Savute

We’re back with Africa posts! Brace yourselves, this is going to be a long one, and loaded with pictures. We had 1400+ photos from the first two days alone. Needless to say, editing and sorting through the 100s of shots of the same animal took us a while! Anyway, let’s get to those animals, shall we?!

Africa. Our final continent (of five visited) on this trip around the world, and the last non-Antarctic continent left for Jenni to cross off her bucket list (Alan had already been to Africa, but none of the countries we visited this time). And something tells me this won’t be our last time on this incredible continent.

After a not-so-quick layover in Johannesburg where we met up with Alan’s mom and Rich who accompanied us on our visit to Botswana and Namibia, we were ready and amped up for some game viewing. To Savute Safari Lodge we went. And wow, did Savute come through with a phenomenal first couple days on safari! (Which, by the way, was my (though not Alan’s) first ever safari, and I walked away after two days saying, “even if that’s all the safari I ever do, I am happy!” Luckily there was even more to come on this trip, and I’m hoping more in my life down the road!!!)

It’s worth noting that just getting to these places is an adventure. After flying to South Africa we had to spend a night in Jo-burg in order to catch the early morning flight up to Maun, Botswana. From there we moved to the tiny planes (too close for missiles, switching to guns). This one was small for sure, but the 11-seater was just getting us prepared for the truly microscopic planes yet to come. Once I got over the initial fear on that tiny plane, I felt like a little kid. I might have had more fun on the plane than I did on the actual game drives. (Not really, but…) You guys, you see ANIMALS FROM THE AIR. It was one of the coolest things ever. As we were nearing the “airport” (read: strip of land with fewer trees and animals) I was yelling out almost every few seconds exclamations like, “Holy shit, an elephant!” “Oh my god oh my god it’s a giraffe!” “Alan! ALAN! That’s a ZEBRA! Do you see that ZEBRA?” The pure, unadulterated, uncontainable excitement of a three year old. And I’m not the least bit ashamed.

Also, the non-animal views were pretty spectacular themselves.

The airport, and I truly use that word lightly, was rustic. No chic to this shabby, folks. Though the animals quite liked it. There were a couple of hornbills to welcome us, hanging out alongside the runway as we unpacked our luggage. We spared no time getting out there to see the animals. Having arrived a bit late due to a delayed flight, we were transferred to a game drive jeep before even visiting the camp, and headed off for our first (land-based) game viewing.

We saw tons of game! Elephants, zebras, giraffes, antelopes, warthogs, galore!

But why hold out any longer. You guys, we saw lions. EATING an ELEPHANT. TONS OF THEM. AND BABY CUBS. Oh my god, if you’ve ever seen me turn into a non-communicative animal-obsessed being around puppies, you can kind of imagine how fixated I was. Granted I had to keep pretty quiet and not, you know, jump out of the jeep and run to cuddle these adorable little fluff ball killing machines, so it was restrained, but oh, was it joyful.

There was a whole family there. Lots of mamas, and a whole litter of oversized kittens.

And then there was papa. And he was a looker. He kind of hung out away from the rest of the family. And when he stood up and walked around it was just breathtaking.

We watched in awe as he downed some water and immediately peed it all out (ha!), and then just ogled him in his royal, powerful presence.

And they are all so unfazed by the presence of humans and these big ole jeeps coming right up to them. They barely bat an eye when the jeeps turn on. Though at one point a mama cat stood up from her catnap and started walking straight towards me, eyes locked. I’m not going to lie; I panicked a little and maybe started to maneuver in my seat so that I could hide behind Alan.

And can we talk about how insanely cool it is that we saw the one documented pride of lions in the world that stalks, kills and eats elephants?! Some of you may have even seen the film coverage (NatGeo or Animal Planet or something?). Well, that was shot here. We even saw a guy who films documentaries on these cats.

Of course lions weren’t the only highlight. We saw tons of elephants, the majestic beasts that they are. Good golly are they big in person.

And everything about them is huge. Sorry to be crude. But their man bits literally drag in the water as the cross!

One of the pleasant surprises was how many bird species we saw. This is the only type of animal I could not even remotely name with confidence or identify when we saw any. There are so many! I clearly don’t have the memory capacity required of a safari guide. So, there goes my back up plan of leaving the world of law for the Serengeti.

Of course, Pumbaa and his cousins showed up. Warthogs are cool little things. Never realized they get down on their elbows (do warthogs have elbows? If they did, that’s what they’d be leaning on) to eat.

Also, how cute are these mongoose? Adorbs.

I adored the giraffes. They may have been my favorite. Because they are weirdly at once graceful and awkward. They’ve got these gangly old limbs and crazy necks, requiring them to spread their front legs open in order to reach down and drink water, but when they run it’s stunning. It’s like watching movement in slow motion. They remind me of ballerinas. You just watch how they move and you have to stop to admire it.

But I also loved the zebras (too hard to really pick a favorite I guess). They are so beautiful and they look fake. It’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a hologram of a mythical creature, and that a rainbow colored unicorn is not going to pop up right next to them. Right? God, they are just beautiful, beautiful creatures.

But nobody is going to disagree that the leopard sightings were a MAJOR highlight. We thought we were lucky when we spotted the first one, off in the distance and lying down, camouflaged by the grasses around him. And when he stood up and walked toward the jeep I was kind of jumping up and down (in my heart, so as not to spook the guy). This was my first leopard sighting in the wild and I was blown away.

But it kept getting better. Later, we saw a leopard – super close up – stalking some guinea fowl! He never did make the move, but it was still neat to see, and the real-life suspense can’t be beat. The leopard even used one of the jeeps to hide behind as he crept up on his prey.

We followed him around for a while as he made his way through the wilderness. Though a freak 10-15 minute hailstorm (seriously!) eventually made us lose him. That was strange. One minute you’re dripping sweat in the 90°+ heat, and the next you’re shivering, struggling to get a poncho on as you’re being pelted by big cold pebbles being flung into your head at a 45-degree angle.

One of the things I hadn’t appreciated about African game is the number and types of antelope. There are practically millions. Impala are ubiquitous. The guides joke that they are McDonald’s for leopards since they are a quick meal and they’ve got an “M” pattern in white on their bums.

Wildebeest also abound. (Apparently one of the “ugly” five, but I argue they’re kinda cute!)

Waterbuck showed up occasionally as well. I thought these were neat because they have big white circles on the fur on their bum, which helps them to follow each other in a herd at night, given their poor eyesight, especially in the dark.

We also saw the tsessebe, known as the Desert Ferrari due to its speed. I thought their faces looked like leather. I know, I know. Leather is animal hide, but it looked like a piece of a leather jacket sewed onto their faces.

The littlest antelope we saw at Savute were definitely the steenbok. These minuscule little creatures would barely come up to a tall person’s knee. Alan and I joked that these are the prostitutes of the antelopes because it looks like they are wearing too much makeup. Look at those eyes!

One evening we saw an enormous herd of Cape buffalo walking in a line that seemed to stretch for miles and miles (farther than the eye can see). There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, making their way back to a safer place to sleep for the evening.

