You may have heard of Angkor Wat, but it’s far from the only temple in Cambodia. Located in Siem Reap, the famous monument shares the city with at least 1000 other ancient temples that also attract curious visitors from all over the world. I had the opportunity to explore four of these incredible feats of architecture on my recent trip to Southeast Asia and each is magnificent in its own way.
Ta Prohm, constructed in the late 12th century, provided the backdrop for a scene in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and it’s easy to see why. Towering trees border a wide dusty path and form a leafy canopy, providing sweet relief from the blistering heat. Once inside the complex, you’re surrounded by flourishing vegetation, piles of stone blocks, and more massive trees, some with roots so mighty they’ve scaled their way on and through the abandoned structures that still stand.
Ta Prohm was once a Buddhist monastery and university. It took 80,000 workers to build it – according to a Sanskrit inscription found in the temple. There are 39 towers and over 500 former residences where 12,500 people lived across the nearly 650,000-ft2 property.
An example of the many reliefs carved into the stone buildings
An example of the many reliefs carved into the stone buildings
Ta Prohm has 39 towers and over 500 former residences.
I bet Ta Prohm would be so much fun to see as a kid.
Banteay Srei is one of the smaller temple compounds, but it’s still quite impressive. It stands out among the other temples due to the pink sandstone used to build it, waaaay back in the mid-10th century.
The carvings are especially impressive when you consider the rudimentary tools the Khmers (Cambodians) had access to.
Each set of carvings tell a story
If the temples in Cambodia were a singing ensemble, Angkor Wat would be the Michael Jackson/Beyoncé/Tina Turner/Justin Timberlake/Sting of the group. It truly is stunning. Angkor Wat (“Temple City”) – which dates back to the mid-12th century – rests atop about 500 acres of land, making it the world’s largest religious structure ever built. As with Banteay Srei, the fine detail of the elaborate carvings and motifs etched into the stone walls of the galleries are awe-inspiring. Imagine how much labor went into constructing such an incredible structure.
Our group visited the temples twice, once in the afternoon, where so much sweat streamed down my face it led one of my tourmates to chuckle and ask: “Did you pour water over your head?” The second time, we got up earlier than anyone should ever have to, so that we could watch the sun rise over the towers. It was all totally worth it.
A view from above
Back entrance of Angkor Wat
One of three galleries (monks in saffron-colored robes are what you see at the end of the hall)
This relief depicts a tug-o-war between gods and demons, part of a larger story: The Churning of the Ocean Milk,
Offerings at the altar
Carving of Aspara dancers
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat is clearly a popular activity.
On the way back to the van, after enjoying a pre-packed breakfast, a monkey accosted me.
Bayon holds the title of most “theatrical,” or perhaps, the most “quirky” of the temples I toured. Even the entrance to the complex makes a statement. As you approach the south gate, to the left sit 54 gigantic heads of gods and to the right, a line of 54 demons. Not to be outdone, crowning the towers of the iconic, 75-ft tall, arched entryway are four faces of the bodhisattva, each looking out in all four cardinal directions. Beyond the gates lies the “city” of Angkor Thom (“Big Temple”) – once the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s empire – fortified by a massive 328-ft wide moat which surrounds a 26-ft high laterite wall that protects 360 acres, including Bayon temple. Neighborhood watch on 100.
Devas (guardian gods) in a tug-of-war with the demons on the other side of the causeway, as depicted in the tale “Churning of the Ocean Milk” of Hindu mythology
One of the gigantic devas (god) figures
Everywhere you turn in the Bayon complex, there are eyes watching. Over 200 faces etched into stone cap the 54 towers at the site. While the identity of the figures decorating the temple is unknown, some speculate they are likenesses of King Jayavarman VII and a reflection of his inflated ego. The mysterious expressions on the stone faces has led some to dub them the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia”.
Beautiful, intricate motifs cover the walls of two galleries that surround Bayon’s main temple. The bas-relief carvings reflect the daily lives of the Khmers in the 12th century, as well as tales based in Hindu mythology.
I don’t recall seeing “chow down on deep-fried tarantula” on the tour itinerary, but when our local trip guide reviewed the day’s plan – mouth in a wide grin, eyes dancing at the mention of “eating spiders” – there it was. Given I’m willing to try (almost) anything once, I was game. Besides, I’ve already tried beetle, scorpion, and cricket, so what’s a big ass spider?
During the 6.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we made brief stopovers in several small towns in the Cambodian countryside. Towns served by the same unpaved and uneven two-lane road from which vehicles zooming by kick up mini-dust storms so intense, that sometimes those closest to the edge wear face masks for protection. One of those places is Skuon, more colloquially known as “Spiderville” because of its proliferation of tarantulas.
Eating spiders may seem weird to some, I know, but during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, catching those sizable, eight-legged, hairy insects could mean the difference between starving and starving a little less. Nowadays, deep-fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy and enjoyed as a snack.
