Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Mar 092018
 


I just realized that I had way more pictures from Mexico City than I thought I did, so I’m going to break this up into two pieces. The first will be the five days I was there for work, while the second part will be mostly the food tour I did on my last day there. With that out of the way let’s get right to it.

The line for immigration and customs was super long – I would guess 500+ people – since a few widebodies from Europe had just landed. Fortunately, there was a crew and diplomats line which I was able to use that only had a few flight attendants in it. Saved me at least 30 minutes, maybe closer to an hour, which was a good thing since I was getting tired after being ill much of the preceding week.

Outside customs, I pulled up Uber and got ready to call a car, but apparently Uber had decided there was fraud on  my account and they had locked it. I submitted their “proof you own the account” form, but after 15 minutes still hadn’t heard anything so I chose one of the pre-paid official taxi services which actually didn’t end up being much more than an Uber anyways. Stopped at the ATM for some cash, and we were off.

I had heard how awful traffic in Mexico City could be, and since I was going clear across the city to the west side area of Santa Fe I was worried it might be awful. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t too bad this late at night and it only took maybe 45 minutes to get to my hotel, the Sheraton Santa Fe.

This property used to be an Embassy Suites I believe, so all the rooms are suites, but they had upgraded me to a larger corner suite as a platinum member. The living room area was huge, with a dining table and desk for working:

Living room from the other side….full sofa, couple of chairs, and tv area….it was quite spacious!

Bedroom was nothing special, but was also quite roomy:

Bathroom was quite roomy as well. Not pictured was the shower cubical which was to my back in the pic:

I was a little hungry, but not enough that I wanted to order anything from room service, so minibar time it was. Cuando en México…

Slept reasonably well even though the room wouldn’t cool quite as much as I would like, and was up early for a short run. Despite no major time change I was feeling super jetlagged and sluggish and couldn’t figure out why. I knew Mexico was at altitude, and I thought something like 5,000 feet, but turned out it was more like 7,400 feet above sea level. Definitely enough to feel it.

No matter, a quick breakfast at Starbucks would take care of that. I wish that I was Jessi’s girl….

Not too much to say. Spent the next five days working long days, but seeing this sunset every day from the parking ramp around 6pm was pretty awesome and cheered me up after a long day:

Client dinners a few nights, including an amazing dinner at Restaurante Cascabel in Santa Fe. Delicious tapas and some cactus salad and octopus tacos. Out of this world – highly recommend it!

Even the room service at the Sheraton wasn’t bad….tacos arachara and tres leches cake….yum!

This fashionista at Starbucks was definitely ready for the day ahead!

On my last day there, we were just wrapping up work and getting ready to head out when a loud siren started going off in the building. That’s when I learned a new word in Spanish – sismo – earthquake. I was amazingly impressed how everyone knew exactly what to do. People moved quickly, and I mean VERY quickly, up the stairs and out the building, and everyone knew where the designated meeting/shelter spots were.

We had about 45 seconds due to the distance from the epicenter, and just as we got to the meeting point you could definitely feel the ground shaking. About an hour later we were given the all-clear, and fortunately there was no major damage despite the earthquake being relatively strong at 7.2 on the Richter Scale.

This lady, however, had had a major panic attack. I was impressed just how quickly paramedics got to her and took care of her.

Back to the Sheraton, packed up, and called an Uber to take me to the centre of the city for my last two nights so that I would be able to maximize my one full day in the city. Unfortunately, due to the earthquake, traffic was an absolute mess and it too me nearly two hours to get to the Le Meridien. By the time I got there it was after 10pm, and despite it not being that late by Mexican standards I was exhausted from a long week of work and opted to just have a small dinner in the hotel bar.

More tacos arrachara which were amazing, and a local craft beer. Not bad at all! I wish all room service were this good!