But my favorite of the antelope was the kudu. These guys are beautiful with their lovely white fur patterns, and especially the males, with the curlicue antlers.

The lodge itself…Damn you guys. I’m writing this from the other side. From the real world side, where I now pay rent on an apartment and am facing the prospect of working a real Monday to Friday job again. And this seems like a distant memory already. Oh, that lodge felt like a honeymoon suite. Except for the combo of the lack of aircon and the sweltering heat. Oh, and the spiders the size of pancakes that seemed to like to pay me a surprise visit every time I used the shower. Ok, small pancakes. But big and terrifying to an arachnophobe like myself, all right? Anyway, I suppose nature is where it is. And it was worth it for the incredible experience amongst the animals. From our room we could see elephants coming to the water, and I woke up one morning to a view of Cape buffalo from the bed. Do I feel spoiled? I do.

And the dinner setting was unreal. There is a water hole formed from a borehole on the property, and the water in it is a bit salty so the elephants are really drawn to it. And they show up just as dinner is being served. From your table as you feast (on specialties like springbok carpaccio and impala pie!), the elephants come strolling through by the dozens to drink up from their watering hole.

Practical Info

Deciding where to go on safari can be quite a daunting task. Even once we chose Botswana, the options seemed overwhelming. There are several regions, and within these are various concessions and countless camps and lodges. And the nomenclature gets confusing because folks will talk about names as though they’re entirely separate, even if one lies within the other…such as the Moremi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta. Some safari destinations vary greatly with the seasons while others are more consistent year-round. October tends to be the end of Botswana’s high season, and it is also the hottest month of the year.

Safaris are usually pricy, and Botswana usually falls on the very pricy end of that spectrum. Part of what you pay for is access, since Botswana’s safari areas tend to be less crowded and more remote than most others. In addition to the high costs of the lodging itself, you can expect to pay a bit for internal flights on bush planes.

We chose a six-night package with Desert & Delta, which allowed us to pick and choose from their several properties. We spent two nights each at Savute Safari Lodge, Camp Moremi and Camp Okavango. I would classify Desert & Delta as midrange, for Botswana. Which means it’s massively expensive (each night is the equivalent of an overwater bungalow in Tahiti or the Maldives at a nice resort), yet there are plenty of options that cost double and more. Our package included accommodation, all food and drinks (except premium brands, but e.g. Glenfiddich whisky was included so it wasn’t exactly well drinks), two activities per day (typically game drives), laundry, etc. It was all very comfortable and well done.

We picked these three properties because we thought it would be nice to see different areas. Wildlife and landscape can vary quite dramatically. Savute Safari Lodge is in Chobe National Park. Camp Moremi is in the Moremi Game Reserve. Camp Okavango is in the Okavango Delta. With the benefit of hindsight, we would say that Savute was amazing, Camp Moremi was good and could be great with better luck, and we would advise skipping Camp Okavango. I did not realize there were no game drives at Camp Okavango, but only walks or boat rides. Nor that it seems most water-based game viewing does not offer nearly the same prospects for big-game viewing. If your goal on safari is to see as much big game as possible, definitely do not go to Camp Okavango.

The game viewing at Savute was by far the best, and the river/watering hole adjacent to the lodge drew a steady stream of elephants and sometimes Cape buffalo.

Transportation: We flew from Paris (Orly) to Heathrow and then took a redeye to Johannesburg on an A380. Quite a plane, that is. In Johannesburg, we stayed at a hotel right by the airport (the Intercontinental is at the airport and a lot pricier) and just took the hotel’s free shuttle both ways. The Gautrain is well-regarded if you want to explore some of Johannesburg.

We departed from JNB for the ~2 hour flight to Maun, Botswana on a turbo-prop Air Botswana flight, which had four seats per row. There we went through immigration, and we were met by a representative of Desert & Delta Safaris and then transferred to an 11-seat Cessna for the 45 minute flight to Savute. From the Savute airstrip, it is perhaps a 20 minute drive to Savute Safari Lodge.

We departed Savute on a six-seat, single-engine Cessna 206 for the half hour flight to Xakanaka Airstrip to stay at Camp Moremi. This was a tiny plane!

Accommodation: Savute Safari Lodge may be called a “lodge,” but it felt more like a camp. Perhaps if the cabins are all wood/glass rather than permanent tent structures then one calls this a lodge? Anyway, each couple gets a very spacious cabin with en-suite facilities. Our room #6 was closest to the common areas, where there is a building with a bar and lounge, a small pool, and an outdoor covered area for lunch and dinner. There is electricity (from a generator) in each cabin during the day, but only battery power at night to provide enough light. So don’t forget to charge those camera batteries during your siesta break! Note that there is no air conditioning, and the fan only works while the generator is on.

In Johannesburg, we stayed at the Premier Hotel O.R. Tambo, which is very near the airport and has a free shuttle.

Food and Drinks: Hunger was not an issue. Breakfast is served at 6 am and is mainly cold fare, such as cereal, fruit, yogurt, excellent bread, juices, coffee, etc. Perhaps pancakes or crepes would be added. Then the morning game drive often includes a tea break with a light snack. Brunch is around 11 am, and this includes a lunch buffet plus eggs cooked to order. Afternoon tea is at 3:30 pm, and there are always snacks. During the afternoon game drive, sundowners are de rigeur. These take place around 6 pm (seasonally variable, I presume), where you imbibe a gin & tonic (or perhaps wine or beer) and have more snacks. Things like biltong (local jerky), cookies, chicken wings, whatever. Back at the lodge, pre-dinner cocktails with snacks are up around 7:30 pm. Dinner is at 8 pm, and this entails a plated appetizer plus a buffet and a plated dessert. In general, the breads were excellent and the food was very good.

Activities: At Savute Safari Lodge, everyone does a morning game drive (~6:30-11 am) and an afternoon game drive (~4-7 pm). At certain other properties, including our next stops, there could be game walks and/or water-based activities. Game drives are in open-sided Toyota Land Cruisers, and each guest gets a “window” seat.

October 11-13, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)

À Bientôt, l’Europe!

Oh, Paris. You just might be my favorite city in Europe. How anyone could not love the City of Light is beyond me. It just oozes beauty, art and style. I could wander those streets covered in pretty Parisian architecture, and (were it not for the smokers) I could sit outside at those fantastic cafes, watching the black and grey clad locals walk by with their impossibly cute dogs, whilst sipping on Bourgogne and nibbling on some rillettes and cornichons (and macarons to finish, but of course!).

Upon the advice of a handful of friends, we stayed in the Marais (3rd arrondissement) and we really loved it. There are loads of cafes, restaurants and cute boutiques, and there tend to be fewer tourists than some of the other arrondissements. It seemed the shops right near our flat were segregated by block. E.g. we were staying on the luggage and handbag street, nearby was a strip of (high end) cosmetic stores, and then a street of nothing but wholesale jewelry, and so on. I have to say I appreciate that organization.

One of our favorite finds in our little neighborhood was the Marché des Enfants Rouge (supposedly the oldest covered market in the city). It kind of became our go to spot, for quick meals, meats and cheese, and even flowers.

