Monthly Archives: May 2015

I love Berlin: Part I

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I’ve decided to split this entry into two parts. Part I shares some general thoughts about the city, recalls our experiences of its nightlife and covers our alternative tour and the carnival of culture.

Although a sizable chunk of my fellow Brits might disagree, I’ve always been happy to think of myself as a European and I consider myself fortunate to live in Europe. One of the best things about it from my perspective is that, on a continent the size of some larger countries elsewhere in the world, you have myriad cultures, peoples, languages and cuisines all on your doorstep. In the age of budget air travel, I can immerse myself in a different world for the price of an affordable ticket on a short flight (even if that does mean flying with Ryanair every now and then). Even a weekend away in a new country is a viable option.

And so it is that I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Berlin for a friend’s 30th, my first ever visit to Germany – another new country ticked off with relative ease thanks to an admittedly cramped flight with Ryanair from Dublin. Whether I’d have chosen Berlin as my next foreign travel experience is a moot point – that was the birthday boy’s call. But I’m glad I went, because it’s a truly brilliant city.

Living in Belfast, and having been raised in northern England, it’s a fair bet that, wherever I go, and for whatever reason I go there, in the back of my mind I’ll hope to be blessed with good weather – at least outside of the year’s colder months. Regardless of where you go, a bit of sunshine can bring a place to life and you often see places at their best under azure skies. Of course, nobody goes to Berlin for the weather, but we certainly got lucky. With temperatures reaching the mid-twenties centigrade, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions in which to explore the city. Although I did receive a pink and ever-so-slightly painful reminder that I am in fact losing my hair.

At first glance, Berlin is not a particularly beautiful city. Much of it is boxy and functional and dominated by incongruous apartment buildings. But it does have its hidden and not-so-hidden gems. But what we came to love about Berlin was not, as in, say, Rome, the breathtaking majesty of the place, but rather, its open, inclusive, tolerant and fun-loving air. Its restaurant and bar scene could take weeks to truly explore. We managed to find everything from high-end dining experiences to convenient street food – and I have to say that, not for the first time, I found kebabs that put my home country’s to shame, a legacy of the city’s large Turkish population.

Bar-wise, Berlin has everything, as you’d expected from a large and cosmopolitan capital city. It has cosy places to have a drink and a chat; sports bars for the so-inclined; more upmarket and stylish hangouts and lively establishments open into the night and the next morning. We found that the outside of a bar was no indication as to the atmosphere inside – and several times we were surprised by what we found on entering. Some of the best memories I have from my travels so far include stumbling on somewhere less used to tourists, full of locals having a really good time – and it seems Berliners of all ages know how to let their hair down. We came away especially fond of Gainsbourg bar, which we happened upon on our final night, tucked away under a railway bridge and emitting vaguely party-like bright colours into the dimly-lit street outside that made us somewhat curious. What started out as a quiet drink ended up becoming one of our fondest memories of Berlin as we watched a local band perform long into the early hours in what appeared to be some kind of private function. We never managed to ascertain exactly what was going on – was it a birthday party or a leaving bash or just what they do there? – but not one person suggested we might consider moving and, when it was time for us to go (about 3am and with the festivities still in full swing), the bar staff were sure to call us a taxi without us having to ask. It’s the kind of gesture that leaves a positive impression and reminds you why you travel. Gainsbourg is in the trendy Savignyplatz area on a narrow-ish street between Grolmanstraße and Uhlandstraße, and you’re sure of a warm welcome.

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  YAAM Beach Bar – Berlin as a number of ‘beach bars’ that have sprung up in recent years.

Berlin's creative and artistic scene is thriving.

Berlin’s creative and artistic scene is thriving.

