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!

2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 1 – London

Travelling, as a tourist, to 2 capital cities in 4 days is, some would say, stupid. How can you possibly aim to see anything of such places in such a short time? Bear in mind, also, that we’re not talking about the capitals of Liechtenstein and [insert name of small country here] either. We’re talking about jolly old London and Lisbon. Big places. The two trips had to happen together though, for reasons that will become clear later, and so set off we did to my former home, and capital of my home nation, London.

“Can a trip to a city you lived in for nigh on half a decade actually be called an adventure?” you may also ask. Well, in this case, yes, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that I wanted to see family and friends in a short space of time. The second is that I was taking my Polish girlfriend who had as yet never set foot in the UK.

So, after a huge kerfuffle of a last day of work, a further nuisance with a delayed bus to Poznan, in a very snowy, breezy -8 degree evening, and finally a heavily interrupted night’s sleep, at the hands of some monstrously whiney student person, I found myself sitting at Poznan airport at 9am, staring into this beautiful object, which was the only thing keeping me going at the time:

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Once the caffeine was roaring it’s way through my veins, my good lady and I headed to our departure gate and waited for our flying bus, or Ryanair plane, to board. In no time at all, we were boarded and airbourne. The views of a frozen Poznan were quite delightful, too.

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After a couple of hours broken up by attempts to nod off and catch up with sleep, we arrived at London Stansted, perhaps the most boring airport of its size on planet Earth. While making our way from disembarking the flight, we noticed lots of new posters from the UK Border Force, threatening that we may be kept waiting longer than usual, due to Britain’s increasingly unpleasant attempts to reassure foreign types that they are unwanted. Or something. And so it transpired that we were left standing in a closed corridor – more of a doorway between corridors really – for about 15 minutes. After this delightful experience, we were allowed to join the queue for passport control. Naturally, at midday on a Saturday, this was pretty hectic, and we had to wait for another 45 minutes here.

But once that dreadfulness was over, we were swiftly led around to the waiting column of National Express coaches, heading far and wide across the country. We immediately hopped onto one and were whisked into London, via the East. We swept past the Olympic village from the 2012 games and the great stadia, still waiting for their conversion. Past the new shopping leviathan of Westfield Stratford and finally into London Liverpool street. Famished, we walked over to Shoreditch and walked into the first restaurant we found (in this case a “Las Iguanas” – yes I know!) and stuffed our faces. After the meal, we decided to go straight to our hostel and ditch our bags.

Taking the tube to St Paul’s, from Liverpool Street, took a matter of minutes and, as a Saturday afternoon tends to be in this part of the city, all was fairly quiet. When we arrived at the hostel (YHA St Pauls, strongly recommended), we realised just how close to it we were. This was the view from the end of our road, about 50 metres from the front door:

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We were really in the heart of the city, which was great news. The view from our room was somewhat more modest:

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Still, I couldn’t have expected anything else from a room that cost less than 23 quid each, per night, in this part of town.

After a bit of a rest and a drink, we headed out into the early evening, deciding to stroll down the north bank of the Thames towards the London Eye. Walking down the Thames at night for the first time in a long time reminded me of just how blessed the centre of town is for remarkable architecture.Of course the view from the riverside paled in comparison to the views from up in the Eye. As luck would have it, my sister works for the folk who run the London Eye so, having met her outside, we were all able to have a ride on it for free. I’ve been on it a couple of times before, but not for about a decade. It was amazing how much the skyline had changed since then.

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After the jaunt on the wheel, it was time to get some food and, first of all I suggested visiting a tiny French restaurant next to Embankment tube station. So we wandered along the South Bank and then up over Charing Cross bridge. Except, when we arrived, we realised that the restaurant had closed. A great shame. I’d had some of my favourite ever pancakes and delicious tarte tatin in there. But in an effort not to dwell on it, we realised that, as we were very close to the Strand, we would take a walk and find something appetising soon enough. After a few hundred yards, we happened upon the Strand’s branch of Leon. Something that was very much in its infancy when I lived in London and now seems to have popped up just about everywhere. We strolled in and sat down, my sister and I getting through a couple of their burgers, while Ania chose an aloo gobi with rice (after I’d explained what ‘aloo’ and ‘gobi’ were). It was a great meal, washed down with Sagres (Portuguese beer – ominous!) for us and a hard vodka cocktail for my hardcore sister.

