Feb 262018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 252018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 242018
 


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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to the Nordbahnhof station:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at that variety of sweets!

Mini quiches, prosciutto skewers…

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

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

Feb 212018
 


Woke up early, and yes, you guessed it, headed over to get some Starbucks to wake up and start the day. On the ground, I noticed a few cobblestones replaced by memorial stones for local residents who had died in Auschwitz. I haven’t noticed this other places in Germany, but after noticing this one I noticed several more. Definitely a sobering start to the morning.

Apparently, the holiday season was definitely over, because in a couple of places there were piles of what appeared to be discarded Christmas Trees sitting around waiting for the trash collector.

After coffee and a stroll, I headed over to the train station to catch my train to Berlin. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit of a mess with trains today, because the two previous trains to Berlin were also still on the board. The first one was canceled and the second was running 90 minutes late. I assumed this meant that my train to Berlin would now be packed.

The mobile info/news screens were showing good news from back home, where the Minnesota Vikings had one and would be advancing in the playoffs.

Unlike the previous Berlin trains, mine was right on time (though it did get moved from one platform to another at the last minute) and was still relatively empty – maybe 25% full at most in first class. The train ride was just long enough to do daily language lessons on Duolingo and have a bit of a lunch snack. Creature of habit? Who me?

Arrived at Berlin Hauptbanhof right on time. It had been nearly 14 years since I was last in Berlin, and I was really looking forward to being back. I had planned the trip to have two nights in Berlin to get a taste of things again, as a bit of an appetizer to a hopefully longer trip later in the year. Bought a daypass for the U-Bahn/S-Bahn on the local train system’s iPhone app, and took the U55 two stops to Brandenburger Tor station which was just a short walk from my hotel.

Coming out of the station you are pretty much right next to the Russian Embassy which takes up an entire block and sets a bit of the Cold War mood. The two blocks I walked past the embassy were pretty much filled with people speaking Russian, which helped even more to set the mood. Arrived at my hotel…yes, you guessed it, the Westin Grand, where a piece of the Berlin Wall was on display outside the hotel.

Was allocated a supposed “upgraded room” which was pretty much half way to Poland by the time I would down several streets. The room was actually on the exact other side of the hotel facing Unter den Linden and thus was also incredibly noisy. Overall, was pretty disappointed in the room, and the staff were definitely the coldest I had encountered so far this trip.

Location, however, was great and I set out to find a coffee and do some walking. The east side of the hotel exited onto Friedrichstraße, which was a nice 10 or so minute walk down to Checkpoint Charlie. I’ve never been in the actual museum, but should probably do that one of these days. Obligatory picture of the checkpoint location after grabbing coffee and watching the sun set:

Thanks to already having the transit pass, as well as Google Maps to help me find the quickest route, I grabbed a bus to the DDR Museum. Overall, it was interesting for an hour, and you could buy tickets online and scan the QR Code at the entrance and save yourself a wait in line. Worked out very nicely, and the museum was actually pretty packed with (mostly) 20-somethings who probably couldn’t even remember the Cold War. Great, now I feel old.

I did, however, get a great souvenir to keep my Lufthansa ducks company:

A few different bars had been recommended to me, so the first stop was at Vagabund Brauerei located in a residential neighbourhood in the northwest of Berlin which I never would have gone to otherwise. Good beers, chance to see a new part of the city a bit, so overall a good way to spend an hour.

I clearly hadn’t thought ahead, however, as the other place I had decided to check out was pretty much on the opposite side of the city. Hopfenreich was located in the southeast part of the city, and it took a couple of train transfers and a reasonable walk to get there. Very good beer list, but pretty empty on a Sunday night which was to be expected. Again, another new part of the city for me so if nothing else checking out these two pubs gave me an excuse to explore some new areas…and make very good use of the daypass I’d bought for transit.

On the way back to the Westin, I did, however, spot the most unfortunately named travel agency ever. “Titanic” doesn’t exactly say to me: you’re going to have a safe and wonderful vacation.  (Again, I feel old…most people probably don’t even remember the concept of travel agents…)

Off to bed with no plans how to spend the upcoming full day in Berlin, and that was just fine. I could decide what I felt like doing in the morning, and had the entire day to do it!

