Category Archives: Germany

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)