Christmas With an Old Friend

When considering somewhere to take your Southern European girlfriend between Christmas and New Year, there are a couple of approaches which are possible. As I’ve noted on my other blog, Lisbon is a surprisingly chilly place to be in winter, so I’m increasingly tempted to head south, in search of a bit of warmth. But this year, for better or worse, I thought it might be nice for her to experience the frost and cold of a northern European festive period. It didn’t take long looking at the myriad low cost flights available through skyscanner to settle on a place that is dear to me and one that I felt I knew sufficiently well to be able to show her around. We were off to Hamburg, Germany.

So it was that on Boxing day, we found ourselves at Lisbon’s terminal 2, waiting for a gently scheduled afternoon flight with the masters of all things cheap and nasty and cheerful – Ryanair. Due to a French ban on flights going over its airspace if they weren’t scheduled to land in France, it was a long, three hour flight, but nonetheless pretty much eventless. We landed and, this being Germany’s second largest city, we were quickly and seamlessly onto the metro system. Our hotel was located next door to the  Lohmühlenstraße metro station on the U1 line, so within 15 minutes, we were looking up at the hotel – the Novotel Suites Hamburg City, which I’d managed to get a quite ludicrous 45% off of, by booking direct with accorhotels.com . The walk from the metro stop to the hotel – all of 3 minutes – was enough to remind us that this place was going to be A LOT colder than back home in Lisbon. We ducked inside, checked in, found our room, wrapped up VERY warmly and dashed back out to find some food. We were famished!

I was staying in much the same neighbourhood as I had on previous visits, just beyond the Turkish quarter. This is huge in Hamburg, as a great many Turks moved to Hamburg as part of the rebuilding project, after the destruction of the city towards the end of World War II – more on that later. I’ve always found this quarter to be a lot of fun, with mini markets packed with interesting exotic produce, great Turkish restaurants with excellent value food, and Turkish barbers – something I greatly miss from my time living in Turkey. We walked through all of this, looking for something to eat. Ana was not especially feeling like a Turkish meal, so we ended up arriving at the Hauptbahnhof – the main train station. We ummed and ahhed about this restaurant and that, before realising that many kitchens were already closed. When we found that the pizza restaurant was still cooking, we decided to take a seat. It ended up being a great decision, and I quickly found myself with a top class pizza, covered in anchovies and a mug of Duckstein beer – one of my favourites in the north of Germany.

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After this, it was pretty late and many things were closing up, but we decided to see what was left of the city’s extensive Christmas markets. As it turned out, it was really quite a lot! In front of the ‘new’ town hall, there was a small market area, as well as a few others, only selling food on the way there from the station. At the Alster lake, there was a huge expanse of market, draped in eye catching white tents, which we were pleased to find was to remain open for another week. So we could come back later in our visit.

After the brief look around, the travelling – and the cold – were taking their toll and we strolled back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the Novotel Suites are really well kitted out. The standard of the rooms is very high, particularly for a chain hotel and the breakfast – while it takes place in a somewhat cramped area for the number of guests – is a really good offering. It sets you up really well for the day, even with the harsh weather of a north German winter. With breakfast done, we again dressed up as Arctic explorers before hitting the road. The first stop on the first day proper of our trip was a harbour tour. Hamburg’s harbour is a huge place and still remains on of the main centres for shipping of goods in Europe. We had decided on a particular tour company to use, from our city guide map. When we arrived at the harbour, however, we were already too late. So, seeing that there were hundreds of boats doing similar tours, we began to walk up and down the harbour front. We eventually settled for one which was just a little more pricey than the original idea and off we went.

If I had to choose 2 adjectives to describe the harbour experience from a boat they would be ‘enormous’ and ‘bloody freezing’. It was an interesting trip, nonetheless and seeing the cargo ships up close can actually feel pretty daunting. You only have to imagine the effect of a container slipping from one of the cranes and crashing into the water to feel pretty unsettled. The tour also involves a good look at some of the architecture, new and old, as well as the beach section at the edge of the harbour, with its luxuriant houses facing the water.

