Tag Archives Europe

Celebrating the New Year in Prague

Prague at Night | The Girl Next Door is BlackPrague is known as the “Paris of the East” and though I hear several other cities also lay claim to this title, it’s easy to see why Prague (known locally as “Praha“) is a serious contender.

As we walked toward the historic Old Town Square our first night in the city – also New Year’s Eve – scenes straight from the illustrated pages of a fairy tale dazzled our senses. Our double-socked, insulated boots tread on cobblestone roads and sidewalks slick from evaporating snow. We strode past vibrantly-colored edifices, red tiled-roofs and magnificent Gothic cathedrals – a city oozing with charm.

As I experienced in Paris, I wondered if city officials flooded the air with happy molecules. You can’t help but feel more buoyant; shielded from life’s little worries for a moment as you absorb it all.

When we reached the picturesque square, we knew we’d made the right decision to skip out on the rest of our Berlin trip and take a detour to Prague. Within minutes of integrating ourselves into the large crowd of merry faces – young, old and in between – the last of the gloomy essence of Berlin fled from our psyches.

A massive, beautifully-trimmed Christmas tree dominated the square; an enthusiastic Czech rock band on a stage with “2015” brandished in roman numerals on a bright yellow awning, entertained the gathered, some of whom blared noisemakers, others who relied on their own vocal cords to make noise; while others drank from cans of Pilsner Urquell because drinking on the street in Prague? No worries there.

Christmas Tree in Prague Old Town Square | The Girl Next Door is Black

Prague knows how to throw a New Year’s Eve party! Minutes before midnight, we filed out the Irish pub we’d settled in earlier, and with the rest of the new year celebrants converged on the town square for the countdown to midnight. The magical fireworks show began the second the clock struck “12” and seemed to continue for hours, never wavering in its power to delight. The party really didn’t stop ’til (at least) “6 in the morning.”

 

Friends in Prague NYE | The Girl Next Door is Black
Photo courtesy of my friend Z

Prague’s French influence is also evident in its many brasseries, bistros and patisseries, a handful of which are Michelin-starred or Michelin-recommended. Just when we thought our Europe trip would be light on food memories. Z and I were brunch buddies when we both lived in Los Angeles, so it’s fitting that we welcomed 2015 with a late-morning meal at a darling French restaurant and patisserie, Au Gourmand, whose  window display of pastries beckon the sweet-toothers and the savory-seekers alike.

After a satisfying brunch we revisited the Old Town Square to take it in during the light of day.

Astronomical Clock Prague | The Girl Next Door is Black
The famous Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Hall Tower. People gather to watch a procession of the of the 12 (wooden-figured) Apostles of Christ, at the top of each hour. Each of the intricately detailed dials represent different astronomical events. The only thing I didn’t see on the clock tower was the actual current time!

For someone like me who hates being among huge crowds of people wandering aimlessly, visiting the Charles Bridge – probably one of Prague’s most spectacular and most visited sites – should have been a nightmare. Everyone in Prague seemed to have descended upon the bridge that day. Yet, as we slowly traversed the bridge with the throng of others, noticing an over-abundance of selfie-sticks rising above the mass, I was so taken by the wondrous view all around me, I felt temporarily insulated from annoyance. Is this place for real?

 The centuries old Charles Bridge connects Prague’s Old Town (or Stare Miasto) to Lesser Town (Malá Strana) across the Vltava River. Along the nearly 1/2 mile long bridge, in addition to stunning views of the city, you’ll find local artists and craftspeople selling their work as souvenirs, musicians entertaining for tips, striking religious imagery, as well as two imposing Gothic towers flanking each end of the pedestrian thoroughfare.

 

Deposition of Christ + Couple making out on Charles Bridge | The Girl Next Door is Black
An interesting choice for a makeout spot…

For the first dinner of 2015, we kept the French theme going and enjoyed a fantastic meal at Chez Marcel that had me happy dancing in my seat with each course.