Upstairs for a shower and sleep. They had upgraded me to a suite, but only had ones with two smaller beds, so I just took the regular room – which was still quite big. I think this hotel had also been an Embassy Suites since all the rooms were suites as well. When your faucet isn’t marked, you make do the best you can….stencilling it on the wall with marked. Classy.

Slept well, and managed to sleep in a little bit. Best part of the Le Meridien? There was a Starbucks right in the same building so that made getting breakfast nice and easy! Still not sure what they thought my name was…

Walked around a little bit before my walking tour was to begin, and there were earthquake meeting points painted on the ground all over the place. I have to say, I was really impressed with the preparedness.

Next up, a food walking tour of the historical center…I hope you’re hungry!

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Mar 072018
 


As I mentioned in the last post, the Mobile Passport app had refused to let me report in, leading me to wonder if it was just a systems error (perhaps due to the federal government shutdown that was underway?) or a sign of something more ominous.

Having never had to actually go through normal lines in over five years, thanks to Global Entry and Mobile Passport, I was completely unsure what to do when I arrived…so I followed the line for US Citizens. I know this is probably boring to a lot of people since it’s what most travels do every time they return to the country, but it was new to me.

Turns out you report in at a machine now that is very similar to Global Entry, but there’s no biometric scan. You still scan your passport, the machine takes your picture, and spits out a receipt that you then get in line to show to an agent. I guess what this does is automates some of the data entry the agent used to have to do, and makes a determination.

My receipt spit out line this, and it’s the same “X of Doom” that I’ve gotten at Global Entry before, so I knew I was in for hell. At this point I only had about forty minutes to connect to my next flight, so I was pretty sure I was screwed:

Took nearly 15 minutes to reach the front of the queue and get to an agent, and I was very fortunately to get a very pleasant and helpful agent. The usual questions. Asked what I’d been up to in Cairo, explained it was just one night on the way to Germany for vacation, which made total sense to him. But then: “unfortunately my friend, you’ve won the lottery today. Please wait here against the wall, and someone will be by shortly to escort you to secondary inspection.” Whee, the automated system had decided (most likely) that my one day in Cairo was a lil too sketchy for them, so I feared the same four hour interrogation I got last time I took this route. I was preparing for the worst…and knew my connecting flight was a lost cause.

“Shortly” turned out to be nearly 30 minutes, and finally a pleasant agent came to get me…with a train of eight other suspects behind her. Me, two teenagers who looked to be somali, a pair of women in abayas, a couple of young African men, an older Pakistani gentleman with a grey beard died orange, and what appeared to be a rastafarian. Clearly I’d gotten the “profiling” flag…..

First stop was to drop six people off for what appeared to be baggage inspection. That wasn’t to be my fate. Me, one of the Somali teens, and the older Pakistani guy were led to another area, and told to “have a seat over there.” I sat for what was probably 30-45 minutes, until what I have to admit was a very professional agent came out with all three of our passports. After a quick glance at them, he beckoned me over first. I guess the shady American was likely to be easier than the foreigners…

What seemed to be a very well rehearsed series of about a dozen questions, he took notes on the back of my receipt, then actually said sorry for the hassle…have a good day. I suspect what ever auto flag I tripped he decided “oh, just one of those crazy frequent flier kids flying weird routes for fun” and let me go.

Finally checked my phone, and yup, despite still being 10 minutes prior to departure United had rebooked on on a later flight from Boston-Newark-DCA…in coach. WTF. A quick check of ExpertFlyer confirmed F was available – although points to United for confirming me on what was the quickest routing. Quick call to United got me moved back up business what I had paid for (why they didn’t rebook me automatically was a mystery…since the same class was available) so no giant inconvenience. I would get home a bit over three hours later, via Newark instead of Chicago…and unfortunately miss my hockey game. Boo!

Boston might be one of the most awful airports to transit in, and the walk from the international terminal to United’s terminal took forever, and required a walk outside, walk through the JetBlue checkin area, then past this flying banana:

By the time I got to the United Club, I was a sweaty mess, and of course there were no showers. No worry, was able to relax, clean up, have some water, before setting off in search of what would be much-needed caffeine. One huge plus for Boston, the United terminal had not just a Starbucks, but also a Peet’s and a Dunkin‘! I love choice!

