Sunday, October 17, 2010

Full Day in Berlin

After breakfast in the hotel, we went for a comprehensive guided tour of Berlin. BTW, the Abba Berlin has the best croissant for breakfast among all the hotels that I stayed in Germany, it was soft and tasty just on its own, lovely.

Our local guide was very knowledgeable and we toured all the major sites in Berlin by our coach. The first stop was at the Berlin Wall Monument where the remains of the Wall stood. Actually it was not as formidable as one might have thought and heavily vandalised by souvenir hunters so it is fenced off.

In parts where the wall has been removed, in its place they have put in a metal strip on the ground marking the exact position so you can trace the wall all the way following the strip. A very simple and practical idea to keep the history of the Berlin Wall alive.

Next stop was at the Gendarmenmarkt square in the middle of which stands the Konzerthaus or the concert hall. On both sides, you'll find a church, one the French Cathedral and the other the German Cathedral like identical twins.

The last stop was at the Brandenburg Gate where you can take photos with actors dressed as American or Soviet soldiers and also a Red Indian, supposedly a real one!

Just next to the Brandenburg Gate is the American Embassy, surprisingly so close to the hot tourist spot.

Nearby is the Hotel Adlon; that's the hotel where Michael Jackson infamously dangled his son outside the window a couple of years back.

We learned from the guide that Berliners like to give nicknames to the many monument and buildings in the city. Some of them are

"Berlin", split links of a chain - constipation

House of World Culture - the pregnant oyster

The fountain in front - Jimmy Carter's smile

A kindergarten(?) near the museum island - Pamela Anderson's house, no prize for guessing why.

We were dropped off outside Marche Berlin in Ku'damm and free to roam Berlin for those who have not booked the optional tour to Potsdam. Since I'll be coming back to Berlin later, I chose to walk around Berlin on my own with my wife.

Among the some of the sites visited were the Kaiser-Wilhelm church

The fountain outside the Europa Centre

We walked mainly along the Kurfurstendamm and being a Sunday, almost all the shops were closed and it saved me some euros since the wife could not do any shopping. (Alas, this is only a delay since we came back to Berlin later on weekdays.) The famous departmental store, the Ka De We was also closed.

Today was also a "Bicycle Day" and there were thousands of bicycles going round the city. They were of all shapes, size and types just like all the different riders.

There was also a fund raising event with many vintage cars on show.

Lunch was a simple affair - the famous currywurst at Ku'damm 195. This is German pork sausage drown in tomato sauce and curry powder and served with big portion of French fries. The small shop is tucked in a corner of the building so you may easily miss it; just follow the smell.

We walked passed the Savignyplatz square before heading back to our hotel for a rest before the evening's activity.

This evening we attended a variety show at Friedrichstadt Palace, the largest variety theatre in Eurpoe. Luckily for us, we were able to catch the show as this was the final week's performance before the summer break.

The show (Qi - Berlin's Biggest Show) was very enjoyable being a mixture of song, dance, acrobats, flying trapeze, comedy, ballet, etc. The huge stage setting and colourful costumes were impressive with music provided by a live orchestra. Not to be missed!

Ronald Kwok

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Berlin - first visit and Checkpoint Charlie

We arrived in Berlin in the late afternoon. One unusual sight I noticed was the colourful pipes found in some part of the city and later I learned that these are the water pipes brought above ground since there are a lot of construction work around the city and this will avoid unnecessary disruption to the water supply in case of pipe damage during the work. Talk of German efficiency.

This time we were lucky as the hotel is in town and is pretty new and modern. This is the Abba Berlin at Lietzenburgerst street, a short walk to the main shopping street of Kurfurstendamm, or Ku'damm for short. Also there is a supermarket nearby to stock up your mineral water and snacks and an underground U-station (Uhlandstr) not too far away.

We were ready for out excursion after a rest at the hotel, this was the optional dinner at Ziko's Grill in town. The atmosphere at the restaurant is fun with music and singing and most of us opted for the pork knuckles as the main course. The portion is big but I did not find it that tasty since we are probably spoilt by out roast pork back home. Anyway, it was an enjoyable evening out.

Since it was still bright after dinner, we had an informal bonus tour of Berlin. (The official guided tour will be in the next morning.) The fist stop was at the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament and then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate. Along the way, there are simple memorials for those who died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall as this street was once divided by the Berlin Wall.

