Ich bin in Berlin

Berlin – History Central

(For more photos from Berlin check out the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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The Halfway-Point

This is crazy to think about, but Berlin is the half-way point in my trip. The number one thing I miss after 22 days of travel (besides friends and family) is home cooked food. But putting aside my burning desire for a four course meal, I’m doing all right. I think I picked the perfect amount of time to travel. A month and a half gives you enough time to settle in to the backpacking life, without stretching it to the point where you can’t face another walking tour.

Travelling solo has actually been great. I love being on my own schedule and getting to do and see whatever I want. Solo travel is a very selfish practice when you stop to think about it. I do have moments, often in the evening if I’m bored, when a wave of loneliness will wash over me as I think about all the people I miss from home. But the loneliness never lasts long, before I remember where I am, and the beauty and history of the places I’m visiting overwhelms me.

The giant history lesson

Out of the places I’ve visited so far, Berlin’s history is the most interesting. The city played major roles in the Prussian empire, WWII and the Cold War, so stories literally swell from almost every building, monument and square. I did a walking tour on my first day that took us to a parking lot over the bunker where Adolph Hitler killed himself a week before WWII ended. I was standing there looking at this now unimpressive, grassy car-park, when a wave of realization came and punched me in the gut. All I could think was, history happened here.

And it’s a dark, horrific history. I visited the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a field of more than 2000 concrete blocks of varying sizes. The farther you walk into the memorial, the higher the blocks become until there is hardly any light. The ground literally rolls underneath you. I was immediately filled with this ominous sense of dread and oppression.

I spent an afternoon in the free museum underneath the memorial. In a room called the Room of Names, you sit on a bench while the name of a Holocaust victim is projected onto all four walls. A voice reads a brief biography in German and English, and then another name comes up. It was equally hypnotizing and horrific to learn how so many people had died. The guide says you would have to sit in the Room of Names for six years, seven months and 27 days to listen to every biography in the database.

Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

On my last day in Berlin I toured Sachsenhausen, which is a concentration camp about 45 minutes outside of Berlin. I knew I wanted to visit a concentration camp at some point while I was in Europe, so I signed up for a guided tour. I don’t know how to describe the atrocities that occurred at Sachsenhausen without doing those who died there an injustice. It was bitterly cold the morning I visited. All I could think about was how thousands of people had frozen to death, starved or been murdered in the spot I was standing. It is not the happiest of day trips, but I would recommend visiting a concentration camp if you’re in Europe. Seeing first hand what you’ve only read about in textbooks is always worthwhile.

There is a less-somber side to Berlin. I saw tons of street art while touring around, and there was a giant beer garden just a short walk from my hostel. I happened to be in Berlin for Germany’s national holiday, which celebrates the country’s reunification in 1990. There was a big party and concert beside the Brandenburg Tor. It seemed similar to the celebrations we throw for Canada Day. I ate some German currywurst (a spicy sausage) and hung out until my toes froze.

Berlin Favourites:

REICHSTAG DOME: The top of Germany’s parliament building features a giant glass dome that you can walk around in and see the city. It’s free! But go early or  you will stand in line forever.

THE EAST SIDE GALLERY: The longest stretch of the Berlin Wall that is still standing. Unlike the stretch located near Checkpoint Charlie, this part of the wall has been decorated with street art. Makes a great morning stroll.

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NEXT STOP: Prague, Czech Republic

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The Europe Trip – The guide book that’s not a guide book

DSC_0012I borrowed a stack of guidebooks from the library when I decided I was going to Europe.  I’ve used them to read up on attractions and to figure out what area of a city I should stay in. The problem is guide books are too heavy to lug around in a backpack, so I’ll be leaving mine at home. In order to take some of their information with me, I’ve compiled a master list of the top sites I’d like to visit in each city. I don’t have detailed information about how much each attraction costs or its hours of operation, but at least if I’m looking for something to do I can consult my list and go from there. The best part? My printed list fits on one sheet of paper. Much lighter than lugging 5 pounds worth of guidebooks.