Off to the gate after a long wait, and it was time to fly to sEWaRk…

United Express flight 3622 operated by Republic Airlines
Boston, Massachusetts (BOS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:29, Arrive 19:05, Flight Time: 1:36
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N733YX, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,502
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,564

Absolutely nothing to say about this flight. It was on time, there was a snack basket, crew was friendly and efficient and offered multiple refills…about all you can ask for for a short last minute regional flight.

Quick stop by the United Club for some water and a glass of whine, before boarding the last flight of the night, which I prayed would be on time.

United Express flight 3722 operated by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 20:30, Arrive 21:50, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N746YX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,701
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,763

On time, with wine and a refill…nothing more to say! Fortunately, considering all that had gone wrong, I really can’t complain much about getting home the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty mild drama!

Next up, a short post on my recent work trip to Mexico City!

Feb 282018
 


It had been a great vacation, albeit a bit odd for me to spend more than a week in one country! Despite all the rushing from city to city, having to figure out and explore multiple new cities, it actually felt rather resting…last minute train challenges aside.

In order to max sleep I decided I would roll right out of bed in the morning and head straight for the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. What’s the point of getting a coffee/shower/etc when you can do all that at the lounge? I’m not a fan of the 10am flights to the US for this reason (as someone who doesn’t get up all that early) but you do what you have to…

Out of bed, threw on clothes quickly, last few things in the bag, and maybe 15 minutes after my alarm went off I’d already arrived – a bit groggy – although the walk over in the cold morning air did help a little bit. Deer in the not-awake-headlights look:

I won the check-in lottery today, getting selected for secondary screening. It’s a little more tolerable in the First Class Terminal since you get to have a nice seat, there’s no rush, and they do all the work of the explosives scanning/etc for you. This is how security should always be!

By the time I was through the check-in agent was already waiting for me with my boarding pass, and I had about two hours left before my flight, so maybe 90 minutes before boarding. First things first, a couple espressos, some eggs benedict, and nothing says “good morning!” like a glass of champagne!

A quick Instagram and Twitter of the breakfast, and quick reply from Lufthansa’s always-alert social media team:

After finishing up breakfast it was time for a shower and freshening up before boarding. Grabbed a couple of the brand new black first class terminal ducks (how sad is it that one of the first German phrases I learned was ‘can I have two ducks for my (non-existent) children?) and soon after it was already time for a car to the plane. I was only one of two in first again today, and the other passenger and I shared a Porsche to the gate.

Lufthansa flight 422
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,363

Every time I fly Lufthansa first I seem to snap this picture with the champagne and the rose, and it reminds me what lies ahead:

Yet another new colour of Rimowa amenity kit…I simply must stop collecting these…or find a good way to display them.

Turkey tartar amuse bouche…must admit, it was kinda weird… I wasn’t a fan.

Best part of two people in First? All the caviar you want. Extra-large double helping for me today.

Trio of starters: Stuffed beef ham with gorgonzola and date sesame chutney (super tasty!), spiced carrots with curried yoghurt (very bland, but I’ll pretend it was at least healthy), salad of shrimp and green papaya with chili (a bit underwhelming). Only one I finished was the ham and gorgonzola, but the others were worth at least a nibble.

Main course. So on the way over, I had probably the best Lufthansa main course I’ve ever had. This one was a VERY close second: variation of venison, back and bratwurst, lingonberry jus, mashed brussels sprouts, fried curd cake. The venison was cooked a perfect medium, and the lingonberry jus was phenomenal. Lufthansa definitely hit a home run with this one.

Today’s cheeseboard was absolutely amazing: rock salt cheese, Saint Agur, Goat’s cheese with honey (amazing), L’Explorateur, Langres. Served with mango pepperoni chutney. The chutney was definitely a miss and a little weird.

