Tag Archives: travel

everybody loves…Naples

This travel blog post is unfortunately not about Naples, Italy. Though I hope to one day make a pilgrimage to the holy birthplace of pizza, we’re sticking stateside as I detail the highlights of a recent mini-vacation my wife and I took to the town named after the capital of Campania – Naples, Florida.

You’re probably thinking right now “Naples is full of nothing but super-rich octogenarians. Why would two hip thirty-somethings go there for a vacation?”. Well, let me tell you! My in-laws are snowbirds who nest in Fort Myers during the winter months, and we started making an annual vacation visit two years ago. It’s always been a good time, but the thought this year of spending eight days and seven nights in a two-bedroom condo with poor Wi-Fi and a potty-training toddler just didn’t sound like a relaxing time.

Thankfully my mother-in-law offered to babysit our son for a few days so that my wife and I could venture out of town on our own. Naples seemed to be the best option due to its surfeit of dining/shopping options and the fact that its overwhelmingly elderly populace meant that the beach wouldn’t be full of toddlers screaming for “ONE MORE PAW PATROL”.

Below are some of the highlights of our visit, which overall could best be summed up as the definition of “relaxing”. Though lacking in excitement and nightlife (most restaurants close at 8pm), the laidback lifestyle is hard to complain about when most of my life is spent either at work navigating quixotic Microsoft Project deadlines or at home being screamed at by my son for, you guessed it, “ONE MORE PAW PATROL”.

Naples Beach

It was windy during our stay so we didn’t get to hang out on the beach too much, but from what I saw it was quite beautiful. The sands along the Gulf of Mexico were as white and well-manicured as the second wives that walk upon it, and some old guy told me that the lovely turquoise waters are “chock full of snook and Spanish mackeral” which I’m assuming are fish so I guess that must be a good thing.

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7th Avenue Social & Bayside

Though the collective vibe of Naples is much more “hip-replacement” than “hipster”, we were able to find a trendy gastropub that more than satisfied my need for craft beer, rustic decor and seasonalocalartisanal comfort food. We also had a great (and great-ly expensive) meal at the upscale Bayside, which was nestled in a swanky shopping enclave entitled The Village on Venetian Bay and had a lovely waterside view.

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5th Avenue South

This posh shopping district has more than seventy retail stores and forty restaurants. Most of the clothiers cater to the Tommy Bahama/Chico’s crowd so I didn’t do much clothes shopping, but I did make it rain at many of their near-omnipresent gelato shops. Turns out old people really love their ice-cream, which makes sense since having teeth really isn’t required to enjoy a hot fudge sundae.

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everybody loves…San Diego

San Diego is purported to be one of America’s most beautiful cities. Now that I’ve spent a week there, I can wholeheartedly agree. The perfect weather and beautiful coastline were as-advertised and I now understand why people head west and never come back. Below is my travelogue recap, along with a few of my wife’s photos showing the tourist attractions* that I unfortunately missed. Enjoy!

* I went to SD for a work conference. Wanting, nay, needing a vacation after not traveling sans child for nearly three years, my wife decided to procure the babysitting services of Grandma, Inc. and accompany me. Therefore, she got to explore the city all day long without having to listen to me or him whining for more Goldfish.

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Seaport Village

Our hotel was nicely nestled next to this swanky enclave of seaside shops and restaurants. The view of the bay from the harbor pier was stunning, and a stroll down the boardwalk brought many interesting sights such as the Unconditional Surrender statue, musical pedi-cabs and only mildly-shady street performers. The overall vibe is “upscale touristy” so I’d imagine that a local could denounce the area as trite. Luckily I’m an upscale tourist so the village was perfect for me!

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Coronado

The island oasis of Coronado is just a quick ferry ride across the bay from downtown San Diego and is well-deserving of its ranking as the best beach in the United States. For starters, the sand is as well-groomed and white as the people that stroll across it. Another highlight is the charming Victorian architecture of the historic Hotel Del Coronado. It’s supposedly haunted by the ghost of turn of the century con-artist Kate Morgan, who’s not to be confused with adult film star Katie Morgan (who can haunt me anytime).

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Old Town San Diego

Old Town is appropriately named. It’s an 1800’s-style neighborhood full of old-timey shops and exhibits which range from actually historic to artificially touristy. After meandering around this area for an hour under the blazing hot sun, we sought respite (and authentic Mexican food) at El Agave Tequileria. My taquitos de pescado were delicious, and the thousands of tequila bottles lining the walls made for a nice decorative element that I hope to incorporate into my future man-cave.