Wanting a view of Prague from above, we returned to the Charles Bridge the next day and to our delight, found the number of people greatly reduced from the New Year’s Day horde and much easier to navigate. Ascending the narrow steps to the top of the Lessor Town Bridge Tower – one of the two towers that stand on each end of the Charles Bridge – led us to views so magnificent, I know why the term “breathtaking” became such a writing cliché.

On the other side of the tower exists the incongruously named Lessor Town, home of the grand and architecturally-striking Prague Castle, where the President of the Czech Republic resides.


The night landscape lit romantic views on the way back into Old Town.

Dinner that night, our last in the city, delivered another solid dining experience courtesy of GamberoRosso serving up Italian cuisine like the black risotto with prawns I ordered.

Prague charmed me to the core and ranks highly on my mental list of favorite world cities. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to ring in the New Year!

Getting the Cold Shoulder in Berlin

I liked Berlin when my friend and I arrived in the sprawling German capital a week ago. Our hostel was in Friedrichshain, where our cab driver told us – in heavily German-accented English – is a “good area with lots of clubs. If you come to Berlin to party, you are in the right place!” In fact, the hostel is directly across the street from a club, as well as the S-Bahn – one of the two main railways in Berlin. Not only that, the infamous Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly 30 years until 1989, was just a five-minute walk away.

The East Side Gallery of what remains of the Berlin Wall displays the work of artists from across the world.

Hungarian Santa Claus Berlin
Ran across a Santa Claus from Budapest at the Berlin Wall. When we told him we are from America he said, “Amereecah! I love Amereecah! Caleeforneeya. New Yorkh! Flooreeda! Hahahaha!” He was amusing, but a little much.
Pork knuckle dinner Berlin
For dinner one evening, I tried the popular German dish of picked pork knuckle at Zum Alten Tor, served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. The pork was tender and fatty, sauerkraut sour and potatoes were standard. It was good, but I don’t need to have it again.

In search of breakfast one morning – I hadn’t seen an egg in almost two weeks; plenty of beef, pork and pastries though – we stumbled into the Kreuzberg neighborhood. A gritty enclave which, in appearance, reminds me of Queens, New York with the train rattling on rails up above, graffiti-painted apartment buildings and restaurants serving up cuisine from different nations. Sadly, we didn’t consume any eggs that day. December 26th is a holiday in Germany and as we discovered, many businesses closed up shop.

On a 2.5 hour walking tour our second day in Berlin – on the coldest day we experienced on our trip so far; Z worried her frozen pinky toes would die and fall off – we consumed what our New Zealander turned Berliner guide, Stephanie, told us amounted to “800 years of German history in one afternoon.”

After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.

The next day, in search of an eggy breakfast once again, we ventured to the adorable Café im Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm). If Kruezberg is Queens, Ku’damm, Berlin’s glitzy shopping avenue – like a Champs-Élysées sister – is the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Boutiques, shops, restaurants and cafes line the over two-mile long destination, along with seasonal Christmas pop-up stands shilling roasted chestnuts, crepes, Glühwein and sausage wursts, among other goodies. People packed the shops and the “queues” for dressing rooms and cash registers wound through doors and around corners.

On the train ride to Ku’daam we witnessed an old couple go off on young Arab woman because the old woman tripped over the woman’s foot.

View from U-Bahn Berlin
Brandenburg Gate decals on the U-Bahn

The woman and her husband berated the bewildered young woman for minutes in harsh German tones. We have no idea what they were going on about, but that would not have been me sitting there. No sir. Not gonna yell at me with some nonsense. We shared sentimental looks with the woman. That couple was out of line.

Unfortunately, we arrived at Literaturhaus minutes too late for breakfast. Foiled again! As we were waiting for our server to clear the table she led us to, a tall dirty-blond haired man moved my friend with a slight push to her back and said tersely, “you have to get out of the way.” I looked askance at his back as he exited the restaurant, shocked at his rudeness.

People behaving like jackholes aside, we enjoyed lunch instead and followed it up with a bit of shopping on the avenue.

I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!

Berlin’s reputation as a party city, with one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, is why we chose it for NYE festivities. To get a taste of the Berlin nightlife in prep for the over-hyped holiday eve, one night we piled on our multiple layers of clothing – sexy – and headed out tor Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte, because who doesn’t want to go dance it up with Germans in a ballhaus/biergarten/dance club/restaurant?

