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Archive for April, 2012

Although we sent out more than a dozen requests, we never found a Couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Searching for a hostel showed that staying there can be very expensive depending on the time of week you go: a hostel with beds for €15 on Wednesday typically increases to €30 on Thursday and €60 on Friday; we left on Saturday. Eventually I found a hotel with cheap twin rooms – €18.50 per person per night – on Hostelbookers.

The hotel – HEM Hotel Amsterdam – was somewhat outside the city centre and we had to take a fairly long tram ride – a fairly long, very crowded tram ride with our bags – to get there. The room was small and basic and hot; the door didn’t close flush to the doorframe and the window was difficult to open and close; it was at least private and, at the price, we couldn’t really complain.

On the first morning – having had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar the night before, not drunk enough water and slept in a very hot bed – I had a terrible hangover and dry-retched several times. Habiba looked after me and then left me to sleep it off and went to explore the city.

Later, we went out together and walked through the Red Light district in the light rain. It was pretty interesting (you can decide for yourself whether I mean that as a euphemism) to see the women in their little window booths. Many of them did sexy dances and poses; others just stood there looking bored; others were on their phones; sometimes they’d knock on the window to attract your attention. They were all at least pretty good-looking – they could easily be models. Later, we browsed a sex shop; Habiba got annoyed when I said I was bored.

The next day, we determined to do some sightseeing, maybe take in a museum or two. I suggested that we walk through the Vondelpark; Habiba was against it. The tram we took broke down close by the park, so I won out in the end. And the park was very pleasant.

Aside from being very expensive, many of the museums had very long queues outside them, so we chickened out of going to a museum that day and resolved to get up earlier. We went to a pancake restaurant and had large, savoury pancakes for lunch; Habiba’s was very tasty – it had cheese and bacon; mine was fairly bland – mushrooms and bell peppers. I should have got a sweet one.

We did end up going to the Anne Frank House. (As Anne Frank was German, her name should actually be pronounced ‘Anna’.) This was a fascinating experience. There is a clearly defined course that you take through the building that housed Otto Frank’s business (which he sold to his non-Jewish employees) and through the secret rooms where the Franks and another family hid out. A neighbouring museum part holds Anne’s diaries and rewritten pages. There are stops along the way where everyone bunches up to watch a two or three minute video – many including testimonies from survivors such as Otto Frank – the only member of his family to survive.

We also bit the bullet and queued up for the Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed trying to pronounce it authentically – not ‘van goff’ like the British or ‘van go’ like the Americans, but more like ‘fon khokh’. Habiba enjoyed listening to and talking about the Dutch accent with its up-and-down lilt and its frequent gutturals; she reckoned it sounded very friendly, which is not a bad description.

The museum held a good selection of Van Gogh’s art and the descriptions included for most pieces gave some good contextual information and analysis of technique. The Van Gogh section of the museum also contained occasional works by other artists for comparison. For instance, there was still life of a vase of flowers and a very similar painting by another artist – I forget who – as well as the actual vase that Van Gogh painted. Up stairs there was a selection of works in various styles from the same era. In another section that you entered from the basement, there was a large exhibition of Symbolist works – many of which were strikingly beautiful.

In the main square, Dam Square, a little fun fair was set up – practically while we watched. When complete, we went on the haunted house mini-rollercoaster. We also paid a visit to the Condomerie – a shop full of prophylactics both sensible and less so. We bought a couple of things. Nothing too silly – certainly no animal- or Big Ben- shaped rubber johnnies.

Besides sex, the other thing Amsterdam is well known for these days is marijuana. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me at all – inhaling the fumes of a narcotic plant doesn’t seem like a terribly intelligent idea. However, I agreed to try some cannabis confectionery. We went into a very smoky ‘coffee shop’ and Habiba bought a pot muffin for about €7. We ate it walking around; she ate most of it – I had about a quarter or a third of it. It didn’t seem to have any effect at first, but later Habiba reported that she was feeling high. I didn’t notice any effect on myself.

We looked at tulip bulbs in the Floating Market. At one point, we past a building that had a big inscription reading, ‘HOMO SAPIENS NON URINAT IN VENTUM’ – ‘A wise man does not piss in the wind’. We took photos of the triple-triangular Homo Monument and of the sex worker statue, Belle. We learnt that the coat of arms of the city contains a shield that bears three Xs arranged in a vertical row; this triple X can be found all over Amsterdam.