After the trip, we decided to walk back in to the city to find some lunch. We were grateful to be off the water, away from the biting winds it brought with it and sheltered by the huge buildings of the centre. As we walked down Willy-Brandt Strasse, I realised we were close to perhaps the most poignant monument in Hamburg, the St Nikolai church monument. At the end of July of 1943, the Allied forces began the bombing of Hamburg in what was called ‘Operation Gomorrah.’ The St Nikolai church, which sat at the heart of one of the largest residential areas in the city, was caught in the bombings and all but one tower was destroyed. The monument to this horrific event is the tower, standing amidst the ruins of the church. Underneath, in the crypt, there is a small collection of artefacts, such as stained glass windows, which were removed prior to the bombing, as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition explaining the effects of the operation on the city, as well as the enormous rebuilding projects. I sadly don’t have any photos, as cameras are not allowed in the permanent exhibition below, and the tower, which you can go to the top of in a glass elevator, is being renovated and so the spectacular views of the city are currently obscured. Nevertheless, this is something that I feel no visitor to Hamburg should miss. You can find more information here.

Despite this altogether sobering experience, it was time for lunch and so we meandered our way back into the city centre and happened upon, by total coincidence, a local burger joint, with good quality ingredients and a seriously intriguing menu. So we went in and for the price of just about 8 euros each, we got seriously well fed. I had a bacon and cheese burger, smothered in jalapenos and barbecue sauce with a side of thick cut, home made chips. They had Fritz cola too, which made for a great combination. If you’re in town and feel like a bite, check them out.

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From here, the light was rapidly fading, such is winter in the north, so we decided the last thing to do for the day was to go to the town hall. There was an English tour for us to take in the rooms in what is still the active parliament building for the city state of Hamburg. We had an hour to kill before the tour started, so we wandered around, catching a glimpse of this masterpiece in the city’s main department store:

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One tall glass of delightfully warming gluhwein (mulled wine) later and we were back at the town hall where we found out some interesting facts about the construction, the smart plan to cut the lights across the neighbourhood during the aforementioned bombing campaign that preserved the building from destruction during the war and the fact that the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth II has been the only person to date who has been met on the ground floor and shown up the stairs by the city’s president. Everyone has to climb them alone, to find him! Ana wanted to take one of the chandeliers home until she realised that they weigh four and a half tons each.

After this, still feeling bloated from the burger we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel to shelter from the cold with a bottle in bed, so as to be ready for our next day.

The next morning, after another hearty breakfast, we were off to find out if there were English language tours of the Chocoversum chocolate factory tour. As luck would have it – indeed there were! But we had to wait for an hour and a half. So we took the opportunity to visit the city’s largest Lutheran church – the Cathedral of St Michael. It had a beautiful whitewashed interior, and some very interesting artistic features.

A steaming cup of coffee and a cake later and it was time to go and learn about chocolate. If it sounds like a highly compelling area of study, it’s because it is. It’s a fabulous museum, set up in such a way that you get to see, touch, smell and, yes, taste every stage of chocolate production from the slightly odd, chewy texture of the cocoa bean scraped fresh from the husk to the rough textured but delicious cocoa solid and sugar paste, right the way through to a freshly pressed bar of high quality plain chocolate. You also learn about just how little chocolate is involved in many high street ‘chocolate’ brands, and of course you have the chance to set your own chocolate bar, decorated – in my case badly – with a wealth of ingredients, such as fruit, coffee beans, nuts and more. What really made the event for us though, was our guide. Her English was superb throughout, she dealt with the kids in the group expertly and she clearly had a passion for her work and communicated it to her audience highly effectively.

We left the factory armed with a heavy bag of spoils to take back to Portugal for family and friends and then headed over to the Christmas market for a light snack. We picked up crepes from a stall and strolled back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was a set menu affair at a rather swanky restaurant called the Nordlicht. It’s located across the river in a dockland area called Harburg. As we arrived on the metro, everything was a little bit deserted and it didn’t look like the nicest neighbourhood. But we had a reservation, thanks to a rather excellent deal with http://www.groupon.de whereby we got a 100 euro fine dining set menu for half the price. I’m not sure I would’ve paid 100 euros for it, but at 50 euros for two people, it was a bargain. There was an amuse bouche of beetroot foam with artisan bread and baby tomatoes, followed by a creamed pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds on the top and then a main course of seared rare beef, with vegetables and potato dumplings. Dessert was also excellent as was the accompanying wine. Coffee came with petit fours which we just about managed to get through after eating so much delicious rich food. It’s a place I’d definitely recommend looking up, if you’re in the city.