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!

Jun 182017
 

After a fantastic 24 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport and head off to Spain. Staying home for a night was definitely the right call as it allowed me to relax, and just enjoy some downtime after a hectic week. Back off to Dulles, where check-in and security were completely uneventful. Went to the United lounge, where a fantastic bartender looked after me. Make no mistake, United is no Lufthansa, and the rather sad cheese and crackers and mass production chips and dips along with the $5 bottles of wine are quite sad, and it often feels like a bit of an all you can eat buffet restaurant, but at the same time, there’s something “familiar” about it.

My routing today was DC to Newark, and then onto Madrid, with nearly a three hour connection in Newark. That’s why I wasn’t too worried when my phone buzzed and notified me of a one hour delay for air traffic control. I got slightly more concerned an hour later when that stretched to 90 minutes. I began to get really concerned when it became two hours, leaving me around 40-45 minutes in Newark. I began to explore options.

The super late Dulles to Frankfurt and Dulles to London flights were out, as they were completely sold out in business. I tried multiple phone agents and lounge agents to get on the late Frankfurt flight in first, but that was a non-starter. They absolutely refused to consider it. The late Dulles to Munich flight on Lufthansa was available, but it wouldn’t get me into Madrid until nearly 7pm the next day – way too late to make my connection to Marrakech (separate ticket) and would cost me my entire first day in Marrakech.

When my Newark connection was down to 15 minutes, I pulled the trigger and switched to the Lufthansa option. Absolute worst case scenario would be getting stranded in Newark overnight, so I wasn’t willing to risk a tight connection there, even though the DC to Newark flight started boarding. The flight to Madrid was booked completely full in business, with another 15 plus on the waitlist, so I couldn’t see them holding the flight for me if anything went tits up.

(Side note: by the time DC to Newark landed there was 8 minutes to make the connection based on the door closing, and it was nearly one end of the C terminal to the other – I suspect strongly I wouldn’t have made it)

Rebooked via Munich, I decided one last Hail Mary was in order. I headed to the gate for the United flight to Frankfurt, and asked the agent if there was any way they could get me on this flight – I was even willing to use one of my Global Upgrades to get into first. “I can only put you in economy – and all we have left are middles near the back.” Uh, no thanks. That’s way worse than losing my whole day in Madrid.

Off to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge next, where I began trying to rebuild my trip. This entire time, Ian had been stranded at JFK as well, awaiting a severely delayed flight to Madrid, where he was afraid he was going to misconnect to Marrakech as well. Worst case, we would lose our 24 hours in Marrakech, take a full day delay in Madrid, and only have a short overnight in Marrakech before heading to Western Sahara.

We both started boarding at this time, and promised to reconnect in Europe and see where life took us.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45 next day, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKJ, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,428
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,437,405

It had been barely 24 hours since I’d gotten off of a Lufthansa A340 Frankfurt to DC, and here I was boarding a Lufthansa A330 to Munich. Something felt, familiar…although very strangely, we had one of the most disappointing Lufthansa crews I’ve ever had. No personal touch, didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs, and no smiles to be found anywhere. It was like I was flying on United or something! Mixed nuts and a glass of the same wine from the day before…

Due to the late departure, the entire meal was served on one tray. Blech. Not impressed. That said, it was one of the better business class salads I’ve had in a long time. I went with the “seared beef filet, béarnaise sauce, root vegetables and whipped potatoes.” As expected, the beef was severely overcooked and disappointing. Overall, this is a meal I would expect from United, not Lufthansa.

Even the cheese course was sad. Is that one sad lettuce leaf supposed to class it up?

Ice cream…in a container. It was tasty, but seriously…in business class?

After dinner I passed out, and slept a solid six hours. It was nice having nobody next to me, so extra pillows and plenty of space. Woke up just about 15 minutes from landing, made myself barely presentable, and checked my phone. Ian had misconnected as expected, and was spending the night in Madrid. Thus, there was no need to find a way to Marrakech today, so I was a bit more leisurely.