Clärchen's Ballhaus Berlin
Clärchen’s Ballhaus exterior. The outdoor biergarten was closed due to the cold

The clientele was a mix of people I couldn’t figure out: a tall white-haired couple knocked back Berliners (the local beer) like pros; a female couple dance seductively nearby; assertive to the point of nearly-aggressive men stared lasciviously at women whose gaze met theirs and tried to find ladies to bump and grind; other couples – both straight and gay – danced and sang to American songs sung by a fun German cover band. They performed “Hey Ya” by Outkast among other popular former American Top 40 hits.

The kitsch of the place made the evening fun, but if I lived in the area I am not sure it’d be a regular haunt.

Like Copenhagen, smoking in bars is legal, which for this non-smoking Californian is tough to endure for too long.

On another night we joined a pub crawl which Z and I both agree was a boring mess. I’ve had more fun at the dentist. At least my dentist tries to make conversation with me, unlike the surprisingly unfriendly Australians on the crawl with whom I attempted to make conversation. Also unlike the three crawl hosts who spent more time socializing with each other than the group. Two French women we talked to betrayed the French reputation for rudeness and were polite and conversational. Unfortunately between their somewhat limited English and our limited French (a few years of French as a kid only gets you so far), conversation grew stilted. We chatted up an American couple from Texas and New Jersey who commented multiple times about how unfriendly they found Germans.

Mixed sausage plate Berlin
Another dinner – more meat. Mixed wursts plate. I miss vegetables.

As thankful as we were to meet the outgoing American couple, we were so put off by the group’s lack of cohesion or attempts to remedy it, along with the hosts’ subpar socializing job, we left the pub crawl at the second bar and set off on our own. I wasted a cute outfit and risked a hangover on a lame evening – I doubly resent the pub crawl.

We alternated between walking (an average of 4.5 miles a day), taxis and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn to get around. Buying tickets at the train station amounted to playing a live action “hurt as many people as possible” video game of which you are the main character. Your goal is to buy a train ticket without getting shoved, pushed, hovered over or yelled at. To be fair, whenever someone spoke to me in German I felt like I was being lectured even if they were saying “I like ponies.”

A woman shoved me out of the way at the train station one morning as I was waiting in line for the ticket machine. It left me feeling which left me feeling disrespected. After not quite five days in Berlin, during which both our moods drifted toward “blah,” we realized the overarching sense of misery and general sense of displeasure in the Berlin atmosphere was bringing us down. I tired of either being stared at or ignored. I even had nightmares every night!

A couple of hours later we agreed to a detour in our travel plans and decided to leave Berlin early and spend New Year’s Eve somewhere more pleasant. First though, we visited a place of historical importance, even though it certainly wouldn’t boost our spirits: Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Oranienburg Berlin
Town of Oranienburg. I wonder what it would be like to live there, so close to a former concentration camp.

The train ride to Oranienburg, where the Sachsenhausen former concentration camp exists as a museum and memorial, is about 50 minutes from the center of Berlin. The number of passengers aboard dwindled the further north we traveled, with only a smattering of riders remaining at the train’s last stop. As Z commented to me, “they really did ship people out to the furthest place they could.” Every muscle in my body suddenly seemed to weigh double.

As sunlight gave way to moonlight, we arrived at the snow-covered entrance to one of the most depressing places my mind and body have ever been.

Sachsenhausen operated as a prison, work camp and extermination center from 1936 to 1945. The camp housed close to 200,000 prisoners including criminals (murderers, rapists), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, Jewish people and communists.

We didn’t stay long. I feel nauseated the deeper we trekked into the recesses of the grounds. The remaining empty barracks, lit from within, served as a spooky reminder of the purpose they once served. The invisible stench of human depravity leading to human misery hung in the already cold air. Z felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stand at attention. No amount of thought-wangling will make me understand how people can be so disgustingly cruel to each other.

And yet…some people still managed to take photos of themselves smiling in front of the memorials.