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La Jolla

Um…there really isn’t much to say about this area other than it is f*ckin’ beautiful. It made Ocean City, New Jersey look like Newark, New Jersey…

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Gaslamp Quarter

At 38 years old, the idea of spending a night barhopping sounds more like a punishment than a pleasure. Therefore, my wife and I really didn’t take advantage of the numerous bars and clubs that inhabit the Gaslamp Quarter.

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We did have a nice dinner at the chic gastropub Seersucker*, but I was still back in bed by the time the Victorian-era gas lamps started illuminating the night sky. If I was only ten years younger, I’m sure that I would have had a helluva time getting turnt up just like Brad and Robin from Real World San Diego!

* Here’s my quick Seersucker restaurant review. It possessed a rustic, maritime vibe that elevated it past the typical speakeasy milieu. The duck fat fries were to die for, and the companion chipotle ketchup added a nice touch of smokiness to the savory unctuousness of the fries. Highly recommended!

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USS Midway Museum & San Diego Zoo

I didn’t get a chance to visit any of these places, but my wife did. Please enjoy her pictures!

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everybody loves…Toronto

My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in the fourth biggest city in North America – Toronto, Canada. It was my first time visiting Drizzy Drake’s hometown and I absolutely loved it. Below is a recap of some of the many highlights of our trip.

InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel: Nestled next to Rogers Centre in the shadow of the CN Tower, the InterContinental was the perfect home base for our stay in Toronto. It was very modern, attractive and clean (like me) with an extremely friendly and helpful staff (again, just like me).

The CN Tower: Getting to the top of the CN Tower was the first activity we undertook after checking into our hotel. It was an absolutely gorgeous day so the 360 degree view of the lake and the city was quite breathtaking. The sky terrace was pretty crowded but we were still able to navigate through the selfie-stick wielding crowds to get some really great pictures.

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Spice Route Asian Bistro & Bar: This popular King Street West restaurant combined a super-chic ambiance and a menu overflowing with sharable Indo-Chinese delicacies. I’m now 17% cooler just by having dined there.

Hey Lucy: Another trendy bistro on King Street, Hey Lucy backed up their fashionable façade with delicious brick oven pizzas and a gaslamp-lit rooftop patio that provided the perfect amount of romantic ambiance.

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Bar Hop: A sh*tload of beers on tap and really great French fries. Bar Hop was basically what I imagine heaven to be like.

Distillery District: Strolling around the cobblestone pathways of this Victorian-style village was such a charming experience. Along with a plethora of artisanal shops and cafes, this area was also home to the awesome Mill Street Brew Pub.

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The Second City’s How to Kill a Comedian: People constantly texting “lol” has devalued the sentiment so much that it has almost replaced “ok” as a compulsory response. Regardless, there’s really no better way for me to describe my Second City experience other than with a capital #LOL. I laughed out loud so much that I nearly p*ssed my pants. And that would’ve really sucked since I only packed one pair.

Canadian Craft Beers: Though still dominated by Labatt’s, Molson and Bud (ughh), Canada also has a burgeoning craft beer scene with many appealing options. Below are three of my new favorites along with an alliterative summation:

Bar Hop Poutentious ESB (Premium Bitter/ESB – ABV 5.0%) – bitter, biscuity and bubbly.

Mill Street Belgian Wit (Witbier – ABV 5.2%) – hazy, hoppy and hints-of-banana.

Collective Arts Rhyme and Reason (American Pale Ale – ABV 5.7%) – grainy, grassy and grapefruity.

Final Call: Toronto reminded me a lot of Chicago, except much cleaner and without the constant threat of violent crime. It’s a beautiful, big city with plenty of green space and world-class entertaining, shopping and sports experiences.

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Special shout-out to my Torontonian buddy Elle for all her help in planning our itinerary and accommodations. She has now replaced Michael J. Fox as my favorite Canadian!

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everybody loves…Montreal…Part I

We leisurely left Buffalo late Thursday morning with the thought that we’d stop somewhere around Syracuse for lunch. Using my phone to search Urbanspoon and Yelp, the best sounding place I could find was The Brick House Café in Brewerton, NY. Upon pulling into the parking lot, we noticed that restaurant was now going by a different name – Barado’s Café. With the other nearby options being Subway and McDonalds, we quickly decided that the unknown was better than either of those.