But there’s more to Berlin than bars, of course. It’s also a city to see and to do things in. We began our adventure with a rather unique walking tour of the city focusing not on the obvious points of historical interest, but on what the organisers call the ‘real’ Berlin. This was a brilliant way to see aspects of life in the city that you otherwise would not get. Without doubt, such a tour would not be to everyone’s taste, and at four hours long, you need comfortable shoes! But we found it compelling. We were introduced to Berlin’s underground and alternative street art scene (graffiti, if you insist) in Prenzlauerberg, to the creative spaces near Hackescher Markt (where I also tasted my first currywurst), and to the more down-at-heel Kreusberg district. A long the way we learned about the history of the districts and were given an insight into the alternative living communities that are a feature of modern-day Berlin. I was fascinated in particular by the former Russian army vehicles that have been turned into permanent homes.

A monument to Berlin's firefighters in Kreusberg.

A monument to Berlin’s firefighters in Kreusberg.

We also touched on the city’s darker history, including a site connected to the Night of the Long Knives which has been turned into an attractive public space with children’s play area. It’s a stark thought to contrast the playful din of boisterous children with the elimination of Hitler’s political enemies and adjudged threats to his regime in the most brutal fashion. Urban renewal also plays a major part of the tour and is far more visible in Prenzlauerberg than it is in Kreusberg. Indeed, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable Scottish guide informed us that the latter would have been off-limits to us only fifteen years ago, and that it is still the scene of sometimes violent protests. On a lighter note, our tour concluded with an entirely unscheduled but also unavoidable meander through the city’s annual counter-cultural carnival, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one to admit to being a little unnerved at having to force my way through a throng of anti-capitalistic black-clad German punks in my middle-class British attire on my rather mainstream European holiday. But there was nothing to worry about. The tour ended, perhaps rather predictably, at a bar – but not just any bar. Berlin might not be by the sea, but they like a beach bar. We stopped by the river at YAAM – a Rastafarian and Caribbean style setting with stalls selling Jamaican dishes and, most importantly after a long tour in the warm sun, plenty of beer to go round.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Crowds swelter at the Carnival of Culture.

Doesn't do justice to how delicious this was.

Doesn’t do justice to how delicious this was.

If Berlin is a city that knows how to have a good time, then we had our best time at the Carnival of Culture. Under a blazing late-May sun, up to a million people piled into Blucherplatz for a celebration of culture from all around the world, expressed through music, art and, most importantly, food. I’ve never seen so many stalls in one place. I suspect we caught only a fraction of what the day had to offer as we soaked up the life-affirming atmosphere, kept ourselves hydrated with beers served in actual glasses (you pay a deposit which you get back if you return the glass) and sampled a variety of food from around the world. The undoubted favourite was the salmon cooked over an open flame and served in a bread roll with a choice of sauces. Simple, but heavenly. The carnival is an annual event that makes this time of year the absolute right time to be in Berlin. It’s almost impossible to convey how fortunate we feel that our time in the city coincided with the carnival, and that the weather chose to be so kind to us. That magnificent day is now a week away, and no thought gives me stronger holiday blues than that one.

Part II focuses on sightseeing, including the city’s most famous landmarks.

Safety and security….

Belfast during the 2014 Giro d'Italia.

Belfast during the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

I read with interest reports of a study suggesting that Belfast is the most dangerous city in Europe in terms of terrorist threat (you can read about it yourself here). Whenever I come across misleading negativity regarding my adopted city, I feel the need to put the record straight.

The study was apparently carried out by a ‘global risk analytics company’, who compiled details of every terrorist attack around the world in the five-year period to March 2015, along with longer term attack records, in order to rank cities around the world based on the dangers posed by terrorism. Unsurprisingly, Baghdad came out top. I’ve never been to Baghdad, but I’m sure their findings are basically sound on that one.

However, whatever methodology the firm quoted in the article used to come up with their results, I feel that they don’t represent the reality on the ground here in Belfast. This, of course, is not a political blog, and I don’t intend to get into a political discussion of any kind, but I’m not going to pretend that everything is fine here now and that nothing ever happens. There is indeed a considerable risk to the security forces in Northern Ireland. And wherever attacks of any kind take place, there’s no point pretending that members of the public, or even tourists, couldn’t, in theory, find themselves caught up.