Headed over to the Senator Lounge in the international gates, and they tried to steer me to the Schengen gates since I was going on to Madrid in a few hours. Told them I preferred to stay here for now, and they were happy to let me in. Delicious breakfast of cheese pretzel and potato salad. When in Germany…

Started looking for ways to Marrakech, and realized it would actually be $50 cheaper to fly Frankfurt-Marrakech the next day instead of Madrid-Marrakech. On top of that, my preferred hotel in Frankfurt is more than $100 cheaper than the one in Madrid, so it was an easy choice. I’d overnight in Frankfurt today. I will totally admit that choice was driven largely by the opportunity this presented to do one of my favourite things in Europe – a long ICE trip.

I didn’t actually realize that Munchen Hbf was so far from the airport when I bought the ticket, so it was a huge rush to get on a train to the central station so I could catch my train to Frankfurt. I maade it though:

A couple hours into the journey I was getting a bit hungry, so I ordered a beer and some Flamkuchen. Yum!

Checked into my hotel – the usual Frankfurt Airport Sheraton that you’ve all become very familiar with this year from my frequent stays, so I’ll say it was just perfect like the last stay. I requested in my reservation (and got) the exact same room as a few weeks prior, and just like that stay it was ice cold and fantastic.

Caught the S-Bahn to the city, and had my favourite bacon-wrapped dates and a few beers before taking a late night walk and enjoying the fact that at 930pm it was still light out.

When I got back to the hotel, the drama that this trip was turning into notched itself up another level. Royal Air Maroc e-mailed me that my flight had been “modified” the next day:

Um, a zero minute connection in Casablanca now?! I called Royal Air Maroc, and they refused to put us on an earlier flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, claiming they were “all full” and “you will make your connection – no worry.” Um, with zero minutes and a terminal change? I don’t think so. This was not good. Not good at all.  Our choice was to risk getting stranded overnight in Casablanca, but the only problem was the flights to Dakhla don’t go every day. This was becoming a right proper mess.

We decided (virtually) to cut our losses and not risk going just to Morocco and missing out on Western Sahara. We decided we would rather do the back half/islands part of the trip with extra days to really enjoy each of the islands, and come back to Western Sahara another time. Of course, Royal Air Maroc refused refunding us. The dispute is still pending with AmEx, but I have no doubt the outcome…because I also have screenshots showing that the connection in Casablanca actually became negative 15 minutes…and we would have been stuck.

Before going to bed we decided the plan would be to meet up in Barcelona the next day, and from there we would find a way to get to Las Palmas to continue the trip. The added bonus was instead of one night each in Las Palmas and Madeira, we could now do two nights in each, as well as having a night in Barcelona. Silver lining!

Off to bed, wake up, and oh…I have to get to Barcelona today. Let’s check the options. Ticket prices are pretty high on Lufthansa, even in economy, and looks like flights are super full. Not good. End of the day I decided to splurge on a business class award, which while not cheap made things more comfortable…which after the mess was welcome.

Enjoyed the Senator Lounge, where I had a right proper German lunch of sausages, potato salad, pretzel, and beer:

Boarding was one gate down from the lounge, and right on time.

Lufthansa flight 1134
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,108
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,438,085

Pretty generic flight in EuroBusiness, but for a two hour 2pm snack flight, how can you complain about this meal?!

Landed right on time and Ian was waiting in the arrivals hall. We grabbed a coffee, figured out thanks to Google Maps how to get to the hotel I had booked (took the bus – it actually would have been slightly easier taking the subway) and then it was off to the hotel to buy the final flights to put this trip back together…and enjoy an unplanned night in Barcelona!

Mar 192017
 

Got a very good night of sleep, and was all set for a day of adventure ahead. Originally when I planned this trip, I had planned two days in Paris on the return, but when I had to skip the Cape Town side trip, I was no longer able to get the stopover in Paris on the way back. The options were Frankfurt and Munich, and having been to both several times I picked Frankfurt figuring I was likely to have more options for side trips from there.

