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!

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 2 – The Most Beautiful Sunset, Sibenik & Krka

After another 40 minutes on the lovely coach, I was back in Zadar. I jumped off at the bus station and began heading straight into town. It was just after 4pm and the sunset was due around 6:30. I made the short walk down the now familiar streets pretty swiftly, and arrived in the old town with more than an hour until the sunset started. I decided this might be a good time to have a look around at some of the narrow backstreets. Much of the city was destroyed during the civil war in the 90’s and the mixture of original and renovated stonework makes for some very interesting sights.

ImageImageImageHaving meandered for perhaps 45 minutes around the cramped alleyways of the old town, I decided to find myself a spot to have a beer and to read some of my book, while I waited for the sunset to arrive. I found the perfect location, diagonally opposite the southern corner of the harbour, well within the sound range of the sea organ. It provided a relaxing, whale call-like soundtrack, as I sat back in the sunshine and took a first sip of my Karlovačko. I picked up my book and found my page. Before I had chance to digest even a single word, someone had blocked out my sunshine. I looked up and there was an Asian girl. She asked me if I was travelling alone and if I felt like some company. I said that would be nice and we began to chat. She told me that she was a Chinese student, studying medicine in Germany, and that she had decided to spend her summer seeing Croatia. She also let on that she had been in Zadar for 3 days and that she was about to embark on a boat to some islands, nearby. I asked her about the sunset and she told me that I absolutely must see it and that I must also not miss the sun salutation, after the sun had gone down. I had no idea what she was on about – I only knew of the sun salutation from yoga. She explained all about it, and then left for her boat.

By this time, the small crowd of sunbathers near the sea organ had multiplied into something of a throng, looking out to the sea, where the sun had begun its descent and was already colouring the sky beautifully. I paid for my beverage and headed down to join them.

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I found a nice place to sit and, surrounded by at least a couple hundred more tourists, watch as the sun painted the sky in one palette after another. All the while, the gentle hum of the sea organ and the lapping of the Sea of Dalmatia provided a calming soundtrack.

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Finally the sun had retreated beneath the horizon. It honestly was the most spectacular, beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was charged all the more by all the people, of so many different ages and backgrounds, all gathered together to watch it. It was a magical time. Little did I know, that the magic was only just beginning. It was time for the sun salutation.

As I had been instructed, I had moved myself to the blue, electronic-circuit-hatched glass disc of the sun salutation as the sun was dipping below the horizon. I was told that, as soon as the last rays of the sun left the surface, it would light up. I sat down in the middle and waited. After around a minute of held breath on the part of me and many in the crowd, the first lights came on.

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The Sun Salutation is an art installation, made of dancing LED lights, designed to start working as soon as the sun has set. It creates a really amazing, atmospheric effect. The patterns appear to be quite random, with colours phasing from red to blue to purple and much more. It just adds to what is already an unforgettable experience.

ImageAfter almost an hour soaking up the atmosphere at the sun salutation, I decided it was time to head off. I stopped in a few bars on the way out of the city and met a few more travellers. the Garden and The Old Arsenal being particularly memorable. I decided to grab a swift bite to eat and get my head down, for in the morning I was off to Sibenik for a definite change of pace.

In the morning I was greeted, once again, by glorious sunshine and heat that permeated my hostel bed, in spite of the always-on air conditioning. I got myself up and quietly removed myself from the dorm, where everyone else was still sleeping. After a quick shower and, all importantly, putting on some sun block, I was back at the bus station, getting my ticket to Sibenik. It was a route I was very familiar with, as it was just an hour on from Beograd Na Moru, so I settled into my seat and took out my book. This time, I had chosen to sit on the mountain side of the bus, so that I could watch the rugged landscape, opposite the sea. What I didn’t expect, was that after we had passed Beograd and begun the route on the motorway down towards Sibenik, there would be small forest fires, dotted around. Huge plumes of smoke rose up into the cloudless sky, making for quite a dramatic effect. Imagine my excitement then, as I began to see two water planes, dipping down into the sea and dousing the flames. It was amazing watching the precise angles of the pilots and the whole process of putting out the fire. Time flew as I watched this display and, in no time, the bus pulled across the bridge over the stunning bay of Sibenik.

The bus station was a fairly dirty place but, mercifully, almost directly opposite my hostel. I walked up the steep steps and checked in. After ditching my bag, it was straight across the road to the harbour and the old town.

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As you walk around the curving harbourside, you see immediately, that Sibenik is one of these cities built into the cliffs opposite. Almost nothing is on ground level. Looking up, you can see the church for which the city is so famous (more on that later) and the enormous medieval fortress, still standing, in reasonably good condition, at the very top. Between it and the sea, was a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. Time to explore, I thought.

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ImageAbout two thirds of the way up, I began to realise just how steep a climb this was (and perhaps just how unfit I was!). My calves were aching and I was short of breath. I guess the 35 degrees of close, warm sun did not really help. But I pressed on and when I reached the top of the city, just beneath the fortress, I immediately remarked to myself that it had been more than worth it. The views were simply stunning.

