
-Every person in Prague rounds the Euro to a different number and basically screws you on the conversion. (So go get your money exchanged with a good rate and try to avoid paying Euro anywhere in the city).

I'm always a little sad when I leave a beautiful and fun city. Also because I don't feel like I've learned enough of the local language. The only words I've learned in Czech are prosím (please) and východ (exit). =/

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 6 - Prague Day 3

This morning was an early start with a tour included in our Uniworld Cruise Package. We departed at 845 on a bus ride to Pražský Hrad (Prague Castle) to start our walking tour of the castle/city. Prague Castle is a magnificent example of a classic European castle with an interesting history involving royalty, politicians and revolution. We started with the Saint Vitus' Cathedral then worked our way through the outside to the dining hall and then through the small individual rooms.

After that, we climbed down the steps of the south side of the castle, Svatovaclavska Vinice (St. Wenceslas' Vineyard), towards the Vltava river. We proceeded to the Charles Bridge but right before we got there, the rain poured very hard. Our group opted to hide from the rain for a little bit under one of the underpasses of the Charles Bridge. When the heavy rain started to let up, we climbed up the stairs on to the bridge where it then promptly started pouring heavily again. On the way across the bridge about 3/4 the way over, the rain finally let up. (Though we were already drenched). We continued on down to the Old Town Square where we concluded the walking tour.

The Old Town Square was extremely busy as there is a summer program where locals open up small food carts selling local Czech specialties. I got to try some roasted meats, local potato chips, grilled cheese, kebab on a bun, and of course, beer! We were having a friendly conversation with some Germans (who couldn't speak any English of course) and shared some of our food for them to try.

We then met up with our group for an optional excursion at 150pm. We toured around the inside of the Stavovské Divadlo/Národní Divadlo (Estates Theatre/National Theater). We got to take a view from the seats at the lower level of the theater where a tour guide gave us an explanation of the history of the theatre. We proceeded to the Mozart Salon where we got a "mini-concert" (from a quintet of musicians) of songs from Mozart's operas such as Don Giovanni, and the Marriage of Figaro. They then opened up the Imperial Box (where the Emperor had reserved seating, and also the best seat in the house - center of the theatre with a frontal view of the stage) where we could see the best view of the theatre. The theatre had a hidden surprise as we got to travel underneath and see one of the underground passages that crossed over to a building beside it, the Kolowratsky Palac/Divadlo Kolowrat(Kolowrat Theater).

The next part of our optional excursion was a guided tour of the Obecní dům, Municipal House. I didn't get any photos of the interior of the "exclusive" areas of the hall because I was too cheap to buy the 3Euro photo license, that I now regret not getting. The Municipal House is a stunning example of extravagance in the 18th century and stands as an iconic monument to the heroes of Czech history. I highly recommend anyone who's interested in seeing something artistic, architectural, cultural and historical in a few rooms that are not seen by many people.

The rest of the night was pretty laid back as we decided to take it easy. I shopped at Lidl, a local (German discount chain) grocery market a few steps down from our hotel. I had fun buying a few drinks and snacks that seemed pretty weird. (Those who know me, understand that I am an adventurist when it comes to food and that I love trying things especially when I have no idea what it is). One of the most interesting finds is some flavoured drink that I think is Jasmine? or Chrysanthemum flavoured water (Korunni Lipovy Kvet-Jemne Perliva).

For dinner, we decided to stay near home and just eat at the Cafe Imperial restaurant inside our hotel. The highlights: the daily special - Duck Breast with Lentil Ragout and Orange Sauce, and the Veal Schnitzel with the best mashed potato I've ever had.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 5 - Prague Day 2

Today is a free day so we decided to take it easy and go for a later breakfast and started the day late at 11am. We took the tram at Náměstí Republiky (or Republic Square, yay I'm learning Czech!) and took it all the way to Staroměstská by the Rudolfinum concert hall. We walked along the Vltava River towards the historic Charles Bridge. The bridge is lined with old statues and has a distant view of the city's most famous building, Prague Castle in the Hradčany, Castle District.

