May 252018
 


Despite the lack of air conditioning and any city noise at all on Moon Mountain I slept like a rock and woke up just as the sun was coming across the horizon. View from my private plunge pool just outside my tent:

Yup, I think if I spent a few more days here I might have actually managed to relax enough to enjoy the peace and quiet of the amazing surroundings:

The road into Moon Mountain…it’s definitely “real” and “remote” Africa:

Leaving breakfast, the sun was coming up just over the mountains:

Headed out to get an early start, because I wanted to make it to Windhoek in time to see a bit of the city. Of course, I stopped at the bakery in Solitaire one last time for another piece of apple pie. Third visit, and I finally noticed the pictures of Moose McGregor hanging in the bakery:

So, this is where things got a bit messy. Maybe 30 minutes out of Solitaire, I saw a warning on the “D” road that I was on that trucks were not permitted due to steep inclines. I figured hey, how bad could it be, there would be some sort of serious warning if it was that big of a deal – right? I should probably preface this by saying that I don’t really deal well with heights.

Well, after 30 minutes more of driving, that’s when I saw it. The road took a very sudden right turn, and started heading up the side of the mountain, on a long and winding road with switchbacks and no guardrail, at roughly a 15% incline. It also kept going and going. I froze probably a minute in, and was like “ok, backing DOWN this thing at this point is going to be even worse, not to mention 2-3 hours probably out of the way to find a better route, so hey…you’ve lived a good life. Go for it.”

Yeah, I’m being a little dramatic because I hate heights, but it really is a pretty bad road. Fortunately, it’s been bricked over so at least you’re not sliding on gravel. The road crossed up over the Spreetsoogte Pass which is bad enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. According to Wikipedia, the road varies between 16% and 22% grade, making it even worse than I thought.

I was way too whiteknuckles the whole way to stop for pics, but a couple from google:

So, I admit that based on these pics it doesn’t look too terrifying, but if you need to see for yourself, the D1275 from Solitaire towards Windhoek will do it for you. I promise.

Anyways, I lived…and at the top I was terrified that if going up was rough (when I looked down at the road in front of me the whole way), I was scared how bad going down would be when I couldn’t avoid looking down, down, down. Well, surprise surprise, we never went down. We were actually drive up onto a plateau, so thank God for small miracles?

Driving the rest of the way to Windhoek was pretty easy, and the road actually turned to asphalt for the last 45 minutes or so. Waze did a great job of guiding me all the way into my hotel at the Hilton Windhoek, and had no problem getting the car parked and surviving the trip without wetting myself. After patting myself, I checked into my first super comfortable hotel with great AC in a few days and went for a walk.

Right outside the hotel was a statue of Curt von Francois, the founder of Windhoek in 1890:

Along the walk I stoped at Cramer Ice Cream, which tempted me with a waffle with amarula ice cream:

One of the best parts of Africa is the streets named after dictators:

Christuskirche:

The Independence Museum, with a statue of Sam Nujoma in front of it:

Very North Korean looking statue – it would not at all surprise me if Mansudae Overseas was responsible for this in addition to the statues in Senegal and other places.

Speaking of streets named after now former (sort of, since he’s still living in the Presidential Palace) dictators, it’s Uncle Bob Avenue!

After a long hot walk, I retired back to the rooftop pool at the Hilton where I had a couple of ciders and just relaxed.

View from the roof wasn’t half bad at all:

At the recommendation of friends i negotiated a taxi on the streets to take me to Joe’s Beerhouse, which was supposed to be a Windhoek institution. Based on the literally hundreds of people hanging out drinking and eating, I’d definitely found the most happening place in the entire country. The oryx lasagne was definitely a one-of-a-kind treat too!

Back to the Hilton, where the city looked just as amazing at night:

Off to bed, because it was time to get up early and fly to Zimbabwe in the morning!