The next morning was a bi more hurried, with breakfast closely followed by checkout. We’d decided to head off to the botanical gardens for our last morning in the city, so we headed on on the metro towards the neighbourhood known as St Georg. We stepped off the train and found ourselves immediately in the shadow of the Orthodox church, with its highly distinctive architecture. Across the other side of the road, in the direction we were going, was the TV broadcasting tower, dominating the skyline.

A few minutes later and we found ourselves in the huge park in the middle of this neighbourhood. Before heading off to the botanical gardens, we had a walk round the Japanese garden and its lake. It was beautifully laid out. We would have stayed much longer, were it not for the bitter cold.

Arriving at the botanical garden meant a glorious blast of heat as the temperatures are elevated to keep the many exotic plants alive. So we managed to take off our coats for the first time (besides bed time and meal times) during the whole trip. The collection was not the most impressive I’d ever seen, but it certainly had its moments.

And just like that, the trip was over and we were on our way back to the airport. There was just time for a quick movenpick ice cream in the terminal before flying back out to Lisbon. By no means is this everything that Hamburg has to offer, as we missed out the famous reeperbahn and it’s crazy, heady mix of drinking, partying and go-go dancers and more, but if you are considering a place to visit for a long weekend, you could do a lot worse than check out Germany’s second city!

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 3 – Kandy Part 2

One of the best feelings in the world is waking up in a warm place, with a cool breeze, and just a hint of the morning sun kissing your face. So it was, in my corner bed in the Kandy City Hostel, with the fan above me keeping me cool. I peered through the veil of my mosquito net to see that my room mates were already awake and tapping away on their phones. It was time for breakfast. My suggestion was greeted with universal agreement and we headed off downstairs in our pyjamas to eat. Breakfast here was a more than substantial mix of boiled eggs, toast with a variety of jam and/or chocolate spread, fresh pineapples and bananas from the garden and tea or coffee. The coffee was pretty suspect looking, so I stuck to the tea. We sat around, eating, drinking and chatting about what today would bring. As luck would have it, Tom, my Australian room mate, was also keen to go to the botanical gardens, which was my plan. We were also both curious about the tea museum which the Lonely Planet guide had (unreliably, it would turn out – more on that later!) informed us, was very close by.

So, after a shower and dressing, we asked Anthony, the excellent housekeeper of the hostel, to get us a tuktuk to the botanical gardens with one of his friends, to ensure we got a reasonable price. Within 10 minutes, we were hurtling through the long, sprawling suburbs of Kandy, towards the main road to the south west. Some 30 minutes passed, we paid the man a very reasonable 600 rupees and went to find the entrance to the botanical gardens. We were charged a somewhat steep tourist price of 1100 rupees. The ticket seller handed us each a ticket and a colour brochure with information about the species in the garden and a map to the main attractions. The first of these that we found, though, was not on the map. About 300 metres into the garden along the winding path to the left, was a simple line of evergreen trees. But, in their competition for the sun, they had begun to grow in completely crazy, zig zag patterns. It made for a really dramatic sight.

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Just beyond these remarkably competitive trees, there was an attraction that WAS in the guide. A huge, sprawling fig tree. Supposedly one of the biggest in the region. Maybe the world. On the map it looked like a great monster. In reality, it looked less monstrous and, actually, decidedly uninteresting. It was a big tree, don’t get me wrong. But it was not the breath taking goliath we had been anticipating.

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After looking at the fig tree for a few moments and stopping for a quick drink break at a café, we decided to press on deeper in to the park. At the other side of the huge expanse of grass where the fig tree is located, there is a path fringed with huge, towering trees. Moving closer, we noticed the trees were heavy with huge, black, shadowy birds. Every branch holding 20, 30 or more. One took off and, as it swooped across the horizon, I said to Tom:

“Look at the wings of that bird. They’re just like a bat’s!”

After a short pause, and listening to the cacophonous screeching, I piped up again:

“Oh. They’re bats.”