The last stop was at Checkpoint Charlie before we drove back to the hotel for a good night's rest. These photos of two young soldiers (one US and the other Soviet) must be some of the most recognisable faces in the world, surely some of the most photographed. I wonder where they are now.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lubeck, marzipan

After breakfast, we drove to Lubeck. Today was a bit chilly but otherwise the weather was fine. The city has a very distinctive brick architecture and this is found in many buildings in the city. First stop was at the Holstentor gate, once the only entrance to the city.

From the gate,, it was a short walk to the Rathaus and the city square. There was some kind of fair going on in the square so there were stalls selling snacks and drinks. After walking past the main shopping street, we arrived at the Marienkirche or St.Mary's Church. Outside the church there is a cute little devil sitting near the wall which is a favourite photo spot.

We then walked back to the main shopping street to probably the most famous shop in Lubeck.

The most famous product of Lubeck is marzipan and the most famous shop selling this sweets is Niederegger. Inside the shop you can find all kinds of marzipan in various shapes and flavours and the display is so colourful as shown in the clip below. Personally, I do not find marzipan that great, maybe it is because I am not too fond of almond, the main ingredient of marzipan.

From Lubeck, we headed for Berlin. On the way we had our lunch at one of the rest stops. Lunch was a buffet but not the all you can eat buffet at one price that we find at home. Here only the salad or side dishes is the one that you can take as much as you want in one helping and there are usually three prices that go according the size of the plate (big, medium and small) you use to pile up your food. So if you are good at it, you can choose the smallest plate and take more food than using the biggest plate.

Another peculiar point to note is that all the glasses used in cafe and restaurants have markings at the side to indicate the volume of the drink served. So you can make a complaint if you drink is not up the mark, literally. So much for consumer protection.

BTW, the food at this rest stop is one of the best that I have tasted in Germany. The goulash is just right as other places serve it too thick and too salty. After a very satisfying lunch, we continued our journey to Berlin.

Ronald Kwok

Cologne and Hamburg

After our lunch in Boppard, we left for Cologne. The main attraction here is the Cologne Cathedral. Since the weather was good and it was a public holiday, there was quite a crowd around the Cathedral. Below is a clip of the external view.

After going round the cathedral, we took an inside tour. You are free to video inside and there is no entrance charge. It is very impressive inside. Below is a sample video of the interior.

We then head for a cafe just in front of the cathedral (to the left with the back to the cathedral) for a rest and a little refreshment. This cafe was very crowded and it serves the most visually tempting ice-cream combination that I have seen, it is Movenpick ice-cream (found everywhere in Germany) but since I was short of time, I was not able to sample it. A very interesting part of the cafe is the toilet. The WC has transparent door but it turns opaque once somebody is inside. See the clip below.

There is a charge of 50 cents but well worth it.

We then continued our journey to Hamburg.

The first stop was at Michaelskirche or St.Michael's church. Below is a view of the church taken off a reflection in a nearby glass building. The idea came from the tour director as the church tower is too tall to capture it all from the side.

From here, we went to the Rathaus or town hall and the adjoining square, a very popular tourist spot. The video below is from the inner courtyard of the town hall.

In front of the town hall is a lake that gives the area a postcard look as can be seen from the video below.

After driving round the city, we went to our hotel, the All Seasons Hamburg. It was unfortunate that the lift had broken down and most of us had to carry our luggage to our room since we did not want to leave the chore to the tour leader and driver. Luckily, the highest was only 3rd floor. The finishing in the room is very futuristic and the shower area is also see-through from the bedroom so it will create a very romantic atmosphere for honeymooners. Also there are two mini markets nearby so very convenient to stock up your snacks and drinking water.

In the evening we had the first of our optional tours. This time it was a Hamburg harbour cruise for 20 euros. I think it is well worth taking as not only is the tour of the harbour area but also through some of the canals in the city. It was very informative and interesting, highly recommended. The first videos shows the boat taking a very close look at the side of a container ship.

The video below shows some of the historical buildings along the many canals.

After the boat tour we had a bonus, a bus tour of Hamburg at night, including the infamous red-light area of Reeperbahn.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Rhine cruise and Cologne

Breakfast at Mercure was just so-so and the food area was very cramp. Anyway, we were on the road to the Rhine valley pretty fast since the hotel was near the autobahn. We were to have our cruise on the river Rhine this morning and as we drove along the banks of the river we saw several picturesque towns, numerous castles and very steep vineyards. Below is a clip shot from the tour bus window. Take away the reflections and the green tint and the video looks pretty good and it feels like I am on tour again viewing it.