Now that’s what I call a cheese plate! The honey goat cheese was amazing with the sweet biscuits.

I was definitely full at this point, but the crew wasn’t taking no for an answer…and I’m very glad they didn’t. “Warm curd cake with lemon thyme, yogurt oat crumbles, sour cream ice cream flavoured with lime leaves.” Enjoyed with a glass of desert wine it was absolutely amazing.

…and of course, no meal on Lufthansa would be complete without a couple of truffles and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

Spent the next few hours relaxing, and watching some REALLY bad movies on the iPad….or was the movie watching me:

Boston is a relatively short flight from Frankfurt, so by the time it was time for the pre-arrival meal I was still pretty full. Eating nothing wasn’t an option, and the fantastic lead flight attendant simply said “I’ll bring you something light.”

To start, something light was some sushi, a pretzel, and some more JWB:

Next up, some delicious Tom Kha Gai soup…I was told it would go really well with a sweet riesling, and who was I to argue. This was easily the best pre-arrival meal I’ve had on Lufthansa yet:

Finished off with apple cake with cinnamon crumbles…and a little more Johnny Walker Blue.

Overall, this was definitely the best flight I’ve had on Lufthansa food-wise, and everything other than the amuse bouche and appetizers were amazing. Easily one of the best Lufthansa flights I’ve ever taken, and almost exactly the perfect length. I know some people could spend 14+ hours on a flight and never get bored, but for me once it comes up to eight hours that’s more than enough to fit in everything I want to.

Now, off to see what awaits me. Ever since my Global Entry was revoked back in September I’ve been using the Mobile Passport app to check in to immigration and customs before landing. It’s worked just as quickly as Global Entry so far, maybe even quicker sometimes. However, this time, I was getting an error message, and not letting me check in. I had high hopes this was just a software glitch, and not something more…

Feb 262018
 


Woke up in the morning, and saw the first two trains of the day to Frankfurt had already been canceled. This was an ominous sign. The weather definitely seemed better today, but the worst of the wind was supposedly quite a distance south. Oh well, we’ll see what the day brings!

Walked to the U-Bahn to head over to Starbucks, and the sidewalks were completely clear this morning. Definitely a huge improvement over the day before. There didn’t seem to be much wind, so I was pretty hopeful that my train would go as planned today. In order to get to Frankfurt with plenty of time to rest and relax in the evening, I had booked myself on the 13:30 train to Frankfurt so I could sleep in a bit as well as have plenty of time to get dinner in Frankfurt.

After Starbucks, same routine as the day before. A bit like Groundhog Day – back to the Westin to pack up, walked to the U-Bahn thanks to the clear sidewalks, train to Hauptbanhof, get to the platform…just in time to see the train delayed by 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 25 minutes, and then a phrase popped up on the board which I unfortunately added to my German vocabulary on this trip: “Zug fällt aus” – train canceled. Here we go again.

Rebooked myself via the app on the 14:30 train, which was at least kind enough to cancel on me 10 minutes before departure. This was getting frustrating. Ok, one last chance, I’m going to book myself on the 15:30 train, which was conveniently already delayed 30 minutes:

It was cold in the station, so I retreated to where else – Starbucks – for a nice warm coffee. I don’t know who this Justin character is, but I seemed to get his coffee an awful lot in Germany.

At this point I was getting a little nervous about getting to Frankfurt and potentially missing my flight home the next day. A quick check of the United app showed that the 20:00 Hamburg to Frankfurt flight had cheap award seats, so I booked one as a backup plan. It was a direct shot on the U-Bahn to the airport, so I decided if I didnt make it on the 17:30 train I would hightail it to the airport and figure out how to eventually refund my train ticket.

Fortunately, as predicted and only about 15 minutes later than the predicted time, there was much rejoicing on the platform. Surprisingly, the train was only about half full despite the seat map being completely full. I think lots of people had made several sets of backup plans.