After playing around on Die Bahn’s website I settled for a sidetrip to Nürnberg. I had really wanted to see Dresden or Leipzig, but spending 4-5 hours each way on the train wasn’t my idea of a good use of time. I’ll save those for another trip later this year when I have more time. I had also wanted a train trip side it had been a long time, and there were still some decent ICE first fares to Nürnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in Nürnberg, I figured it was a good option

Train left super early – around 8a – which meant being up early. The great thing of being at the Sheraton attached to the airport is I just had to walk into the departures hall, and I had my own Starbucks for breakfast and wakeup. There was a good breakfast spread in the Sheraton lounge, so it made for a nice and convenient morning.

Train was about 10 minutes late, and absolutely packed. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere in my car. Fortunately I got one of the seats on the single side, so no dealing with climbing over people – definitely plus! When I got to Nürnberg I found the machine to buy day tickets for local transit, pulled up google maps, and found out which tram I needed to take to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände – the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

The museum opened in 1994, and the entrance is a long glass and steel tunnel into the front of the building – a creative play by the architect to mock Nazi architect Albert Speer. The place was much busier than I expected for a museum on a Monday, filled with school groups:

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The new Neue Kongresshalle – New Congress Hall – which was never finished. It was intended to seat 50,000 people during rallies and is the largest piece of Nazi architecture still standing.

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I spent about two hours walking through the exhibits, and there was a fantastic audiotour that you could either do a short version, or listen to lots of background in each room. It was an incredibly well-done museum with lots of historical facts as well. It was also slightly chilling given how many parallels were easy to draw to current events in the United States.

After finishing the museum, I went for a walk around the Dutzendteich – or dozen ponds, which are adjacent to the Kongresshall and museum. It was a grey a gloomy day, which somehow seemed appropriate.

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Grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld – or Zeppelin Field. It was one of the first architectural sites build by Albert Speer, and based upon the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. On the top of the review stand there used to be a giant swastika that was blown up in 1945 at the end of the war to symbolically show that naziism was over. It got its name because it was the site in 1909 where Ferdinand von Zeppelin landed one of his zeppelins.

 

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Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

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Sideways view when standing on the podium on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand:

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How the site looked in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the giant swastika on the top of the grandstand and the columns which no longer exist:

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From the Zeppelinfeld I continued walking around the water, and got this view of the Kongresshalle from the other side:

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Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

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Looking down the Große Straße – Great Road. Over a mile long and 40 meters wide it was a parade route for the Wehrmacht during the annual party meetings. It points toward medieval Nürnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old Nürnburg to the Nürnberg of the Third Reich. After the war ended, the US Army actually used the road as a temporary airfield since so there was so much damage to other infrastructure.

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Outside the Kongresshalle:

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After all this walking I was getting pretty hungry so pulled up google maps again. Figured out how to get to the restaurant I wanted to go to, and there was a direct bus leaving from the museum. Perfect! Between google maps and the daypass transport around Nürnberg was really simple.  Bus dropped me right in the centre of the city near an old church:

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Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

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Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and Nürnberg Rostbratwurst with Kartoffelsalat – YUM!

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After lunch went for a long walk back towards the train station, passing the Frauenkirche – a great example of gothic architecture from the mid-1300s:

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Stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine, and had an absolutely terrible view on the Pegnitz River:

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The Wetterhäuschen Lorenzkirche – or St Lorenz church. Ground was broken in 1250, but the church was only finished approximately 200 years later. It was badly damaged during World War Two but later restored:

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Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

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Train back to Frankfurt was on time, and once again managed to get lucky and get the single seat. Once again the train was completely full all the way to Frankfurt. Is this the norm lately, or was it because it was a Monday? I haven’t taken many train trips in Germany in the last ten years, but I remember first class on the ICEs used to be relatively empty lots of the time.

Had a quiet evening in Frankfurt just walking through the centre of the city, stopped at a couple of small random bars/restaurants for a beer, and then back to the airport early so that I could turn in. I had a relatively early flight the next morning, and wanted to maximize my time in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal!