Interrail (Part 4) – Germany

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail (Part 3) – The Netherlands.

We left Amsterdam in the morning of August 8, all eager to get to Berlin. It’d be my first time to Germany.
We arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 3:20 PM and headed to our hotel nearby, it was Hotel Central Inn.

We were expecting the typical hotel building but what we found was a normal building with a big banner on one of the balconies with the hotel’s name, yes, the hotel was one of the building floors only. When we were paying the hotel, since we were saving our cash money (to avoid going to ATMs and paying bank taxes), I wanted to use my debit card everywhere I could but when I flashed the card, “with card, there is no discount!”, the receptionist told me with a very German accent. Our bill for two nights was 120 € and the discount would be 2.5 € but when I said “so, 117.5 € then, right”, she told me: “No, it is 120 €.”. “Okay, but with the discount?”, “With the discount 120 €, with no discount 122.5 €…”. Hmmm, I didn’t like that deal paid with cash.
Only later we realized that by discount, she meant that there is kind of a 2.5 € tax you pay when you pay by debit card. I was used to have these kind of taxes paid by seller, not the client.
Anyway, the hotel was humble, nothing fancy but it did its job, the free internet worked well for us to check the email (in our N900s), the place was clean and the staff, besides some trouble with the English and the initial misunderstanding with the payment, was nice.

Into the City

We then crossed the river and headed to the Reichstag and the beautiful Brandenburger Tor. After a few photos, we walked down the Unter Den Linden boulevard. We eventually left it and started to search for a place to have an early dinner since we were starving but we entered some financial area with everything but a place to eat.

(the beautiful park in front of the Reichstag)

Another weird stuff we found in our quest for food was that it seamed like the city was abandoned, no traffic, few people, silence… We speculated how it would change the next day guessing it could be because it was Sunday but the next day, the traffic and confusion we expected for a European capital never came, turns out Berlin is like that, pretty cool right? But going back to our quest for food, we finally found a sandwich restaurant, we were kinda disappointed because we wanted to eat something more German but our hunger won. We asked the guy for the food in English and after having eaten I risked asking for a coffee in German (I had been learning German by myself for a bit and wanted to try it): “Ich will ein Espresso bitte!”, the guy nodded affirmatively and I asked him in English if I had pronounced it the right way, he’s answer: “You want coffee?”, “Yes but did I say it right?”, “You don’t want coffee?”, “Yes, but did I pronounce it right, before?”, “You wanted coffee, right?”, I realized he didn’t really understand me so I just answered yes and we both laughed about the weird conversation.
Ironically, just walking a bit, now at dusk, we arrived at Bebelplatz, which we still didn’t know this was a famous square (more on this later), but there were a few places selling Currywurst (the kind of thing we wanted to eat in the first place), drinks and a band playing Cuban music. So we went and tried the Currywurst and liked it. The band however, wasn’t that good and there was just a few folks standing there watching them so we kept on our little walking tour. After a while, since it was already night and we were tired, we walked back to our hotel, watched German TV for a bit and went to sleep.

(Currywurst ist sehr gut!)

The tour

Ana (read the InterRail (Part 3) article to know who she is) had told us about NewEurope‘s tours. NewEurope offers free (among other paid options) walking tours in some European cities with a tour guide that describes things in a very informal way, they are the typical cool dudes and make the tours really interesting. Of course, why is it free? Because the guides advertise the paid trips, take you to a specific place to have a water and snack break (which might then pay NewEurope a commission) and work on a tips base so, you should give them a nice tip to your guide.
Having consulted their schedule, the tour started at 10 AM in front of Brandenbourger Tor, we headed there and had a nice breakfast at Dunkin’Donuts until the crowd started to arrive for the tours.

(Helena likes to take me pictures when I’m not aware of… instead of focusing on the Brandenburger Tor behind)

There were two languages for the tours, English and Spanish but we preferred to go with the former crew. Our guide was Chris, from England, and showed us around, starting by the Brandenbourger Tor until Berliner Dom, he showed us many important landmarks and particularities about the city — like the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, the wall (obviously) or the overground pink sewer pipes and the soviet architecture. He also talked, of course, about the Nazis and the Soviets. This was when we learned that the Bebelplatz near which had been eating Currywurst the day before was where the Nazi students burned the books back in 1933.

(the pink sewer pipes and graffiti)

The tour was great and we learned a lot about this city full of history.