THINGS I WANT TO DO/SEE:

London:
Trafalgar square, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, The Eye, Covent Garden (shopping), Buckingham Palace/St. James Palace in St. James Park (connected), free walking tour, Millenium Bridge (as seen in Harry Potter), Kings Cross Station, Harry Potter Warner Bros Studio

Paris:BenBois_Eiffel_Tower
Cafes, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, free walking tour, Sacre Coeur/Montmartre area (best view of city), Catacombs, Champ d’Elysee and L’Arc de triomphe, Opera Garnier, Jacquemart-Andre museum (an aristocrats mansion), Day trip to Versailles
Tour: Louvre, Eiffel Tower

Belgium (Bruges/Brussels):
Eat chocolate

Amsterdam:
Anne Frank House, Heinnekin museum, rent bike, walk red light district, The Pancake Bakery, Van Gogh Museum, Begijnhof (historic complex)

Berlin:
Reichstag (parliament) + Brandenburger Tor (opposite), Holocaust memeorial, Gendarmenmarkt, concentration camp, Unter den Linden (boulevard of old buildings), Berliner Dom (cathedral), Checkpoint Charlie (berlin wall), East Side Gallery (most interesting part of berlin wall)
Tip: Take Buses 100 & 200 (public buses that take you to major sites in city)

Prague:
Charles bridge, Prague castle

Vienna:
Hofburg imperial palace, Stephansdom (big church with mosiac roof), Schloss Schonbrunn (Habsburg’s summer home), KunstHausWien (museum that looks like something out of a toy shop), Prater (amusement park/ferris wheel)
Tip: Use tram 1 & 2 to circle Ringtrasse (Ring Road) to see pretty buildings

Salzburg:
Festung Hohensalzburg (the big fortress), Residenz (baroque palace), Schloss Mirabell (palace- Sound of Music’s Do-Re-Mi song filmed on steps), Residenzplats (main square), Mozart Geburtshaus (museum of Mozart’s birthplace)
Tip: Salzburg Card (gets you public transit, river cruise and into main sights)
If bored of palaces: Day trip to nearby salt mines or ice caves

Munich:johnny_automatic_foamy_mug_of_beer
Residenz (palace of bavarian rulers) beer gardens, Marienplatz square and the new town hall (Neues Rathaus), Viktualienmarkt (market) right outside of Marienplatz, Hofbrauhaus beer hall for 1 litre beers, the English Garden (blocks from Residence palace- bigger than central park) with beer gardens inside, you can rent bikes from train station, Schloss Nymphenburg (royal family’s summer palace), Day Trip to Ludwig’s castles (Neuschwanstein Castle)

Frankfurt:
Ride the Ebbelwei Express (The apple wine express- historic tram that goes through city), climb the Goethe Turm (Main tower) for best view, Romerberg (Frankfurt’s old central square)

Cellphones Abroad

The Europe Trip – Staying connected

Some people choose not to bring their cellphones when abroad, usually because they want to be disconnected, or because the roaming charges are enough to make you cringe. Not bringing my phone was never an option for me. I want it so I can easily cancel/re-book hostels if my plans change, and so I can make train reservations for my Eurail pass. I just needed to figure out what the most economical option was for using my phone while abroad. I debated three options before choosing to purchase an ekit Global SIM card.

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CELLPHONE OPTIONS FOR TRAVELLING:

  1. Putting an international plan on my phone. Because I don’t know how much I’ll actually be using my phone while away, this didn’t seem like the best option.  I’m with Telus, which has $50 and $125 international plan options. The more expensive plan comes with only 100 megabytes of data, which is 1/10 of what my regular phone plan has. I nixed this option because it was extremely likely I would go over the allotted data and get charged, and I didn’t want to come home to a massive bill. (There is a way to have your service provider turn the data off on your phone so you won’t get charged for roaming, but I’ve heard horror stories of this not working. I wanted complete control over what my bill would be.)
  2. Unlocking my phone and buying SIM cards in each country. This is one of the cheapest options. Basically, you call your service provider and pay for them to unlock your phone ($35 if you’re with Telus). Once unlocked, you can swap your SIM card out for a pre-paid one you buy when you enter a new country. This gives you a local number, so you won’t get charged for roaming. I’ve read SIM cards are only a few bucks, and are relatively easy to find in most cities (Rick Steves says you can buy a SIM card from a vending machine in the Brussels’ train station). But in smaller towns, or in places where you face a significant language barrier, it might be harder to track one down. I am visiting seven countries while I’m away, and I didn’t want to waste time tracking down SIM cards in each one, so I opted for option number three.
  3. Unlocking my phone and buying a pre-paid international SIM card. I went with this option because it was convenient, flexible and gave me complete control over my bill. I unlocked my phone with Telus for $35 and then purchased a pre-paid global SIM card that was mailed to me before my trip. My SIM card works almost anywhere in the world, so I won’t have to spend time searching tech shops for a new SIM card in every country. And it’s pre-paid, so the only money I’ll spend is the money I load onto it.