Three cute Cambodian children greeted me as I descended the steps of the passenger van once we’d pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor market. The only boy among them – I guessed he was around 9 – said to me: “Sister, you are beautiful.” The oldest girl, standing to his right, shook her head and added, “Your hair is so pretty.”
What is this? Me? My hair? My looks? Who put these kids up to this? People with my dark skin, kinky hair, and African features aren’t exactly held up as paragons of beauty in the US. I wasn’t accustomed to this type of attention.
I didn’t have much time to consider the kids’ comments before they began trying to charm me into buying from them: plastic bags filled with mango or other fruit, colorful origami birds, and various smaller packages of what vendors were selling in the stalls 15-feet away.
K_, our Cambodian guide, strongly discouraged us from buying from the kids – much to my dismay. It’s hard to say no to a sweet child with a gap-toothed smile who’s pleading with you to buy fruit “so that I can go to school.” However, as K_ explained, if they’re able to make an income by hawking goods to tourists, sometimes parents will pull their children out of school so they can work instead. I knew the kids I met were in school because they told me so when I complimented their great English. We’d arrived during the students’ two hour lunch break.
Despite my refusals to part with my cash, the kids trailed me – like an entourage – as I walked toward the market and the many platters stacked high with an array of fried insects and fruit for sale.
K_ handed each of us a crispy tarantula leg to try. We giggled and teased each other through the experience. Once I got over the initial disgust at the idea of what I was eating, the tarantula actually tasted decent – not like chicken, more like beetle. The salt, sugar, and oil flavoring no doubt helped. It did take me a while to chew though. Like the hairs from the leg didn’t want to leave my mouth. Ick.
As we were gearing up to leave, K_ tapped my shoulder, pointed toward an aged woman wearing a deep-pink head scarf and clothed in long, floating layers, and told me: “She said she likes your hair.”
This never happens to me. What is this magical place?
I waved goodbye to my adorable, pint-sized entourage from behind the window as our van eased out of the lot.
From Silkworm to Silk Scarf
Santuk Silk Farm in Kampong Thom marked the second stop on our countryside excursion. Run by a US veteran of the Vietnam War and his Cambodian-Laos partner, the modest farm employs 15 women and one man from the local community. The weavers work hard spinning the silk into beautiful, color-rich scarves. We got the opportunity to learn about the process of turning the byproducts of silkworms into soft threads for weaving – a 6-week cycle – from one of the co-owners.
After getting the lowdown on the world of silk, we sat down to a home-cooked meal for lunch.
The cat family of the farm joined us for the meal, eagerly anticipating fallen morsels and scraps. A small dog resides on the farm, as well. For lunch, he chose to kill one of the clucking chickens. Thankfully, I did not witness this animal act of gallinicide, but a few of my tourmates did.
Sugar Palm Candy
Not too far from the silk farm, we made a pit stop at a roadside sugar palm candy stand. Made from the sap of sugar palm trees, the hardened candy is sweet enough to make your eyes pop. You can also cook with it, boil it into a juice, or melt it into your tea or coffee if a shocking jolt of sugar isn’t your bag.
Flowers and fruit from the sugar palm tree. Juice is collected from the flowers.
After making our purchases, we piled back into the van and our driver, Mr. S_, pulled out onto the dirt road. The afternoon had barely settled and already we’d done so much; I couldn’t wait to reach the next stop and adventure.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you eat a deep fried tarantula?
Read Part I and Part II from my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!
Warning: This post contains images and content of a sensitive nature
I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided on Cambodia as a travel destination. A few years ago, a co-worker’s raves of her visit to the fast-developing country in Southeast Asia sparked the idea. After watching several stunningly-shot Cambodia-centered episodes of The Amazing Race, it rocketed up my travel wish list. I envisioned magnificent ancient temples, vast rice paddy fields, picturesque remote fishing villages, and bumpy thoroughfares teeming with tuk-tuks.
Bordered by Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east, Cambodia’s culture, traditions, and cuisine are a unique amalgamation of the influence of its neighboring nations, as well as India, and the Khmer – a civilization which dates back to the first century. In the past decade, Cambodia’s made tremendous progress recovering from a tumultuous recent history that includes a civil war, genocide, and tyrannical political rule.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”
Phnom Penh – Cambodia’s capital city and the first stop on our Cambodian tour – is considered the Nation’s cultural, commercial, and political center. In fact, residents of less thriving surrounding towns flock to the city seeking educational and job opportunities, in a country where the average citizen earns less than $80/month.