Of course, we had to pay a visit to my dear friend Jen’s old home on Rue des Rosiers, where she lived while studying in Paris. It being the Jewish quarter and our visit coinciding with the Friday afternoon of the Jewish High Holidays, it was sort of dead. And, most important, L’As du Fallafel was closed. So we came back another day to sample this legendary falafel, and we ate it standing outside Jen’s old door. If you want an indication of how much Alan liked his falafel, consider this. A kind Orthodox man came over and wrapped a Tefillin around Alan while we chatted for a bit, and the entire time Alan did not stop eating his food.

Now Paris is the only place we went on this trip that we’d both been to already. But our last visits were something like 15 years ago, when Alan was a college student with mono, and I was a middle schooler focused largely on shopping at Kookai. Thus, on this trip we hit up a number of the popular tourist sights, and we felt a bit better about skipping a few we’d  done previously.

That said, we did some serious exploring this time around. We really felt like (especially with a week-long visit) we were getting to know the city, and able to maneuver our way around. The metro system is remarkably easy to navigate, and super efficient. Of course, those iconic metro entry signs add some beauty to the experience, too.

Of our touristing; first things first: cheesy romantic-ness. We obviously picnicked in front of the Eiffel Tower. (I am a romantic + first time in Paris with my lovah = wine and cheese by the Tour Eiffel). We picked up supplies at the Marché des Enfants Rouge and headed over for a lovely afternoon soaking up the sun. I was dismayed only by the fact that I was outdone by not one, but TWO women (English speaking and likely American) who had our same idea but out cheesed us by wearing berets. The gall.

Oh, and side note: speaking of cheese, we picked up a couple cheeses we’d discovered at dinner the night before: a creamy and stinky Pont-l’Évêque, and a nutty parm-y/cheddar-y Mimolette. I’m really glad Alan didn’t tell me until afterwards, but apparently Mimolette is (or was, or this was all urban legend?) banned by the FDA because mites are used in the cheese making process. I can’t decide if I’m more grossed out about this, or all the weird things we ate in Asia.

Alan was a total sport and indulged me in some even more uber-cheesy Parisian romance (slash a silly tourist trap): we placed a lock on Pont des Arts (the love lock bridge) and threw the key in the River Seine. It is truly insane how many locks are fitted onto that little bridge. And there are entire sections that are clipped and covered with wood so you can’t attach more. I’ve read that they regularly clip the locks as they get put up, and it looks like it must happen often since most of the dated locks had looked like they were from no earlier than August of this year. People go all out, too. Our €2, purchased a half block away from the bridge, standard lock was certainly outdone by some of the personally engraved, heart shaped masterpieces up there.

Of course, we visited a number of the other big sights. After our Eiffel Tower picnic we walked over to L’Arc de Triomphe. Way bigger and more impressive than I remembered. (Kind of a theme with Paris, for me.)

We walked by the Louvre to take the obligatory selfie in front of the pyramid (again, was more impressive and bigger than I recall). While we didn’t really have any intention of going inside the museum, I would have enjoyed taking our time and walking through the Jardin des Tuileries. Unfortunately, we had so-so weather by the time we made it over here.

We did check out the Jardin des Plantes one day, and despite the chilly weather, we enjoyed admiring the flowers and practicing our French by reading informational bits about medicinal plants and herbs. Loving the green spaces in this city.

We visited the Centre Georges Pompidou, though not the museum, just the sixth floor roof with its awesome views of practically all of Paris (Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur included). I learned that this inside out building was designed by the same guy (Renzo Piano) who did the wind tunnel at the Ferrari factory we saw outside Bologna.

And you guys, we pulled it together for our last stop in Europe and we did it. We went to a museum. And we damn near went to two, but the line for the Musée d’Orsay on a free entrance day around noon is a special kind of torture nobody should voluntarily subject themselves to. Anyhow, I’m calling it a success. We had a bit of a stretch there where we couldn’t bear to do museums (ahem, London). But the Rodin Museum captured our attentions long enough for us to get a wee bit of culture. The grounds of this former mansion are lovely. And Rodin’s sculptures certainly don’t make bad lawn ornaments.

We really enjoyed wandering Île Saint-Louis (definitely check it out, no “major” sights per se, but incredibly charming little neighborhood full of tempting fromageries, boulangeries, and boucheries) on our way back from visiting Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle.

Alan is officially obsessed with photographing Notre Dame, he couldn’t stop.

Sainte-Chapelle is the somewhat lesser known, but in my opinion more beautiful (at least on the inside) stained glass loaded church. Look at the detail in there.

Alan loved Rue Mouffetard. It’s a gourmand’s paradise, full of your choice of cheese, meat, foie, pâtés, pastries, seafood, rotisserie, chocolate, wine…

One evening we went over to Montmartre and met the parents of Alan’s best friend from law school (his father is from Paris and they have a flat they happened to be visiting at the same time as we were there!). Our lovely hosts walked us around the area, showing us the last vineyard in Paris (!): Clos Montmartre (who knew?), the adorable and buzzing square atop the hill, and the Sacré-Cœur all lit up at night with the amazing views down below. We shared a fantastic dinner (and wine!) at Le Coq Rico.

Those who know me well know I am borderline obsessed with macarons. So naturally I sampled several. On Champs-Élysées we picked up a handful of Pierre Hermé’s treats. Alan really enjoyed the olive oil vanilla (but my favorite ever just might be a classic vanilla bean flavor, so I was not as into this one). The jasmine flavor, however, was out of this world. I was lucky to grab a few from Ladurée in Orly Airport on our way out. Their vanilla and rose were the bomb.com. And you know I jumped on the opportunity to try a macaron ice cream sandwich (oh yes). That bad boy from Berthillon was a salted butter caramel ice cream surrounded by big almond macaron cookies. And it was sinful (if not a bit cloying).

We’re not much of shoppers on this trip given the whole one suitcase for months at a time thing, but we did explore a bit of the wares on offer. We wandered Champs-Élysées after walking to L’Arc de Triomphe. Though to be honest, we didn’t even really window-shop anything more than the macarons. It’s a pretty, wide boulevard and of course there are nice shops, but we found it quite touristy (e.g. there was a line out to the street for Häagen-Dazs, what?).

But I did very much enjoy going to Saint-Ouen for the Marché Aux Puces, supposedly the world’s largest flea market. If I had a home to ship stuff to, or current income, I would probably have purchased some furniture. There are some beautiful pieces there. We also found it très Parisian and très adorable that all the proprietors were eating their lunch with baguette and wine all fancy at their tables, with real silverware. How civilized.

All in all, Paris was a fantastic way to wrap up our nearly three months in Europe. We’re off to Africa for the next and final continent on this crazy trip of ours!

Practical Info

Paris lives up to its hype of being a beautiful and romantic city. The lovely buildings with wrought iron balconies covered in flowers abound. As do the ample squares, cobblestone streets and peaceful gardens. The Seine is most attractive, adorned by several bridges and some quaint islands.

Generally speaking, I was a little disappointed with the food vs. very high expectations. And the wine was pricier than I expected. I could not but help compare each of these categories to Italy, which I felt clearly had the upper hand in terms of value. I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals and ease of communication and transport. Many assert the French can seem snooty or unfriendly, and we did not experience this at all. Perhaps because we can speak some French and made the effort, nearly everyone we interacted with was kind and willing to speak English, especially if theirs was better than our French.