May 232018
 


Fortunately after falling back to sleep around 3 or 4am I managed to sleep until 8am, and only woke up feeling terrible – and not like death. I felt well enough to try and shower and leave the room, and at least see what breakfast looked like. I was craving salt for obvious reasons, and figured I might get a little food down.

The breakfast buffet all looked totally unappetizing, but used it as an excuse to force myself to eat some cinnamon buns and bacon, and get some calories and nutrients back in. I was feeling so dodgy I even skipped coffee and went with tea, and actually started to feel  moderately human afterwards.

Human enough that I decided to go for a little walk outside and see if I could see anything more in the daylight. To say it was a little foggy out would be an understatement:

Woerman House, now a museum and library:

Under the pretence of needing calories and caffeine, I stopped for a nibble at Cafe Anton for their Apfel Struedel as a few friends had recommended. Unfortunately, my piece wasn’t very good and the crust was actually a bit raw in spots. The espresso was, however, pretty good, and there may have been a second one….and still no signs of the upset from the night before other than feeling slightly nauseous. This might be the quickest bout of food poisoning I’ve ever dealt with!

The Leuchtturm – lighthouse – and one of the symbols of the city:

Rather gory war memorial near the lighthouse:

Für Kaiser und Reich!

I found the monument rather fascinating in all its gore!

Memorial to those killed in the Two World Wars:

Walking back along the still foggy beach back to the hotel:

Got back, packed up, took some meds, and hoped I would be well enough for the long five hours of driving ahead. At least I reasoned that if I started to feel too awful again I would at least be in the middle of nowhere where nobody would be witness!

After checking out I got back in the SUV and stopped by a grocery store to stock up on supplies for the next three long days of driving. Lots of water, caffeine, and some Pringles for good measure just in case I needed the salts. Headed out of town, and within an hour I was near the turnoff for Dune 7. It was pretty good roads all the way here so far, and I was beginning to think this might not be too bad. Well, except for the fact there was exactly zero cell reception at the dune. Note the tiny people climbing the dune to get a sense of perspective:

Golden sand against clear blue sky: #nofliter

I still wasn’t feeling 100% so opted to skip climbing the dune and proceeded further east. Had to stop in front of the Walvis Bay airport sign for a selfie to prove I was there:

However, soon after the airport the road turned to gravel, and then even rougher gravel. The car was handling it pretty well for the most part with minimal sliding and despite the challenging terrain, it was even worse off the road:

I probably drove another 90 minutes to two hours, stopping every 20 minutes or so to give the arms a rest from the jarring of the bumpy roads on the steering wheel. Eventually I made it to the Tropic of Capricorn. Hey baby…what’s YOUR sign?

Finally after nearly four hours of driving I made it to the “town” of Solitare, which is located in the middle of nowhere in the desert. I thought I was probably just a little over an hour from my destination at this point, but it was nice to finally sit down at the cafe and rest a bit. This is the only sign of civilization for hours, so a popular waypoint with tourists on their way to the dunes.

Old abandoned petrol machine in Solitaire:

Grave of Percival “Moose” McGregor who had died just a couple of years prior, and was well known in Solitaire for his bakery.

Rusting out truck cab. Spectacular against the blue sky and desert:

Rusting car in the desert:

Welcome to Solitaire sign:

After enjoying a piece of apple pie it was back into the car to finish off what was hopefully the last hour or so stretch to the lodge. Waze was acting a bit crazy (did I mention there was no data signal anywhere in the desert, and only the gas station in Solitaire had weak wifi?) and took me a bit of a longer route off of a “C road” and onto a “D road.” If the C roads were gravel and bad, I shuddered to think what a D road would be like. Fortunately, it was really no worse…maybe even better…and after a bit finally made it to Sossusvlei Lodge.