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Barado’s turned out to be quite a delight. The welcoming service and delicious turkey and provolone panini I scarfed down made it the perfect lunch spot for our day of travel. Since this was the official start of my vacation, I decided to go whole-hog and ordered a lunch dessert as well – homemade carrot cake. It was big enough for two, but that didn’t stop me from eating it all myself. After I was sufficiently stuffed with All-American goodness, we jumped back in the car, re-started our Audible audiobook* and continued north to the 15th largest city in North America**.

Thanks to heavy rush-hour traffic, we ended up not making it to our destination in the heart of Old Montreal until nearly 7:00pm. As my wife checked us in to our hotel (confusedly named LHotel), I wandered around the lobby admiring the plentiful artwork. The place is owned by Guess jeans founder Georges Marciano, and he has stuffed it full of works from modern luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella. Though pop art isn’t really my favorite, it was hard not to marvel at the omnipresent paintings and statues. I felt like I was trapped inside a 1986 Duran Duran video.

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It was much too dark to go sightseeing in Old Montreal so we again turned to the internets for a dining selection. My wife picked out Méchant Boeuf based on decent star rating from Google Maps, and we headed out into the cold Canadian air in search of poutine. As soon as we entered the uber-trendy restaurant, I realized that we’d regret the fact that we hadn’t done our due diligence. If only we would have checked out the Yelp reviews, we would have seen the below line from Stephane V.:

“The bar is red and glows while a resident DJ spins ambient techno.”

Don’t get me wrong, the décor was really cool – especially the waterfall-wall feature. It just wasn’t the kind of place that you visit to wind down after a long day of driving. The tables were cramped, the music was loud, and everyone was dressed up in European chic. I now felt like I was trapped inside a 2013 Avicii video.

The cuisine was also a bit of a disappointment. I ordered the house burger and we split an order of the poutine. Despite mouthwatering descriptions for both (AAA beef with perfectly crisped bacon and artisanal blue cheese / poutine Charlevoix with braised pork), the food was pretty underwhelming. Thankfully we had many more days of vacation for me to continue my quest to find Montreal’s best poutine!

* We listened to “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple. Its nontraditional narrative structure wasn’t grabbing me much at first. I actually dozed off through a couple of the early chapters (while my wife was driving of course). However, once I got used to the epistolary storytelling I enjoyed it thoroughly – especially the rants about all the ne’er-do-wells in Seattle. That place is Bumtown, USA.

** Pittsburgh is 34th, sandwiched in-between Hogsmeade and Cabot Cove.

Barado's Cafe and Catering on Urbanspoon

Méchant Boeuf on Urbanspoon

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everybody loves…Montreal…Prologue

Originally we were going to (stay classy) San Diego. There was an EPM Live conference being held there in November that my wife was scheduled to attend for work. With her hotel and flight paid for, we figured that this would be the perfect opportunity for us to take a reasonably priced vacation. We considered bringing our 6-month old infant, but after three days straight with explosive, outfit-ruining bowel movements, we figured it best for Grandma to come spend some quality time with him instead.

We booked our airfare, reserved a rental car and began coming up with the sightseeing itinerary. And then it happened. The United States federal government pulled a Derek Bell and went into “Operation Shutdown”. My wife’s company is a government contractor. Therefore in response to losing their federal funding, all non-essential travel was cancelled. #ThanksObama.

We could have still headed out west on our own dime, but the call of the Pacific Ocean diminished greatly after factoring in the cost of a hotel and my wife’s flight. Despite this setback, the promise of a mini-getaway was just too good to let go. We fired up the Google maps app and investigated all of the destination options within a manageable car-ride radius.

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Nashville jumped out as my wife’s initial destination preference*. Additionally, we could break-up the nine-hour jaunt by spending a day exploring Charleston. Alas, further research on the capital city of West Virginia quickly lessened its attractiveness**. And though I had heard great things about Nashville, the fact that I absolutely loathe country music probably indicates it’s not my kind of town.

Flipping our focus northeast instead of southwest, the next candidate that came into view was the second largest city in Canada – Montreal. Not only did Montreal fulfill my wife’s “no sloppy-seconds” travel rule, it would also allow us to bring our son to Grandma since she’s on the way in Buffalo. Double win!!