We bought a SIM card at Orange (SFR was out) for €40 which includes 2 hours of international calls, 1GB data, etc. This was much pricier than we’re used to, but we needed it. In the unlikely event you need to ship something, the folks we interacted with at two post offices were exceptionally friendly and helpful. It costs €50 to ship 7kg in a smallish box to the US.

Transportation: We arrived to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) on a flight from Prague. We took the RER B train (€9.75 each, self-service machines with English) to Châtelet – Les Halles and walked from there to our apartment. Paris is quite large, and the public transit system is good. You can buy a carnet of 10 metro tickets for €13.70 (basically break even at 8 rides), and you can divvy up the tickets however you want (unlike, say, London’s Oyster Card where each person needs his own card).

Velib’ is the public bike sharing program. Autolib’ is an electric car sharing service.

We departed on a flight from Orly Airport to Johannesburg via London Heathrow. Taxis G7 has an English language number and they picked us up on time. It cost ~€40 and took half an hour from our apartment to Orly Airport.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb place on Rue des Vertus in the 3rd arrondissement, in/next to Le Marais. This is a great area if you want to be walking distance to cafes, boutiques, bars, etc. and don’t mind a touch of grittiness. Proximity to metro stations is important. I am by no means an expert on Paris and museums are not a big priority for us, but from what I’ve seen I’d probably stay in the 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Bistrot Paul Bert (not to be confused with his other establishments) was very good. The fixed price menu is available in English and costs €38. It was getting late as we finished, so for my cheese course the waiter dropped off enough for five people and said I should take whatever I want. This is when we learned about Mimolette, which looks like (orange) cheddar and to me tasted sort of like a cheddar mixed with a Parmesan, as it is somewhat nutty and tangy. I’m not sure the current status, but I read that it’s banned in the US because it is deliberately exposed to mites. A pity, if true.

Le Coq Rico is a renowned volaille (poultry) restaurant in the 18th. We had a great meal there with the Streiffs. N.B. they are opening a branch in NY at Park Ave and 20th. The €21 two-course lunch at L’AOC was solid value. Our meal was good and the service was excellent.

Few even argue that L’As du Fallafel is not the best falafel in Paris. It is delicious and hearty at €6; there is a separate line for take away; get the hot sauce, it’s not very spicy. Also on Rue des Rosiers are a handful of competitors.

Marché des Enfants Rouges is a small covered market with meats, cheeses, fish, veggies, flowers, etc. and also stalls selling prepared food like Moroccan, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese…It is cool. Caractère de Cochon is a nearby shrine to the pig. Jean-Paul Gardil looked like a great butcher on Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île.

Ice cream at Berthillon on the same street was great and reasonably priced. I am not a big macaron fan, but Jenni, a self-proclaimed macaron aficionado, assures that those from Pierre Hermé are superb. Ditto those from Ladurée, which I’m pretty sure has some NY locations.

Rue Mouffetard (in the 5th) is a gourmand’s delight. There are several shops with cheese, meat, foie gras, pâtés, pastries, seafood, rotisserie, chocolate, wine, etc. The young man at wine shop Le Repaire de Bacchus was very helpful and steered us nicely to a Pic Saint-Loup.

We did not visit any of these in Montmartre, but Chez Plumeau is in a quieter part just off Place du Tertre; Le Tire Bouchon is a piano bar; Au Lapin Agile is a cabaret bar.

Though Paris is rightly famous for its sidewalk cafes, beware that you’ll likely be enveloped in cigarette smoke when you sit outside. I read that one should order steak “a point” for medium rare, which might be to the rare side given French preferences. Saignant is rare (at least for beef). If you want food to take away, the word is “emporter.”

Activities: There are endless famous museums, monuments, shopping areas, markets, gardens, specialty stores, etc. Most of the major museums are free on the first Sunday of each month, and some offer discounted rates for late visits on other days. Even if you don’t enter the Louvre, it’s worth passing by for the impressive building and iconic glass pyramid.

The Musée Rodin holds many pieces within its 18th century mansion and also its spacious and peaceful gardens. Musée d’Orsay eluded me yet again. The Eiffel Tower is an obligatory stop, at least for first-timers. We picnicked in a grassy area east of the Tower but did not ascend to any of the “floors.”

The Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen is generally considered the largest flea market in the world. TimeOut has a good description here.

Montmartre is like a cobblestone-street village atop a hill (butte) overlooking the city. Its most famous attraction is the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur; its central square the Place du Tertre. We visited at night and it was loaded with tourists and souvenir shops, but it’s easy to see the appeal. Once you get away from Place du Tertre, it is a lot calmer. Clos Montmartre is the only working vineyard in Paris, and each year there is a harvest festival (always early October?).

Île Saint-Louis is a charming place for a stroll. A friend did a Fat Tire bike tour and liked it. We wanted to do a cruise on Canal Saint-Martin, but the weather did not cooperate our last couple days. We did not go this time, but Versailles makes a lovely day trip.

October 2-9, 2014 (Thursday-Thursday)

Praha

Did someone replace Prague with Disneyland while I was asleep at the wheel? We arrived in the late afternoon and made it over to Charles Bridge that evening for our first view of the Prague Castle in all its glistening nighttime glory. That scene is straight out of a Disney movie. It is unreal and utterly romantic. I literally swooned.

The whole city kind of feels like a movie set to me. I mean, look at the town square.

It even has an astronomical clock. That sounds as movie-set-esque as possible, until you’re told that every hour on the hour it turns into a gigantic cuckoo clock. Are teacups and candlesticks going to start singing and dancing as well?

The incredible buildings don’t stop at the bridge and the town square; they are all over the city. And we know, because we took a (nerd alert!) Segway tour around the whole place!

I’m not going to lie, I was kind of nervous about riding the Segway at first. I got over the whole being embarrassed thing, because um, it’s actually insanely cool to ride this ingenious device. But, since (as is well documented on this blog) I am afraid of everything, I was afraid of hitting pedestrians and/or falling off this mysterious vehicle and onto the street thereby ending up with a cobblestone patterned face. But it was my lucky day, we were the only ones to show up for the tour and so we got a little private lesson on how not to injure oneself or others on a Segway, and guess what? I didn’t! Hooray! Also, it is so amazing to experience the world as a tall person for a day. The things you can see up there! ;)

Our mad Segway skills did not stop us, however, from wearing our helmets the entire time we were on the tour. Even when we parked the Segways to walk around. Bonus to sightseeing with helmets on: you can always find your partner in a crowd! We’re special, I know.

Our tour took us through most of Prague’s highlights. It was sort of the perfect way to explore a city for people like us who have a very short attention span when it comes to museums and churches and such. You just get there (fast), check it out, learn a tiny bit about it, and move on. I also highly recommend doing a Segway tour your first day in town. That way, you get your bearings and anything you really like and want to learn more about you can go back to and visit again.