The awkward nice lunch

After the tour ended, Chris, the guide, told us that anyone could join him and have a schnitzel for lunch for only 9 €, the best schnitzel in town, he assured. I was a bit reluctant but Helena thought it was a good idea so we told him we’d join in. I readily regretted it when I realized that the lunch crew would be us, an American girl from Wisconsin, Chris and four Hungarian girls who had been flirting with him heavily during the tour… So, we felt like two too many. Also, to make things worst, the restaurant wasn’t nearby like I had assumed but we had to take the S-Bahn and the tram to get there. It was Al Hamra, in Raumerstraße and I told Helena, as a joke, that maybe the guy lived nearby and made us all go with him that far while he’d be at home. Turns out Chris lived 5 minutes away 🙂
Anyway, the lunch started by Chris telling us how he came to Berlin and how it was like to live in there. I was still feeling awkward in there until the Hungarian girls asked us about us and we told them about Portugal and Spain. I noticed they pronounced Budapest just like we pronounce it in Portuguese (sounds like Booda-pesht) and this led to a conversation about languages where Chris told us that he couldn’t still speak German after two years in Berlin and only now he was starting to distinguish the sounds… Before we realized we were all talking with each other but Chris, he was quietly sipping his Augustiner beer. When they realized I was a programmer, they mentioned one of the girls was also a programmer and I told them about my company, Igalia, how it differs from the other companies and about Free Software.
Oh, and about the schnitzel, I must confess I didn’t really know what it was, I was thinking of an elaborate thing or something and it turned out to be, well, a schnitzel, what we call a “bife panado” in Portugal and, while it was good, it wasn’t anything to be excited about, like our friend Chris was.
It turned out to be a good lunch after all.

The long walk

After lunch, Helena and I went to a second-hand clothes shop nearby just to check it out (we haven’t those where we come from) and decided to walk back to Alexanderplatz instead of taking the tram. It was a pleasant walk down the Prenzlaeur Allee where we could see a less cosmopolitan neighborhood. We even entered some local shops like this toys shop that had action figures of Einstein, Jesus and Mozart! How cool is that!? Made me wonder if Berlin’s thugs carry away their crime using water guns. 🙂

(Einstein action figure)

Arriving at Alexanderplatz, we wanted to go further south where Chris told us that’s where the alternative/second-hand shops were but I wanted to pass by Berlin Ostbahnhof to check schedules for the trains to Czech Republic and I assumed it was like 15 minutes away. I was wrong, it was farer that I had thought and took us a bit more than half an hour to get there.

At the train station we had another bit of German language training. We took the chance to finally send some postcards to our families and went into the post office inside the building where the attendant told me she couldn’t speak English but I managed to explain her I wanted stamps. Then, asking the Info desk for the schedule I was amazed that none of the assistants (one of them around my age) spoke English. They pointed us to the first floor and so we went but we entered the wrong office where they finally pointed us the right one which was on the side. I mean no mocking nor disrespect by stating here so many times that almost no-one could speak English, it is simply that I had this idea that in Germany most people could speak it. All the people in the train station were kind to us, the ones who couldn’t understand us made their best to be understood and finally at the right office, the assistants told us the info we wanted.

(nice painting on the side of a building)

After this little detour, we headed south for the neighborhoods with the alternative shops and even though we walked for a while, it was getting dark which meant that probably we’d find those shops closed. So, we stopped by a local supermarket to get provisions for the next day’s trip. It was a big walk since after lunch and we concluded we’re simply not used to those distances, Berlin is just huge and every mental calculation we did by looking at our tourist map should have been multiplied by 3 or something (no, our tourist maps never had a scale…). After this, we took the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz and dined at a kebab nearby.
Another thing we could verify was that the folks who had told us Berlin is a cheap city were right, even though we have lower salaries in Spain/Portugal, the prices of the supermarket goods and food (in kebab places) was not very different, even cheaper in many cases. For example, a kebab sandwich for 4.5 € or a real estate agency selling a 72m2 flat (with 3 rooms) about 15 minutes walking from Brandenburger Tor for 180.000 € (way cheaper than Spain/Portugal).
After dinner, we took the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnof and went to our hotel for our last night in Berlin.

(just outside the Hauptbahnhof)

The following day we went to Hauptbahnhof again and, after an adventurous last-minute platform change that was communicated only in German, we left for Prague at around 12:36.

Berlin really surprised us and it was the city we liked most during the whole InterRail. It is indeed a very special city that we feel it might be a really good place to live.

to be continued…

Interrail (Part 3) – The Netherlands

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail (Part 2) – Belgium.

On August 5th, after yet another train lunch, we finally arrived at Amsterdam Centraal. It was my second time in Amsterdam (the first time was in October 2009, to attend the Maemo Summit).

This time we were not staying at a hotel but rather in the best place of all we stayed in this trip: Ana’s home.
Ana is a friend and a class mate of mine from the University and she had kindly invited us to stay at her place while in Amsterdam. It was really nice to meet her again (now that our group of friends is spread in different countries) and to see she’s doing fine with her internship at IBM and her studies in Vrije Universiteit.
After saying a first hello and just a small catching up — she was working from home that day but she could still tell me “How good you came today because you get to see the gay parade tomorrow!” (more on that later) — we drop the backpacks at her place and headed to the city. The weather was okay and we went for a pleasant boat trip of one hour in the canals (8 € per person, if you’re interested). After that, we went for a hot-dog while I showed Helena a bit of the things I could remember from what Ana had told me back in my first time to the city. Needless to say, the streets were much more crowded in August than what I had seen in October and we joined the crowd, doing the typical tourist things.

(They like bikes in The Netherlands)

(typical Dutch boat-houses)

Later, Ana joined us and introduced us to her boyfriend Sven and we all went to have dinner at The Pancake Bakery. In The Pancake Bakery, you get to choose pancakes with pretty much anything you want, from strawberry and chocolate to chicken and onions, there are pancakes for everyone, really nice place.
After that, Ana and Sven took us for another walk in the city, this time with better guides, of course. On our way to the Red Light district we passed by a crowded block which had a huge party to celebrate the gay parade. We finished the trip by having a couple of drinks in a bar while talking about the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch languages.

(In Amsterdam you may find curious things like this. Ana told me nobody knows how and why this got here…)

Back at Ana’s place, we had a really good night of sleep in her couch. Seariously, it was the best bed we slept in during the entire trip.
On a side note, I also took advantage of having internet connection to prevent another boring train trip and downloaded a book. I somehow thought carrying a book around would be too much extra weight but fully regretted it on the very first train trip. And how would I read the book if I don’t have (yet) an ebook reader? On my N900! Yes, that’s how desperate I was for intellectual stimulus. And the book? A Creative Commons work by Paul Carr, “Bringing Nothing to the Party“. (I might tell you how this experience went and what I think of the book on a separate post one of these days)

The next day we woke up to what I’d call a “breakfast for Dutch champions”! Man, I didn’t know the Dutch had such a variety of tasty, caloric bombs. There was everything, peanut butter mixed with chicken curry (yes, one single product), jelly, cereal and those tiny chocolate pieces that I thought were only used to decorate cakes. They eat these chocolate pieces with bread after a layer of butter. I’m happy all these tasty stuff weren’t available in my childhood or I’d weigh the triple I do today.
After this epic breakfast we left for another walk, the weather was now rainy for the first time in our trip but we didn’t care. I took Helena to visit the Westergasfabrik, an old gas factory where Maemo Summit took place, which is a pleasant place with grass fields and among other things, I wanted Helena to see its kindergarten.
The rain was starting to fall harder and when we were heading back to the city, we saw that in a canal ahead was a bunch of people and decorated boats, the gay parade was starting. Now, I’m not really a fan of the gay parade (I’m not against it or anything, I simply don’t find this or any other parade interesting) but Helena wanted to see it and so we stayed and watched the boats leaving. After that, all soaked up, we went to have lunch again in The Pancake Bakery (Helena really wanted to return there). It wasn’t until around 3 PM that we could find the damned place.
One of the nice things about The Netherlands is that nearly everybody speaks English, even older people. We could approach anyone and they would understand us and answer in a perfect English. All people were also really nice and helpful.

(Amsterdam prepared for the Gay Parade)

(couldn’t take a better photo but here is an example of a pancake at the The Pancake Bakery)

Having satisfied Helena’s hunger for a Nutella‘s pancake, we headed for the train station to ask the schedule of the trains to Berlin. All soaked up for the rain and tired of walking around, we entered the train station to what I didn’t know could happen in The Nederlands. The idea I had about The Nederlands was of extreme organization and order, so, I was expecting the train station to be organized as well.
Entering the train station, we realized we had to get a ticket and wait for our turn to get information but the ticket machine was nowhere to be found. Asking around I finally found it the opposite way of the information area… I got our ticket and we started what was to become a long wait. There were three information assistants but they took a lot of time after answering someone’s questions and calling the next person. This was mainly because they were talking with each other for a while before calling the next number and, unless their job is all about fun and happiness, it didn’t seem like work related conversation. Also, we spotted some people who just waited for an unanswered turn and took that chance to sneak in and get their doubts answered before any of us who were waiting now impatiently. During the time we waited, two of the assistants took a break and went for a cup of coffee or tea, delaying things even more. This is the thing I expected in my country, Portugal, but surprisingly, of all the countries we visited in this trip, The Netherlands was the place where we waited most to get information. At total, 1 hour and a half!
All grumpy and tired, we headed back to Ana’s flat.