After a meal and a chat, the lack of sleep and travel-based exhaustion was getting to us and so we said our goodbyes to Fi and returned to our hostel and were asleep very quickly.

Morning broke in what seemed like a few seconds and we leapt out of bed, eager to begin the new day (and positively starving). We rushed out to the main street, wondering where we might find breakfast on a Sunday in the heart of the city. Almost nowhere, it seemed. Pretty much every restaurant and café was closed. We walked up the road until we stumbled upon the master of evil – McDonald’s. We went inside and ordered breakfast and I rapidly began to realise that while McDonald’s is never a particularly fantastic option, Ania was experiencing the opposite of what British people experience when they visit a McD’s abroad. Namely that the menu is less expansive, less imaginative and generally less good. Anyway, the coffee was decent enough and it didn’t cost us much. So we ate our underwhelming breakfasts and set off for the day.

Thanks to my sister’s working for the Merlin group who run almost everything in London, tourism-wise, we were able to go and ask for a Thames sightseeing cruise free of charge. Not bad at all. We crossed the river at the Millennium footbridge and walked down the embankment towards Waterloo and the boarding point for the cruise. Once again, somewhat miraculously, the weather was pretty excellent. We took in some lovely views as we made our way.

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We didn’t have to wait very long for our boat. It came along, moored up and some VIPs boarded before the rest of us. We made a bee-line for the front/back rows and took our seats. We quickly set sail and were entertained by spectacular views of the ever changing Thames landscape and also by a quite witty guide, who pointed out titbits of information I’d never heard as a resident of London, such as the origin of the boat on top of the Royal Festival Hall and a few other things. Ania also pointed out that the VIPs were none other than Penelope Cruz, her husband and children. I was largely unmoved by this information, but there we go. The boat basically sailed all the way down to the Tower and back again. these were some of the highlights:

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Once the cruise had come to an end, we disembarked and I asked Ania what she wanted to see on this, our last day of her first visit to London. The first mission was the Queen’s house, Buckingham Palace. From Waterloo, there’s no better way to get to it than going right through the heart of Westminster, so we set off across Westminster bridge, taking in a variety of sights on the way.

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What the devil is the London Necrobus? Anyone?

 

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He was a friendly little fella. Though my lack of nuts (no pun intended) curtailed his interest.

 

Walking through St James’ Park on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning reminded me strongly of the time, as an 8-year-old that my brother and I were chased on multiple laps of the pond by a small army of violent geese, hell-bent on our destruction. Fortunately, this day was much calmer and we instead enjoyed the sound of the non-goose birds chattering around the place and small squirrels begging for peanuts from passers by (and often getting them). As we came to the edge of the park, the splendour of Buckingham Palace appeared in front of us and, in spite of its rather ugly architecture, it was a treat for Ania to see it in the flesh. We stopped to take some photos and then headed out across Green Park to take in Piccadilly Circus, the next stop on our tour. A short stop on the way in Pret for a sandwich lunch, led to the discovery of a new addiction for my girlfriend – ginger beer. That most British of drinks which is totally unavailable, at least in our region of Poland was a bit of a mind blowing experience – and rightly so!

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After Piccadilly and so on, we headed past the Sherlock Holmes Museum and London Zoo over to Camden, where I used to live a few years back. Here we met a friend of mine at the ever busy lock. At the 3rd attempt we managed to happen upon a bar with a free table where we could sit and drink a coffee and have a good catch up (after about 3 years!). The final stop on our long and winding route was, mercifully, taken on a London bus. From Euston station out to Stoke Newington, where we were greeted by one of my closest friends who led us off for a top class fish and chip supper (with ginger beer). We stuck around, laughing and joking on Stoke Newington High Street, having a pint – Ania trying her first “real” cider and being quizzed by the locals about why we live in Poland, and so on. After a couple hours there, it was back to our hotel and to bed before the next day’s early flight to Lisbon.

Waking up at 5 is always a horrible task, never more so than on holiday. Luckily for me, as there’s no hope for my face, I don’t need make up or anything like that, so I slept for an extra hour while Ania got ready. But at 7, bleary eyed, we went out to the mini market on the edge of the City Thameslink station and bought some cinnamon whirls and coffee to sustain us through the pleasant train journey to Luton. Almost the instant the train left London though, the rain started. It was going to be a seriously grey day. Still, we arrived at Luton with 2 hours to wait for our flight. We sat. We watched. We talked and, finally, we boarded and took off to our next destination.