One of the perks of doing the touristy stuff on Segway was cheating on the “walk” up to the castle. While we didn’t have much time to explore, we quickly went in to look at the church up close.

And the views from up there, and the nearby orchard/park, are wonderful.

Post-Segway tour we made it back to Malá Strana and entered the St. Nicholas church to check out the inside, and for good reason. Some ornate, pink and green marble Baroque-ness going on in there. Europe has got some seriously beautiful churches, does it not? I’ve been to church more in the last two months than my entire life before!

We also stopped to visit the Wallenstein Gardens, where the Czech Senate does its thing. They have a nice little spot there, loaded with bronze statues, a pond full of fish and surrounded by peacocks, all flanked by a view of the castle behind.

My favorite spot in Praha has to be the Lennon Wall. It is just so colorful and happy, and while I’m not sure if this is always the case or not, there was a guy playing covers of Beatles classics while we snapped our photos. And this little girl dancing along was maybe the cutest thing ever.

I really enjoyed reading a bunch of the notes people have left on the wall. There are all sorts of medium stuck up on there, often affixed by a band-aid.

The music scene in Prague is said to be legit so we spent a couple nights checking out a mix of the local concert offerings. One night we visited Reduta Jazz Club, where Billy Clinton himself once got up on stage and wailed on the sax. Juwana Jenkins sang some soul/rock and she was definitely an entertainer. Though we were really wowed by the fantastic harmonica player, Charlie Slavik.

To switch it up, we saw some classical music (organ/piano player, a violinist and two singers) the next night. We felt classy as hell ( ;) ), and the venue was really lovely.

On the whole, I was a little un-into the Czech food, but I think this is largely because we’d been eating this hearty, meaty type of fare for so long by this point (German food and beer, then Prague for beef goulash, pork, bread dumplings, and more beer). That said, we did sample the trdelnik one evening. This is kind of like a heavy fried dough made on a burning hot rolling pin and then smeared with nutella. It’s as good as it sounds, and one is enough for a meal. Also, as our waiter not so subtly suggested the first evening, Pilsner Urquell may just be the best beer in the world. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s really good.

Practical Info 

Prague has a huge and fun Old Town and sports some very impressive buildings and views (such as Prague Castle from Charles Bridge). History, beer and music are top draws. I did not realize before visiting that Prague was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire (under Charles IV). Nor that “New Town” was built in the 14th century.

If you have enough time for a day-trip or more, Český Krumlov comes highly recommended.

Czech’s currency is the koruna (aka crown), though you will often see prices quoted in Euros. At time of travel, 1 USD = 21.6 CZK.

Transportation: We arrived on a train from Berlin, disembarking at Prague’s main train station (Praha hlavní nádraží). Much of the ride offers charming countryside scenery, as the tracks run right along a river. We walked (or took a Segway) everywhere within the city. The public transit system has a good reputation and is not that expensive.

We departed on a Smart Wings flight to Paris. Our hotel charged CZK690 (a cab may be slightly cheaper, and one may take public transport) for the 20-30 minute drive to Vaclav Havel Airport, which is nice and has free WiFi. The plane said Czech Airlines on it, and it was a pleasant voyage.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel U Červené židle (aka Red Chair Hotel). The location is superb, very near to Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge. Our room was spacious and the staff were very helpful. It seems to me that you probably want to stay in Old Town or Lesser Town.

If you are looking for something more upscale, my Dad and Linda recently stayed at Mamaison Riverside and my in-laws stayed at The Emblem. The Four Seasons is near Charles Bridge with a view of Prague Castle, and the Mandarin Oriental is in Lesser Town.

Food and Drinks: The Czech Republic is famous for its beer, but we did not really bring our A-game. Our excuse is that we came from Oktoberfest plus a week with Jack, aka the beer pusher. There are the classic old brewers, plus allegedly a robust craft beer scene. I can say that we much prefer the Pilsner Urquell to the Budweiser Budvar. We found the food generally good, but not great. There is a lot of goulash, roast pork, cabbage, bread or potato dumplings, etc. In general, stews, roast meats and hearty food prevail. If you have a sweet tooth, the ubiquitous trdelnik (a cylindrical pastry) makes a nice snack or dessert.

Dinner at U Parlamentu was good, and a half liter of Pilsner is only CZK38. Lunch at Cafe Savoy was also good, and the interior is lovely. Pad thai at Siam Orchid was not cheap (CZK190), but it was large and tasty. Dinner at U Medvidku was disappointing. The service was lousy, it was smoky, they were out of Jenni’s top choice, and I thought it was a craft brewery but somehow at dinner I could order only Budweiser Budvar.

Some other places that were recommended include K The Two Brothers (Indian); Pivovarský Dům; Cafe Louvre.

Activities: The City Tour with Prague Segway Tours (CZK1490 each, three hours) was a nice way to get an overview of the major tourist attractions. We weren’t so impressed by our guide, but riding a Segway was fun and it was worthwhile. We saw a blues/rock show at Reduta Jazz Club (CZK320/ticket, purchased in advance at their ticket window). Juwana Jenkins was good, but Charlie Slavik on the harmonica was the highlight. We considered JazzDock or Jazz Boat for shows.

“Mozart in Old Prague” at the Klementinum Mirror Chapel was nice (CZK550/ticket, somehow arranged at the front desk of Eurostars Thalia). We would’ve liked to hear the Czech Philharmonic at the Rudolfinum, but opening night was the day we departed. The National Theatre and Smetana Hall at Municipal House are but two of the many other venues for classical, opera, etc. There are also regular performances in various churches.

We saw Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral up close, but we never entered. We did enter Our Lady of Victory Church (not that special unless you’re really into the baby Jesus statue) and St. Nicholas (CZK70), which is an impressive baroque construction. Wallenstein Garden is free and peaceful with nice views. Just don’t ingest hallucinogens before visiting or the dripstone wall may get you. But the peacocks might be neat.

Old Town Square is a must, with the Astronomical Clock, gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, etc. Nearby is the Powder Tower, Republic Square (there was a small farmer’s market when we passed through on Wednesday) and the Municipal House (with an attractive Art Nouveau cafe and restaurant). The main square of New Town is Wenceslas Square.

The Lennon Wall made for an enjoyable quick stop. The old Jewish Quarter (Josefov) is a top attraction, though we just cruised through and did not make it to the museum. Our Segway guide said there is a pedestrian area with bars etc. along the Vltava River, I think it’s called Novoměstská náplavka or something like that.

September 28 – October 2, 2014 (Sunday-Thursday)

To the Wall

In recovery mode from Oktoberfest, we hit the open road (and more specifically, the Autobahn!) in seek of a place to relax for a night in between Munich and Berlin. Bautzen fit the bill. This charming medieval town was lovely, what with its many towers and cobblestone streets and all. Though it was extremely quiet. Like, we walked out of dinner (at our practically empty restaurant) around 10pm on a Thursday and all the shops were closed, all the streets deserted. Despite having the place practically to ourselves, we enjoyed dinner at Mönchshof, a fun restaurant where all the waiters are dressed as monks. We tried the local beverage specialties: a red beer, a wine and honey concoction (meh), and beer with banana juice. I had to taste the latter, knowing it could be one of those things that sounds utterly disgusting, but somehow is this amazing thing you suddenly realize you can’t live without. It was neither, but it was surprisingly tasty. Kind of like a beer based piña colada.