First disappointment: again no internet, except in the reception area and bar, and even that was rather weak. Fortunately, my hut/tent/whatever you want to call it for the night did have one small weak AC unit, but I was able to move the bed right under it and sleep really well:

Plenty of space in the room:

Huge spacious washroom with walk-in shower:

Sunset on the edge of the desert:

Gorgeous pink hue in the sky:

Wandering a bit further from the lodge, and hoping not to run into scorpions or other wild critters, the sunset got even more vibrant:

Dinner was a buffet affair, and tables were assigned. I sensed a sense of pity from the staff that I was all alone, and they acted like it was the first time they’d seen a visitor not in a group. They walked me over to my sad and lonely table for one, and I set out to explore the buffet. It was a carnivore’s dream, with just about every type of wild game you could imagine for grilling:

I guess I was feeling better and my appetite had returned!  Boerewors, oryx, haartebeast, springbok…had to get my protein levels back up!

With that after a long day of driving I was exhausted, and crashed hard for eight hours. I was told it was a good idea to get up for sunrise over the dunes, but I just couldn’t be bothered…

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….

May 212018
 


After landing in Johannesburg fortunately the passport queue wasn’t too long, and I was off to the hotel by the Gautrain. It might be a slight bit faster by Uber, and not much more expensive, but I feel like supporting the Gautrain is the right thing to do. Don’t ask why, it’s just one of those semi-rational things. Plus, environmentally more friendly?

You know it’s bad when you get to a hotel more than 13,000 km from home and the staff all know you like it’s been since yesterday when they last saw you….and in truth it’s only been a couple of months in reality. Quick check-in, and the first item on my agenda was a three hour nap. It was still early enough in the morning I didn’t feel like it would throw off my sleep schedule too much, and I know it would be a huge help with adjusting to the time change.

Nice and refreshed, I woke up and did a walk around the neighbourhood where the first stop was, of course, Starbucks for some “good morning juice.” Once again, sad, the staff all remembered me. I guess I’m just one of those memorable people… spend the rest of the afternoon just walking around Rosebank, Parktown, and Parkhurst, just to walk off the jetlag a bit and get the legs moving.

I did stop into the Pick’n Pay, and you know you’re in South Africa when there’s an entire huge case of boerewors….

To bed relatively early, and managed to sleep until 7am the next morning which was a Sunday, so great job of getting onto local time. Next stop was Starbucks, of course, where I can’t seem to escape the name the staff seems to remember me by…

While relaxing, I got a call from my client to make plans for Monday, and she insisted that i get out and explore the city a bit more. I’ve been coming here for over 20 years now, and while the city has changed I do feel like I stick primarily to the same areas. Little did I know that this would be the trip that would challenge a lot of those “usuals.”

Since it was Sunday, my client insisted I head down to Maboneng and check out the Sunday Market. Now, just on the east side of downtown Maboneng definitely used to be a “no-go zone” 10-15 years ago, but I decided that my client (who I trust completely after many meetings) knew better than anyone, so off I went. Short Uber ride, and by chance they dropped me right in front of Origin Coffee. How did they know I was still battling jetlag? Yup, quick iced coffee and I was set to explore…

Into the main market, and the stalls were very lively with delicious smells everywhere. It was going to be a really hard call what to choose for lunch!

Maybe some paella with fresh prawns?

In the end, being tired and not wanting to eat standing, I selected a small restaurant with outdoor seating where I could sit down and people watch while eating. Bottle of ginger beer, some boerewors in tomato sauce, and a bowl of biltong with chips. You can’t get much more stereotypically South African than that!

Just as I finished eating the skies opened up, and for the next hour it was a torrential downpour. Was a good excuse to have another beer and another coffee, and as it let up it was early evening and time to catch an Uber back to the hotel.

For anyone who finds themselves in Johannesburg on a Sunday, I highly recommend getting down to the Maboneng Market. As long as you’re even marginally travel savvy you’ll be fine, and get a great taste of how this amazing city is revitalizing. Now, time to work for a week before taking a well-deserved holiday…

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!

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!