That evening we went to do some food shopping (Helena bought the tiny chocolate things) and buy dinner from a local kebab and went back to the flat to have a quiet and pleasant dinner with Ana and Sven. We talked about Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands, the good and the bad of them all, and about particularities in the languages of those three countries; I love Europe and its diversity!
We also watched some old and “compromising” pictures from Ana’s devious archive of our time in University and ended the night watching stupid movies in YouTube and Takeshi’s Castle in the TV. Turns out the Dutch have a sharp sense of humor, which I thought they didn’t but Sven told me “that’s more like the Germans”.

(the narrowest house in Amsterdam. House taxes used to be calculated based on a house’s width, this guy totally worked around it…)

It was really nice to meet Sven and to catch up with Ana now that we rarely see each other so, I must finish this post thanking them for being so nice and giving us such a good time in Amsterdam. We love your couch, and you guys, obviously 🙂
The next morning we said goodbye to our hosts and headed for the train station to catch the train to Berlin.

to be continued…

Interrail (Part 2) – Belgium

This article is part of the InterRail series and follows Interrail – France (the beginning).

We finally arrived at Gare du Midi/Zuidstation, we should have continued in the train to the Central Station but I didn’t really knew where it was, so, we instead took the subway to get close to the Grand Place and our Hotel.

We stayed at Hotel Mozart, this and the hostel in Paris were the only places we booked before starting the trip. For Brussels I had still been looking in for cheap places, yet, all the double rooms were more than 30 € per person and night and away from the center. Finally, with‘s last room thing, we paid 49 € per room and the hotel was pretty cool. It is about 1 minute walking from the Grand Place and decorated in an Arabic style that made it look like a museum (what does Arabic has to do with Mozart remains a mystery to me).

An Arabic fountain in the Hotel

I had passed in the hotel’s street every time I was in Brussels before but never in the Summer. All the times I went there it was in February (yes, for FOSDEM), and it turns out that street can be quite noisy for those who want to sleep but we didn’t really care.
That same night I decided to practice my French with the receptionist and I asked him why there were so many photos of Obama in the hotel’s walls and he told me: “That’s because the boss is American, from California!”. We chit-chatted a bit about whether Obama can change more things. Really cool guys the two receptionists I had the chance to talk to in the hotel.

I don’t know how to explain it but there’s something about Brussels I like a lot. Some of my friends say it’s a small, uninteresting city but I love it there. I love the beer, the sightings, the comic paintings on the side of some buildings, the Grand Place, the fries, Amadeus and of course, FOSDEM!
Now what’s the Amadeus thing above? Well, it is the place you wanna be when you’re starving like we were during our train trips! It’s Amadeus, the Place for Ribs (TM?)!
Amadeus is a warm, dim lighted, vintage-environment restaurant where they serve you spare ribs! So imagine this, you enter this huge place, walls covered floor-to-ceiling by bookshelves (full of real books of course) and you can get to eat huge ribs (I think they are cow ribs, but they could easily be dinosaur’s, I had never tasted dinosaur so I couldn’t tell) along with a nice salad and a roasted potato covered with a tasty sauce. The price? I’ve always paid less than 20 € so it is indeed “a great deal of a meal”!
The music from the 30s set a really nice atmosphere too, together with the dim lights it is like entering another dimension. A dimension that raises you cholesterol and makes you feel bad for not having more space in your stomach for more, it’s just so tasty!
Oh, by the way, in Brussels it isn’t called Amadeus but Amadeo. This year I had to ask it and a waiter told me that it was because there was already a place called Amadeus in Brussels.

An already half eaten rib at Amadeus!

If you have been to FOSDEM and attended its Friday Beer Event these last couple of years, you’re familiar with Delirium Café, a place with over 2000 brands of beer. I was curious to check it out again but this time with less than 1 geek per square meter and I had been telling Helena “I gotta take you there, you’re gonna love the Kasteel beer!”, and she did. What a better way to finish the night after a colossal dinner than drinking a tasty beer such as Kasteel Kriek? For those who don’t know, this is a cherry-flavored beer but with a difference with the other cherry-flavored brands I tasted: it has 8 degrees of alcohol! So it goes in like juice, but the effects are different…
Helena loved it!