* What about New York City, Toronto or Boston perhaps? Well, my wife doesn’t like returning to cities she’s already visited. Though she would eat Fiori’s pizza every night for dinner if she could, just the idea of going back to Paris just leaves her cold. #womenbetrippin***

** I threw out a tweet asking for travel advice on visiting Charleston and the first response I got was “Don’t”.

*** Also #firstworldproblems.

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everybody loves…Belgium…Part I

We awoke in the middle of the night and groggily headed to the lobby to await our ride to the airport. Our driver turned out to be the same fellow who ferried our tired bodies into Berlin two days earlier and I again chuckled at his visual likeness to Herc from The Wire. The streets were devoid of traffic so we arrived at Schönefeld Airport with plenty of time to grab a croissant for breakfast at the terminal’s kitschy 60’s inspired diner. The flight was cramped with a multi-mix of ethnicities but I soon learned that tuning out the cacophonous babbling of others is a lot easier when you don’t understand what anyone’s saying. 

My unfamiliarity with the French language quickly went from boon to bust since I was no help whatsoever to my wife as she tried to decipher the schedules at the airport railway station. Fortunately her advance planning and high school French classes proved invaluable and she figured it out without me. After a quick metro ride, our journey was complete and we exited the underground station right in front of our intended destination – the historic Hotel Métropole.

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This establishment was one of the first luxury hotels built in the 19th century and I was immediately impressed by its abundance of old style elegance. The lobby and reception area were flush with Corinthian marble columns, stained-glass windows, gilded ceilings and grandiose light fixtures. This Italian Baroque-meets-Belle Epoque architecture splendor was in stark contrast to the modern, minimalist accommodations that we had just left behind and served as a great signal that we were no longer in Deutschland.

After dropping our bags and grabbing a delicious (albeit ungodly expensive) waffle for lunch in the hotel’s café, we ventured out to catch a tour bus and take in the local attractions. First up was The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula on Treurenberg Hill. This Roman Catholic Church has been around since the 13th century and was adorned with a plethora of gothic statues that all looked like they were mad at me.

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Our next stop was Petit Sablon Square, which was also home to many grimacing gothic statues. This lush garden-park’s perimeter was dotted with forty-eight large stone columns and each one was topped with a bronze figurine representing one of the ancient professions – most of which appeared to involve a shovel.

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The remaining monarchial highlights included the Belgian Royal Palace, the Cinquantenaire Arch at Jubilee Park Brussels, and the Church of Our Lady of Laeken*. The Royal Palace was quite imposing and reminded me of a cross between Berlin’s Reichstag and Downton Abbey.

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The Cinquantenaire ended up not impressing me too much. I attributed this underwhelment to two reasons – A) I had already taken a sh*tload of pictures of neoclassical quadriga–topped triumphal arches in Germany, and B) my enthusiasm was at a nadir due to my lack of sleep and the intermittent freezing rain that pelted us as we rode on the top of the bus. The lone bright spot of the gloomy weather was that the gray sky served as a wonderfully photogenic backdrop for many of the foreboding buildings.

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Visiting the Atomium was my personal highlight of all of the attractions we encountered on the tour bus route. Not only was it a super-cool structure of stainless steel-skinned spheres connected by tube-encapsulated escalators, but it was also constructed to represent the body-centered cubic crystal structure of iron. This is of particular significance to me since I’m a metallurgist and understanding the behavior of crystal lattices was a big part of my undergrad curriculum**.

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After checking out the Atomium’s art and science exhibitions and enjoying a great view of the city from the top sphere, we decided to indulge in some pommes frites from a parking lot food truck. Though I was initially turned-off by the mound of mayo-slathered French fries, it only took a few bites for me (and my wife) to fall in love with this decadent delicacy. 

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The tour bus dropped us off back at home base and we spent the rest of the evening exploring the nearby town centre by foot. The King’s House, Town Hall and splendid Guildhalls at the Grand Place continued Brussels’ unparalleled examples of restored romantic architecture. The surrounding marketplace was packed with numerous attention-grabbing storefronts, including expert chocolatiers, beer purveyors, and leather-friendly S&M sex shops.

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All this window-shopping made me quite hungry and we commenced our evening with huge pots of moules marinières at a delightful corner bistro. After completing the region’s gastronomic trifecta***, we headed home to rest up for a trip north to Bruges in the morning.