We had a rest stop and here we learn that it usually costs money to visit the toilet. Usually it is 50cents and in some rest areas, you get a voucher for this amount that can be used for purchases in shops using the same system. If I am not mistaken, it is called Sanifair and I think the charge is quite fair as the toilets are really clean. Make sure you make use of the accumulated vouchers and use them at the last rest stop that is applicable as they do add up to a tidy sum.

After all the views on the bus, it was then time to board a river boat for the pleasure cruise down the Rhine River at one of the boarding towns. One of the must see item is the Loreley Rock more because of the legend associated with it but I could not see the Loreley statue from this video.

There are several charming looking towns along the way where people get on and off the river boat, St.Goar is one of them.

We finally made land at Boppard where we had our free time and lunch. There are several towns along the Rhine river where one can break journey and Boppard is one of the bigger ones.
The town square of Boppard.

Generally, food in Germany is quite affordable in the many cafes and restaurants in the tourist areas, the main course usually below 15 euros. (Of course not in the high class restaurants that are beyond my budget.) And the portion is big and good enough for two persons if you are not big eaters, like me and my wife. Thus we normally share the meal and sometimes even cannot finish it especially when it comes with chips (i.e. french fries.)

From Boppard, our next stop is Cologne.

Ronald Kwok.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First day of Cosmos Tour

After a good night's sleep, I was ready to start the day in Frankfurt.

The breakfast at Excelsior is pretty good for the price of the hotel, it has both cold and hot items; it even has char-siew pau that morning! One juice that is common at all hotel breakfast is the multi-vitamin juice (actually mixed fruit juices) and this is my favorite drink in the morning.

The hotel exterior

First stop after breakfast was at the Hbf to check out the platform to take the train (S-bahn) to Friedrichdorf to check into Hotel Mercure there which is the joining hotel for the Cosmos Tour of Germany. I don't know why they chose this hotel which is 20km out of town and I can only guess that they can make a quick getaway to the highway or autobahn avoiding the early morning traffic jam out of Frankfurt.

Inside the Hbf.

Next was some video shooting before going into the city centre for some early morning shopping, the wife's favourite activity even on holiday! If you plan to use the public transport, the best deal is to get the group day ticket for 5 persons at 9.5 euro. A single one-way ticket costs 2.4 euro so if you make just two trips for two persons, it would cost 9.6 euro so the group ticket is a very good deal. It can be used the whole day on the train, bus and tram in Frankfurt so it is very convenient. One of the DB lady help me get this ticket from the ticket machine; you just push the right button and slot in your money.

The main shopping street is Zeil between the S-bahn stops Hauptwache and Konstablewache and the surrounding streets. I noticed that many people here are using bicycles and also walking with their dogs and this is generally the case in most parts of Germany that I visited. In fact you should be more wary of cyclist than motorist as they ride pretty fast and seems to have the right of way.

Shoppers at the Zeil

The old and the new

After checking out of Excelsior, we boarded the S-bahn to Friedrischdorf which is at the end of line 5 so no problem here. The only problem was that after getting down, I found that there was no escalator and had to struggle with my luggage going up and down the stairs to reach outside the station. Once there, it was just a 7 euro taxi ride to Hotel Mercure.

The tour director was already at the hotel and checking in was a breeze. The best thing about the hotel is there there is a big supermarket just behind and we did some shopping there for water and snacks. The first official activity of the tour is dinner at the hotel. Surprisingly, there was no formal introduction by each member of the tour so we just get to know our neighbours at the dining table. The reasons given later was there most of the members have just flown in at the morning and after a very long flight, most of them would just want to go to bed as soon as possible. Anyway, dinner was set dinner with no options and it was just so-so, probably the worst among those included in the tour and after dinner, most of us went straight back to the room for a much needed rest.

Germans love to celebrate. The hotel has sent up outdoor barbecue food and drink tents with some light entertainment since it is the beginning of summer and supposedly good weather. So there was a crowd enjoying themselves though it was still quite chilly. I did some videoing before I went to bed. Will upload to youtube later since my earlier video is taking ages to upload.

Outdoor fun at Hotel Mercure

Ronald Kwok

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Arrival in Frankfurt

My main tour in Germany is with Cosmos Tours (based in UK) and the tour stats and ends in Frankfurt, thus I need to arrange my own flight to and from Frankfurt. I chose Singapore Airlines with a transfer in Changi Airport for the convenience though it was not the cheapest; some Middle East airlines are cheaper but involves long transfer times or an overnight stay in the Middle East. As the flight that we were on was only about half full, we were given very good service during the flight. After 12 hours in the air, we finally landed at Frankfurt Airport.