Crossing the bridge and the Vltava river, we walked the cobblestone streets (though to be fair, the entire city core is cobblestone), to the Panny Marie Vitezne, a Catholic church. We then walked to St. Nicolas Church, though we didn't go in, we just took a view of the square outside the church. We then proceeded to the Valdštejnská zahrada(Valdstejnska Garden) where we spent probably a good hour just taking photos and taking in the garden's natural beauty. There is a stage where the Senate takes place, as well as a few fountains, garden paths created by hedgerows, a really strange rock wall formation, and peacocks!

We passed by a flag statue, probably a remembrance to World War 2 and then crossed back over the Vltava on a different bridge this time, over the Manesuv Most, back to the Rudolfinum. There were several people trying to promote the concert taking place there. I was actually interested because the programme included Mozart and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, music that I have listened to in a course I took before of Music Appreciation. Having that experience has given me a more in-depth understanding and appreciation (Duh, haha) of classical music.

Getting back on the tram (133) we rode back to Náměstí Republiky. Before returning back to the hotel to take a rest. I stopped by the Palladium mall and tried out some local ice cream. The cherry flavour definitely tastes good and is a signature flavour of the country. I also go to try something called bildberry, which tasted great. A little sour, and reminiscent of another flavour, but I just can't remember what. I also tried out some coffee chain, Costa Coffee, (that I thought was a Czech brand) to try out an iced latte. The coffee was alright. I got it plain, so it wasn't sweet enough, not like the standard Starbucks latte.

Our evening was spent at the Folklore Garden where we experienced what I assume is classic Czech folk dance and folk music. We were greeted with a shot of honey wine at the "folk garden" which seemed too elaborate of being a tourist trap. For the price of 50Euro a person, I think it was a tad bit pricey for what we got. The food was alright: unlimited beer (Staropramen), unlimited red/white wine (both terrible), bread, potato soup, meat platter, coffee + cake. The entertainment of the "band", a trio of violinist, bass, and some kind of stringed percussion instrument, paired alternating with a singer and a pair of dancers.
I guess it wasn't too bad. I had some fun joining in to dance the Mazurka, but I wasn't really blown away with the value of the entertainment and the food; I think I would have been more happy just sitting at a restaurant/cafe in the Old Town.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 4 - Prague

Airport day! New city day! New country day!

Schiphol Airport is definitely one of my favourite airports I've been in as the feel of the airport has an air of relaxation that embodies the Dutch concept of 'gezellig'. The stores sell interesting products in an atmosphere where time doesn't seem to move with the modern architecture. As a culture steeped in a long history and culture of design, Schiphol's strong use of information design comes out very distinctly. As a student of design, I'm always excited in seeing examples of design that works and Schiphol really has some unique choices of colour, information hierarchy, and symbol design.

Today, we got to Schiphol airport in the morning to take our 1140 flight to Prague on KL1355. The flight wasn't too strenuous as it was only about 1.5 hours. Post-flight after arriving at Praha Airport, problems arose as my sister's luggage didn't arrive. (The good thing is at least it didn't get lost though, and KLM has said that the luggage will arrive tomorrow.)

We took a van taxi to our hotel (Imperial Hotel) in downtown Prague. After a short rest, we went for a lunch nearby at Kolkovna Celnice. All I have to say is that it was delicious. The pork knuckles are wicked. I've been looking for a good pork knuckle for a while now since the only place I have tried them are at German restaurants (not in Germany). The sausages are also delicious! The classic Czech cuisine of different types of porks, sausages, and meats paired with sauerkraut, red sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and breads are a truly distinct flavour of cultural cuisine. (It's a huge contrast with the lack of a truly Dutch cuisine.) Yes. I also have to admit, Czech beer is some of the best in the world. I got to try both of the more popular varieties of Pilsner Urquell, which tastes alright, and the Velkopopovicky Kozel Dark, which is truly awesome and is now my favourite beer.