* This Roman Catholic Church contains the imperial crypt, where such Belgian nobles as King Leopold I, King Leopold II and Jean Claude Van Damme’s career are buried.

** Along with the Dave Matthews Band, 30 packs of Red Dog and clove cigarettes.

*** Waffles, fries and mussels.

Past Links

Travel Prologue

Germany Pt. I

Switzerland

Germany Pt. II

Germany Pt. III

Germany Pt. IV

Germany Pt. V

Germany Pt. VI

Germany Pt. VII

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The Year in Review – Travel

2012 was not a huge year in travel for me. I visited The City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia), The Queen City (Charlotte) and The City of the The Goo Goo Dolls* (Buffalo). Though each city has its charms, I don’t think that they’ll end up in a Price is Right Showcase Showdown vacation package anytime soon. I drove solo to a three-day medical conference in Philly this past June and spent a lot of time exploring the city. I ran a bunch of miles around the Center City district, and also attended both a Phillies and a Sixers game. I got enough fodder for a trilogy of posts out of this eventful trip, much to my wife’s chagrin. She was less than enthused to read about my Philly exploits. She’s not a big fan of the city itself, and she thought my time would have been better spent cataloging our Europe trip from late-2011. Naja!

I visited Charlotte in June for an aerospace conference with my boss, and unfortunately didn’t get much of a chance to sight see. Therefore, I never wrote a post about the largest city in North Carolina. It appeared pleasant enough from the couple of loops that I ran around the bustling College and Tryon Streets. Our trip did involve an outing to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which was actually kinda cool despite my lack of interest in NASCAR. My in-laws live in Buffalo, so we traveled there multiple times throughout the year. I would have loved to write about the many delights that this fellow Rust Belt town has to offer, but unfortunately I never sat down and got it done in 2012. Much like a Bills fan, I’m hoping next year is more successful.

My wife was pretty happy with the six posts about Europe that I was able to write this past year, though she constantly accuses me of dragging my feet to finish the series. Admittedly, I am taking my sweet ole’ time, but not out of languor. I don’t foresee a voyage anytime soon that will rival all the notable adventuring we did across Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and England, so I might as well spread it out as long as I can. There aren’t any sensational vacation plans scheduled for next year, just a wedding in Wellsville, Ohio and possibly a work trip to Seattle, WA. I have been in the lottery for the New York City marathon the past few years and was poised to gain entry in 2013, but I am unsure of the impact resulting from this November’s cancellation. All I know is whenever I do get in, I’m fin’ to win that b*tch.

Philadelphia…Part I

Philadelphia…Part II

Philadelphia…Part III

Germany…Part II

Germany…Part III

Germany…Part IV

Germany…Part V

Germany…Part VI

Germany…Part VII

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* While investigating Buffalo, I found out that that Rick James was actually born there. For all this time, I thought he was from the planet of Funkotron**.

** While investigating Funkotron, I found out that ToeJam & Earl were actually born in Hyrule.

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everybody loves…Germany…Part VII

Between the early arrival from Munich and the hurried sightseeing, our first day in the capital of Germany was quite exhausting. I felt like I’d reached a point in the vacation where the idea of sleeping in and spending the day relaxing sounded like a better plan than hustling around to see the sights. Fortunately, debating between the two options was rendered moot since we had previously made plans with our new friend Tamar to meet up and catch the first sightseeing tour bus of the day. We arose begrudgingly and strengthened our resolve with some strong German coffee* before making the trek to the same bus stop we launched from the day before. Keine Ruhe den Gottlosen!

We arrived right on time and Tamar was nowhere to be found. We didn’t have her cell phone number, and I think that she actually didn’t have a working phone, just a laptop, so we had no way of communicating** with her to find out if she was on her way or not. The last time we spoke to her was two days earlier before we all left Munich. We flew straight to Berlin, but she was planning to visit Prague before coming back to Germany. For a few moments, I thought that there was a distinct possibly she was kidnapped by a crazy doctor and surgically stitched into a human centipede. Fortunately, she showed up before too long and we caught the second bus of the day.

Since we were starting much earlier than our previous days sightseeing adventure, we had a lot of time to jump off the bus and explore the different historically significant attractions. Up first was Checkpoint Charlie, which unfortunately turned out to be a little underwhelming. Back in the day, the area was a tightly-controlled crossing point in the Berlin Wall. It was erected by the Soviet Union-backed GDR to prevent emigration from East to West Germany. Today, there were actors costumed as military policeman available for picture taking and a slew of sidewalk souvenir stands. The area was very touristy – not nearly as intellectually-insulting as Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls – but much more kitschy than what I had come to expect from the Germans. 