It is also home to a former high school which was turned into a detention and torture center and renamed “S21“, during the vicious reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime – the main goal of which was to rid Cambodia of its intellectuals, the elite, or any sort of hierarchy, and instead carry out a warped vision of a self-sustaining peasant-ville – it’s estimated that over 1.7 million Cambodians (1/4 of the population) died in these years as a result of starvation, disease, or execution by the Khmer Rouge. S21 has since been turned into a genocide museum and renamed Tuol Sleng.
Classrooms were turned into interrogation rooms.
Electrified barbed wire placed outside prison chambers to prevent escapes
Prison cells barely large enough to move around in, which prisoners weren’t allowed to do anyhow. They relieved themselves in boxes and had to lick up any spills or leaks.
Rooms like these were used for interrogation and torture. The ammunition box served as a toilet. Sometimes guards shackled prisoners to the wire cots.
Upon arrival at S21, new prisoners – women, men and children – were photographed, given a unique number, stripped of their clothing and possessions, and held captive for several months, before eventually being executed. Several rooms in the museum display victim’s photos. Cambodians made up the majority of victims, though a small number hailed from other countries like Laos, Vietnam, Australia, China, Britain, Thailand, Canada, and the United States.
Some of S21’s female victims
Some of S21’s male victims
Some of S21’s child victims
Throughout the museum, graphic paintings reflect the inhumane conditions under which the prisoners lived. Some of the devices and instruments used during the guards’ Nazi-level torture methods are also exhibited.
Painting in background depicts a prisoner being waterboarded using the equipment shown
Sampling of instruments used to torture S21 prisoners. So incredibly barbaric.
Painting depicting one method used to bathe prisoners, which wasn’t a regular occurrence. Many of the victims bones’ are protruding due to starvation. Though they are shackled to the same bench, they were not allowed to speak to one another.
Initially, those executed at S21 were buried on the property – until they ran out of space. Later on, prisoners were transferred from S21 to a larger site less than 10 miles away, Choeung Ek – one of several mass burial grounds or “killing fields” throughout the country – where they were sometimes forced to dig their own graves.
Now a memorial site, the grounds at Choeung Ek are well-manicured with an expansive green field dotted by robust shade and palm trees, and interspersed with large dirt pits – remnants of the mass graves – where fragments of bone and clothing poke out from beneath – even more so after a fresh rain washes away the soil.
We had an additional guide for our visit to the genocide memorials, a lovely young Cambodian woman whose grandparents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Without a trace of bitterness or anger in her voice, she implored us to share our thoughts and experiences from that day with others so that collectively we can actively work to prevent such atrocities in the future.
In 2014, I toured Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp just outside Berlin, Germany, and I wondered then how humans can be so evil to each other.
It’s the same thought I mulled over in Tanzania while standing on the site where hundreds of years ago people were auctioned off like animals.
Again, I wondered why, as tears streamed down my face at the September 11th museum in New York, listening to the gut-wrenching audio recordings of the terrified who didn’t make it out of the Twin Towers.
It’s a question many have asked and for longer than I’ve been alive. I know there’s no pat answer, nor a quick solution for evil-deflection. What I do know is the importance of acknowledging all of the past, no matter how difficult or upsetting, and doing better! We can be better humans.
There’s a saying in the Khmer language: ‘If a mad dog bites you, don’t bite it back.’ If you do, it means you are mad, too.
– Chum Mey, in Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide
A Royal Palace and a Riverfront View
With a free afternoon to explore Phnom Penh, after an emotionally taxing morning spent swimming in horror and death, I headed straight for the riverfront, Sisowath Quay. I’d already seen it at night, a lively area along the Tonle Sap River, the promenade populated with groups of teenagers; families lounging on the grass in the park; street vendors peddling drinks, snacks, and whatever else they could offload; scores of motorbikes buzzing about; tourists and locals alike filling the restaurants, shops, pubs and hotels lining the boulevard, all with the Royal Palace – where the Royal Family lives – as a backdrop.
Beautifully lit portrait of current King of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni
You can see the back of the Royal Palace behind the women in the background
Flags from countries with embassies in Cambodia wave above the promenade
Chanchhaya Pavilion is the riverside entrance to the Royal Palace. A portrait of the former King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, hangs in the center.
Magnificently door on the grounds of The Royal Palace
Walking back to the hotel from the river, I got lost, despite the city being laid out like a grid – a French influence – and having a map. I spent the late afternoon wandering from street to street, down dusty alleys overflowing with small market stalls and throngs of people, with a different man calling out to me “Tuk tuk, lady? Tuk tuk?” every few feet (‘No thanks, I want to walk.”), attracting many curious stares with my “exotic” appearance, dodging vehicles with no intention of stopping for pedestrians, growing more and more disoriented (and agitated), sweat pouring down my face like rain (and this was the “cool” season), as my hearing overstimulated with the noise of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns honking, and the general din of many voices speaking at once in a language I didn’t understand.
