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!

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 172017
 


So, figured I’d do something different since I’m all caught up on my last trip and have…oh, 48 hours until my next trip. I haven’t decided if y’all need to see yet another Lufthansa and South Africa report, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it (and run short of material).

For now, I figured I’d do a throwback to a trip that I did before this blog started – maybe give me a few ideas for future trips. This was a January, 2009 to Gibraltar, Morocco, and Ceuta. I’m not going to go too into detail lest I get something wrong eight years later, but happy to answer questions best I remember.

I was splitting time between DC and London back then, usually two weekends a month in each minimum, and decided this would be a great one to head down to Gibraltar and environs, since I had a four or five day weekend. (See, don’t remember everything.) It was my first, and so far last, experience with EasyJet and honestly…for a 2.5 hour flight…it wasn’t awful. I think I paid extra for the first/bulkhead row and early boarding, and despite Gatwick being a nightmare, it really could have been worse…they could have strapped me to the wing.

Oh yeah…I forgot…back in 2009 I was already logging flights, so have at it:

EasyJet flight 8905 
London, Gatwick (LGW) to Gibraltar (GIB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 18:45, Flight Time: 2:50
Airbus A320, Registration G-TTOI, Manufactured 2003, Seat 1C

Oh…and according to my spreadsheet looks like it was a four night trip. Right, on to what I remember without help.

I remember Gibraltar feeling old. Lots of blue hair retiree mainland tourists from England off to see the sights.

Sights? Yeah, like that big rock Gibraltar is famous for:

There were monkeys everywhere:

Trying to decide who’s funnier looking:

One of the coolest parts of Gibraltar, for me, was the airport. You can walk right across the runway. Note, walk quickly, or else…

Nope, no planes coming…as opposed to Tuvalu which only has two flights a week, Gibraltar is a bit more active, so definitely more scope for accidents.

Walked across the border (a novelty for anyone into country counting) into Spain and took the ferry to Tangiers, Morocco. Passport control (at least then) was done on the boat. You had to stop by a desk staffed with Moroccan immigration officers, and get your passport stamped. Then, when getting off the boat, you had to show the stamp to another officer to prove you were legal.

Stayed at a riad in Tangier, and I have to say my memories include a few amazing meals, more touts than I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world, and a relatively cool old town. At least this cool cat thought it was cool:

In the old town…vegetable shopping….

After a night in Tangier, the owner of the riad had a brother who was happy to drive us to Ceuta for a reasonable price since he had a visa for Spain. Right up to the border, and we walked into Spain. Fourth border crossing of the trip so far, if you count Gibraltar separate from England:

Cueta! Bienvenidos!

After a great lunch in Cueta, caught the ferry back to Spain…and then walked back into Gibraltar. First, however, an amazing sunset approaching the mainland Spanish coast:

One more shot of the rock, with the airport below:

Time to go home…but there was a problem. After waiting at the airport for nearly two hours, they announced our flight had been diverted…to Malaga, Spain. No worry, they would take us on a two hour bus ride there.

But first…everyone had to leave the airport…and walk to Spanish immigration and get the bus on the other side of the border! That’s how close the airport is to the Spanish border. Couple hours later, we were at the Malaga Airport, and finally ready to fly home. Kudos to EasyJet, they really handled this well. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon issue for Gibraltar, as crosswinds cause relatively frequent diversions. Years later, with the St. Helena experience, you’d think the Brits would figure out how to deal with crosswinds…anyways.

Hope this was still interesting. If you’d like to see some more throwbacks, be sure to leave a comment.

Oct 072017
 



Another great night of sleep, and despite being go go go on this vacation, one thing I was managing to do pretty well was catch up on sleep. Now, that might be due to the tremendous amount of walking I was doing in general, but either way, it was actually feeling like a vacation!

My rate at the W included breakfast, so made a point to partake in that before heading out. I would rate it pretty middle of the road as far as hotel breakfast go, but there were plenty of choices including eggs and porridge cooked to order, so it was more than enough to get a start on the day.

After fueling up, it was time for a walk! I had highlighted some of the sights I wanted to try and see, so the plan was to head out and see how much I could do before I got absolutely exhausted from walking. First stop near the hotel was the Fountain of the Admiralty:

Plan was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and head east-southeast before heading back north and eventually crossing the Neva River. First major site was the Stroganov Palace, and yes, that’s the family that beef stroganoff was named for. Since I only had one full day I opted to walk around and see as many sites as I could from the outside, without spending the time in line for tickets and exploring the inside. Stroganov Palace:

a little further down Nevsky Prospekt was the Kazan Cathedral:

Statue of Field Marshall Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk:

At this point, the grey weather and walking was catching up with me, so I stopped at Starbucks for a large iced coffee and a sandwich. After resting up a bit, I continued the walk. Crossed Nevsky Prospekt, and passed the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

Very impressive up close, and swarming with tourists:

Best part about tourists? All sorts of souvenir stands. I was pretty disappointed they only had this shirt left in a small size, because I totally wanted to buy it:

I did, however, managed to find a whole bunch of awesome magnets:

From this point, back to Nevsky Prospekt to catch the metro up to Finlandsky Station and continue my walk on the north side of the Neva River.