The next morning, we boarded a train for the 4.5 hour ride to Prague, Czech Republic in search of warmer people and lifted spirits.

On train to Prague
Goodbye Berlin, Prague see you soon!

Exploring Copenhagen’s Beauty & Culture

Despite the cloudy skies and ever-present rain, Copenhagen is still quite beautiful. We spent our third day in the city exploring stunning views of the city and some of the art culture it offers.

Just around the block from our hostel we found plenty of architecture and design to marvel over.

Almost everywhere you look the scenery is beautiful.

Seeing Copenhagen from above was a must-do, so we visited the 110ft+ high Rundetaarn (“round tower”) and climbed the unusual spiral passage to the observatory.

 

After seeing the magnificent Copenhagen cityscape we ambled over to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an impressive museum filled with paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Often our excursions took us down Strøget – one of the longest pedestrian-only streets in Europe – the Fifth Avenue /
Champs-Élysées / Bond Street of Copenhagen with a splash of Melrose Place. Up and down Strøget are shops, restaurants and boutiques hailing from many countries ranging from the most upscale like Gucci to more wallet-friendly options like Zara: a shopper’s paradise. Side note: the Danish are really tall; at 5’1″, I feel like a toddler clumsily climbing onto stools that are too high and ducking the flailing hands of passers-by in conversation.

 

For dinner that evening, we opted for a Danish meal at a restaurant within the freetown of Christiania, Spiseloppen. To say that the restaurant’s location is sketchy would greatly understate the level of anxiety we felt as we climbed each narrowing step, rising higher and higher away from safer ground, bypassing a group of thuggish-ruggish looking twenty-something men I named the “Danish Get Fresh Crew,” one of whom whistled at us as we passed by. Happily, we avoided our own Law & Order: SVU-type tale when we opened a heavy-wooden door to a perfectly respectable-looking restaurant with an affable host/server and warm and comforting dishes.

At the end of our meal, our server informed us that it was the last night the restaurant would be open until January 17th. “We’re taking a much-needed break for the holidays.” I told my friend I couldn’t imagine a restaurant in the United States closing for almost a month to give everyone time off. We’re opening up shops on Thanksgiving Day now for goodness’ sake!

In honor of the occasion he comped us free pints of the Danish seasonal holiday beer, Tuborg Julebryg, along with a traditional Danish Christmas dessert or rice pudding topped with a cherry sauce. Tuborg, isn’t my favorite. I must admit, I prefer German and Belgian ales and lagers, but the gesture was kind nonetheless and a lovely way to end a great day.

 

Tuborg Julebryg Beer Copenhagen | The Girl Next Door is Black
Tuborg Julebryg, seasonal Tuborg brew

15 Things I Learned About Denmark On A Walking Tour

We arrived in Denmark yesterday afternoon and took it easy our first evening, after a grueling 9 1/2 hour flight. I look forward to one day being able to fly first class on the regular; flying economy on long flights is the pits. Sleeping is more like a series of stiff, fitful and not quite satisfying naps.

Strøget in December, Copenhagen Denmark | The Girl Next Door is Black
Strøget, is one of Europe’s longest and oldest pedestrian streets. It’s lined with shops, eateries and bars.

For dinner, we dined on hand-crafted burgers at Halifax, a gastropub in Indre By.  I once belonged to a burger club, so I’ve tried my fair share of burgers – Halifax makes a respectable burger. We noticed the Danes around us lingered for awhile after their last bites, enrapt in conversation. The staff appeared nonplussed by this. Tipping isn’t a custom at restaurants.

Scandic Palace Hotel Copenhagen, Denmark | The Girl Next Door is Black

This afternoon, my friend and I took a free 3-hour walking tour of central Copenhagen. Our tour guide was Magnus, a true Dane with blonde hair, blue-eyes and a strong jawline (along with a slightly sarcastic sense of humor). He shared his knowledge of his home country and I learned the following:

1. For years Denmark has held the title “Happiest Country.” Magnus seemed pretty happy, I must say. Certainly proud of his country.