Feb 192018
 


First, sorry for the delays in continuing with this trip report. It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I’ve been traveling the last week.

Jetlag was finally wearing off by this point, and I was starting to adjust to the time zone so woke up at a relatively normal hour. I know I’ve sang the praises of the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport multiple times, but the executive lounge I find to be one of the best anywhere in the world. Grabbed a “light” breakfast after getting in a quick workout:

Off to the Frankfurt Airport long-distance train station, where I caught an ICE to Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, which according to the train maps was the same one which would continue to Dresden. What wasn’t clear to me is that when it arrived at Frankfurt Hbf my train would be joined to another train, and I would have to run down to the other end where my car was. Slightly confusing, but worked out just fine in the end.

The train ride to Dresden was nearly four hours, and the would be the second longest of my trip. Time passed pretty quickly catching up on some tv on the iPad, but there were some “gaps” in tv to look out the window:

Given the length of the train ride, there was definitely time for a snack and a beer…plus a good opportunity to practice a little German. DB crews overall speak really good English, but for some reason seem much more willing to tolerate my poor attempts at Germany than other service-oriented businesses Two flams, one greek and one traditional bacon and onion:

According to Google Maps my hotel seemed to be closer to the Neustadt train station in Dresden than the Hauptbanhof, so I got out there and started trying to find my hotel. Fortunately, it was very easy, and a short 10-15 minute walk just as Google Maps predicted. Got to the Westin Dresden where the place was buzzing with activity. Turns out there was a giant olympic-qualifying cross country sprint ski race going on in town that weekend, and turns out they were all staying at my hotel. This was going to be absolutely awful 😉

Full hotel meant they needed to upgrade someone, so I ended up with an absolutely giant suite. The living room:

Another shot of the living room – it was absolutely massive:

Bedroom:

There was also a newspaper waiting in the room, full of the latest news from America where I got to learn some very useful German vocab:

Out for a wander after checking in mid-afternoon. The races had just wound up for the day so I missed that, but went for a walk. First stop was the Catholic Church:

Great DDR mural on the side of the Concert Hall:

It was actually cold and windy, with a bit of light snow falling during the walk, so I soon had to stop – where else – Starbucks for a nice hot coffee and snack to warm up. It seemed to be the most happening place on a Saturday in Dresden, with a line 50+ people deep out the door. It was absolutely crazy.

Warmed by coffee, I wandered around the city a bit more, eventually stopping in a shopping mall to buy a warm hat and gloves to stay warm. I had expected it would be cool, but with temperatures about five degrees below zero it was cold even for me and definitely required warmer clothing. That said, I miss having “real” winter living in Washington, DC, so one of my goals was to get some good cold weather this trip. (Foreshadowing: I would regret this by the end of the trip)

Now warmed with hat and gloves, I began the walk back to my hotel for a short rest. Panoramic of the Schloßplatz near the cathedral.

The Courthouse am Schloßplatz:

After a short rest, it was time to wander in the opposite direction – into the “new city” to try and find a restaurant/bar I was looking forward to trying out for dinner and drinks. Statue of King Friedrich August the Second also known as the Goldener Reiter:

After about a 20 minute walk I finally found the place I was looking for, Zapfanstalt, which had a very impressive beer list full of German and imported craft beers. The bar staff spoke absolutely zero English, so it was a wonderful opportunity to practice my German – made easier by a few good German beers:

Had a delicious Haloumi Cheese “burger” for dinner, and then it was time for the long cold walk back to the hotel. When I’d arrived at Zapfanstalt around 8pm it was pretty empty, but by the time I left around 10 it was absolutely packed wall to wall so – in proof that I’m getting old – it was time to head out and get some rest to continue trying to adjust to the local time zone. I wanted to get up early to try and catch some of the races as well, plus I had an afternoon train to continue my trip to Leipzig!

Oct 092017
 



Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.

If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.

Oct 052017
 



Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.

I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!