Not my brightest moment in life. But sure enough, there were perhaps 10,000 of these huge fruit bats, hanging in the trees and taking turns to swoop from one side of the horizon to the other, creating a huge din. It was quite amazing to watch.

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Strolling on from here, we passed a wedding, with a truly stunning bride, dressed in an ornate red dress and then came to, botanically speaking, the most interesting thing in the garden. It was a collection of trees which were all part of one organism, with roots growing from various parts of a single trunk. The whole thing was very low to the ground and people were sitting on it, all around. From here, the path curled right to the river, where a flimsy, but quite fun, suspension bridge lurched out over the fast flowing water. The view along it one of trees as far as you could see. A welcome change from the extremely built up surroundings of Kandy itself.

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Back on the path back down the other side of the park, through the palmyra walk and so on, we walked past: first, a group of monkeys, playing. Next we saw huge cows, relaxing in the pasture and then a variety of wild dogs. Finally a host of couples, snatching a moment for a date in a shaded part of the park, away from the supposedly ever watchful eyes of parents, and so on.

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Finally, we went into the orchid house, where they had a quite impressive display of different types of orchids. Finally, we filed out of the garden and went to negotiate a price for a tuktuk to the tea museum. We went to the first guy and he quoted us 1000 rupees each way. We explained that it was nearby and that we had only paid 600 to get there, all the way from Kandy. After asking a second driver for a price, we realised something was up. Were we just being ripped off? They kept saying we had to go in to Kandy, then back out to the museum. But our book told us different. Finally, running out of options and totally lacking understanding of the situation, we resorted to Google maps. And there we saw it. The museum was the other side of the city, in a completely different location to that suggested by the book. Lonely Planet had let us down. With the huge increase in price, coupled with the cost of entering the museum and then getting back to Kandy, we decided to give the tea museum a miss and head back to the city.

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Arriving in the north part of the city, we were pretty starving, so as we walked past, I led Tom back to the Kandyan Muslim hotel, where he had the kottu and I tried something called beef Kabul. This is a roti bread, filled with stir fried spicy meat and vegetables. It is then toasted and covered in cheese, before finally being fried. If it sounds like a heart attack on a plate, it’s because it is. It is, however, delicious.

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With lunch dealt with and Tom heading off to see a man about some elephants, I decided to go for a walk around the large, open-air fruit and vegetable market. Halfway there, I walked past the fire station, where someone started calling out to me. A fireman beckoned me in and proceeded to show me all of the machines and engines, before finally trying to sell me a t-shirt from the fire station’s uniform cupboard, after his boss had gone home. It was a really nice design and I was tempted, but I realised that the replacement would likely come from tax payers’ money, so I thought better of it. After this I took a trip to the fruit market, which had a lovely courtyard in the middle, before sitting down in a café for something sweet – namely another soursop juice and a sweet ball, the name of which I don’t recall. Whatever it was called, it was delicious.

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With my sweet tooth sated, it was almost time for the Kandyan dancing show, so I made my way around the lake, to the Red Cross Centre. As I arrived, there were already a lot of people there, so I made my way to my reserved seat in the third row and waited for the show to begin. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is undoubtedly a show for tourists. But, as the man who presents the show points out, this show, in fact, preserves a number of dances which would otherwise have disappeared altogether from Sri Lankan culture. The shows inc=volved quite acrobatic dances of various kinds, with extremely elaborate costumes, and props involving spinning plates, weapons, masks and were all accompanied by live music. Afterwards, there was a fire show where men first showed their immunity to its power by rubbing burning objects on their skin and ultimately in their mouths.As a finale, the men also walked on burning hot coals. We in the audience were invited to gather round and, throughout the fire performance, you could feel the heat of the flames and the coals very intensely. It was all quite impressive.

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After this I went and met up with my hostel mates at a bar overlooking the lake for a few beers and to watch a bit of the ashes cricket. Pleasingly, in my Australian company, it was the first test in Cardiff and England were really taking the game to Australia, so I wasn’t open to too much abuse. After a pit stop for a biryani in the Garden Café – a really excellent biryani, at that – it was back to the bar for a few more beers, a good deal of chat with a whole bunch of travellers from far and wide and then bed, before leaving Kandy in the morning.

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I relied heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy yours, here:

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