We were supposed to stay in the hotel just for one night but we liked it so much that I put my negotiator hat on and talked to the receptionist about staying one more night (I didn’t want this extra night to cost us the original 150 € /night of the room without the last-room discount). So I asked him how much would it be for us to stay one more night and he asked me “How much are you paying now?”, “49 €” I said and he made it easy: “Okay, just gimme 50 €!” and we got our extra night.

The next day we went to the Atomium, I had never been there, and it’s impressive! We stood like 5 minutes on the line to enter and then realized it had an exposition inside and we felt we would spend a lot of time in it (we’re still traumatized by the time we spent in London’s museums), so, after taking a few pictures, we left, as we had wanted to go visit Gent and Bruges.

The Atomium!

Gent is a beautiful city and the capital of East Flanders. I had been to Gent the first time I went to FOSDEM but I went there at night and so, this was like the first time I was there. It’s like our travel guide book said, it’s a nice alternative to Bruges, still beautiful but with less tourists.

An artistic photo Helena took in Gent

Look at how many beers this little shop has (in Gent)

We were eager to visit Bruges, I had watched the movie “In Bruges” which got me interested in the city; the movie is great BTW. So, Bruges, from the very start (outside the train station) to the center square, was simply marvelous. Everything was so clean and so well cared for; of course, the market square was filled with tourists, much more than Gent but it was pleasant. We entered the tower in the square, the same that plays a big part in the movie I mentioned but we couldn’t see how to get up there… Maybe it is because it was past 5 PM.

The tower in Bruges.

Later, while entering the train, I had the feeling that it was first class (our InterRail tickets were for second class) but since there were only us a another couple, we didn’t care to check it out. Then, when the ticket collector came by, he confirmed us it was the first class car but: “You know, don’t worry, this is Belgium, you only need to switch to the second class, there’s no problem.”, he told us with a smile. We did so and we were only 10 minutes from Brussels, so, I guess I can say we traveled first class at least once in this trip.
And how well organized the train system seemed to me in Belgium! We asked for the trips to Amsterdam and we were given a free little book with all the schedules to and from all locations; the information and ticket sales people we talked to all spoke good English; I love the fact that there are no barriers/doors to enter the subway or the tram (and yes, we always paid the tickets), a different philosophy I guess.

Back in Brussels, I had a secret I had been keeping from Helena all day. I had been carrying all day two rings and a pair of earrings in my pocket just waiting for the right moment to propose to her. My idea was to do it in Bruges but I couldn’t find the right moment so, when we were crossing the Grand Place heading again to the Delirium Café, I did it and it was a beautiful moment!

Just before having another Kriek beer in Bruges!

The next morning, we had a very tight agenda. I wanted to take Helena to the chocolaterie I had bought her gifts last February. I cannot remember the name (I remember the location perfectly, it’s all that matters). The chocolates were really expensive BUT, compared to Leonidas and other cheaper brands they totally worth it. Helena says they are the best chocolates she ever tasted!
Unfortunately, the place was still closed and so, we headed for the second place that I wanted to take: Le Pain Quotidien. I discovered this pastry with Victor when we were starving and started looking for a place to have breakfast near FOSDEM. Later, in London, I found also one of these pastries and realized it is a chain, but it’s a nice one. The idea is: you enter this warm place that smells like baking bread and you have long wood tables where you seat near the other costumer; you choose what pastry or bread you want, all organic, of course, and the best is that in the center of the table there are a lot of jelly pots, butter, etc. (In London it was different… you had to choose only one kind of jelly beforehand… not the same thing!)
Oh, and when we were leaving the place we noticed they were highlighting a new product: Pastel de Nata; we forgive them for not mentioning it’s a (very) Portuguese product.

Hmmm, Le Pain Quotidien, hmmm…

After this, we waved good bye to the lovely city of Brussels and went to the train station. Having a little time before the train arrived I remembered one thing, one scary thing… we had forgot to book the tickets from Paris to Irún for our return trip, and chances were the trains would still be full by then. Actually, we had remembered it but we hadn’t decided when we were getting back, so we just postponed that decision. Feeling a bit of panic, I asked the ticket salesman if we could book the tickets from Brussels, he said we could not but he could check the availability for the day we wanted to return; okay, the 15th? No? 14th? Also full? 13th? Not even the 13th!?
What the hell, we are young and adventurous so we put the panic feeling in a dark corner of our brains and headed to Amsterdam.

to be continued…