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It took me a full five minutes of staring in awe at the view over the harbour and sprawling old town below me, before I even glanced up at the gleaming white fortress, which defended the city in days gone by from the Turks and various other would-be invaders. Once I’d seen how solid a structure it remained though, I had to complete the climb and take a look. It clearly sustained very little damage in the bloody civil war of the 90s and one suspects the condition the fortress is in has not changed for some centuries. There is no roof, but the main external wall exists on 2 levels and you can walk around all of it, taking in an even more incredible view of the seascape and islands below. A solitary flag of St George smiting the dragon flies at the northmost tip of the castle.

DSC_0180 DSC_0172 DSC_0185After this, I began to realise how tiring such a steep climb, in such hot weather had been. Parched, I decided to descend and find a cafe. So back I went, this time taking a different route through the narrow, old stone streets. I quickly came upon a monastic garden, which had been converted into a cafe. It was beautifully tended and had a foutain right in the middle, sending a spray of fine mist into the air, which was cooling as soon as I walked in. I sat down for the very short time it took me to drain a litre of mineral water.

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My next, and final stop, on the way back to the hostel was the iconic church, in the heart of the old city. It was designed by one of the most famous architects in Croatia during the medieval period. Venetian lions can be spotted on the facade, evidencing the patronage of the great city state at this Dalmatian trading partner city of old. The roof, and shape of the building is very distinctive and, despite its small size, it makes a strong impression on you, the moment you see it.

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Finally, feeling like my 3 hours exploring had sucked most of the life out of me, I decided to go back to the hostel, grab my things and hit the beach to get some colour on my pale skin. Arriving back in the dorm, a tall fellow was sat on the bunk below. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out that Dave, as he was called, had just done a more or less identical whistle stop tour of the sights of Sibenik, and was also feeling like stretching out on the beach. So we each got changed, grabbed our towels and headed down to the really nicely designed purpose-built beach, at the end of the harbour. We laid on the beach as the afternoon sun roasted everyone and everything and had a long chat about where we were from, what we did, and what we were doing in Croatia. Dave, a Canadian/Lebanese physiotherapist who was about to go and retrain as a doctor, had the same plans as me for the next day – a trip to Krka national park.  We quickly agreed that dinner that night, followed by some beers, and the early morning bus to Krka was the plan.

We met some German Swiss girls in our hostel, after the sun had gone down and discussed possibly meeting them for a beer later, before heading to an awesome restaurant, right across from the hostel, on the edge of the old town. We went in and asked for the local specialty – shark, with salad and potatoes. It was delicious. The waiter also fetched us some excellent dark beer, quite different from the usual Croatian fare. Finally, he gave us a shot of a traditional Croat liqueur and asked us what we thought it was made from,. We drank it – it was delicious and I was quite sure it came from honey. He assured me, however, that it was made from snake’s urine. (This turned out not to be true and it was in fact honey – the cheeky monkey!) From here, we walked to the strip of clubs, where one of Croatia’s most famous punk/rock bands were giving a free outdoor concert. Their music was dire, so we crept away, discovered our Swiss German friends, and settled in by the water side for a couple of beers. Before long we were back in the hostel and off to sleep, ahead of the next day’s park trip.

The bus ride to the tourist-fuelled village which nestles alongside Krka were 20 of the sweatiest minutes of my life. Absolutely crammed in mid-August high season, and with primitive air-con, to be generous, my t-shirt was pretty moist before we arrived. We walked down to the harbour side, to wait for the boat to the main park area. The boat came quickly and then sailed steadily through the algae green water of the lake, surrounded by trees and small mountains. After arrival, we went to the ticket office and paid our outrageously cheap entry fee and we were in. From the first moment, you are struck by what a treasure the place is, as scores of people splash and swim amongst the stunning natural waterfalls.

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As you walk into the park proper, the beauty, not just of the water features themselves, but of the balance between light and shade and the different land and water life this promotes, is striking. Also of note is the amazing water turbine, set up by the great Tesla himself. Krka, it turns out, was the first place on earth to have a town with lights powered by hydroelectric power. The displaying of the original equipment is a really nice touch.

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At the end of the day, after walking around almost the entire lake complex, we went for a swim in the beautiful fresh water, amongst the fish, at the bottom of the lowest waterfall. It was an incredible experience, and I can honestly say I’ve never swum anywhere so atmospheric, even with so many people around. We walked back to our bus stop and got a slightly less sweaty bus back to the city. Once we were back at the hostel, we realised that the staff were having a party, so Dave and myself, along with 2 Croat girls who were really funny, hung out with the guys, and chatted about everything and nothing, while emptying too many bottles of beer. The next day, Dave was heading to Zadar, as was I, to take the ferry across to Istria and the industrial port of Pula, with its extensive Roman remains!