On our last full day in the city, we took a ferry from the Central Station just across the IJ (‘ij’ is a single letter, so it’s entirely in capitals – a ride of about two minutes, and a free one. There was a big ‘I amsterdam’ sign – less crowded than the one on Museumplein. We also saw a couple of Egyptian geese with a gaggle of shelducklings making their way through the water. Also nearby was the brand new EYE Film Institute building.

When we checked out, we found that the bill had already been charged to my credit card – which was fine, I suppose. Then we made the long tram journey back to Central Station and caught the next train to Brussels.

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The day after going to Sachsenhausen, we finally spent a day in Berlin itself, and our sightseeing – like the previous couple of days – had a WWII flavour.

We looked around a museum called Topography of Terror that was about the Gestapo and the SS during the Nazi regime. The place is a very modern building, free to enter and has displays laid out in a semi-random fashion. The exhibition has lots of photos accompanied by plenty of text. Reading the main texts gave a good overview of the history of the Gestapo and Schutzstaffel in that era, although I remained a little unclear as to what the SS actually was – police? army? Wikipedia defines it as the Nazi party’s paramilitary wing.

Outside the museum was a section of preserved Berlin Wall.

After some lunch at a Starbucks-ish café, we went to the Jewish Museum. The entrance to this museum is in an old building, but the permanent exhibition is in Daniel Liebeskind’s zigzag modern structure.

It’s not really a Second World War exhibition, although the events of the 20th century certainly contextualise your approach to it, but rather a history of Jews in Germany spanning a thousand years or more. The museum is massive and full of angular twists and turns and plenty of interactive exhibits.

When we left, went dropped by the giftshop and Habiba encouraged me to buy a pair of spherical dice (they function as d6s and have a ball-bearing in a specially shaped hollow inside). We also got some kosher jelly sweets.

Later that day, we bid adieu to Till and went across town to our next Couchsurfing host, Annie. When we arrived, there was no answer, but after waiting outside and ringing the intercom bell for several minutes, there was finally an answer and we were let in. Annie was a middle-aged woman with another great flat that she kindly shared with us.

On our last full day in Berlin, we went to Checkpoint Charlie – with its preserved sign reading ‘YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR’. We spent some time reading the information boards along the street that formed a kind of outdoors museum. Nearby, we also spotted a place that rented out Trabants and, next to it, ‘the world’s largest captive balloon’.

We walked to Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful square surrounded by the French and German Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus.

As we headed home, Habiba spotted a Ritter Sport shop. Ritter Sport is a German chocolate that Habiba bought a lot in Korea, as it’s one of the few good imports readily available. It comes in square bars of sixteen blocks and a variety of types. At the shop, Habiba was delighted to find that you could design your own bar. We chose a chocolate – dark or milk – and three fillings – I got one with yoghut flakes, banana flakes and bits of caramelised almonds. We also bought two kilogrammes of chocolate bars and chocolates for €13.50.

The following morning, we went back up to the central station, Hauptbahnhof, and took our next train – to Amsterdam.

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As we’ve been travelling, so my injured thumb and toe nails have been growing. This how they looked a few weeks ago in Dubrovnik:

The whitish part of my thumbnail is what I had originally thought to be exposed bone. It was under my previous nail and under the scab that developed when I injured it. However, it hardened and I suddenly realised one day that it was growing out, over the rough nail bed. That nail bed is now completely covered, but the nail has grown a little oddly – it bulges out quite a lot. Hopefully, in a few more months, successive nail growth will be more normal.

When I started our trip, I put plasters of ‘artificial skin’ or waterproof bandages on my toenail all the time – often leaving one bandage for a couple of days or so. Eventually, though, I decided that the toenail bed would be tough enough to stand a day’s walking inside a boot without protection. It’s been completely fine since then – better, in fact, as, when it was covered, the skin around my toenail got very soft and sticky from adhesive.

Here are the latest photos, taken in our hotel room in Amsterdam:

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On our first full day in Germany, and on Botond’s advice, we took the S-Bahn (the ‘S’ stands for ‘schnell’ – ‘fast’) train down about as far as it goes to the south-west of Berlin. It didn’t cost that much – a day ticket covering zones A, B and C cost €6.80.