Eventually we left, which called for a celebratory beer. Who know it would be so hard to catch a train!

Other than that, it was pretty uneventful. We didn’t make up much time, and by the time I got to Frankfurt it was almost 20:00. I was tempted to stay in and call it a night, but then I remembered I could sleep the entire flight back the next day if I really wanted. So, off to Naïv for some beer and tasty flatbread!

Finished off with a nice heavy Imperial Stout as an Auf Wiedersehen to Germany!

All in all, things worked out fine. I was really looking forward to the full day I was supposed to have in Frankfurt to head down to the Technik Museum in Sinsheim to see the Tupolev and Concorde as well as the Technik Museum in Speyer to see the Space Shuttle Buran, but I guess that will have to wait for a future trip. At least it’s a relatively easy trip from Frankfurt.

Perhaps next time, I’ll do a different loop from Frankfurt for a week, taking in some of the south and east of the country, maybe including Hannover, Bremen Köln, Stuttgart, and Munich….food for thought.

But for now, it’s time for the flight home in Lufthansa First!

Feb 252018
 


So, I overslept. I mean, it was kind of intentional. I’m still figuring out this “vacation” thing where relaxing is supposed to be as much of a part of it as seeing things is. Plus, it was cold out, and a harbour boat tour didn’t sound great in that weather. When I finally got up and opened the windows around 9am, I was greeted with snow…and wind…and lots of it:

It was right around freezing so the snow wasn’t sticking that much, but it was coming down pretty hard:

The snow on the ceiling to floor windows actually gave the room a nice look:

Neither wind, nor rain, nor snow can keep me from Starbucks…I mean the US Mail…or whatever that phrase is. Off through the snow to the U-Bahn to see a little bit of the city despite the snow:

I loved this ad for free WiFi in the U-Bahn….”When you have free WiFi…and find the superfluffy!”

Got out at the Rathaus, where people were wandering about enjoying the snow. Oh, and yes, there’s a Starbucks located right on the square naturally.

Did I mention how thankful I was that I bought that hat back in Dresden?

Wandered a bit, then back to the Westin to check out and grab my bags. I’d noticed that one of the morning Hamburg to Frankfurt trains had canceled, but didn’t really think too much of it.

One of the downsides of having a rolling bag is that when there’s a few cm of slushy snow on the ground, rolling it to the U-Bahn doesn’t really work so well…and the snow was still coming down pretty hard, so rather than try and carry my bag that far I opted to taxi an actual…gasp… taxi since there are no Ubers in Hamburg. Taxi to the train station worked reasonably well, was just slightly more than 10 euro, and when I got there the station was absolutely packed and chaotic:

I still had about 45 minutes until my train (which was showing on time) so I headed up to the second level of the station to look down on the masses below. Trains to Frankfurt were pretty much hourly, and five minutes before it was scheduled to leave the train before mine canceled. Great, this means that mine will be absolutely packed.

Headed to the other side and looked down…the station was suspiciously empty at this point….

Down to the tracks….and there’s no train….five minutes past departure…no train…10 minutes past departure…no train. 15 minutes past departure….canceled.

Fortunately, the DB app works reasonably well, and I was able to book on the next train which was showing 15 minutes late. Ok, I had an hour to kill and was getting a bit hungry, so, when in Hamburg….ich bin ein Hamburger!  😉

Down to the trains for my train an hour later and…surprise surprise…no train. Departure time came and went and then….train canceled.

Time to find someone who worked there…and there was a DB employee in the lobby surrounded by a rather large mob of unhappy people. It took me three or four times of hearing him shout it out since my German isn’t that great, but eventually the message was clear: ALL trains from Hamburg are canceled for the remainder of the day.