There were many electric doors or gates that open only in one direction so there is very little chance of getting lost in the airport, you just follow the signs. Just a note, at the immigration, my passport was stamped while my wife's was not. Though we ask the officer for it to be stamped, he just asked us to move on (in a rather unfriendly manner); not sure if he misunderstood us or what. Later when on our way back home, the immigration officer was searching for the entry stamp in my wife's passport and he said that it should be there. Luckily, I had put my wife's incoming flight boarding pass stump together with her passport to prove her legal entry into Germany, just in case. So if you come across similar situation, do the same; it will save you a lot of explanation.

After claiming our luggage and making our way to the S-bahn train station down a narrow escalator, we were faced with some unfriendly looking ticketing machines. Luckily there was a DB (Deutsch Bahn, the German National Railway) office for enquiries and for ticket sales so I bought my tickets there to the Hbf, the hauptbahnhof or main railway station, at 3.8 euros each.
I started looking for the hotel after getting off at the Hbf and before I could ask another DB service counter, I saw the ads for the hotel right on the wall above the side exit of the station. It was Hotel Excelsior, just 20m or so across the side entrance of the Hbf. This is the best location for a hotel if you are arriving at the main railway station and it turned out also to be the best value for money among all the hotels that I have stayed in Germany.

In this case, I paid 73 euros including breakfast and breakfast was very satisfying with a good selection; they even have char-siew-pau and siew-mei during my stay! What's more, internet was free in the room, drinks in the mini-bar are also free and they even have light refreshment in the lobby (coffee and cakes) for customers during the day. No other hotels can beat this and this hotel is highly recommended. This may not be in a choice neighbourhood or the tourist area but it is easy to get anywhere with its central location just next to the main transport hub where the S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses meet.

These are the goodies in the mini-bar, 2 of each, all FREE!

(All photos/videos are taken with the Sony XR350E camcorder unless stated otherwise.)

The check-in counter staff was very friendly and after a shower, we went straight to bed as it was about 10.30pm local time so that we will be fresh and ready for the next day.

Just a word about the prices of hotels in Frankfurt, it can go up a lot during trade fair seasons so check when you are staying there as there are many trade fairs throughout the year. You can save quite a bit on hotel bills by just changing the dates of your travel. I chose my hotels by reading reviews in and did all my hotel bookings online through which seems to offer the best prices. It is easy to use and you are not charged until your stay or default for not turning up so you can make changes where necessary. (But make sure you cancel the earlier booking.) If you expect to arrive late (i.e. after 6pm local time), do inform the hotel so that they will keep the room for you.

Ronald Kwok

Monday, June 21, 2010

Holiday in Germany

I just got back from a 16 days holiday in Germany with my wife and my Sony XR350E camcorder. The first 12 days was with Cosmos Tour under their Highlights of Germany package while the next 4 days were on my own with a second visit to Berlin and Frankfurt on the way home. This is my first experience with Cosmos Tour and it is a good experience. The Cosmos tour itself was quite relax (at least for this one but not sure about the others) and not rushed like other tours arranged locally and you have plenty of free time to do your own visiting in the stops at the major towns and cities. In my later posts I will give a day to day account of the holiday. I hope to add some videos taken with the Sony XR350E that survived the trip intact and it behaved very well during the trip.

Just a quick overview. The Germans are generally friendly and helpful and many offered to help when we looked puzzled over the underground map or ticketing machines. My experience with the German food is that either they are bland or very salty, this is in the common cafes and not in the expensive restaurants. The Germans eat a lot of meat and mainly it is pork. Sausages are everywhere and each area has its own special variety and they are usually tasty but salty. The same goes with beer and it is cheaper than water in eating places so it is a heaven for beer-lovers. (Alas, not me so I have to settle for coke most of the time.) I suppose there is a connection here as beer goes very well with salty food and according to the Germans, the beer cleans the kidney!

Have loose change ready for visiting the rest-rooms as you have to pay for almost all the public toilets and those in rest-stops and even in some eating places though most are free. Public transport is well integrated but can be intimidating at first especially in the big cities; after a while it gets very easy to move around. Single fares are expensive so it is cheaper to get a day or group ticket if available unless you want to walk most of the time. The weather can be very unfriendly, it can be warm and sunny one day and become cold and wet the next day and this is June, supposedly in summer so have your raincoat and umbrella ready.

OK enough for the appetiser. The main course will follow but probably a bit slowly since it is World Cup fever time.

Ronald Kwok