I consider myself an ambivert, but that afternoon, I never felt more introverted. I just wanted to go hide inside my hotel room and away from people! I think the weight of the morning’s visit to S21 and Choeung Ek had caught up with me. Finally, after almost two hours of wandering, and clueless how to get back to the hotel, I made one lucky tuk tuk driver’s day and asked him for a ride. Thank God one of my tourmates had handed me the hotel’s business card with the address before we split up. I showed it to the driver. “Yes, I know; I will take you!” Hallelujah.
Did you know about the Cambodian Genocide? What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever been to Cambodia?
Read Part I in my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!
Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.
Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.
Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.
My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.
Other tidbits about HCMC:
Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California
I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.
For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.
Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos
Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.
My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.
It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still. Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.
Being Black gets you noticed
Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..
None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.
Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.
That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.
It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.
The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.
I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.
Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!
Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?
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When I considered writing an end of the year retrospective, my face scrunched up in disgust as I reflected on 2015. Not my favorite year by a longshot. So much of it felt like a continuous struggle – like I’m in the middle of a significant lesson which I’ve tired of learning. Part of that may be the depression talking. It’s been one of the roughest years for me in a long while on that front and I know how much it can cloud and distort a person’s view of situations. A year is a fairly arbitrary measure of time and in the space of those bookends much transpired – good, bad and adjectives in between. There are layers to this life thing.
Instead of dwelling on the year’s lows and looking at the year simplistically, I opted to capture the essence of each month – a reflection of what was going during that period in time – including the books I read, TV shows I binged, trips I took and posts I wrote that resonated with people. It turns out that 2015 wasn’t as “garbage” as I initially thought.
2015: Year in Review
Highs: Woke up in Prague after a fun New Years Eve. • Designed and ordered my first box of business cards as a writer and blogger. • Was excited to be followed by Taye Diggs on Twitter until I found out he follows practically everyone.
Highs: Beinginvited as a guest on a radio show. I thought my nerves were going to get the best of me, but I did it and I didn’t make myself look like a fool! • Caught up with a good friend from L.A. who was passing through San Francisco for a blip. We laughed so hard; it was just what I needed. Lows: The Uprising in Baltimore, Maryland after the death of Freddie Gray – specifically the way many mainstream media outlets distorted events, as well as how excessive policing goaded and further traumatized people already in emotional distress. Binge-watched:Marvel’s Daredevil •Bones (s5-9) Wrote: 5 Myths About Black Americans That Need to Disappear(4th most popular post of the year)
Highs: Watched two friends who seem made for each other get married • Saw an excellent and poignant one-woman show at The Marsh called Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters • Danced to tracks spun by Ryan Hemsworth at 1015 Folsom • Saw Kim Kardashian talk about the sexual objectification of women in the media (yes, really) at The Commonwealth Club (While I’ve never been her biggest fan, I have to admit she gives a charming interview and is likely smarter than she’s given credit for). My friend J and I are now technically in an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians since the cameras were there with Kim and panned over the audience.
A friend sent me an email out of the blue saying “write a book please” – it meant a lot. • Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole and took down the anachronistic Confederate Flag waving in front of South Carolina’s capitol building! Lows: A delusional white supremacist befriended and then murdered 9 black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Being in the office – where I was one of very few black employees – feeling alone in mourning the lives lost, because no one else seemed care about what had happened – at least not to the degree I did. Binge-watched: Orange is the New Black (s2-3) Read: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ☆☆☆☆☆ Wrote: Don’t Call Me “Girl”
Highs: First BlogHer conference • Spent time with my (New York) mom and my grandparents • Took in another one woman show, this time by Anna Deavere Smith called Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education at Berkeley Rep – disquieting commentary on the US educational system and the “school-to-prison” pipeline. • BlogHer.com picked up my post What Emotions Am I Allowed to Have as a Black Woman for syndication!
BlogHer 2015 is hands down the best conference I’ve ever attended. Among many highlights: I learned more than I probably am even aware; shared an inspiring moment of solidarity led by the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement; met one of the bloggers I admire, Awesomely Luvvie (and acted like a fool incapable of forming proper sentences); listened with great interest as the talented film director Ava DuVernay imparted words of wisdom; and engaged in refreshingly honest discussion on sexual harassment, intersectional feminism, and domestic violence helmed by three formidable women behind a few of the most powerful “hashtag activism” movements on Twitter in recent years.
I also met some wonderful new people, and to wrap it all up we celebrated with a party where Boyz II Men performed, Nick Cannon DJed, we “whip and nae nae”d, and dined on all the McDonald’s we could eat!