When we got there it was raining a little and we took the bus (as Potsdam is in zone C, this was covered by our ticket) to Schloss Sanssouci – Sanssouci Palace. We queued up for a while outside this fairly small, though lovely pastel yellow edifice – our Lonely Planet book stated that they only allow 2,000 visitors a day into the UNESCO-protected building, so we’d tried to get there reasonably early. We decided that maybe the €12 or so entrance wasn’t going to be worth it; we were cold and our guide book told us the place to visit if time was limited was the New Palace at the other end of Sanssouci Park.

The park is a massive place that contains at least four palaces and various other notable buildings. We made our way down the Main Avenue to the grand edifice of the New Palace – only to find that it was closed for renovations – apparently 2012 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great, Friedrich II, so it’s being spruced up for the celebrations.

We had lunch on a cold, wet bench nearby and headed back up to the other end of the park, passing the gilded Chinese House, various statues – including some of black slave characters looking at masterful Roman figures – and an obelisk, took photos of mandarin ducks while Habiba threw rice snack to them, and went for a coffee in the historic town centre.

From there, we walked to the New Garden, a slightly more modest park, but still pretty huge and beautiful. It was especially beautiful, as the weather had cleared and the was a vibrant, afternoon blue, dotted with a few small clouds. The main sight to see here was Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace – a fairly small, orange building built in Tudor style for a princess.

It is most famous for being the location of talks between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the end of the Second World War. We slowly toured the building with our audioguides to our ears, taking pictures when the attendants were out of sight. Not only did the three parties to the talks have separate rooms, but they had separate entrances to both the building and the conference – the old ballroom.

Walking back through the park, we stopped to look at a swan and some other waterfowl. The swan hissed at us and approached us threateningly. We kept our distance – still taking photos.

We’d told Till that we’d get back by six o’clock, but we were rather later than that – meaning Till’s suggestion of going to see some live music at a nearby bar had to be put off to the next day.

The next day, we again left Berlin and headed north to Oranienburg, site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. From the station, we could have taken a bus, but we chose to walk the couple of kilometres to it. We were confused partway, by roadsigns that went from something like 1.8 km to 2.4 km to 0.4 km.

When we got there, we hired audioguides for €3 each. I gave the man a twenty and he gave me twelve in change. I asked him how much they were supposed to be and he said, ‘€6, and I gave you €12. That’s bullshit.’ Then he gave me the right change. He also took my passport, as they needed to keep some ID for each person who takes a guide. Also bullshit.

Sachsenhausen is centred on a triangular camp area that is entered through a gate building – Tower A – in the middle of the southern edge. The open gate had the famous words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ – ‘work liberates’ or ‘work makes you free’ – on them. The place had been a model for later concentration camps in the rest of Germany. Most of the buildings had been demolished by communist regime after the war and were represented by rectangular areas of broken rock.

The GDR – East Germany – had also erected a giant monument to political prisoners. This memorial had eighteen red triangles at the top: eighteen for the number of countries such victims came from, red triangles from the prison uniform symbol for political prisoners; the East Germans hadn’t thought it appropriate to remember any of the other kinds of prisoners – Jews, gays, Roma etc.

Two barracks – buildings housing the inmates – had been reconstructed from parts of old ones. Each barracks had a bunk room at each end, each containing numerous triple bunk beds. In between were social areas, washrooms and toilet rooms. The toilet rooms consisted of a row of urinals on one side and a row of toilets on the other, not separted by cubicles. There were signs relating how prisoners had just a few minutes each morning to try to wash themselves at the large basins; they included stories of prisoners who been murdered by guards there by hanging or drowning.

Another area, just to the side of the triangular camp – Station Z – was where prisoners were gassed and cremated. Right next to it was a trench were others were shot by firing squad. Station Z was housed in a shelter to protect it from the elements; it also contained a memorial sculpture, in front of which people had left tokens – flowers, candles, or even just stones. The path a prisoner took – entering the camp at Tower A and leaving it at Station Z – represented a kind of course of life from birth to death.

By the time we got round to this part, it was past the six o’clock closing time. We’d spent over two hours there, having arrived fairly late in the day and when we got back to the main office it was closed. With my passport still inside. Fortunately, it wasn’t completely closed – the security office was still open and we re-exchanged audioguides for identification.

We’d told Till again that we’d try to get back for six, but, again, it was much later than that when we arrived, so the live music idea was nixed once more. Instead, Till – who is an expert in Japanese comedy (literally – that was the subject of his recent PhD thesis) – let us watch his DVD of Tampopo, which, while not without its faults, is sweet and funny.