Our next and final stop in Germany was Berlin. Despite arriving on a misty, cold afternoon, we put in an impressive (and long!) walk around some of the city’s major highlights.

We walked from the train station past the gorgeous Reichstag building and on to the Brandenburg Gate.

While we didn’t actually go inside any museums, we walked over Museum Island to admire the intricate buildings.

We didn’t get to very much of the war/Jewish/Holocaust stuff, but we did see the impressive Neue Synagogue. It’s quite beautiful, and I actually thought it was a mosque when I saw its blue and gold dome from Museum Island. Probably because of its “splendid eastern Moorish style and resemblance to the Alhambra,” per Wikipedia.

Hackescher Markt was a nice square filled with restaurants, though it was somewhat dead given the spotty weather. And in further proof I am as easily entertained as a dog, I took approximately twenty pictures of the city amidst a street performer blowing giant bubbles.

But cooler yet was Hackesche Höfe, a super funky courtyard covered in artful graffiti. There’s also apparently a monster tour that originates here. I’m not entirely sure what this entails, but sounds interesting enough?

We eventually walked back through the Gendarmenmarkt, which is a splendid square with French and German cathedrals and the Konzerthaus (a concert house…see, German’s not so hard is it?).

I think Alan and Jack had the most fun at the Weber Grill store, which is part store, part shrine to barbecuing. I did not know that looking at grills could arouse so much enthusiasm. Now I know.

We ended the day of bang-out sightseeing with a visit to a must stop for tourists: Checkpoint Charlie. While there is little to actually see at this well-known historic wall crossing point, the display was very informative, and Jack took advantage of the photo op with the fake soldiers. Apparently, they’ll actually stamp your passport if you remember to bring it!

Overall we were wowed by the number of grand buildings throughout Berlin (I kind of pictured much more ugly, plain, communist era buildings), and the sheer number of cool galleries and cafes.

We stayed in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg, rife with above-mentioned cafes. While one could argue that the whole city of Berlin is hipster, Kreuzberg is a mecca of hipsterdom, and it’s a really lovely area to hang out in.

Our one full day in town, the weather cooperated and we enjoyed a sunny day exploring Berlin. There was a super cute farmers market nearby our flat, I think on Südstern.

And there were tons of cobblestone streets with wide sidewalks, lined with beautiful big trees. Felt like a perfect fall day in the city walking through these parts.

Despite being a European country with one of the best reputations for efficiency, Germany is strangely anti-credit card. And getting by in English wasn’t always seamless. This is what happened when we tried to order eggs for breakfast in German:

And for my final exhibit of weird things that happen in Germany: as we were walking through a park later in the afternoon we were propositioned by the most forward and unabashed drug dealers I’ve ever encountered. And we’ve traveled to some avant-garde places. There is a little strip of the park in which no fewer than 20 men jumped up to ask us if we wanted any number of drugs they had on offer for us. And they followed us out the park, determined to make a sale. I don’t know if this happens to everyone or if we really looked like we could use a fix? I’m telling you, strange things go down in German parks: drugs, nudity and surfing, at a minimum.

Once we made it through the whack-a-mole of drug dealers, we enjoyed some Berliners at Freischwimmer in a happening waterfront bar area. This little alcove of bars and restaurants is the perfect place to laze away a sunny weekend afternoon.

Just in time for magic hour, we made it to the number one must-see of Berlin: the wall itself! The East Side Gallery is one of the few places where you can still see the original wall. I know it’s just a wall, and again like the Great Wall, I kind of tempered my expectations, but visiting the Berlin Wall was actually one of my favorite things we did here. It’s covered in graffiti, some of it politically driven, some of it beautiful and other parts just downright weird.

With only about a day and a half, we covered just a tiny part of this seriously big city, but of what we saw, we were big fans!

Practical Info 

Berlin is a huge city with fascinating history, some beautiful buildings, a diverse population and next-level hipster vibe. There is a large Turkish (and Middle Eastern) population, especially around Kreuzberg and Neukölln where kebab shops seem to outnumber traditional German places. Mitte seems to have a lot of the museums and upscale hotels, etc. There were many cafes and galleries around Auguststrasse and Rosenthaler Strasse.…Kreuzberg and Neukölln have lots of cafes, bars, cobblestone streets etc. We enjoyed walking around Bergmannstrasse, Kortestrasse, Dieffenbachstrasse, Falckensteinstrasse, etc. But again, this is a big city so do some research and be prepared to walk a while. It is harder to just show up and wander into the cute and lively areas.

An interesting note about Bautzen, where we stopped between Munich and Berlin: there is a community of Sorbs here, and per Wikipedia Sorbs “are a Western Slavic people of Central Europe living predominantly in Lusatia, a region on the territory of Germany and Poland.” Who knew?

Transportation: We drove from Bautzen, where we spent the night en route from Munich, and we dropped the car at Hertz at Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). We walked a lot in the city and took a taxi once, which was reasonable, but this city is very large. It would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with public transport, which I think is extensive. Renting bikes might be a good option, given the vastness and that bike lanes are ubiquitous.

We departed on a train for Prague, which takes ~4.5 hours. I purchased tickets on the bahn.de website (second class, €39 each), and we left from Berlin Südkreuz (instead of Hauptbahnhof) because it is closer to where we stayed. As it turned out, this meant we had to cross the Berlin Marathon route (so finding a taxi was tough and the circuitous route cost €20) and the train was quite crowded when we boarded. Had I realized the format of these trains, I probably would have paid the extra €4.50 each to reserve seats and maybe even the extra money for first class.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kreuzberg on Arndtstraße. The apartment was very large and not so expensive, and the location was good if you want to be close to Kreuzberg and somewhat close to Neukölln. Many of the tourist sights are in Mitte, so some might think it preferable to stay there. I don’t know much about Monbijou Hotel, but the location seemed quite good and the lobby/bar have a nice boutique feel. There were also a couple docked boats at the East Side Gallery (don’t think that’s in Mitte, but cool to be at the Wall) that seemed to be hostels.

In Bautzen, we stayed at Villa Antonia. It was a fairly easy walk to the old town area, the downstairs pub/restaurant looked nice, and the included breakfast was fairly good. Our attic room was huge, but WiFi didn’t work too well up there.

Food and Drinks: White Trash Fast Food is something of a compound with indoor and outdoor space, live music at times, a tattoo parlor, etc. The burgers were great, and the veal ribs were solid. Jack and I had sushi at Cube (near our apartment), which was very good and beyond reasonable. We had plenty of food plus some drinks for €40. Coffee at The Barn is good, and Kenny gave high marks to Pic Nic (a small Italian spot).

Sunny Saturday drinks at Freischwimmer (on a canal by the River Spree) was nice, and there was at least one other bar directly across the canal (closer to White Trash Fast Food).

Currywurst is a local specialty, and especially in the area we stayed (but also all over) there are countless kebab shops. Mustafa’s Gemuse Kebap is well-reviewed.