Lows: My friend died from cancer • In a case of police abuse that hit frighteningly close to home, a 28-year old black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell under extremely suspicious circumstances – after a questionable arrest. This just weeks after the murders in Charleston. Again, working in the office – trying to get through the day coherently and without breaking into tears – seemed like a form of self-flagellation. Binge-watched:Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt • Veep Read: The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman ☆☆☆☆☆ Traveled: New York Wrote: What Emotions Am I Allowed to Have as a Black Woman?(3rd most popular post of the year)
Highs: Reunited with my friends/favorite ex-coworkers to celebrate the life of our friend E- who died in July • Caught up other good friends in Los Angeles for Mexican food • Went to a San Francisco Giants game with a friend in town from L.A. • Surprised and honored to be included in Quirky, Brown Love’s200 Amazing Black Bloggers (among great company). Lows: The reason for the reunion • Took an unscheduled break from blogging to recharge
Highs: Visited my Vegas grandmother, got her signed up for seniors’ internet classes at her local library, helped her secure her membership at the ‘Y’ where she now enjoys taking chair yoga, and took her shopping because as I told her, just because you’re working out doesn’t mean you should dress any ol’ way and she was going to be a “fly granny.” 79 and still going strong. Get it granny! • Second youngest sister visited from Texas! • Danced my butt off at the Oakland Music Festival with said sister. • Invited ontoThe Unconventional Woman Podcast as a guest. Lows: Had a mammogram to check out a lump (everything’s fine). • Second youngest sister returned home. Binge-watched:Sliders (re-watched series) • Power Traveled: Las Vegas Wrote: San Francisco, I Think I’m Over You
Highs: With my second youngest sister, I spent my first Thanksgiving in over 20 years with my (New York) mom and her side of the family. Met a bunch of new-to-me and new-to-this-earth cousins. • Saw a live taping of The View and softened toward Raven; DJ Tanner was there!; left with a $100 gift card to Lulu’s and an Alessia Cara CD (the musical guest on the show). Lows: A job I wanted that would have allowed me to work remotely didn’t pan out Binge-watchedChicago Fire (whole series) • The Fosters (s3) • Being Mary Jane (whole series) Read:We Should All Be Feministsby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ☆☆☆☆☆ • Syrup: A Novel by Max Barry ☆☆☆☆☆ Traveled: New York Wrote: Quit Talking about the Lack of Diversity and Do Something
Once I put it all down, it’s clear that I have a lot to be grateful for this year. It’s far too easy to focus on what you don’t have, haven’t accomplished, who’s not with you, or how much money you didn’t make. It’s important not to let the year’s lows overshadow its’ memorable highlights.
I am healthy, I have a safe place to live, I don’t have to search for food, my family is safe and generally healthy, I have friends and people who love me. So take that depression!
With all that said, 2016 I hope you are planning to bring it.
How did you feel about 2015? What were your highs and lows? What did you watch/listen to/read/create? Travel anywhere interesting?
The first time I met my friend V’s fiancé KJ, he joined us and another friend for hiking yoga.
I knew KJ was smitten with V when I sensed how important it seemed to him that her friends like him. I took to him immediately: he’s genuine, kind, quirky funny and treats her so well. He fit in with us like an old friend.
V and KJ graduated from the same university and are even in photos together, but didn’t really know each other in college. They re-entered each others’ lives five years later when they met at a run club in Los Angeles. Few who know them were surprised when, four years after their reconnection, V and KJ announced their engagement.
To celebrate her upcoming nuptials, I joined V and nine of her college friends (she and I met at work) who drove or flew in from Los Angeles, Hawaii and Virginia for a three and a half day “roaring ’20s”-themed bachelorette party in Palm Springs.
The bridal party booked a four-bedroom mid-century home, including a heated pool and hot tub, just a few minutes from downtown Palm Springs.
Though my flight from San Francisco was only a little over an hour to Palm Springs, turbulence plagued the last 15 minutes. As I gripped both arm rests, wondering if this might be where it all ends, I scolded myself for not having made friends with the guy next to me. He might be the last person I see. I should at least know his name. I silently protested: “I’m not ready to go yet. It’s not time!” I heard a small child cry: “Mooom, I don’t like this!” Kid, we are on the same page.
Thankfully we landed without incident, other than my heart palpitations and someone’s potentially traumatized child.
The bride also flew down from San Francisco, but on a later flight. Unfortunately, after two rocky attempts to land in Palm Springs, her flight was diverted to Ontario Airport, about an hour northwest of Palm Springs. Understandably shaken, V and 12 others passengers exited the plane, opting to find their own way to their destination. Happily, she arrived that night after catching a ride with a friend – her former roommate – driving in from Los Angeles. Bachelorette party nightmare averted.
We welcomed her by hiding in the dark, pretending not to be home when she arrived.
The festivities officially kicked off the following morning with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating aerial tram. In just over 10 minutes, the massive pod ascended more than 8500 feet above the canyon.
Riding up on the tram | Photo courtesy of PY
The bride (R) and maid of honor mock fear on the tram as it sways on the climb
We exited the tram to find the temperature dramatically lower at 25 °F, low visibility and the ground covered in fresh snow.
