Friday, December 31, 2010

Roll on, 2011

It was a great travel year.

April: Prague, Dresden

May: Kiev, Lviv

June: Several trips around the Black Sea

July: Vienna, Bratislava, Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague

September: Moscow

November: Istanbul

December: Milan, Cologne, Munich, Karlsruhe... and still on the road as I enter 2011!

Not to be omitted are the 160km per day 5 days a week that I commuted 10 months of this year... But that is over with and what remains for now is pleasure travel! Roll on, 2011. :D

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Day 4-6: Experiencing Cologne and awesome day in Munich

Amazing how expensive public transportation in Germany is. In Cologne, a ride longer than 4 stops is going to cost you all of 2.4 Euro. A day pass (and that means until 3am next morning, not 24h) will take out 7.1 Euro out of your wallet. That’s enough for a wine, some fruit, camembert and brie, for instance. Or in Russia that would get you through a not very long café visit.

For some reason, a day pass in Munich is cheaper which is surprising it as it is considered to be Germany’s most expensive city.

Nevertheless… my two remaining days in Cologne were quite great. First of all, a whole lot of walking around (and saving money on the way, ho ho!). The thing that immediately springs to eye is the sales have started – tons of people shuffling around, looking for good deals on clothes, Christmas decorations and the like. Actually it was pretty hard to maneuver those crowds. Upon entering a store, it was obvious things weren’t much better inside, so I decided to leave shopping for when I’m finally in Berlin.

In the evening my CS host and I went out to see The Tourist in a movie theater with home-like atmosphere (I thought) and greatly positioned comfortable seats, some rows are 45* to one another with big space between them, so it lets your legs be free in doing whatever they please. The Tourist itself is not a great movie, however if one enjoys travel and particularly Venice and Paris, then it’s pretty eyecandy.

The next day I visited the Ludwigsmuseum that has several on-going exhibitions including Australian art (my least favorite section), some XIX-XX centuries photography, Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, Roy Liechtenstein, a Mark Rothko and some other contemporary artists. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are into modern art, but I suggest you skip the Australian part.

In the evening we had a nice dinner in one of the joints down Zülpicher strasse, I just happened to eat a Funghi pizza yet again (sometimes I’m pretty close-minded when it comes to food, my choice mostly fluctuates between a mushroom pizza, a tiramisu an apple strudel). To top it off, I ordered a Kölsch yet again and even drank with gusto. All in all, Cologne makes an impression of a lively modern city with a variety of things to do and is definitely worth visiting and perhaps for some also worth coming back to.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day 2-3: Second day in Milan, Italy + arrival in Cologne, Germany

After the generous and humungous Christmas dinner that we had on December 24, everybody slept in and crawled downstairs only at about 11am. So did the four hungry cats who immediately received their treat for the morning.

After a long and rushless brunch I set off to walk around Milan again - this time the rain thankfully decided to stop for a while, so it was nice enough without having to talk out the umbrella. As expected (and yet it keeps baffling me each and every time), all stores and most of restaurants and cafes were closed and at first it seemed the city has died out, because nobody was around Santa Maria delle Grazie or Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio at all. It was myself, two Chinese tourists and an older lady of unidentified European nationality.

All of the action was predictably centered around Duomo and neighboring areas, and by action I mean people slowly walking by and gazing at others which certainly had its charm as well. I also went inside Palazzo Marino for a free short exhibition and must say it has a fascinating interior. The same might be true for the building of La Scala, but from the outside it looked like any other building you would just pass by without giving it a second glance. That's exactly what I did on the first day and only later realized what it was. It's pretty bland looking, much less interesting than the Opera theater in Lviv, Ukraine, for instance.

But still Milan was another opportunity to get to know Italy a bit better and I did just that, mostly thanks to the hospitality of my CouchSurfing host. I should at one point write an ode to CS.