However – and this needs to be stated in the strongest possible terms – the reality is that the threat to ordinary people, and in particular to tourists visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland, is minimal. Indeed, Northern Ireland is regularly cited as one of the safest places to be a tourist in the industrialised world. Petty crime rates are relatively low. Belfast’s streets are free of the pickpocketing menace that blights major tourist spots the world over.

Only yesterday, I took an early evening stroll past City Hall and along Royal Avenue in the very heart of the city. Milling around on the streets surrounding the building was a throng of tourists taking pictures or just gazing in wonder at this architectural masterpiece. As they chatted in what I suspect was Spanish, not one of them looked as if they sensed danger or felt any kind of threat to their person. Of course, indiscriminate terrorist violence often strikes when people are at their least suspecting, but my point is that, whatever the political situation in Belfast, it offers a safe and friendly tourist experience.

The picture I have chosen to illustrate this entry was taken during the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia bike race – the Italian version of the Tour de France. It was a sign of real confidence in Belfast and Northern Ireland that the organisers of the Giro opted to begin the race here, even if the weather didn’t play ball! I feel the image at the top of this post demonstrates Belfast at its best – welcoming, vibrant, increasingly cosmopolitan and on a forward track. Again, I can only ask – does anybody in the picture look like they’re about to hunker down in fear at the prospect of a terrorist attack?

My biggest fear is that studies like the one quoted, with their simplistic narratives, set back the incredible hard work that the likes of Discover Northern Ireland and Visit Belfast do to try and improve the visitor experience here and to encourage people to visit. Those who do visit are rewarded by a beautiful and friendly country with a fascinating (if tragic) history and an increasingly exciting future. Belfast itself offers plenty of interesting sights – and it’s especially worth coming at this stage, before it’s truly discovered and the tourist traps become like every other tourist trap around the world.

How it came to this…

The purpose of this site is to allow me to document my thoughts and experiences as an outsider living in Northern Ireland, as well as to reflect on the travel I do in general, and to share it with anyone who might happen to be interested. Certainly, there are far more places in the world that I want to visit than just the ones I have been to so far, but I thought I’d do a little run-down of some of those places I’ve been fortunate enough to make it to up to this point. Each and every one of them has been worth the effort and left a lasting impression.

United States (April 2000) 125px-Flag_of_the_United_States.svg

My first ever trip abroad was certainly an extravagant one! In spring of 2000, my high school embarked on a skiing trip to California which included a day’s sightseeing in San Francisco. I’d never been remotely interested in skiing before, but the trip as a whole seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. It’s unfortunate that, having been 15 at the time, I don’t have what I would call fully formed impressions – or even memories – of that adventure. I do recall being in awe of San Francisco in terms of its geography and location. I vaguely recall being a little disappointed with Alcatraz. And I definitely remember it feeling unseasonably cold for April as we explored the city under leaden skies on a day punctuated by occasional showers.

Although I enjoyed the skiing aspect of the holiday, it’s not something I would go out of my way to do again. For me, the experience of having my eyes opened to a new world and of meeting new people, allied to the breathtaking scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains, will always be what stands out as the enduring part of the trip.

Spain (August 2002) Flag_of_Spain.svg

This would arguably have to be the least obviously adventurous travel experience I’ve yet had. At 17 and abroad for the first time without any kind of adult supervision, I wasn’t old enough for the bar scene. I stayed with a friend in the forgettable, slightly dreary resort of L’Estartit on the Costa Brava. (NB – I’m aware this is in Catalonia but have chosen to head the section with the name and flag of the sovereign state. No offence intended).