Mount San Jacinto State Park
Mount San Jacinto State Park
Both V and I showed up inappropriately dressed for the climate – who expects winter in the California desert in May? – so we purchased snazzy new lounge pants from the gift shop to cover our legs.
We speed-walked, lunged and jumped our way through a 1.5 mile nature walk, trying to generate heat with each movement. High in Chino Canyon we found giant pine cones fallen from towering, fragrant pine trees, lush fir trees, the homes of crayon-colored birds and chittering creatures, as our footsteps left imprints on drying powder.
V and C were roommates in college
After an outdoor barbecue lunch (burgers, pasta salad, grilled corn, summer salad and fresh fruit), it was pool time for some, while others napped to power up for our evening of dinner and dancing.
That evening, each of us dressed to the gills in our best approximation of 20’s style garb for a night on the town sure to be the bee’s knees.
“Peas and carrots. Hahahaha.”
V with her former college roommates
V with her bridesman, A
V and her maid of honor, H
Let’s get zozzled
Following an appetizing meal at The Tropicale, our group headed next door to the Miami-themed Copa Lounge, where we danced our way to sore feet.
We started the next day strong with an in-home modified Barre class led by one of the bridesmaids J, who teaches at a studio in Texas. Though we’re a pretty fit group and everyone has their preferred workout of choice (cross-fit, hot yoga, Pilates, SoulCycle, etc.) the class challenged us. We giggled through our pain. J gives good Barre.
Post Barre class and breakfast, the tenth member of the group, a 7-months pregnant TO, joined us just in time for a photo session by the pool.
A playing “pool boy” as the girls look on
Later that evening we regrouped for a three-course dinner at The Workshop Kitchen + Bar, recent winner of the James Beard award for best restaurant design.
A bachelorette party in your 30s is a different animal than that of a twenty-something. Instead of a second night out, we opted to play games (Dirty Minds, Catchphrase) and each made a commemorative scrapbook of our weekend using Instax pics we’d taken that weekend.
The night culminated with s’mores around the outdoor fire pit.
On our last morning together, we enjoyed a breakfast of waffles at the house and made friendship bracelets. It felt like being back at summer camp. The perfect bookend to a fun-packed extended weekend in Palm Springs.
Of course, we couldn’t leave the house without taking one last photo.
When the bellhop left the hotel room after depositing our luggage, I broke into a touchdown dance.
I dove onto the bed, a European double, spaced at least 3-feet away from a second bed. Larger beds and no tripping over luggage, boots and each other? Minimal upgrades that seemed positively luxe when compared to our accommodations in the past 15 days.
In Copenhagen and Berlin, we stayed in hostels. in small rooms reminiscent of my college dorm days. There was the budget hotel in Praguewith an Internet connection so slow it literally made me cry (I blame travel fatigue). We reveled in the amenities of the 4-star hotel we’d booked in Warsaw, the last stop on our 3-, turned 4-city, self-directed tour of European capitals. Thanks to Warsaw’s inexpensive cost, four nights at the Polonia Palace Hotel cost just a tad more than one night at the hostel inCopenhagen.
“Keisha! We have a real tub!” Z exclaimed from the bathroom. I danced some more. The queen life.
The train ride from Prague to Warsaw was a long 7.5 hours, so we took it easy that night and enjoyed dinner in our hotel’s restaurant, Strauss.
Homemade ravioli with veal and sage, in a butternut squash moose and a plum and chili confiture.
Apple strudel with roasted butte ice cream and buttermilk powder
Żywiec lager, a Polish brand
Like Prague, Warsaw has its own historic town center – the Old Town Market Place –our first sightseeing destination the next morning. Everywhere you turn in the massive square you’re treated to enchanting view after view, bordered on one side by, what else? A Royal Castle. The beautiful square had to be rebuilt in the mid-20th century after being destroyed by Germany in WWII.
We found a giant panda on skates.
Beyond the square, in Old Town, are shops, cathedrals, landmarks, schools, restaurants and a touch of merriment courtesy of the lingering holiday decorations.
These are no ordinary light displays!
And a McFit? Yes, it’s what it sounds like: a McDonald’s gym. McDonald’s.
It’s just as charming at night.
For dinner we chose Dwie, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant. “Fusion” restaurants bring out the skeptic in me, but I went for it.
Baked cod with fingerling potatoes, parsley puree and lemon verbena.
Brownie with orange marmalade and chocolate chili
In the end, the food presentation delighted me more than the actual meal. The dishes seemed to be trying too hard to be something.
The next day – a particularly chilly and dreary one – we visited the Warsaw Zoo. I love animals, but I’m not necessarily a fan of zoos. In the winter months, zoo admission is half off. The zoo is small, quite a few of the animals sheltered themselves from the cold in hidden places, and the big cats paced creepily. We left not feeling any better about zoos.