I would also note that Berlin is famous for its clubs and techno scene. Much to Jack’s chagrin, we never made it. But I think Berghain is one of the famous spots.

In Bautzen, we had dinner at Mönchshof, a medieval/monk themed spot in the old town. It has its own tasty beer (Rother Abt), an extensive menu and ample portions.

Activities: Being the museum-o-phobes we are, we mainly walked around the city. The first day we started at Hauptbahnhof, walking by the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, east on Unter den Linden (which was covered with construction as they are building a new train line), over Museum Island (worth seeing for the Berliner Dom and more, even if you never enter a building), past the Neue Synagogue, along Auguststrasse, and into the Hackesche Höfe complex. Then we headed towards home, passing through the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt before spending a while at Checkpoint Charlie (but not the Wall museum there, which was closed).

Our second day we strolled more through Kreuzberg and Neukölln, visiting such charming streets as Bergmannstrasse, a strong little farmer’s market on Südstern, Kortestrasse, Dieffenbachstrasse, Pannierstrasse over a canal before crossing through Gorlitzer Park. I’ve never been offered drugs so repeatedly and openly as during this short passage. Then we had drinks at Freischwimmer, walked along Falckensteinstrasse and crossed the bridge to the East Side Gallery. This is one of the few places where you can still see the original Berlin Wall, and it was very cool. You get to see both sides and there are a couple bars there. We left too early on the prime day, but Kenny said Mauer Park on a Sunday was probably his favorite thing to do in Berlin.

There are lots of museums, war/Holocaust memorials, etc. in Berlin. Nearby Potsdam may also be worth visiting.

September 26-28, 2014 (Friday-Sunday)

Gemütlichkeit

It should come as no surprise that there is a really long German word for drinking lots of beer, cheers-ing constantly, and generally having the best time ever with your friends at Oktoberfest. That word is gemütlichkeit, and we learned it pretty quickly, given that the bands play the “Ein Prosit” song every ten minutes, day and night. For Oktoberfest virgins out there, it goes something along the lines of “ein prosit, ein prosit, gemütlichkeit.” This basically means (from what I recall): “A toast. A toast. That awesome feeling of drinking and having fun with your friends.” And though it doesn’t translate directly to English, we most definitely understood what gemütlichkeit meant while standing on our chairs, drinking German beer and dancing with the lederhosen clad locals.

I at once had high and tempered expectations for Oktoberfest. It is, after all, a festival dedicated largely to getting drunk off of beer. One would expect that to be fun, and maybe a little dirty. It far exceeded all of our expectations. I don’t know if it was stars aligning or the beer gods smiling down on us, but our first two nights experiencing Oktoberfest could not have been more perfect or more fun. It helped that our friend Jack met us in Munich to celebrate, and he is the ideal friend to help us get our drink on. ☺

Night one we entered the party with not the slightest clue as to how it all works. We wandered into a tent (Hacker-Pschorr) around five o’clock, when all the tables were already full. Not to be deterred, we stood in the space outside the tables and ordered a mass (a liter of beer) each from the first beerfrau who paid us mind. Perhaps it’s only because we drooled on the poor patrons sitting behind the wall from us, but a miraculous thing happened when a kind woman offered to let us order at her table, sit down and eat while she and her colleagues were waiting for the rest of their crew to arrive. We had our first tastes of the deliciousness that is Oktoberfest food, sampling the roast half chicken and a sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.

Satiated and yet still wanting more, we moved on to the Lowenbrau tent. By another pure stroke of luck, we squeezed into a table just as a man and his date were being escorted by security. By now, people were standing on their seats and dancing and singing along with the band. There are live bands in (I think) every tent. And most of them are fantastic, playing a range of classic songs and modern pop music, along with the Oktoberfest staples. At some point in the evening, we were joined by Jeurgen. (Sidenote, I’m 88% certain that everyone I met at Oktoberfest was named some variation of Jorg.) I’m sure I must have complimented him on his epic mustache because next thing I know, I was getting mustache tickles and he was dancing with Alan like they were old buddies. Best table-mate ever.

It was an evening of epic fun, singing and dancing, and cheers-ing non-stop. I mean, constantly. It helps that they play the “ein prosit” song every five minutes. Just in case you’d forgotten to drink. And people just slam their glasses into one another. It’s a wonder they don’t shatter. Also, for the record, those steins are heavy. I literally woke up with a swollen lump in between my right forefinger and thumb from holding those things. I had to go lefty the next night. And we realized just how impressive it is that beerfraus often carry five steins in each hand!

Some crazy stuff happens at Oktoberfest, but I was still pretty taken aback when the group next to us pulled out a small vial of white powder and began blowing lines of it, and even offered us a bump. Mind you this is on the outer row of tables, in clear view of security and staff! Turns out it was not an illicit substance, but menthol. They were basically blowing breath mints. And we saw a few other people doing it another day. The first of many strange things we discovered in Germany.

Also, how awesome are these whip guys?!

Outside the tents there is strangely little drinking. I hadn’t realized this beforehand. But it makes sense that nobody is carrying around a mass in a giant glass stein throughout the carnival that’s taking place outside. Anyway, it provides for a good break to play some carnival games. We never did try the rides, but if you’re into that sort of stuff, there are plenty to enjoy. There’s also tons of food. We picked up some nutella waffles one morning on the way in, delicious.

Somehow we managed to wake up early enough to get to the tents bright and early the next day. We sat at a table and began with our masses and our “ein prosit’s” and enjoying a merry old day the Oktoberfest way. The day scene is completely different, but totally awesome in a whole other way. People mostly sit down during the day, not quite drunk enough to stand on their chairs and sing, save for the occasional chap who would stand up and chug an entire mass to the cheers of the crowd. Apparently, if one fails at said task, they must pour the remaining beer on their head. Impressively, of all the chuggers we saw, not one was unable to finish. We were joined by a great German guy who, despite his limited English, told us all about his adventures traveling through the US, Africa and Europe in the 70s. He was fantastic company.

Also, in addition to the people walking around with baskets of pretzels for sale, there is a lady who sells pickles. Obviously we ordered a round. Did I mention how much I love this place?

Thanks to Alan’s relationships from his former work at a hedge fund, we were invited to the Kirkland & Ellis party our second night in town. We knew we had to step up our game, so Alan and I went off in search of some proper attire: dirndl and lederhosen!

I had known that Germany was home to lots of Turks, but I didn’t quite realize the extent of it. Parts of Germany (including the neighborhood we stayed in, just outside of the Oktoberfest area) are more Turkish than parts of Istanbul! To my shame, this was yet another place where a better knowledge of the Turkish language would have come in helpful. My very limited Turkish did, in fact, come in handy when I was able to ask “how much” at a shop selling lederhosen. Unfortunately, any rapport I gained by this translation was lost when the price he gave me was above the number I can count to (ten). Womp womp. Nevertheless, we succeeded in snagging a dirndl and some lederhosen elsewhere that really helped us fit in with the crowd. Jack, of course, stuck to his usual uniform of a white v-neck t-shirt and jeans. ;)

After confirming with the locals which side to tie my apron (left side means single, right side means taken and on the back means widowed), we headed out to the Kafer tent. Um, most fun I’ve ever had (and likely ever will) at a law firm hosted event. Amazeballs. The partners were super friendly and welcoming, and the event was all out. VIP tables in the upstairs section of the tent, food done right (I’m talking pretzel trees, a meat, cheese and pate spread, gigantic ox platter, potato balls, a ridiculous pancake dessert thing), drinks of course done right (unlimited masses, plus schnapps handed out late night), and we were right next to the band. The band, by the way, was out of this world awesome. They even came out and played amongst the crowd at points. We were dancing with the accordionist and violinist on our table. And somehow one of the lead singers and I started tickling each other. I don’t know. These things just happen at Oktoberfest. Overall, insanely fun party.