In the evening it was time to leave for the airport and I did just that, Milan Express is definitely a nice way to travel to Malpensa (even if a bit overpriced). My flight to Cologne, Germany was on time and it could easily be the only flight on time in a week or so, because all Germanwings, Airberlin, etc. flights were delayed at least briefly, it seemed. That was a pleasant surprise, and I could not yet again contain my excitement as the plane turned to the take-off strip. Also, it was the third flight in 3 days and all three times I was seated conveniently (KRR-SVO- aisle seat with an empty middle seat, SVO-MXP - entire last row to myself, MXP-CGN - exit row aisle seat), knocking on wood and hoping that Deutsche Bahn will deliver as well.

Cologne-Bonn airport is just a 15-minute S-Bahn ride away from downtown Cologne and a contrasting 2.4 Euro compared to Milan's 11 Euro. Having arrived, I landed in the welcoming arms of another great CS host who graciously hosts in his 30-th floor apartment from where you can see the Dom and basically the entire city. He is a cameraman, so we had nice chats on the subject, he showed me a couple of clips of his and his friends' work as well as some filming locations in Cologne itself.

Next day was Sunday when, by the lovely tradition, all stores were closed yet again :) but the two of us had a long walk around town. The Dom looks pretty great (especially from the Hohenzollernbrücke), is similar to Stephansdom in Vienna and St. Vitus Church in Prague. I had my first taste of Kölsch and although I'm clearly not a fan of beer (except for kriek, of course), it wasn't that bad, especially in a typical German setting on a winter day.

In between shuffling through snowy streets, we stopped by the Ludwigsmuseum and I once again made sure I love contemporary art, so that's where I'll be heading on Tuesday.

The weather was perfect, about zero degrees throughout the day, neither cold nor hot, post-Christmas atmosphere and thus a great day in general. Topped with a viewing of The Inglorious Basterds in German it was just plain fantastic.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 0-1: Leaving Russia is a challenge + arrival in Milan, Italy

Well, I gladly set off on my journey!

I was pretty worried about checking in my baggage all the way through Milan, so I decided to check it in only through Moscow to claim it there and check it in once again. But as luck would have it, Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport lost my baggage in the actual airport and it took them 1.5 hours to find it, because apparently it was traveling around all over the place.

I had a chance to see most of Terminal D though and already have some critique: too much glass and that wouldn't bother me unless sockets weren't only available in a couple of corners around the place (where you literally have to sit on the floor), so if your laptop battery is old or dead, you'll have to surf standing up or and sitting down on ice cold floor. MTS offers free Wi-Fi.

When the second flight started, I felt that common and all-encompassing joy that can only mean one thing: I'm on the road again! Note to self: Italian flight attendants smell divine.

Milan greeted me with rain and it rained through out December 24, too. It was a bit late (about 11.30pm) when I arrived into the city itself, darkish, raining and I couldn't figure out how to read the map, so I stumbled into some bar where by coincidence met my Couchsurfing hosts! That was both weird and funny. And fun.

I dedicated most of Dec 24 to walking around the center (passing Duomo at least 5 times), did some rich people watching, was amazed at how unappealing La Scala is and then went off home to help make and then gobble on the Christmas dinner. In attendance were two Italian gals, one Italian guy, one Egyptian guy, 4 cats and yours truly... A house party in several languages with a few courses, Russian music and Italian hospitality. Great night!

Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pre-trip jitters

My trip is about to start and I’m having last minute jitters.

Of course the weather is a big part of it. Just reading the news online and taking a peek at evening news is enough to raise my eyebrows in despair. I feel for all the travelers who have founded themselves stranded in different parts of the world. Somebody I worked with can’t get out of Texas, Houston (destination: London, UK), a lot of people were forced to spend a night in Frankfurt, Germany or Paris, France. Eurostar queues in England seem to be devastating and there’s no guarantee that they will score a ticket for the date they want.

I just checked arrivals/departures for Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, it appears the same flight that I’ll be taking on Thursday was cancelled yesterday although Milan Malpensa was not closed. The flight from Krasnodar to Moscow was a bit late yesterday as well as today, albeit (and thankfully) only slightly late. Also, just for comparison's sake, I checked Airberlin’s departures for today – none of the flights are on time, some delays are over 2 hours.