2. Interestingly, Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in all of Europe.

Denmark is known for its Pølsevogn or sausage stands where they sell hot dogs and sausages with toppings like mustard, ketchup, diced onions, pickles and a remoulade.

3. It also has one of the highest individual tax rates in the world at an average of 55%.

4. Taxes pay for things like college education, which is free for all citizens up through the PhD level. In fact, you get PAID to attend college. The money can be used for rent (you get more if you don’t live with mom and dad), books, food or even beer if you like.

5. The Danish greatly value the concept of “hygge” (hew-ge), which loosely translates to a feeling of being relaxed, satisfied and unhurried.

6. There is no minimum wage. The average hourly rate is US $50.

7. The standard workweek is 37 hours.

Friends Selfie in Copenhagen | The Girl Next Door is Black
Copenhagen selfie!

8. Danes get minimum five weeks of paid vacation!

9. Copenhagen is one of the world’s most livable cities with biking a popular mode of transportation.

10. Life in prison in Denmark means 25 years. Prisoners get rooms with beds and are allowed TVs. Once released, the government helps reintegrate former inmates into society.

Baresso Hot Chocolate Copenhagen Denmark | The Girl Next Door is Black
Hot Chocolate with light, dark and white chocolate and cream from Baresso was perfect for the chilly, rainy day.

11. Denmark is also one of the safest countries in the world.

12. It’s legal to drink on the street in Copenhagen.

13. The Danish like being on time, but not early.

14. The Prime Minister, Vice Prime Minister and Queen of Denmark are all female.

15. Denmark has a whole lotta pigs so pork is a very popular dish.

Frederik’s Church

I don’t know if it’s the air, the sense of chill or just being on vacation, but my friend and I both agreed that we are really happy today. We like Denmark so far!

Black girl in Copenhagen | The Girl Next Door is Black

 

 

 

36 Hours in Barcelona

36 Hours in Barcelona | The Girl Next Door is Black blogWe made it to Barcelona without incident and hopped on the Aerobus – an inexpensive shuttle to the city center and various Metro stops. As we exited the Metro station that first night on our way to the hotel, the familiar smell of ganja smoke wafted past us, not just once, but a few times. I gave my friend a knowing look. It’s like home in San Francisco!

However, unlike San Francisco, Barcelona was really humid. The subterranean train station felt like a steam room, yet somehow I didn’t feel like I was getting free skin exfoliation.

Humidity aside, Spain’s cosmopolitan capital city is definitely worth a visit and we made the most of our 36 hours in Barcelona.

It’s true what they say: the Spanish really do eat late. 

The hot time to arrive at dinner in Spain appears to be sometime between 9:15pm and 10:20pm (or 21:15pm and 22:20pm in the spirit of the country).

That first night, we grabbed a (late for us) dinner at Paco Meralgo, a tapas bar and tavern in the Eixample district.

It’s probably a good idea to buy tickets early to visit La Sagrada Familia

By the time we arrived at the tourist-magnet, Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia church, the line was days long…if you didn’t buy tickets online.

Ham is kind of a big thing

We visited La Boqueria, an open-air market in the center of the city and we saw ham, ham and more ham.

A walking tour is the way to go

Many cities offer free walking tours and Barcelona is one of them. It’s a great way to get a condensed history lesson and see the sights the city is known for. Our tour guide was a young guy from London who’d been living in Barcelona for three years. His energy and humor made for rich tales. Along with us on the tour were couples from London and Denmark, an Aussie duo and a trio of girls from Mexico.

Art is everywhere

Barcelona doesn’t mess around with its art. Even things you think aren’t art, are art. You’re walking on the sidewalk and the tour guide tells you, “Oh, by the way, you just stepped on a Miro work.” Well, damn. I don’t expect to find intricate mosaics beneath my feet on the daily! What other groundart have I been missing?

The buildings look magnificent at night

There is so much more to see in Barcelona and I only hit a fraction of it. Another 24-36 hours would probably have been sufficient. Lack of time notwithstanding, I consumed enough of Barcelona to decide that it’s a dynamic, artful and cosmopolitan city. I get why people love it.

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