The experience of visiting the Berlin Wall was also a little lackluster. The wall itself has been pretty much demolished or dismantled since the strict segregation ended and Germany reunified in 1989-90. There was a strip of cobblestones along the streets that denoted the original placement of the wall and that at least gave us some idea of what the barrier was like. Our next stop was extremely impressive, though not exactly joyous. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consisted of thousands of unadorned, stoic concrete slabs arranged in rows over an undulating expanse. I believe that the memorial was designed to invoke mournful melancholy, and I think it did a wonderful job of being artistically interesting while making me very sad. Thankfully, my mind was able to drift back to happy thoughts once we left and grabbed currywursts for lunch at a nearby food stand. This Berlin-originated delicacy consisted of fried pork sausage covered in a ketchup-curry powder mixture. It looked a little unappetizing (as did the side of fries topped with mayo), but it turned out to be extremely delicious. #nomnomnom

We continued our trip late into the afternoon, and were able to take some great pictures of the beautifully foreboding architecture of the Reichstag and Berliner Dom. The Reichstag was built in the late 1800’s to house the country’s parliament. This building was set ablaze in 1933 and the Nazis used the arson investigation to pretty much get the ball rolling on the whole fascism movement. The Berliner Dom was just a cool looking church. We finished the day by exploring the bustling Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt. Germans love them some Christmas, and checking out the various shops was a delightful experience. As we approached evening, we decided to make a pit stop at Tamar’s hotel room in downtown Berlin to freshen ourselves up before heading out to dinner. 

We ventured to a trendy cafeteria-style restaurant where they gave us a swipe card and a tray. We then went around getting in line for the foods we wanted, paying for them at the end when we turned the card in. It was novel because everything was cooked fresh in front of you while you waited in line. Consequently, the lines were quite long and slow moving due to this luxury. Though an interesting experience, I really don’t think that this innovation is going to make it over here in the states. Americans are way too fat and lazy to wait in line for anything that doesn’t involve a roller coaster. I decided on the pasta line and chose to feast on that classic German dish pasta olio aglio.  It was a little heavy on the garlic but still paired great with a couple glasses of gewürztraminer. After dinner, we loaded up on Deutschland postcards and last-minute souvenirs before sadly bidding Auf Wiedersehen to Tamar. We caught the metro back to our hotel and had just a few short hours to pack and sleep before flying west to visit the homeland of my boyhood hero Jean-Claude Van Damme – Belgium.

* There was a cafe chain in Berlin named Balzac Coffee. The coffee was great, but what I really liked about it was the ample opportunity it gave me to come up with pun-filled slogans. My personal favorite – “You’re not awake until you’ve tasted Balzac." 

** Remember life before cellphones? Back then, you didn’t have a channel of communication between yourself and your friends that was constantly open. If you were supposed to meet your friend at Century III Mall in J. Natale’s II, but he/she thought it was J. Natale’s I, you could easily waste an hour before finding each other. Thankfully that will never happen to anyone again.

Past Links

Travel Prologue

Germany Pt. I

Switzerland

Germany Pt. II

Germany Pt. III

Germany Pt. IV

Germany Pt. V

Germany Pt. VI

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everybody loves…Germany…Part VI

After our third night in Munich, we woke up bright and early and began our voyage north to Berlin. Though our arrival in Bavaria was marred with navigational challenges, our exit was seamless as we took a subway from the Marienplatz to the Hauptbahnhof and then boarded a train destined for the airport. The comfortable flight took about an hour and I passed the time pretending to read a German newspaper. After deplaning we made our way to the pick-up area in search of someone holding up a placard with our name on it. This jaunt from the Berlin airport to our hotel in the Mitte district was the only trip for which we previously arranged for transportation. We would have had to catch a train and then a U-Bahn to get there ourselves and decided that a chauffeured car ride would hopefully mean we’d have enough energy to spend the day sight-seeing.