THE EKIT GLOBAL SIM CARD

DSC_0023I bought a basic global SIM card from a company called ekit. It comes with a $10 credit already loaded onto the card, but I can top it up at anytime. On the ekit website the SIM card is $39 plus shipping, but if you order it through the Eurail website at this link it’s only $31 and shipping is free.

The SIM card comes with a little wallet sized user guide that tells you how to set it up on your phone. There’s also a toll-free number my family and friends can use to call me no matter where I am, at no charge to them. ekit sells data packs, but I opted not to buy one because I’ll be using free wifi in the hostels I visit instead. If I do get lost somewhere and find I need data to look up an address, I can easily turn it on (the rate is $0.39 per megabyte), but I can’t rack up a $700 dollar roaming bill because there’s only so much money on the card to begin with.

The downside to global SIM cards is that the rates for calling, texting and data tend to be more expensive than buying a pre-paid SIM card once you get to a country. Because I don’t plan on using my phone that much to make actual calls, I opted for convenience over rate-value. If I was only travelling to one or two countries, or planning to call/text a lot, I would likely purchase SIM cards in each new place.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

The Europe Trip – Free spirit travel Vs. booking in advance

There’s a reason people are split on this issue. Half the people I’ve talked to say part of the fun of backpacking Europe is being able to go where you please, when you please. Make friends with a group of awesome Aussies who are on their way to Cologne, Germany? Join them! Hear about an 18th century castle tour two cities over? Get a ticket! The city you’re in is lamer than you thought and the hostel has bed bugs? Leave! These are the benefits of itinerary-free backpacking.

This was originally how I saw my trip going. There are hostels everywhere in Europe and people who had been told me I could easily book as I wandered. While this sounded truly liberating, the practical side of me eventually won-out and I decided to book my hostels in advance. Here’s why:

  1. I’m packing light, which means no laptop (it’s heavy and I don’t want to risk it being stolen). I know I could still book hostels at internet cafes, but if I’m only in a city for a few days I don’t want to waste time searching for computers and trolling the web.
  2. I’m travelling solo, which means when I arrive in a city I’ll have to figure out where I’m going on my own. Knowing I have a place to stay will give me peace of mind, and it means I’ll have an address I can head to when I arrive.
  3. I’m cheap, and booking in advance means I get the best deals on the best hostels. I’m budgeting about $30 a night for accommodations. If I pre-book, I can guarantee myself a cheaper room at nicer, centrally located hostel.

DSC_0028I’ve used two main websites to do all my hostel research: Hostelworld and Hostelbookers. I find Hostelworld has better descriptions of what each hostel offers, but Hostelbookers is always a few dollars cheaper. I’ll look up a hostel on both sites before I book.

Are there downsides to booking in advance? Yes. I’m already kicking myself in the but for not allocating more time in London. I found out I have family an hour outside the city I could have visited after I had already booked the first half of my trip. Most hostels have a one or two-day cancellation policy, which means I can still cancel a day here and there if I want to. The only thing you can’t get back is the 10 per cent deposit you pay to Hostelbookers when you reserve a room.

One thing I didn’t book in advance were my train reservations. I guess you used to be able to do this online, but now it’s only possible with certain routes. I booked my Eurostar train from London to Paris in advance to get the best price, but I’ll make any seat reservations I need with my Eurail pass as I arrive in a country.

Things you have to book in advance:

  • Your Eurail pass! Eurail has to ship you your pass BEFORE you leave. You can’t buy a pass once you’re in Europe.
  • Your tickets for The Making of Harry Potter – Warner Bros. Studio Tour in London. It’s a must-see attraction, so book before you leave to guarantee a spot!