Poland is known for pierogis, the ravioli-like dumplings served boiled or fried, with a variety of fillings that may include meat, cabbage, potatoes, or even fruit. We decided on an early dinner of pierogis at Zapiecek, which at 5pm already looked filled to capacity. Luckily we quickly snagged one of the last tables and were soon rewarded with delicious, real-deal pierogis.
Vodka Hibiscus Hot Toddy
Boiled pierogis, gravy came on the side
Gravy for the pierogis
Fried pierogis with meat and cabbage, topped with gravy
While indulging in late night desserts at a restaurant with an extensive sweets selection, Smaki Warszawy, fresh fat snow flakes started falling from the sky coating the city with white powder in minutes, making it seem more romantic – for other people. We saw a couple engaged in a flirty snowball fight on the short stroll back to our hotel.
Łazienki Park, a gigantic park in the center or Warsaw, is one of the most visited spots in Warsaw. To visit the day after fresh snowfall was a treat. The park’s full name translates to “royal baths park” and fresh snow also meant all the water in the park sat frozen or empty. Similar to Central Park in New York, visitors to the park are a collection of tourists and locals, families and friends, and couples taken by the magnificent parkscape.
Within the park is a museum, a white-tablecloth restaurant, sculptures, statues, and a palace. One of the most famous statues of of Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin, resides in the park. We witnessed a young guy use his footsteps to draw a heart in the snow around the perimeter of the empty pool in front of the statue. His adoring girlfriend watched at the base of the monument.
We picked our lunch spot by default that day. As it turns out, January 6 is a holiday in Poland, Three King’s Day, and as such, nearly everything was closed. Happily, Być Może, an airy cafe with high ceilings, served up tasty sandwiches on freshly-baked bread.
Z’s sandwich: Chicken, bacon, fried egg, vegetables and mayo on freshly baked bread. The waiter called it “a challenge.”
Italian mortadella open-faced sandwich with pheasant pate, arugula and truffle olive oil
Our sightseeing adventures ended earlier than planned due to the holiday closures, which gave us more time to enjoy the comforts of our hotel and watch music videos on Eska tv, a Polish music channel. Their video lineup included the usual Top 40 suspects interspersed with local artists, like a rapper who looked and kinda sounded like a Polish Eminem. I couldn’t understand a word of what he said, but the beat and flow worked; I liked it. Notably, every commercial break contained at least one pharmaceutical commercial.
The next morning, I arose at a bleary hour, way before the birds, first to depart back to the United States. Bittersweet best describes what leaving felt like. For three weeks, Z and I were lucky enough to travel around Europe soaking in cultures, learning history, trying new foods, meeting interesting people and forming unforgettable memories. What a trip! Nevertheless, back in San Francisco awaited the comforts that only a place called “home” can provide.
Prague 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.
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.”
One good thing I got from Berlin: pre-party beverages in the form of Smirnoff mixed drinks in CANS. Yeah buddy!
Fireworks in Old Town Square
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.
I don’t usually order omelets because I prefer my eggs cooked otherwise, but I had a feeling Au Gourmand would make a great one and they did. This simple ham and cheese omelet was deliciously worth stepping out of my egg comfort zone.
Photo courtesy of Z
After a satisfying brunch we revisited the Old Town Square to take it in during the light of day.
Eating a Kielbasa in Prague
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.
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.
They had menus in English as well as Czech
Interior – walls decorated with vintage posters and advertisements
This delicious dessert of fondant au chocolat oozed warm chocolate once punctured. It paired well with the cool ice cream.
Rack of lamb cooked medium, with gnocchi-like Czech dumplings and a sweet spinach
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.
Old Town Bridge Tower leading to the Charles Bridge
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.
Sculpture by famous Czech artist, David Černý. as seen in the courtyard of the Franz Kafka museum.
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!
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.
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.
Spree River and the Oberbaum Bridge which connects Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg
Oberbaum Bridge connects Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg
Super long German word for health center
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.”
Brandenburg Gate, the center of NYE festivities
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe contains 2711 stone slabs. The slabs do not have particular meaning, the memorial is designed to make the viewer think.
Hitler and Eva Braun’s bunker until the end of the war before they killed themselves. It looks like a parking lot because the German’s want to be careful not to appear to be celebrating Hitler’s life.
Santa Claus at the mall in Berlin
Santa Claus at the mall in Berlin
One of the few structures to withstand the destruction of war
Memorial to Germans who were massacred as a result of standing up against communism.
This mural painted on a one of the walls of the former Mural on Outside the Former Headquarters of the Former Headquarters of the Luftwaffe HQ represents the ideals of what communism could be. It’s the same length as the pool that represents the deaths of those who died as a result of communism gone wrong.