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We took the train from the main Prague station to Berlin at about 8:30 on Thursday morning. The Prague station has a section near the front that I remember from when I was there with my friend Lawrence eight years ago; however, much of it has been redeveloped – there’s lots of shiny red walls and new shops. We only passed through this time, though, having already got our Eurail pass and reservations.

The ride to Berlin – in first class – was fine. Once we arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof – the main station there – we had a few hours to kill until our host was available to receive us. The station is a vast structure, with platform down underground and platforms up at the top of the building, and it’s all open inside, so you can look down from the upper platforms and see the lower ones; in between there are lots of shops and cafés.

We set up camp at a Caffe Ritazza, drank their expensive coffee, ate the little food we’d brought with us; Habiba went and got a currywurst for us to share – a sausage with tomato ketchup and curry powder.

Later we took a train down to Südkreuz (which we’d already passed on the way in) and took the S-Bahn (the city rail system) to Innsbrückerplatz (having determined that our Eurail pass was good on the S-Bahn), where our host, Till, lives.

We were too early – about 45 minutes too early. Habiba wanted to sit on a wall and wait, but I went and found a café nearby and we ended up going there.

When we returned, Till let us in and showed us to his living room – which was to be our bedroom. His flat was reasonably spacious – not massive, but it had a bedroom and study as well as a kitchen and bathroom in addition to the living room.

Once we’d settled in somewhat, Till needed to do some work, so we went out for a couple of hours. We went up to the Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor, in German), took some obligatory photos, ditto with the nearby Reichstag, had a piece of cake at a café in the Tiergarten park.

Next, we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, which occupies pretty much a whole city block and consists of thousands of blank, concrete stelae of differing heights standing at varying angles on an undulating tiled surface. There were a few kids running around through and over the monoliths. While the place is dedicated to the memory of one of the most notorious periods in history, it also functions as something of a playground. Habiba and I joined in, stepping from block to block before they got too tall and scary, then chasing each other through the maze of columns.

Later, Till took us to a restaurant for some German cuisine – I had a dish with noodles, beans, a sausage and bacon as well as a dollop of mustard (which I mostly left for Habiba) and some delicious granules that Till told us were caramelised onion or something, although they tasted nothing like onion.

We were very glad to have found Till as a host. He was a gentle guy, smart and possessed of a dry and slightly whimsical sense of humour. He offered the use of his books while we were there and I took him up on this and read a graphic introduction to semiotics. Unfortunately, he had a cold while we were there and didn’t hang out with us during our three days with him; we did eat dinner with him every evening, though.

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On Tuesday, we had a couple of important goals to accomplish – get our laundry washed (I’d been wearing dirty underwear for a couple of days) and meet our new Couchsurfing hosts. The hostel didn’t have any laundry service, so they told us where to find a couple of laundrettes. We found one eventually – not in the exact location that had been marked on our map – and it cost us 250 crowns (£8.30) for our two largish loads.

For much of the rest of the day, we hung out at the hostel. We’d already checked out, but they had free luggage storage, free wifi and free coffee.

Later, we went to the Sex Machines Museum, which was full of various sex toys, boards with diagrams of sexual device patents, BDSM gear and historical (one assumes) sex-related machines like a pedal-operated contraption with a wooden dildo that was supposedly used by nuns to quench their ardour. There was also a mini-cinema showing two hardcore pornographic films from the 1920s, thought to have been made on the orders of the then king of Spain.

We had a look around the Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, then crossed the river and went up the hill to the metronome monument. Our hosts later told us that the prominence looking over the Vltava and the Old Town originally held a gigantic statue of Stalin, but that was torn down decades ago. While we were there, I took lots of photos, including a fair few of the sky, which looked beautiful.

In the evening, we picked up our bags from the hostel (stopping in the Old Town Square to again watch the hour strike on the Astronomical Clock) and took a tram north to meet our hosts. Tereza and Dan turned out to be a very sweet couple. We met them at a cinema café, Bio Oko, where, if I remember rightly, they’d met while working together.

We had a beer and chatted and then they put us on another tram going further up the hill while they rode their bicycles. We met again at their local tram stop and went to their flat. It wasn’t a big place, but it was very nice; they slept in a loft up above the kitchen, while we had the fold-out sofa. We spent some time showing them my collection of coins and banknotes from this and previous trips. I gave them a 1,000 Korean won note and a twenty pence piece; Tereza gave us a couple of low value Polish coins.