My big concern is to take off on time from here. When I booked my flights back in September, 2 hours 50 minutes seemed like the perfect stopover time, especially after 10-12-hour night stopovers that I had on my last trip to Europe this summer. But now I’m not so sure anymore. I also will have to check in my baggage twice, it’s not possible to check it in for both segments (as the second flight is a code-sharing flight), but I wouldn’t dare do that as both Aeroflot and Alitalia are not known for being fantastic with baggage. ;)

Anyway, although I’m not feeling especially perky right now, I’m sure it’ll work out in the end, there’s always another flight, I guess. (I’m going out on a limb here.)

At the same time, I feel great if a bit overwhelmed about the trip anyway. Milan! Cologne! Munich! Karslruhe! Berlin! Oslo! Stockholm! (And potentially also other destinations.) This trip can bring nothing but good experiences, new connections and hopefully friends, meet-ups with old friends, holiday spirit, some shopping fun.

I’m halfway through with my packing. I still have some things to iron (argh) and a couple of clothing items I haven’t decided on (basically the dilemma is, do I want to look cute or warm?). I’ll be taking some presents for a couple hosts and friends and although they look small, all of that adds weight… But what can you do, eh? Christmas is Christmas.

I have said goodbye to some friends already, also a couple of meet-ups are planned for tonight and tomorrow. I’m getting a little bit sad about this (and don’t recognize myself, to be honest), but with all the communication means this days, we’ll all stay in touch maybe one or two will come visit me in Berlin.

Anyway, I hope all’s well with those who are preparing for their trips as well, let’s hope the weather will improve and let us all have a good time wherever we will find ourselves.

Useful reads:
Holy Crap, What Have I Done (Pre-trip jitters)
Preparing to Travel To-Do List

Friday, December 17, 2010

4 tips on packing for a trip

Efficient packing is key to budget travel and especially backpacking. It is by far one of the most dreaded activities for most travelers. Or am I just coming up with an excuse for my own dreading? Anyhow, all of this just feels like hard work:
  • making yourself come up with a list
  • eventually coming up with one (time in between can last between half a day to a couple of weeks)
  • washing/ironing
  • buying some stuff (including presents for several people you're going to see)
  • actual packing
  • agonizing
  • making sure you don't forget anything
  • forgetting something
I guess the last point is optional. I'm usually pretty meticulous and a bit obsessive (once I get into it), so it's hard to forget something. I check if I have not forgotten the most important things (passport/visas + money + tickets + insurance + electronics) at least 3 times before leaving, 1 time on the way to the airport and 1 time once aboard.

There are several online packing list generators that make the process a little bit more fun and the most handy of them is packwhiz, it allows you to create your own list based on several criteria (e.g. weather, destination, gender) and customize it as your heart desires. You can also search the lists of other travelers who opted for making their lists public.

It needs to be said I am not a big fan of backpacks (except for small ones that can only fit in a laptop and a few necessities), I prefer a suitcase, because I'm in favor of staying longer in one place than jumping around between several destinations. I am now in the process of preparing for my 2.5-month trip to several European countries, 5.5 days to go and all the range of clothes is as always a issue. The winter is only three weeks in, but it's already obvious it's not going to be a piece of cake with all the weather challenges it has presented thus far.

If asked for advice concerning packing for a trip, I have a few things to say:

Take lots of socks of different types because seriously, you never how much chance there's of your feet going wet or cold - rain, snow, own bathroom. And it's not great when you realize you have wet feet, and two other pairs are still wet and the other one is dirty.

Considering going shopping on your trip and even have an approximate list of what to buy? Yeah, right. We all know how that turns out. You're more likely to buy more than to buy less, so be prepared to get rid of some old stuff. Normally I'm ready to part ways with at least half of the stuff I take with me on the trip. So be prepared to get rid of some old stuff if you want to fit all new stuff in. You don't have to throw it away either, second-hand shops are plentiful almost everywhere, Goodwill locations less so but possible to come across.

Have at least one go-out outfit with you for... obvious reasons. You don't want to buy tickets to the premiere of a movie or book a table in an arguably posh restaurant and realize all you have is Caterpillar boots and a tank top.

A first aid-kit is a necessity and you probably know your weak spots. Typical first aid-kit is something like this: band-aid, painkiller, nose spray, cough/sore throat drops, if you have prescription drugs, it might be useful to fetch the actual prescription.