We met up with our driver who turned out to be a Polish immigrant and the spitting image of Herc from The Wire. Despite seeming a bit creepy, I apprehensively stepped into his van while praying that I wouldn’t get kidnapped and be forced to live out the rest of my days working in a Polish massage parlor. Our trip through Germany thus far had involved the storybook visages of the Black Forest and the cosmopolitan posh of Munich. The van ride through Berlin yielded far fewer picturesque images. The streets were rather rough looking and reminded me of traveling as a child in the back seat of my parents car along Rt. 837 through Homestead and Duquesne to get to Kennywood. There was a lot of graffiti, tenement-style housing developments and a general setting of urban decay. This blighted sightseeing tour was further made unsettling by our driver’s fondest for polish rap music. Between the grainy change in scenery, lack of sleep, and associated flying fatigue, I was feeling a bit disoriented when we arrived at The Circus Hotel in central Berlin.

Our hotel was located near an extremely active U-Bahn stop in a trendy neighborhood known as Rosenthaler Platz. This area was full of shops and restaurants and the denizens were much more ethnically diverse than the whitewashed crowds of Munich. We checked-in and then went to a cafeteria-style eatery across the street to scarf down a couple croissants. This buoyed my energy level so instead of taking a quick nap, we high-tailed it to the Alexanderplatz to catch the last sight-seeing tour bus of the day. One of our first stops was the Altes Museum. This Neoclassical architectural masterpiece looked quite foreboding.  It had eighteen Ionic columns lining the face of the building and statues on each side of the entrance depicting spear-wielding warriors poised to kill large animals. Not nearly as inviting as the scarf-wearing Dippy the Dinosaur, but I guess geniality has never been one of Germany’s strong points.

The Brandenburg Gate was also impressive and intimidating. The large triumphal arch is the last standing gate in Berlin and serves as the focal point of the cobblestone Pariser Platz pedestrian area. It is topped with a quadriga statue meant to represent the goddess of peace, but again I found it a little unwelcoming. Another highlight was the Siegessäule, a large sandstone monument topped with a bronze sculpture of Victoria, the goddess of victory*. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to check out the views from the top of the Siegessäule or explore the many other attractions we saw. However, this was bearable since we had already planned to jump back on the sightseeing bus again the next day bright and early.

After finishing up the whirlwind tour, we spent some time perusing the Christmas markets around the Alexanderplatz and watched the Berlin Ferris Wheel majestically light up the night sky as dusk settled in. I tried glühwein for the first time and found the German spice wine delicacy quite awful. It pretty much tasted like Gatorade mixed with Goldschläger, which you would think would be perfect for me since those two beverages are pretty much all I drank when I was twenty. We then headed back to home base for some relaxation and cocktails before dinner. 

Our hotel had an accompanying bar and we plopped ourselves down in some overstuffed armchairs and watched the passerby’s on the busy Berlin strasse. My stomach growl was getting too loud to ignore so we asked the concierge for a dinner suggestion with an emphasis on non-German food. We were not even a week into our trip but I had already eaten enough schnitzel to last a lifetime and desired something different. She obligingly recommended a Thai restaurant a few blocks over that sounded delightful. Though the building facades we saw on our walk over were mostly scarred with graffiti, the streets felt safe due to being briskly populated by numerous couples and groups of multicultural, college-aged co-eds. 

The Thai place turned out to be a German hipster hotspot, and we thoroughly enjoyed the food and ambiance. Though the morning voyage into the city gave me pause due to the stark change from aristocratic Munich, I laid my head to bed that first evening wholly in love with Berlin. The city’s atmosphere had an immediate feeling of current cultural importance. This quality, combined with its historical significance, made for a singular energy that reminded me of New York City and had me excited to wake up the next morning for another day of exploring.

* “The Goddess of Victory” is a helluva title to have on your business card.

Past Links

Travel Prologue

Germany Pt. I

Switzerland

Germany Pt. II

Germany Pt. III

Germany Pt. IV

Germany Pt. V

art, life, & CULTURE, , , , ,


everybody loves…Philadelphia…Part III

My last day in Philadelphia was jam-packed. After a busy morning, I met some co-workers for lunch at the Reading Terminal Market. I had tacos on Monday, seafood on Tuesday, and so I decided it was time to head west to the Tokyo Sushi Bar for some maki. Though the line to order appeared to be short, the stand turned out to be a one-man show and I ended up waiting almost half an hour for my food. Despite the long wait, it was actually a pleasurable viewing experience because the old Japanese man behind the counter was a wonder to behold. He was rolling up sushi from scratch and plating it up faster than it would have taken me to serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Unfortunately he had to man the cash register as well and his broken English made for very confusing financial transactions that kept the speed of the line at a snail’s pace. That dude really needed an intern.