Tereza had work and Dan had university the following day, so they couldn’t hang out with us that much. Habiba and I spent the morning and afternoon at their place, then we walked through the large and lovely nearby Stromovka Park, down to the river and back over to Josefov. We got tickets for the Old Jewish Cemetery for 300 crowns (about £10), which then gave us access to a number of other synagogues and Jewish Museums in the area.

The Jewish Cemetery was crowded full of gravestones arranged in rows, but all leaning at random angles. The interior walls of the Pinkas Synagogue on the same site were painted with the names, birth and death dates of tens of thousands of holocaust victims. The Spanish Synagogue was beautiful inside, the dark walls covered with baroque gold designs. All of these places forbade photography inside, but we mostly didn’t let that stop us sneaking a number of shots – there were no attendants.

We met Dan again, along with a friend of his, and we had a beer and a bowl of soup at a very long restaurant called Lokál. Later in the evening, we did some shopping and made a meal back at our hosts’ home – salad and a stirfry of cougette, leek and sausage.

I wasn’t feeling too well after dinner – due to a day-ling headache, I think – so I was glad when we got to go to bed. Tereza and Dan said they’d get up about the same time as us, but in the event, they only got us just before we left. So we said our goodbyes with us in our warm clothes and boots, them in their dressing gowns, and we took the tram down to the main railway station, where we took our train for Berlin.

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Once we arrived at the main railway station in Prague, after a four or so hour leg from Linz in Austria, we got some Czech crowns from a cash machine and walked to our hostel, the Old Prague Hostel, very near the Old Town. Because they didn’t have many beds available, we had to move to another dorm on our second day. Then we had to check out, get our laundry cleaned and meet our Couchsurfing hosts for our last two nights in the city. We haven’t actually done that last part, yet.

As it was Easter, there are lots of stalls in wooden huts set up in the Old Town Square, Staroměstské nám, selling beer, mead, ham, sausages, bread and so on. It was decorated with fake trees and ribbons and colourful eggs hanging from the real trees. When we arrived there on our first night, the sky was partly cloudy in a very picturesque way – the clouds were limned with peach sunset light. While there, we saw the medieval Astronomical Clock turn eight o’clock; a skeleton rang a bell while a parade of clockwork figures peered out of a pair of windows.

We ate sausages in buns and crisps that were made on the spot – a machine sliced potatoes into curly ribbons and they were deep fried in big, steaming friers. The crisps were tasty but extremely greasy. Afterwards we walked to Charles Bridge, had dinner nearby then headed back to the hostel.

The next day, Sunday, we again had food at Staroměstské nám – some surprisingly pricy mushy potato and sausage and dumpling stuff, and some sweet bread made in spirals on metal axles, trdelník.

We looked around the Salvador Dalí and Alfons Mucha (a Czech Art Nouveau artist) exhibits at a nearby gallery.

Then we walked over to Prague Castle, on the other side of the Vltava river, passing by the Franz Kafka statue by the Spanish Synagogue and stopping at the Senate gardens on the way – where we saw a couple of peafowl, one cock and one hen.

At the castle, we went into St Vitus’s Cathedral and looked at the coloured light from the stained glass windows painting the rainbows on the masonry.

On the way back – after going to a café inside the castle for a tea and a coffee in order to use the bathroom only to find that the café had no bathroom and Habiba had to pay 10 crowns (about 33p) for the nearby WC (when she’d gone there earlier, they had refused to give her change for her 20 crown coin) – we stopped at an absinthe café. It took us a long time to decide what to order, to the evident boredom of the waiter, who gave merely functional answers to our questions, but eventually we shared some absinthe ice cream (they also had cannabis ice cream) and a relatively expensive glass of the drink – which turned out to be very mild and quite drinkable.

We walked back to the Old Town across Charles Bridge and stopped at the shopping arcade at the far end to visit the Museum of Medieval Torture (for pretty exorbitant 250 Kč (£8.31)). This contained three floors (each with three smallish rooms) of torture instruments – stocks, various kinds of shackles, a rack, an impaling spike, the ‘Virgin of Nuremberg‘ – which latter is an iron maiden based on a hoax, apparently, although the text in the museum didn’t mention that.

For dinner, we had chicken burritos.

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