My personal golden rule is probably to underpack than to overpack. There's almost nothing you can't buy everywhere in the world especially when it comes to such (sometimes heavy) stuff as toiletries.

Useful reads:
Packing list on Wikitravel
Packing Light on Globotreks

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Off the beaten path: Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

Several pictures from my first trip to Germany back in 2005. October seemed like the perfect time to be there.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Off the beaten path: Gettysburg, PA, USA

While not exactly an unpopular place to visit, Gettysburg certainly can’t boast the same level of fame as the bigger cities of the United States.

Famous, quite predictably, for the Battle of Gettysburg of 1863 and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of the same year, it is a favorite place for American history buffs and students of surrounding schools who seem to be obliged to visit the battlefield with a tour guide as part of their studies.

So what is there to do in Gettysburg, PA, a town with the population of roughly 8,000 people?

First of all, the Battlefield/National Military Park itself, including the cemetery, the Pennsylvania State Memorial, cannons and the like. Several companies offer guided tours of the battlefield. Needless to say, the high season for the battlefield and thus Gettysburg is July, 4 as well as a couple of weeks before and after this date.

Each year the battlefield sees the Civil War Battle Reenactment and being part of it is supposedly not a very easy task to accomplish, you have to be experienced in events of this kind and preferably a member of an actual reenacting unit.

In addition to this, July, 4 or the week after normally sees Gettysburg being the host town for the Bike Week which is quite an event in its own right, it seems not dozens and hundreds, but more like thousands of bikers flock to the town to have several days of booze-filled bliss and live performances, be sure that hotels, motels and campgrounds will be booked months in advance for this period. Also, if your accommodation unit happens to be located on Cunningham Rd, please be advised you won’t get much sleep during the event, since it’s the main road artery for bikers to enter and exit Gettysburg.

For fans of guided tours, there are ghost trail tours available throughout the city. Narrated by ‘professional storytellers’, they are interesting for kids and young adults – however, some grown-up have been noticed in showing a particular interest in ghost tour as well. Many a local might also share with you some stories of their encounters with ghosts of Gettysburg.

Fans of teddy bears, rejoice and prepare to be delighted because Gettysburg is home to Boyds Bear Country or Boyds Bears, heaven for anyone who likes plush. The store is a three-storey barn literally stuffed with bears of all colors, shapes and sizes – it’s highly unlikely you’ll leave the store without having purchased something. Surprisingly enough, bona fide store visitors and notorious collectors are not kids, but grown-up men and women who like Christmas bears, Halloween bears, Nascar bears, baby bears, merry-go-round bears and so on. It’s a fun way to spend several hours. The store has a nice food court (with pastry to die for) and every once in a while a country band will do a live performance on weekends. Triple chocolate cookies are fantastic.

A great place to dine would be Tommy’s Pizza, right in the center of Gettysburg, a family-run pizza/sub restaurant frequented by a whole lot of locals and visitors. In operation since 1973, it’s a good place to visit if you like American-style pizza and subs. White pizza, stromboli and a veggie sub would be my personal choices (for 3 separate meals… hopefully) at Tommy's.

And before I forget:

It seems the best month to visit is September, the weather is not as hot and humid as in the summer anymore and fall starts gracefully in Gettysburg

Located within comfortable driving distance (1-2 hours) from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. Camp David is not far away… if you should dare go there. Gettysburg does not have public transportation, nor does it have a Greyhound bus link, if you choose to take a bus, your nearest option might be York, PA, you can get a taxi from there to Gettysburg ($70 in 2006).

As per personal experience, bike seems like a comfortable means of transportation around the town.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off the beaten path: Karlsruhe, Germany

Karlsruhe is known to Europeans for being the base of The Federal Supreme Court of Justice, it is almost always left out from travel itineraries of people who undertake trips to Germany. However, in recent years it has gained some popularity due to the fact that it was elected to be the host town of Virtual Tourist’s Euromeet 2008. More than that, the idea of VT, one of the first travel-oriented sites and communities on the web, was actually conceived in Karlsruhe.