Did a bit of goggling, and finally figure out what was going on: Winter Storm Friederike had hit northern Germany and the Netherlands with 100+ kph winds and snow, and was causing tons of infrastructure damage. I’ll be honest, by Minnesotan and Nor’easter standards I wasn’t all that impressed, but I get it when you have trains that go upwards of 200+ kph that it might not be safe to have them out there.

Plans foiled, and having been happy enough with the Westin, I made a quick reservation in the app, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. They were a bit surprised to see me back, having not heard that all trains were canceled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one stranded, so was very lucky to get the same style of suite again, just on a different floor.

Caught up on a few emails, and back up to the lounge to relax over some light snacks and a glass of wine.

…why not make a meal of it, since I was unsure if the weather would impact the restaurants or not.

Determined to make the most of a bad situation, and warmed by a couple glasses of wine, I made the trek to the U-Bahn (I’d say sidewalks were about 25% clear finally) and made the trek out to the edges of the city to Mr. Ape – a fun little hole in the wall hipster bar which had a pretty good selection of craft beer:

The only downside to Mr. Ape? They allowed smoking, which was a bit annoying. Fortunately, it was only a couple of people and grabbing a seat at the bar was pretty far from them, but still…pretty annoying. Was debating heading out to a second place, but a long day of trying to catch trains was catching up with me so opted to go back and crash. Who knew what the trains would hold the next day….

Feb 242018
 


A had a little bit of time in the morning before catching my train to Hamburg, so I decided to do one quick last sight in Berlin. I’ve always been interested in the story of how the U-Bahn and S-Bahn were partitioned during the divide of Berlin, and had read that the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station was one of the best places to see examples of this. From 1961 to 1990 the station was closed, since the exits were into East Berlin. West German trains still passed through the station, however, but for 30 years did not stop.

Entering the station, the old script was still in place:

There was an exhibit in the station (a bit difficult to find) with lots of cool photos and maps. This is the U-Bahn network, with the “ghost stations” in East Berlin shown on a black line with the thick grey line representing the wall:

Outside the station, just 50 meters away, the wall was marked on the ground:

Along with an exhibit of posts showing where it had stood:

Entrance to the Nordbahnhof station:

From Nordbahnhof the S-Bahn took me back to Friedrichstraße station, and a quick walk to the Westin where I checked out and did the short walk in very light snow to the U-Bahn where I caught the train to Berlin Haupbahnhof. I was a bit early, so to keep warm I walked a few laps of the station (also to get some credit towards the Fitbit steps, of course) until it was time to board the train to Hamburg.

The train to Hamburg was right on time, and incredibly empty today. By this point I had finally figured out that empty train = ignore seat assignments as long as nobody is getting on during your trip, and find somewhere comfortable like a set of four seats around a table so you can spread out a bit. Normally when I travel I select single seats whenever possible because I hate climbing over people or being climbed over, but I’ll always take a set of two seats together to spread out if they’re free!

Train ride was a bit under two hours, which was once again enough time for a snack and to do the day’s Duolingo study. Directions to the U-Bahn were very clear once arriving in Hamburg, and on the train I had found the local app and bought a one-way eticket. It was a direct shot and only like five stops to the Baumwall station which was about a 10 minute walk from…yes…you guessed it…the Westin Hamburg.

The Westin sits on top of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, and occupies its top floors. Unfortunately it was dark when I arrived so I couldn’t enjoy the view. Unfortunately, because, the property had noted it was my 500th lifetime night with Starwood, and marked obtaining Lifetime Platinum Status with the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.

To celebrate the milestone, I got a really nice suite with floor to ceiling windows, despite the hotel being sold out:

Unfortunately work and being tired caught up with me, and I just couldn’t muster the energy to go in the evening. Yes, this is foreshadowing, but it’s like my body was trying to tell me “stay in and rest…you’re on vacation…resting is ok….you can always see the city another time….”

So, up to the executive lounge I went, where they had a fantastic spread of appetizers for cocktail hour:

Look at that variety of sweets!