Finlandsky Vokzal, you can see how dark and heavy the clouds got, but it never did rain.

Two reasons for coming to Finlandsky Vokzal. First was to see where it was so I knew where to go for my train the next day, and second reason was the giant statue of Lenin. Looks especially ominous against the clouds:

The fountains in front of the train station made a nice contrast. I love this shot with the bright reddish-orange brick, the dark greyish-blue sky, and the contrast of the bright coats the pedestrians are wearing.

Finally figured out where/how to cross the tributary of the river, and a great view of the Nakhimov Naval Academy with the cruiser Aurora docked in front:

Another shot downriver with the Aurora:

The Aurora was closed to tours today, but that didn’t stop the large groups of Asian tourists from milling about and taking pictures:

Close-up of the Aurora:

Bit more of a walk, and the Peter and Paul Fortress:

Kept walking…and walking…and eventually passed the Yubilyeni Sports Palace. Wait, is that an ad for a pre-season hockey game…tonight? Even better, a bit of googling, and it appeared absolutely free. Registeted on the website, and very quickly my free tickets were e-mailed to me! Score. I had planned on a relaxing evening after over 10 miles of walking during the day, but how could I pass that up!

Given the game was less than two hours away, I cut my walk a little short and took the metro back to the hotel to change clothes and rest up a little bit. Only had about 30 minutes to rest before I had to catch the metro right back to the arena for the game. It was open seating, and appeared 25% full at most:

Let’s get a little closer to the ice…now these are great seats!

Cheerleaders and dragon mascots:

Old Soviet National team memorabilia on display:

It was nearly 9pm at this point, so I opted to skip the third period and head out to get some food and drink before it got too late. On a recommendation from a friend, I headed to Craft Pub to have a bite. Keeping in the theme of the day, a delicious beef stroganoff and a few great beers to wash it down:

Unusual decor in the restaurant…what would the Singapore First Class lounge think of this?!

One final local imperial stout to close out the evening:

With that, more than 10 miles walked and a hockey game, I think I made a pretty amazing dent in seeing St. Petersburg given the extremely limited time I had there. Now, it was time to get to bed so I could enjoy my train ride the next day…and my final stop: Helsinki.

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!

Oct 032017
 



Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.

Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!

I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

Sep 222017
 



I was feeling a bit lazy in the morning, so I decided to spend the extra $20 or so to save 30 minutes or so and call an Uber to the airport. Last time I tried this, there was a super long backup for cars to get into the airport so it actually took longer, but this time it went absolutely perfectly.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s check-in was at the very last desk in the hall, which meant quite a walk inside the airport once I’d been dropped off. However, once I got there, I was rewarded with my very own lane:

The check-in agent confirmed that yes, I was the only one in Suites today, and I would have the entire cabin to myself. Score! After a quick duty free shop it was through security and immigration which was pretty quick, and then a rather long walk to the satellite gates where many of the Star Alliance airlines have their gates.

Once in the Singapore First lounge, strangely, there were about 10 other people hanging around, in addition to 4-5 lounge staff who were all sitting around and having a chat. Rather strange, especially since I knew I was the only one in suites today. The others, I assume, were top level Singapore elites, but the whole environment was a bit strange. Anyways, made a quite pit stop before getting food….I’m surprised anyone in a first class lounge needs to be told this is recycled water and they shouldn’t drink:

Agent presented me with a menu of what was on offer in addition to the buffet…naturally, I went with some eggs benedict:

The buffet did look rather tasty, however. Even with ten or so people in the lounge you had to wonder how long it had been sitting around for though…

Most important part of the buffet. I tried to pour myself a glass of champagne, but the lounge staff was mortified and insisted on bringing it to me.

The “living room” area of the lounge:

My eggs benedict were super tasty, although my Veuve came cut with orange juice. I suppose it was only 10am so I can forgive this, but I did ask for “champagne.”

I love the little seating cubes that Singapore has in their first lounges. They’re the perfect combination of private, space, functional, etc.

I think I tried two or three different times to go down to the gate to board starting about 45 minutes before the flight, only to be told by the lounge attendant that it wasn’t time yet. Of course, with about 15 minutes left until departure I tried again, at which point she simply told me “yes, you can board now.” Hmmm…..