The sushi was excellent, and as per usual I finished my lunch break with a treat from the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company. This time I went for a chocolate-dipped chocolate chip cookie and it was like chewing on a little piece of heaven. Though the deliciousness of my meals throughout my three-day stay was a bit uneven, I still loved the Reading Terminal Market and highly suggest checking it out. There were enough varied dining options to satisfy any pallet, and the cookies were superlatively wonderful. The majority of Philadelphians I saw during my travels downtown were overweight, and I think that is solely due to the singular gastronomic delights of the Reading Terminal Market.

While watching Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals that previous Friday night, it hit me that if the Philadelphia 76ers won, there would be a Game 6 back in Philly that next Wednesday while I would be town. Though down 18 points to the Boston Celtics midway through the third quarter, the Sixers come roaring back and amazingly won the game. I immediately jumped onto the internets and was fortunate enough to find a reasonably priced box seat that I scooped up for myself as an early birthday present. After the engineering symposium wrapped up for the day, I got cleaned up, threw on my ’47 Brand Sixers t-shirt, and ventured to the subway station at 12th and Race Street. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the Sixers were facing elimination and the baseball season wasn’t even half over, the overwhelming majority of riders were decked out in Phillies gear. Turns out Kevin Garnett was right about the lackluster basketball fans.

I was flying solo so I decided to pass up the XFINITY Live! Complex* and just headed to the arena to watch warm-ups and Allen Iverson present the game ball. The box suite at the Wells Fargo Center turned out to be worth every penny (11,739 pennies total). It had its own bar where you could order food as well and most importantly, its own bathroom. Regrettably it also had other people, and the unsavory reputation of Philadelphia fans was cemented as I sat next to a group of fat, drunk (and no doubt racist) white guys pelting Paul Pierce and the other Celtics with a barrage of curse-laden insults. The fact that there were small children in our area gave them no pause, and it ultimately drove me to leave at halftime. I figured I could catch the subway** and get back in time to watch the second half in the comfort of my hotel room (and in the comfort of just my underwear).

Once I departed from the subway station, I realized I never ate dinner so I proceeded to Chinatown to grab some chow. I came across David’s Mai Lai Wah, and their front door advertised them to be the Best of Philly 2011: Best Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown***. I popped my head inside and my eyes met a signed photograph of Will Smith who just recently visited. That was enough endorsement to get my business, and I ordered my usual – General Tso’s chicken and a vegetarian egg roll – and anxiously awaited my food while testing my memory banks for the lyrics of “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson”. Upon opening up the take-out boxes back in my hotel room, I was quite disappointed to find that David forgot to give me duck sauce. Combine that with the fact that the General Tso’s tasted like feet, and I haven’t been this disappointed in Big Willy since Wild Wild West.

Epilogue

Though my whole experience was relegated to the downtown and sports complex areas, I was without a doubt won over by the city of brotherly love. The historic landmarks, architecture and natural beauty along the Delaware River were a visual delight to behold. The Reading Terminal Market was a delight to visit, and the great food I ate there is no doubt responsible for my pants feeling tighter today. My biggest complaint about Philadelphia was the preponderance of bums wandering around the downtown streets. Some were pretty scary looking, with long, scraggly Freeway beards and a look that read “I don’t like white people”. The lone bum bright spot was some old dude I saw near City Hall wearing nothing but a robe and jogging pants. Though he wouldn’t get service at most establishments due to his lack of shirt and shoes, he definitely looked comfortable and I plan on copying that look while lounging around my house henceforth.

* I think the name XFINITY Live! is stupid. XFINITY isn’t even a real word and why is it in all caps? And then they make matters worse by throwing an exclamation point after Live. No wonder when you Google “I hate Comcast”, there’s over 4,790,000 results.

** About halfway through the ride home, I noticed that I was the only white person in a car of about thirty black people. This was a good test of my self-publicized love of African Americans and I passed with flying colors (no pun intended). Some guy asked if I could take a couple pictures of him and his son returning from the baseball game, and I struck up a conversation with a teenager about Lebron James. Who says we all can’t get along?

*** I would assume this title is much more meaningful than being the best Chinese restaurant in Little Italy.

Past Links

Philadelphia Pt. I

Philadelphia Pt. II

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