This town is worth visiting for anyone interested in off the beaten path travel, mingling with locals for a bit and forgetting crowded tourist spots for a while.

The most famous places in town are Schloss, Marktplatz and

Rathaus, the former and the latter two are located within 3 walking minutes from one another.

Schloss Karlsruhe was built in 1715 by Karl Wilhelm in the middle of nowhere (more precisely: forest) as his summer cottage of sorts and later became his residence and the political hotspot of the state of Baden. Initially, all streets led to and from the Schloss, so if you reach the top of the tower, you’ll see them going off in different directions like rays from the sun. Nowadays the palace is home to Badisches Landesmuseum surrounded by a huge botanical garden with a pond and lots of nice places for lunch or rest.

Marktplatz is home to Karlsruhe's most famous landmark, the Pyramid (right across from the Townhall) that was built over the tomb of Margrave Karl Wilhelm. Rather small and boring, it’s worth maybe for taking a single picture of it and walking on.

The street separating Marktplatz and the territory adjacent to Schloss Karlsruhe is Kaiserstrasse which is the main shopping strip in Karlsruhe featuring some very nice buildings, only to be contrasted by dozens and dozens of stores, from Karstadt to H&M, Pimkie and the like (another place worth visiting for charging your card – EKZ located at Ettlinger Tor).

Karlsruhe has one of the best independent movie theaters I ever had the pleasure to visit – Schauburg, located not far from the Badisches Staatstheater (which I would not necessarily recommend visiting, maybe only to get an idea that balet, for instance, is better in other destinations). The program is very diverse and almost everyone will be able to find something suiting their cinematic taste. Every once in a while they’ll have a Sunday brunch with a Q&A with German film directors. The interior is very nice as well. Ten meters away from Schauburg there’s a fantastic Italian restaurant where you’ll have quite possibly the best pizza in town.

Best way to experience Karlsruhe: walk around, sit down for a drink or meal, walk some more, have dinner, have a stroll before going to bed. You might also consider visiting the zoo, located directly across from the main train station. Anyone interested in modern art and technologies should stop by ZKM.

And before I forget:

centrally located Bierakademie is a hit with locals

Baden Baden is just a 40-minute tram/train ride away

Strasbourg is an hour-drive away

the nearby town of Ettlingen (10 minutes away by S1 or S11) has a fascinating little old town, it’s a nice place for a leisure afternoon

also you might want to check out Durlach, one of Karlsruhe’s boroughs and climb 600 stairs to the top of a hill to check out a splendid view of the town

best time to visit, according to my personal experience, seems to be September-October, the day might start off with as low as 6C, but it'll be a sunny 25C before you know it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Introducing Sweden: Kopps, Fucking Amal


A 6-employee police station in a small village is about to be shut down due to lack of work and 4 police officers go to extreme measures to retain their positions.

While the synopsis might not convince you it’s a movie worth watching, you better do if you don’t want to miss out on camp and rural jokes. This film is living proof to the fact that you don’t need to have a huge budget to generate laughs from your audience. The movie features several digs at Hollywood, an odd love story that is both sweet and well, odd and will most definitely have you laughing out loud with certain regularity.

The plot is both simplistic and ridiculous and that’s exactly what’s fun about it. Interestingly enough, the music suits the rural sites like cows tied to poles incredibly well. This film also speaks to those who at one time or another had nothing to do during work hours - think Office Space set in the countryside.

Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love)

Two female teenagers navigate through the late stages of puberty and deal with such issues as peer pressure, trying to fit in, popular vs. unpopular, same-sex attraction and accepting said attraction.

A brilliant production from Lukas Moodysson. Another representation of life in rural Sweden, this by no means is a comedy, but instead a realistic portrayal of teenage angst and sexual awakening. Although this is a feature film, it could easily remind one of a documentary or maybe even of a home video due to the grainy film. But it all adds up nicely to the charisma of the movie which devotes a great deal of time to exploring how important it is to fit in and how irrelevant it becomes at a certain point.

Great acting accompanied by a true-to-life story of attraction and exploration. Worth watching to anyone including those interested in reminiscing on their first love story or relationship.

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