I also got a kick out of this guy who just laid down on the banister of the stairwell with his beer and watched the concert from there. Too funny.

And, if it’s a real feel for the festivities (chugging, yodeling, cheers-ing included) you’re after, check out this little montage of our Oktoberfest experience (thanks, Jack, for some great video footage!):

By day three we managed to pry ourselves from the tents for a few minutes to check out some of the non-Oktoberfest related highlights of Munich. We visited Marienpltaz, stopping for a ridiculous breakfast of schnitzel and whatever this meat/egg/potato concoction was at Tegernseer Tal Bräuhaus. We walked through the permanent Hofbräuhaus (cool, but at least during Oktoberfest, not as awesome as the event itself).

One of the coolest things we discovered was the Eisbach surfing. There is a permanent wave in the river that serious surfers hang out and ride all day long.

It’s wildly impressive. Feels like watching a pro-surfer movie, but live, and right up in the action. Do not miss this if you make it to Munich. Check out some video action:

From there we wandered through the park and another weird German thing happened to us. Everyone got naked. Well, not everyone, but there’s apparently a whole naked section of the park. Largely dudes, but there were a couple lady bits hanging out too.

We settled on a clothed section of the park and chilled out in the hammocks of a biergarten.

That night we went out for our last taste of Oktoberfest, and while the food did not disappoint, we were less impressed by the tents we checked out. We surmise it was a combination of things: I think as it gets later in the week the scene gets more crowded and more intense (e.g. lots of “bro-ey-ness” and aggressiveness… I got hit hard just trying to walk to the bathroom, and dodged a potentially developing fight as I came out), some tents are better than others (e.g. the band at Spaten just couldn’t compare), and we were far more sober than everyone around (never a good thing).

Practical Info

We visited Munich, but the trip was really all about Oktoberfest. Before coming, I did not realize that Oktoberfest is a Munich thing, not a Germany thing. Nor was I sure that it doesn’t really pervade the whole city, rather it is pretty much confined to the Theresienwiese, a huge concrete oval in the city.

The festival lasts ~16 days, beginning in late September and usually ending the first weekend in October. We visited during the first week, and likely on less-crowded days considering these were Monday-Wednesday. Vacation day issues aside, this seems like a good idea to me as it is plenty crazy and probably even more intense on the weekends.

Within the Theresienwiese are several enormous temporary beer tents. These take months to set up and typically hold upwards of 5k people each. Some of the major tents are Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbrau. The tents get extremely crowded and finding a seat can be difficult. Many tables are reserved, and I’m not sure how one makes a reservation. If you show up very early, you can grab a table. Someone told us we had to show up at 9:30 am for a 10 am open, but we strolled into Augustiner on Tuesday at 11 am and it was pretty empty. I’m sure it’s different on the weekend, and maybe at other tents. If you are there when it’s packed, just hover and do your best. Not getting a seat can make it difficult to even buy beer, and I don’t think you could order proper food, though you could still buy giant pretzels and the like from vendors walking around with baskets. The standard beer order is a Mass (or Maß), which is one liter and always costs ~€10. Service is extremely prompt (at least after ordering), and you are expected to tip.

As far as I know, every tent has basically a full orchestra. They play a mix of traditional and pop music. The Ein Prosit tune will be stuck in your head for days, if not weeks. The Kafer tent had more of an interactive multi-piece band, and it was phenomenal.

A great many festival-goers are in traditional attire, which means a dirndl for women and lederhosen for men. We purchased ours at a shop on Landwehrstraße, on the north side between St. Paul’s Church and Hotel Demas City. It cost €30 for Jenni’s outfit and €50 for mine (just the leather, no shirt or shoes), which was half the best price we could negotiate a block or two closer to the festival. You might consider Amazon prior to travel.

We popped our Oktoberfest cherry at Hacker-Pschorr and then had loads of fun at Lowenbrau on the first night. On Tuesday we spent 11am – 3 pm at Augustiner, where the music began at noon. Then we rested up before the K&E party at the Kafer tent that night…which was amazing. Kafer is the celeb/VIP tent, and the party was truly top-notch. On Wednesday we did some touristy things before heading to the festival in the evening. We were a bit worn down and fairly sober, so perhaps we were harsher judges. We could only sit outside at Spaten, and the band seemed sub-par. The vibe at Hofbrau was by far the bro-iest and honestly a bit over the top and off-putting. We ended up at Augustiner where it was more mellow, this being a relative concept.

The biggest surprises for me were the variety and quality of food in the tents; how much music there was and how good most of it was; and how extensive the carnival area and rides are.

Transportation: We arrived on an Air Dolomiti flight from Milan, and we took the train from the airport to Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). I believe you can take the S-1 or S-8 train. It cost €10.40 each and took about 45 minutes. Our hotel and the festival are walking distance from the train station. Within the city, we walked everywhere.

We departed Munich in a rental car (Hertz, poor service) headed for Berlin, with a night on the way in Bautzen. The drive to Bautzen was ~5 hours, and we stopped for a late lunch in Hof. People do indeed drive very fast on the Autobahn. We routinely cruised at 160+ km/h. And in stark contrast with Italy and France, we never paid a single toll!

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel Demas City. The immediate area is not particularly charming, but it is an easy walk to Oktoberfest and there was an ample supply of late-night doner shops, thus we were pleased with this pick. The room was pretty good-sized and water pressure was excellent. If it were not Oktoberfest, I would try to stay somewhere else. Maybe closer to Marienplatz.

Food and Drinks: The beer tents, of course. We were very impressed by the variety and quality of food there. The half roast chicken was consistently great (costs ~€10). Other staples include pork knuckle, sausage (maybe with saurekraut), various roast meats, spaetzle, and pretzels. Lunch at Tegernseer Tal Bräuhaus by Marienplatz was delicious. Our hotel was in the Turkish/Middle Eastern area, so there were lots of kebab shops.

Activities: Drinking and singing handily top all challengers. We covered the basics of Oktoberfest above. Jack did a city Segway tour before we arrived, and that sounded fun. One day we walked around the city, through Marienplatz and its surroundings where there are lively squares and beautiful architecture. Watching the surfers on the Eisbach was very neat. The Englischer Garten is a nice park, replete with nudists and a little biergarten with hammocks. The Residenz is high on the list of most tourists, and on a prior visit I think I hit the Deutsches Museum, which is a great science and technology museum.

September 22-25, 2014 (Monday-Thursday)