The undoubted highlight of this trip was Barcelona. One of the world’s great cities, I appreciated even at 17 that the day excursion we took was not long enough to experience it properly, but it was still worthwhile. As a football mad teen, our tour of the Nou Camp, home to FC Barcelona, was a highlight. We also went to see the team play a match – a Champions League qualifier (hard to believe they ever needed to play in one) against Legia Warsaw. As far as I could tell, a large section of the support that day were tourists like ourselves. I remember the passion, which seemed at times to border on barely-contained aggression, with which the opposition fans supported their team. Barca won easily, but I hardly remember the match. Sat at the very top of the cauldron-like stadium, the action took place far below – almost too far to properly follow. I spent most of my time gazing out at the landscapes beyond, marveling at how different life is far from the little slice of suburbia in which I grew up. I loved it up there. I think I’d have sat at the top of that stand for 90 minutes even without a match being on.

Greece (July 2003) Flag_of_Greece.svg

As relatively naive teenagers, myself and my friend perhaps allowed our travel agent too much say in where we ended up. We were adamant that, although we wanted to go to Greece, we were not too keen on the idea of the hedonistic resorts like Kavos or Malia. We ended up in the tiny resort of Skala Potamia on the less travelled island of Thassos in Greek Macedonia. Despite the lack of obvious diversions for two 18-year-old boys, the first nuggets of a truly independent sense of adventure began to appear here. It was in Thassos that I first exposed myself to a different cuisine, and Greek food is just wonderful. In particular, the fresh fish, caught and served up on the same day, sticks in the mind. You could talk to the very fishermen who, earlier on, had caught the sea bream you were feasting on that evening. This was also comfortably the hottest place I’d ever been, with temperatures easily reaching the mid-30s.

The scenery was majestic and the water was pleasantly warm and a beautiful blue. This remote corner of Greece is an idyll and the perfect place to relax.

Italy (October 2008 and September 2009) Flag_of_Italy.svg

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The Trevi Fountain in Rome

Italy is incredible. The people have such a relaxed attitude to life and yet, on the ground, everything moves so fast and with such a buzz. At least in the cities. The traffic can be utterly terrifying in a metropolis like Rome. The Italian capital gave me goosebumps. It’s an enchanting place, a living breathing museum. To explore Rome is to be transplanted back almost to another world while remaining at the heart of a vibrant, modern city. The Trevi Fountain swarms with tourists day and night, and it’s quite a cramped area – pickpockets must love it. But it is simply stunning, as ornate and intricate and beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. Some say the Colosseum disappoints, but then that seems to get said about everything. Personally, I was suitably impressed. And the food is to die for. The pasta and pizza shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there’s so much more than that. But, for me, it was the ice cream that really stood out. There seem to be as many gelateria in Rome as there are ATMs in most cities, and each one of them without fail is serving little frozen cones of heaven. My waistline is grateful I don’t live in Rome, that’s for sure.

Mount Etna in Sicily on an unseasonably murky, misty late summer's day.

Mount Etna in Sicily on an unseasonably murky, misty late summer’s day.

You’d expect Sicily in late September to be a safe bet, weather-wise. Nothing could have prepared me for the storms. We just don’t get storms like that in northern England. You’d see them out at sea while the sun still beamed down on dry land, but before long you’d be cloaked in cloud and pelted with raindrops the size of cricket bats. The mixed weather aside, exploring Sicily was every bit as magnificent an experience as Rome was. In particular, I came away with fond memories of Catania, the first overseas city I’ve ever explored entirely solo and where I found the locals to be helpful and friendly almost to a fault. Palermo, too, is a rich experience with some of the most intriguing and invigorating food markets I’ve ever seen. The hilltop town of Erice offers breathtaking views, and there’s an abundance of historical sites as well.

Vatican City (October 2008) Flag_of_the_Vatican_City.svg

Standing in St Peter's Square in front of the Basilica.

Standing in St Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica.

You didn’t think I was going to hide the world’s smallest independent state in the Rome section, did you? I find the idea of a country this small fascinating, and yet there’s nothing small about the place when you’re stood in St Peter’s Square, a tiny dot surrounded by other equally awestruck tiny dots, trying to comprehend the scale of the Basilica and of the history and influence the place has had and continues to have. Everything about the Vatican is designed to impose and impress, and it certainly does. A tour taking in the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel is an absolute must. Don’t expect to take any pictures of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling, though. They won’t let you!

India (September 2010) 125px-Flag_of_India.svg

The Taj Mahal - there are no words...

   The Taj Mahal – there are no words…

The only way to travel?

The only way to travel?

My first taste of the backpacking lifestyle was an assault on the senses in every way, and a huge step outside of my comfort zone. Nothing I’d done before in my life had the profound impact that India did. I feel truly grateful that I’ve been able to visit this remarkable country. But it was a challenge. The sticky September heat drains your energy non-stop. The hawkers and rip-off merchants invade your personal space on a daily basis. The traffic forces you to take your life into your hands. But it was worth it. The people were warm and friendly and incredibly inquisitive. The food was interesting. And the sites were like a dreamland.

We visited Rajasthan, touring the entire state, before heading to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and spending a couple of days in Delhi. Clearly, such a trip could take up a whole series of posts on its own. Alas, too much time has passed for me to do it justice. A trip to India is a life-changing experience. It takes a degree of courage, a thick skin and plenty of patience, but it’s a country that rewards the traveller prepared to maintain an open mind.

Cyprus (July 2012) Flag_of_Cyprus.svg (1)

Aphrodite's Rock is a surprisingly quiet location

Aphrodite’s Rock is a surprisingly quiet location

Having been to India, it comes as a surprise to some people that my favourite travel experience so far has been Cyprus. A jewel of the Mediterranean it may be, but it’s hardly off the beaten track. Nevertheless, I found it to be a revelation.

I’d always found the politics of the place interesting, and the experience of crossing the Green Line in Nicosia into an unrecognised but other wise fully-functioning country (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) was a fascinating experience. There is so much more to Cyprus than the Ayia Napa scene for those who want it. Nicosia is an absorbing city that should be given more attention in the guidebooks, as should its museum. Larnaca offers the fun of Ayia Napa minus the wild side. Limassol is clean and tidy and Paphos, while catering strongly to the package holiday market, also possesses a UNESCO World Heritage site. Those who seek solitude can still find it on the wilderness of the Akamas Peninsula (though ecological issues mean you should consider carefully whether you really ought to go there), and there are plenty of deserted beaches, particularly on the north coast. Beyond the Green Line, the Turkish side is still being discovered as it opens up to the outside world. The best way I could sum Cyprus up is to say that everybody can find their own version of it, and come to love it.

The Netherlands (February 2013) 125px-Flag_of_the_Netherlands.svg

Feeling unwell on a typical Amsterdam street.

Feeling unwell on a typical Amsterdam street.

It’s a sad state of affairs when you tell people that neither drugs nor sex were on the agenda during a visit to Amsterdam and they ask you why bothered going, because it has so much more to offer than this. Those I travelled with were not particularly enamoured with the city, but I found it charming. It’s a shame I had a horrendous cold for the entire time I was there.

I tend to feel positive about almost anywhere that feels different to what I’m used to. Amsterdam, a short hop across the North Sea from home, certainly ticks that box. For a start, it doesn’t sound like most other cities. There’s very little traffic in the city centre, so the din of internal combustion engines is replaced by the clickety-clack of trams and the metallic rattle of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous bicycles. I found that fascinating. Much like Rome, it has the feel of a different world, especially when you also consider the canals, the bridges and the unique architecture. It’s a city I’d go back to as I feel there’s more to it than I saw in my flying visit.

France (April – September 2013) Flag_of_France.svg

Place Jean Jaurès, Castres.

Place Jean Jaurès, Castres.

In 2013, I moved to France for what was meant to be a permanent position. It’s hard to believe it only lasted five months, but it was a magical time in a beautiful little town. This deserves a post to itself, so I won’t say much more here other than that it’s a privilege to have been able to call Castres my home.

Can you still feel the butterflies?

It’s been a little while since I decided to start this venture. There’s been no lack of inspiration, and a number of new posts are planned over the next week or so that should demonstrate that. I’ve chosen to return to action with my first ever off-topic post. It might seem a strange choice on a travel-centred blog, but I’ll be discussing my thoughts on what is probably my favourite album, why I like it so much, and what impact it has had upon me.

There are two things I can remember best about 1999. The first is Manchester United snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich to secure an unprecedented treble. The other is the release of Jimmy Eat World’s third studio album, Clarity. It’s safe to say that the latter has had a considerably bigger influence on my adult life than the former, for while the 14-year-old me might have thought it doesn’t get any better than watching your footballing heroes win three trophies in a season, the grown-up in me, such as it is, knows there’s a little more to life than that.

Of course, like most people – including plenty of the band’s fans – I don’t really remember the release of Clarity at all. Aside from a modest collection of dedicated fans who’d found the band in their early hardcore days, this was well before they had achieved any commercial success. As Clarity flew under the radar in the United States, the chances of a 14-year-old kid living on the north west coast of England coming across it were pretty slim.

Fast-forward sixteen years, however, and what you have is a record often regarded as one of the finest of the 1990s, not just within its genre, but of the decade as a whole. Whether that holds true or not, I don’t care to say. But what cannot be ignored is the influence that the record has had on a plethora of younger artists and contemporaries alike. Clarity is often cited as a personal favourite and a source of inspiration.

I only found out just how highly the album was regarded well after I’d fallen in love with it in my own right. I’ve often wondered if there’s something odd about my relationship with music. I can count on the two hands I was given the amount of records that I return to on a regular basis. Beyond that, I find it a struggle to really connect with most of what I hear, no matter how objectively worthy it might be. So why does Clarity speak to me in the way that it does?

It’s a remarkable piece of work in terms of scope, especially given that the band members were barely out of their teens when it was produced. Jim Adkins’ vocals soar – he has an ability to tug at the heartstrings without ever sounding insincere or overly-wrought. The album possesses beautiful harmonies, raucous louder moments, considered and sometimes thought-provoking lyrics (Your New Aesthetic rings even more true today than did in 1999), and strings and piano to die for (For Me This Is HeavenJust Watch the Fireworks). The experimentation with electronic elements enhances rather than cheapens the sound, perhaps because it is employed only sparingly and rather deftly. Meanwhile, closing track Goodbye Sky Harbor takes the listener on a near-twenty minute journey, beginning with chugging guitars before descending into an instrumental loop interspersed with vocal harmonies, rounded out by an electronic beat that makes you forget it’s the same song as the one that started a quarter of an hour ago.

Picking highlights from an album I’d consider near-perfect is difficult. The most obvious radio fodder is lead single Lucky Denver Mint, easily the most recognisable track from the album, having found its way onto the soundtrack to Drew Barrymore masterpiece Never Been Kissed. But in truth, it isn’t indicative of the album as a whole. Your New Aesthetic is the darkest moment, a crunchy, snarling condemnation of the era’s watered down commercialised radio output. Believe in What you Want offers an enthusiastic, charming bouncy stop-startiness, with some of the most striking harmonies on the album. A Sunday slow-burns its way to greatness, while Just Watch the FireworksFor Me This is Heaven and the album’s title track keep it interesting all the way to the end.

When all is said and done, perhaps my affection for this album stems from the fact that there are truly no low points. The band was in sparkling form – comfortable enough to experiment, to eschew the overly-polished and safe sound that has become their trademark in more recent years, this was a band without the shackles on. It was 2001’s Bleed American that brought Jimmy Eat World mainstream recognition. It’s fair to say a sizable chunk of the band’s following, myself included, came along during this period, which turned out to be their high point in terms of popularity. A more commercial and polished sound, Bleed American also curried favour with critics, though in a rather different way to its predecessor. It signalled a change in direction which probably contributed to maintaining Clarity‘s place in the band’s back catalogue – as the hidden gem that only those of us lucky enough to know of its existence get to enjoy.

Clarity, a modern masterpiece.