Singapore Airlines flight 232
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 8:20
Airbus A380-800, Registration 9V-SKD, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,106
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,470,083

Once aboard, however, the crew instantly greeted me by name (easy since I was the only passenger in Suites) and was the perfect blend of helpful and hands off. Normally, I struggle with crews that are cold and lazy or the other extreme: too deferential and won’t let me have a bit of space. From the very first moment this crew read me perfectly. Nice note in my suite letting me know it was ready for me:

Glass of champagne? Don’t mind if I do!

Overhead view of the 12 suites Suites cabin:

My suite, taken from the door:

Seated, looking across to the other site of the plane with all the doors/windows opened:

Bit of an angled shot into the suite directly across the aisle from me:

Have champagne, am happy, ready for takeoff:

After takeoff, candied nuts and more champagne. Personally wasn’t a big fan of the candied nuts.

Next up was the caviar course, which was fantastic. Debated asking for another helping, however, knowing all the food that was coming I was glad I passed. It was served with some of the butteriest and most garlicky bread I’ve ever had on a plane. Winning!

White onion and thyme soup with prosciutto ham…was way more flavourful than expected!

Very tasty salad with cranberries, goat cheese, and walnuts:

…and the book the cook main course, the Boston Lobster Thermidor. The most interesting part to me was that Singapore offers two different lobster thermidor dishes, but depending where it’s catered from it seems potlatch which you will eventually get. It was slightly overcooked, but given it was being served on a plane it was pretty tasty!

Warm rosemary apricot tart with vanilla ice cream…amazing.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you know I can’t turn down cheese. I could make a whole meal of it…which gives me an idea for a future flight. However, I was pretty stuffed by this point. The crew, however, would not be deterred, and insisted on making me a cheese plate with a little bit of everything. I have to say, Singapore is the only airline that can rival Lufthansa in my books on the cheese course.

We’re finished, right? So I asked for a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube, so I could watch some tv. I was offered pralines. I declined. “Are you sure we can’t just bring you one?” Ok, one. This is what came:

They tried to give me more food before landing, but I just couldn’t. I was still stuffed. Plus, the whole point of arriving Singapore late afternoon was to enjoy the magic that is Singapore’s street food scene! I did, however, have one more Johnny Walker for the road. This flight was absolutely amazing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. My last A380 flight in February I felt a little cheated because I slept 90% of it, but this time I definitely maxed out the experience!

First thing I wanted upon landing was a washroom, and look…first one I found had a perfect view – from the urinal – of the plane I had just arrived on:

My phone rang at this very second, and reminded me:  “Welcome to SIN!”  Uhhh…..

Decided rather than melt in the humidity I would try Uber once more, which was super easy, and soon I was checking in at the Westin. After a shower and a bit of rest, headed up to the executive lounge, which had a rather impressive happy hour buffet and drinks service, despite the lounge being absolutely empty.

Impressive, except this scary jell-o concoction:

After recovering a bit, I headed out to one of the best things about this hotel. It is right around the corner from the Lau Pa Sat market, which has a street next to it that is known as “Satay Street” at night. So, it was time for dinner: delicious chicken satay.

See the right side of the pic? That is more than a dozen stalls with grills all making satay. Plenty to choose from, and all delicious. But the heat, smells, and humidity are overwhelming!

I was pretty exhausted at this point, so headed back to the room to get some sleep. Only one problem. When I opened the door, I couldn’t see anything. This was perhaps the most strangely designed room I’d been in anywhere in the world. No light switches near the door. When I finally did find one, I took pics to show why it’s so confusing.

View from the door. Imagine this long corridor in the dark:

Then, when you find your way to the end and turn left, you have THIS long corridor…also pitch black. See where my suitcase is? Once you pass that, there is finally a light switch on the left. Incredibly odd design!

That said, after dozens of times in Singapore, this was only the second time a hotel has really impressed me. I seem to stay somewhere different every trip, and never am super happy with my stay. They’ve all been “fine” and never really “bad” but also never impressive. The Westin, however, despite the light switch, I really liked. The other one I’ve really liked is the Mandarin Oriental, but for price reasons, that’s just not a regular option.

The view, however, from the approximately 30th floor “lobby” of the Westin is great:

After an all too short overnight in Singapore, it was time to head back to Changi Airport to enjoy the world’s best airport and also the Private Room Singapore First Lounge! Called another Uber, and I was on my way…

Sep 212017
 



The third full day in Sydney dawned with absolutely perfect weather – almost 20C – warm enough for another coastal hike in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts. Considering the average Sydney weather this time of year, I was getting super lucky! Caught the bus out to Coogee to start the Coogee to Bondi Coastal Walk. The view was pretty spectacular right from the start:

The great thing about winter is, the beaches are empty and it’s a much more peaceful walk – especially on a weekday. Not saying that’s necessarily an advantage, but that combined with the cooler weather compared to summer did make it a much quicker hike.