This mural painted on a one of the walls of the former Mural on Outside the Former Headquarters of the Former Headquarters of the Luftwaffe HQ represents the ideals of what communism could be. It’s the same length as the pool that represents the deaths of those who died as a result of communism gone wrong.
The remains of the Berlin Wall across from the former HQ of the Luftwaffe. A number of employees in the building would try to scale the wall via multiple means, including zipline, to escape East Berlin, knowing they risked being shot by officers who were incented to shoot escapees.
Humboldt University, one of Berlin’s oldest unis
After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.
This darling group sang german carols the crowd knew the words to, and though we didn’t, it was still fun to watch and glove-clap along.
My dinner: bratwurst, damn good sauerkraut and Hefeweizen in Germany!!
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.
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.
Serrano ham sandwich in a baguette with egg at Literaturhaus cafe
Organic rhubarb lemonade
i don’t pop Molly’s, I rock Christian Dior…or at least I pretend to in German malls.
Firecrackers for sale at the mall
Firecrackers for sale at the mall
I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!
Beautifully presented eggs and bacon on a bed of “hush” browns (as printed on the menu).
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?
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.
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.
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.
Sachsenhausen former concentration camp
Sachsenhausen concentration camp
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.
Christmas is kind of a big deal in Denmark. In Copenhagen giant wreaths adorn formidable wooden doors, twinkly lights border shop and restaurant facades and add sparkle to trees and foliage; wishes of “God jul” (Merry Christmas) in ornamental fonts cover storefront windows, and the requisite Christmas fir trees dot the town. On Strøget, a man with an accordion plays melodies that would make the perfect musical backdrop to a romantic comedy.
Every Christmas season, Tivoli, the second oldest amusement park in the world, transform their grounds into a majestic Christmas wonderland making it a perfect destination for families, friends, dates and tourists alike.
Copenhagen begins to quiet down during the week of Christmas. We took advantage of the calm and boarded a train for a 45-minute ride to the city of Helsingør. The city’s most famous attraction is Kronberg Palace, known also as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The expansive grounds are magnificent and the atmosphere serene (aside from the occasional piped-in recorded sounds of incoming Calvary). The surrounding town offered its own bright charm.
Had we done a bit more advanced planning we might have joined the ranks of the Danish and tourists filling the city’s restaurants for Christmas Eve dinner. Every restaurant we contacted was booked for the evening.
We stumbled around the nearly soulless streets of Indre By looking for signs of restaurant life. We found our oasis in the form of Sultan Palace and soon other hungry, reservation-less diners joined us for the Turkish buffet.
Christmas morning we awoke to a super gift: snow! A fun treat on our last full day in Copenhagen, especially after endless rain.
This city and its people showed us a great time and we’ll miss the more relaxed pace of life and sense of calm. Now it’s on to the next country’s adventures!
The Danish guide from the walking tour we took earlier in the day, Magnus, also led that evening’s four-bar pub crawl. The group of about 15 included a few familiar faces from the earlier tour and represented several nations including England, Australia, Columbia, Trinidad, Peru and, of course, Denmark.
Also in our group: two progressively drunker American dudebros. Later in the night, one of the dudebros stumbled in front of a politi (police) car and started to give them lip, which they didn’t find amusing; neither did I and neither did Magnus as he warned, “They don’t like that.” Sigh.
50DKK is a little over US $8.00
The Saloon Bar has free popcorn – one of my favorite bar treats!
Me & Z with (l to r): L from Peru & A & S from England. My fellow afro-haired new friend A made my night when he told me he thought I (and my friend) looked no older than 25. When 22-year olds think you’re in their peer group, it makes you feel good.
Most of the group at Saloon Bar in Copenhagen. We blended quite well and I think everyone had a good time given the smiles and laughter surrounding me.
With the sisters from Australia and _ from Trinidad. We had a fun-spirited debate over who was more talented between Iggy Azalea and Nicki Minaj. You can guess who the Aussies and the Trinidadian chose. I broke the tie with a vote for Nicki.
With two Columbians who told us they are over the jokes about cocaine which I can imagine is even more tiresome for the one woman who is from Medellin.
The next morning jet lag hit me hard. We gave in to the Danish spirit of “hygge” and slept in before starting the day. On the agenda for our afternoon: a free walking tour of the neighborhood Christianshavn and the very unique “freetown” Christiania.
Before the walking tour, we stopped for lunch at a fantastic indoor market, Torvehollerne, the largest food market in Copenhagen, where vendors sell food and goods from around the world.
Open-faced sandwiches, or Smørrebrød, are popular in Danish cuisine. It’s not just the taste that’s important with these buttered, rye-bread based sandwiches; presentation matters, as well.
One of the two buildings that make up Torvehollerne in Copenhagen
A Spanish tapas place next to a French gastronomy mini-restaurant.
Smørrebrød with smoked salmon with a tart cream sauce. Tasty.