The Route

The Europe Trip – Planning the route

Originally, I wasn’t even going to plan a route. DSC_0011-001I was going to book a one-way plane ticket to somewhere and then wander freely from city to city as the urge struck me. This sounded really romantic in my head, but I quickly realized booking some accommodation and transportation in advance might make things easier for me along the way.

FLIGHTS

I opted to fly into London, England, and out of Frankfurt, Germany. I booked my ticket using TripAdvisor, using a multi-city option that allowed me to fly in and out of different places. After tax, my plane ticket cost me $1,232 (that was booking two-months in advanced – earlier bookings might get better deals). My ticket was significantly cheaper than purchasing two one-way tickets on separate occasions. Round trip tickets from one destination (ex: flying into London and out of London a month later) are even cheaper, but I didn’t want to have to return to a city I’d already visited. Opting to fly through two major  hubs, the Frankfurt airport London’s Heathrow airport, also knocked down the price of my ticket.

RAIL

A quick Google search told me rail was one of the best ways to see Europe. All I had to do was figure out which Eurail Pass worked for me. DSC_0025 Travel guru Rick Steves has a great guide explaining Eurail passes, as does the Eurail website. You can get different passes depending on how long you’ll be travelling for, how many cities you’ll visit, and which countries you’ll be in. Three things to note about Eurail passes:

  1. None of the passes work in the United Kingdom, so if you want to train to-or-from London, you’ll have to book and pay for that ticket separately (I used Eurostar).
  2. If you want to travel anywhere in France, you need to purchase the more expensive Global Pass, or buy a regional pass and pay for your tickets in and around France separately.
  3. Passes are not always all-inclusive. Sometimes, when you’re travelling at peak hours, using high-speed trains or night trains, you need to pay a small fee to reserve a seat. Rail Dude has a great tool for the cheap-at-heart that lets you search train connections that don’t require reservation fees.

I chose the Eurail Global Pass that allows for 10 travel days in a two-month period. It comes to $637 Canadian with insurance. This was perfect for my trip, as I’ll be gone a month-and-a-half and using nine of my 10 travel days.

CHOOSING CITIES

This was hard. There are just too many amazing, beautiful places in Europe. I started by figuring out where I absolutely wanted to go: London, Paris, and a big princess castle I had always seen pictures of that I knew was somewhere in Germany. (I’ve since found out it’s the Neuschwanstein castle, outside Munich. I’m going). I knew I didn’t need to see Switzerland, Italy or the French Riviera because I had visited those places during a high school Europe trip. All of that helped.

From there, I asked friends, watched Rick Steves’ travel videos, and typed in the name of cities on Pinterest to find out where I wanted to go. I also knew I was starting in London, and had to somehow end up in Frankfurt. I didn’t want to backtrack that much, so I tried to make my route into a quasi-loop. I got some great advice from a friend who backpacked to 12 cities in a month, and told me to go to fewer places and stay longer. I didn’t really succeed at that, I’ll be visiting 11 cities in 39 days, but I get to spend three or four nights everywhere, which seems like a good balance. Or at least it does now, I may curse my planning when I’m jet-legged and running through train stations…

Anyway, this was the result:

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Why wander?

The Europe Trip – Why wander?

DSC_0018I decided to go to Europe very much on a whim, and very last-minute compared to the months some people probably spend planning. A large part of me going has to do with not being able to cope with finishing school. I graduated from university in May, and by July, I was freaking out over the fact that I wouldn’t be going back in September. I am very lucky to have an amazing job, but that doesn’t make the real world any less scary. I would wake up every day and be like, “What am I doing with my life?” I would worry about what I should do next and if I was making the right decisions. I could not stop stressing about the future. Then, while I was dealing with my post-school freak out, I got two really good pieces of advice:

  1. “Relax. You’re 21-years-old, you just graduated, you don’t need to figure real life out yet”
  2. “You need to just go to Europe or something”

And then it clicked. I looked at my bank account, realized I could travel comfortably for about a month without going bankrupt, and I was going. Just like that. I went on Kijiji the next day and bought a backpack off someone before I had even told my mom my plans. Obviously, I am also going because I want to see all the amazing places you read about and see on TV. But more than that, I really want some time to just be 21, explore amazing places and meet new people. I know one month isn’t enough time to “find yourself,” but hopefully I’ll come out on the other end with new perspectives and experiences.