Warning! Birds swooping! Australia! Fear Everything!

One of my favourite coves on the walk:

Ocean, hills, rocks, it was a gorgeous day to be out just walking and enjoying some nature.

Selfie along the coast.

The waves had really kicked up, and there were quite a few surfers out as well despite the super cool water.

Waverley Cemetery, right on the coast. Thousands of graves…

Tombstone, vegetation, and the Pacific Ocean:

Rounding Bronte Beach:

Bright blue water, smooth sand, perfect weather…

Last stop before Bondi is Tamarama Beach, and decided to stop for a coffee and cookie after a couple hours of walking and just enjoy the perfect day.

Coming around Mackenzies Point…

The waves were really going at this point, and the view was spectacular.

One last shot looking south to where the walk had begun. Crashing waves under the rocks:

The Bondi Icebergs Pool, right up against the ocean…

Stopped for lunch at Bondi Trattoria, after having such an amazing meal there a few months ago. They had changed chefs in the meantime and the meal was still amazing, but wasn’t quite the same as previously. The Angel hair with barely touched tuna, zucchini, rocket, chilli, lemon, and capers was still fantastic, however.

So what else did I do with my last two days? Not a whole lot other than relaxing and walking around. One evening, took the train out to Sydenham to go to Batch Brewing Company, which was fantastic. This might be one of the best tasting flights I’ve ever had:

Other than that, not a whole lot. Also went for tastings at Wayward Brewing Company another night, which was equally awesome. One of the best things about both Batch and Wayward was getting to see a part of the city that it looked like few tourists ever make it to. They both felt like they were in much more industrial neighbourhoods, and it was nice to see places off the tourist trail.

With that said, four days in Sydney came to a close way, way too quickly, and it was time to start the long trek home…with several fun stops in between, of course!

Sep 182017
 



In total, I had arranged for five nights in Sydney, and was really looking forward to this being the relaxing “vacation” part of the trip. Something I promised myself after finishing all the countries is that at least to a degree I’d slow down and explore places a little more in depth. Yeah, so I had to cross the southern hemisphere on this trip “because it was there,” but now that I was in Sydney, it was time to relax.

My first day, honestly, I didn’t do too much that was blog-worthy. Wandered around, saw some of the same sites I’ve posted on here before, and just basically killed jetlag. Lots of great coffee shops, tons of walking, and just overall relaxing…and being on vacation!

Second day, I was ready to do some serious urban walking, so after breakfast caught the bus for a rather long ride up north to the Spit Bridge to begin the Spit to Manly walk. Apparently, there’s a funeral shop just for white ladies…

The Spit Bridge, where the hike starts:

Fishing near the bridge. He was rather bundled up, and it was a bit chilly near the water, maybe 15C, but walking at a brisk pace I was nice and warm.

Lots of boats out today near the bridge:

Next to Vancouver, I can’t think of any city that has as many amazing ocean views as Sydney does.

In several parts, the walk was rather high up on the cliffs, but there were options to descend down to sandy coves for some amazing views:

At once point, there was a site where several aboriginal rock carvings had been found. This fish seemed almost too real to have survived years of weather:

How can you not love a view like this? The waves were really crashing today.

As you got closer to Manly, the trail was actually walking in the sand on the beach at several places. However, during high tide apparently, some parts of the trail aren’t passable and you have to go a few blocks inland and use city streets.

…and in other parts, it was just a nice trail through the woods.

Part of the walk that went along the water (Forty Baskets Beach) that may not be passable at high tide. I can see why based on how high the water already was:

Lots more boats. It seriously seemed like half the city must own a boat there were so many out.

Nearly Manly. Are there seriously Penguins this far north in Australia?!

After finishing the nice long few hour walk, decided to reward myself with a couple of beers and a sausage roll at 4 Pines Brewing Company. It was a weekend, and the place was absolutely packed with locals having lunch and pints.

Some other highlights from the first couple of days include one of many perfect flat whites…

…a pizza with crocodile, kangaroo, and emu at the Australian Heritage Hotel: (which, btw, has an amazing list of beers on draught, and dozens more in bottles.)

…and who needs Starbucks when you have perfect flatwhites at local independent coffee shops everywhere you look, and grumpy donuts to eat!

With that, the first two days in Sydney were done, one fantastic walk down and at least one more to go…along with a lot more relaxing, seeing friends, and just generally having a real vacation!