Mini quiches, prosciutto skewers…

There was more than enough food and drink to make a dinner out of, and with Happy Hour lasting nearly four hours that’s exactly what I did while I rested and caught up on some work.

Off to bed early, and told myself I’d try and wake up super early to have coffee and then do a boat tour of the harbour. Mother Nature, however, had her own ideas…

Feb 232018
 


After a fun first afternoon and evening in Berlin, I was excited to take advantage of having another full day with absolutely no plans at all. Slept in a little, and when I woke up and looked out the window…it was snowing. There wasn’t any sticking on the ground that I could see, and a walk down Friedrichstraße to Starbucks confirmed most of it was melting on contact…but unfortunately that meant things were a wet and slushy mess out.

Over coffee I decided to walk up to the Brandenburger Tor and snap a few shots, and along the way I decided it might be fun to see the dome of the Reichstag if tickets were still available. They were, and with an hour to kill I had a leisurely stroll. There was a lot more snow on the ground around the Brandenburger Tor – not sure if that was because it was that much colder just 500 or so meters away, or if there were less buildings or what, but there was enough that someone had managed a sad snowman:

Brandenburger Tor:

Arrived at the Reichstag about 15 minutes before my scheduled time, but no problem and no line. Quick pass through the metal detectors and x-ray, and it was inside. Free audioguide was included which gave an interesting history and tour of the dome. The tour is a walk in a a circle around the inside of the dome, on two spiralling ramps that go up about 3-4 levels and then comes down in between:

Better view of several of the spiralling levels of ramps towards the top:

By this point the snow had stopped, and the water on the glass dome made for some neat pictures:

Nearing the top of the dome. As someone who doesn’t always do well with heights, this was enclosed just enough that it didn’t really bother me. In the middle of this picture, against the walkways, you can see a bit of a “shade” – this tracks the movement of the sun and prevents direct light from being beamed into the chamber below and blinding people. The mirrored cone in the middle directs indirect light down into the chamber, and helps provide lighting and reduces electricity costs:

Better view of the sunshade and mirrored cone from below:

By the time I finished the tour the skies were clearing and the lighting was great for pictures just outside the dome:

Front of the Reichstag building:

No real plans for the rest of the day, so I decided to just keep walking. After wandering the grounds around the Reichstag for a bit, decided to hop on the U-Bahn and go for a ride. Obligatory shot of the U2 at Zoo Station:

Getting a bit hungry at this point in the day, so when in Berlin a U-Bahn Döner is in order:

I really wanted to do the tour of Tempelhof airport, so headed there next. Unfortunately, there were only German tours on this day, but I decided that even if I only caught 50-75% of it it would be worth it to get the guided tour around the airport. Unfortunately, when I got there, they told me there would be no tour today because the guide was sick. Major bummer. Now I have to come back.

Eagle on the side of the airport:

Sun was setting by this point and I was getting sleepy, so stopped for a coffee. I wanted to check out the eastern part of the city a bit more, and coincidentally what I was promised was one of the best craft beer bars in Berlin was located there – Protokoll. This involved taking the S-Bahn to Berlin Ostbahnhof – the main train station in the former East Berlin – and taking a bus from there. Finding where the bus stopped was a little difficult, and the area right around the station was definitely one of the sketchier parts of Berlin I’ve found. No problem at all though, thanks to google maps, and soon arrived at Protokoll which definitely had a great beer list:

Although the coffee had helped a bit, it was still a Monday night and rather quiet out, so I opted to call it a semi-early night and catch the train back from Ostbahnhof to Friedrichstraße Station and walk back to the Westin from there.

It was down to about -8 degrees by this point with a bit of a wind, and I definitely froze a bit waiting for the train. Thankfully I’d bought that hat back in Dresden!

It was definitely nice to have a day with no plans or commitments, and I think I managed to see a reasonable amount. It confirmed that I really enjoy the city, and now have to make a point to get back for a longer trip very soon. Off to bed, and excited to see another new city the next day – Hamburg!

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!