Hauptbahnof, Reichstag, Berliner Dom, Topography of Terror, Holocaust memorial, Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate, Bundestag, German Chancellery, Bernauer Straße, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Helter Skelter hostel, Kunsthaus Tacheles, Keiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Olympiastadion, Charlottenburg Palace
In June, 2010 I spent three days with friends exploring Amsterdam. Initially I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, buildings, and industry all residing within such a small landmass. Likewise, the first cultural hurdle to overcome was navigating through dedicated lanes of bicycles, cars, trains, and pedestrians interwoven among canals as busy as the streets themselves. After the dizzying walk from the central train station to our hostel, it was made clear to us that we arrived on the day of the World Cup match between Holland and Denmark, that our hostel was actually a pub with an extra room for guests, and that we would simply not be accommodated until the end of the game. I am certainly not complaining about having to kill time in Amsterdam, but at €2+ for a cup of coffee, this proved to be a lot more expensive than I had budgeted. In our wanderings through the city (and vein attempts to be served in restaurants), we observed a clear rift between the Dutch natives and the tourist-supported industries. Yet, regardless of our outsider status, we managed to enjoy ourselves and the perfect weather lounging in Vondelpark and the Museumplein, browsing the classics in the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, watching the monkeys in the zoo, and having a history lesson in the Anne Frank House. Overall, I truly enjoyed the polished atmosphere of a beautiful northern European city, however, I would not soon return to pay exorbitant rates just to be treated like a tourist.
In June, 2010 I spent a few days touring Istanbul. This was my first time in Turkey and the prospect of exploring the world’s fifth largest city in just a few days was overwhelming. The mix of cultures and architectural styles were equally impressive: European, Asian, Mediterranean, and Islamic heritage all in one place. Serving as a the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires, there was no shortage of historical landmarks on my journey around the city. Highlights included exploring the courtyards of the Topkapi Palace, walking across the Galata Bridge to the Golden Horn, marveling at the grandeur of the domed Hagia Sophia, drinking traditional Turkish tea while sailing under the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge spanning the Bosphorus, counting the minarets of the Blue Mosque, descending into the cool reprieve of the Basilica Cistern, and navigating the crowded Grand Bazaar. The friendly hostel staff and evening World Cup matches also made the trip memorable. Although there is much more I have not seen in Istanbul, on my next trip to Turkey I would like to get outside of the city to see the ruins of Troy and Ephesus, soak in the natural hot springs of Pamukkale, or simply lounge anywhere along the Turkish Riviera.
Over a weekend in April, I took a trip with a few friends to Jordan in search of the Holy Grail. Although we did not find the object of our quest, we had an amazing time exploring the ancient city of Petra and venturing into the desert landscape of Wadi Rum. Our journey began with a 6-hour bus ride through the desert from Tel Aviv to the southernmost Israeli city of Eilat on the Red Sea. We spent the rest of our first day snorkeling in the coral reef and enjoying the amenities at the Orchid Hotel. The next day we rose at dawn, crossed into Jordan, took a taxi into the border city of Aqaba, and after some negotiation we hired a driver to take us 2 hours north to Petra. There we explored the ancient city carved into the desert sandstone, took a detour off the main trail for scenic views of old and new Petra, and attempted to capture the scale of the natural beauty in myriad photographs. While riding horses along the central tourist path, we befriended a Bedouin named Abdula who offered us lodging in his family’s campsite. At the end of the day, Abdula drove us to a few roadside outposts for views of the sunset and then onto his family’s land. The Bedouins were very accommodating: for 20 dinar/person (~$30/person) we received two meals, beds, nargileh, and all the tea we could drink. The following morning, we departed from Petra and traveled south to Wadi Rum where we hired a local villager for a tour of the landmarks. In complete awe, we saw etchings by prehistoric cultures, the impressive Mount Rum, sandstone that appeared to be melting from wind erosion, and a monolithic sand dune. Experiencing the massive expanses of desert at high speeds from the backseat of a decrepit SUV was humbling as well. In all, this trip set the record for the most pictures I have taken in a 48-hour period, awakened my appetite for the typical Arabic spice set, and instilled within me a reverence for the earliest human cultures.
The third and final stop on my wintry Eastern European tour was Vienna. Two days and nights was simply not enough time to explore all the sights that Vienna had to offer. On our first day, after a short train ride from Bratislava, my companions and I checked into the hostel and sought out a popular restaurant recommended by the hostel staff. Our dishes consisted of five creative combinations of meat and potatoes, the most grotesque of which was a heaping pile of roasted potato mash, bacon bits, and at least three species of bratwurst, all smothered in melted cheese and served in a shovel. Needless to say, the evening was shot after this experience. We spent the next day on a lengthy walking tour of the city center; sights included government buildings, shopping districts, museums, a free organ concert in a small church, and the Stephansdom–perhaps the most impressive cathedral I have ever seen. Our tour concluded in front of the grandiose Weiner Rathaus (Vienna City Hall) which had been outfitted with an ice skating rink (Weiner Eistraum–Vienna Ice Dream) and fair grounds selling, among other things, hot coco with Baileys–a cold weather necessity. Overall, the trip was a huge success, and for my fellow travelers, I must recommend the Wombat hostel chain.
The second stop after Prague on my Eastern European tour was Bratislava. With less than a third of the population of Prague, Bratislava offered a much more subdued atmosphere, however my companions and I were determined to make the most of our short time in a new city. Arriving on a frigid Sunday evening, we quickly settled into our hostel and wandered out into the city. We zealously sampled the local cuisine in a small establishment recommended by our hostel staff, however, the bryndzové halušky–potato dumplings with sheep’s-milk cheese–had a disastrous effect on our appetites and our enthusiasm. So we retreated to the hostel to sleep it off. In the light of day, we endured the extreme cold and explored the city center. The highlight of our venture was the vast panoramas of the city and the Danube River from the Bratislavský hrad (the castle itself was closed for reconstruction). After this experience, the next time I visit Bratislava will be in summertime and I will pack a bag lunch.
Over our winter break in January 2010, I had the opportunity to travel to Prague with a few friends from my Master’s program in Israel. Praha, Česká Republika was our first of three stops during our week-long tour of Eastern Europe. Though the temperature was below freezing for the entire trip, the Czechs knew how to handle the cold; hot wine, spiced cider, coco, and coffee with regional liquors were available for sale in public squares. Largely spared during WWII, Prague’s traditional European architecture offered mesmerizing atmosphere–a significant change of scenery from the beach-side, contemporary styles of Tel Aviv. In our three days and nights in the city, we explored the St. Vitus Cathedral, sampled the local Pilsner in underground bars, saw a 50-marching band festival from our apartment balcony, and ate more goulash and bread dumplings than we could have ever anticipated. I’d go back tomorrow.
From October 2009 to August 2010, I lived in Tel Aviv while obtaining my Master’s of Science in Organizational Behavior.