After lunch, we walked around the old town area of Prague/Prag/Praha (take your pick at how you want to say it). Wow. That's all I have to say. I was taking photographs all afternoon long being truly amazed with the architecture. I'm truly glad that I took IAT 233 Spatial Design with Russell Taylor in the Spring because what I learned about in that course on Jan Gehl's teachings about creating cities for people helped me understand what makes Prague a truly wonderful city. The soft lively edges of the old architecture and unique curio stores, the cobblestone streets, numerous piazzas that are open that create visibility in the space, redirecting traffic so that the people are unimpeded, creating intimate space for people where they can just sit, stand, walk, and relax anywhere they want to.

Prague is a beautiful city with a deep cultural and historical heritage that has created an incredible space that fits into Jan Gehl's definition of a 'city designed for people'. Downtown Prague's Old Town is a perfect example of a pedestrianized city.

We just spent the whole day walking around old town and we didn't even finish seeing it all. For dinner, we decided on opting with classic Czech cuisine again. Pork knuckle, sausage and meat platter, beef goulash, sauerkrauts and of course, beer! Scrumptious! Though if we have it again tomorrow, we might start having problems getting sick of eating meat. =D

I am really understanding a lot about the Czech Republic as I haven't really studied anything about the country or the region before. It's really weird as the Czech has already accepted the Euro but it still continues to use the Czech Koruna as the primary form of currency (although the Euro is accepted in most places). The Czech language is really difficult to understand. I was already started to get a basic understanding of the Dutch language, and trying to decipher Czech has completely baffled me.

The cost of living seems to be a little lower here in Prague compared to the other European cities of London, Paris and Amsterdam. It's good to see lower prices for food. =P But I am also quite impressed at the lack of homeless people and shady individuals on the streets as opposed to Paris. It definitely creates a safer (feeling, at least) environment and that makes a huge impact at the psychological level.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 3 Amsterdam - Van Gogh Museum and Canal Cruise

Today was a late start and we didn't hit all the things we wanted to go to (mostly me, as I wasn't able to hit any of the locations I had on my list.
We started off with the hop-on/hop-off city tour on one of the companies that run red buses circling Amsterdam. We stopped off at Museumplein and took a walk around the square and took some pictures before we went (and lined up) for the Van Gogh Museum. I would have rather preferred going to the Stedelijk museum as I'm more interested in modern art, but I couldn't really just leave the rest of my family.

We were there for a lot longer than I was expecting. There are 4 floors + an extension area of Van Gogh's paintings as well as of some other artists that influenced Van Gogh. It's definitely something worth checking out if you're a fan of impressionist art or of Vincent van Gogh. I didn't really appreciate it as much as I haven't really studied his work that deeply.

After the Van Gogh museum, it was already really late. I was hoping to check out Droog, but that was totally out of the question at that point. We decided to head over to the Stadhouderskade outside the Heineken Experience where we hopped on to Amsterdam Canal Cruises' 75 minute long cruise of Amsterdam. It was definitely great to get to do this as I wasn't able to do it when I was here last year.
After we got off, the weather was being uncooperative and erratic as like the past few days and the flashes of rain are really annoying. We decided to go for an early dinner. As we got off the cruise where we got on by the Heineken Experience, I thought it would be a good idea to head towards the De Pijp neighbourhood. We were already planning on checking out the Albert Cuyp Market, but by the time we arrived, the market was already closed and in the process of being cleaned up. Disappointed, and still the rain starting to pick up, we just roamed the De Pijp area for a good restaurant. I checked out a place I was searching for the last time I was here called Warung Marlon since I was hoping to try Surinamese food. Unfortunately, it was closed last time, and apparently also now as well. Doh.

We ended up at a bar/pub called Het Paardje. The food was awesome! We all ended up with something, but we tried a lot of local dishes like Bitterballen and something called Grillworst. There was also a really awesome beef dish that we ordered that was the dagschotel (special of the day). I'm not really sure what it's called in English and neither did our waitress, she just said it was beef and she pointed towards a part of her abdomen to indicate what part of the cow it was.

Definitely had a laugh when we asked a waiter of what classic Dutch food was. He asked another patron and all they could come up was the pannekoek (Dutch pancake), and maybe a 'stempel'? Some type of beef stew. I can't really find it online so I have no idea what he was talking about.
We got some dessert afterwards nearby at Yscuypje which had excellent ice cream.

Afterwards, the rain really started to pour so we decided to head back instead of trying to visit the Sarphatipark. Doh.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 2 Amsterdam - Zaandam

Today was great. We went to the town of Zaandam, north of Amsterdam, but more specifically the neighborhood of Zaanse Schans. This area is a more rural region well known for having windmills located on the river Zaan. You can check out more info on the town at

We spent a little more time than usual trying to figure out how to get at Zaanse Schans because we couldn't find the bus stop to get there at Amsterdam Centraal. After a long walk and crossing the station twice, we finally found the stop and got to Zaanse Schans after a 40 minute bus ride. The great thing is, we only paid about 1.25€ for the cost of the ticket as opposed to paying 20€+ for some kind of tour bus.

The weather like yesterday has been pretty wild. Nice blue skies with light clouds, and then flashes of heavy rain, and heavy gusts of wind. We got to take lots of pictures with a variety of different traditional Dutch artisan activities such as a clog shops, cheese shops, antique shops, bakery, and a few others. The windmills and the landscape are beautiful. There are also little foot bridges and wooden architecture that create a timeless Dutch atmosphere in the area. We got to enjoy some local cuisine for lunch with Dutch pancakes or pannekoek, going with a savory ham & cheese, and trying out a dessert of strawberries and whipped cream [pannekoek aardboien met slagroom]. They weren't that delicious, but they were alright.

We were pretty tired from walking (or rather waiting for people to finish shopping), and got back to Amsterdam late in the afternoon.

For dinner, I got a chance to meet up with my friend/classmate from high school, Thomas for dinner. We tried out an Indonesian restaurant that wasn't really that good, and it was terribly expensive. Oh well, it was still good to catch up since we don't see each other that often.

Today was a great day. I'm hoping to attack/visit Droog tomorrow. =D

Monday, August 08, 2011

Europe 2011 - Day 1 Amsterdam

I'm in Amsterdam! Back in Europe again yeehee!
For now I'm just chilling at my hotel at Blue Square Hotel in Amsterdam waiting for the rest of my family to get in. I flew in on KLM 682 from Vancouver arriving at Schiphol Airport at 1030am. The time difference is definitely affecting me since I still think it's sometime at night (plus I didn't get much sleep on the flight). 

I'm trying to figure out what to plan to see as it doesn't seem like anyone has any real plans on things to see here. My preferences are to go check out design places though it's doubtful that the rest of my family is as interested as I am.

My list:
-Cafe Winkel at Noordermarkt (I went there last year and they had the best apple pie I've ever tasted)
-Droog (I went last year, but they were closed because it was a holiday -_-)
-Sarphatistraat 410 / Het Oosten Sarphatistraat offices (As in a few of my previous posts, I had to recreate this Steven Holl building for one of my projects earlier this year and I'm kinda attached to it)
-Borneo-Sporenburg (really interesting canal houses that revitalized the docklands area)

Well, today is being a bad use of a day so far. I should just go catch up on some sleep for now....

The rest of my family got in around 7ish so we just went for dinner and visited Amsterdam's Red Light district. It's a little weird going through that area with family. (Especially considering my sisters seemed to be a lot more excited than I was checking out the girls. Hahaha)