Saturday, March 28, 2015

Five travel goals for five years

I tried to sit down and write a bucket list of all the things I want to do in the next few years or few decades (yikes!) but I finally decided the list would be far too long and take hours to write. Almost every day I discover something new that I want to do or see, and so my bucket list will be never ending! So for now, I have settled for five travel goals that I want to achieve in the next five years
  • Have visited 50 countries
At present, I have visited 29 countries. I have never actually transited without staying overnight on long-haul flights, so all of these are countries I have actually properly visited. To achieve this goal I will have to visit 4 or 5 new countries per year. Thanks to living in the UK I get 5 weeks annual leave per year, so as long as I don't visit too many countries I've already been to I should make it!
  • Visit South & North America
Besides Antartica (which I want to get to one day!) North and South America are the only continents I haven't visited. I especially want to visit New York and Chile.
  • Go on a cruise
Cruises sound absolutely amazing. I have been wanting to go on one for years. When I was in Australia I really wanted to do a South Pacific cruise but it never ended up happening. Now I would love to do a cruise that includes Turkey and Greece, but really I would probably be happy with any cruise! 
  • Visit most of the countries on the European Continent
So far I have 23 countries ticked off and 27 left to see. The list I have includes places like Vatican City & San Marino. Once I've been to them all I can work on revisiting them again and seeing what I missed the first time around. I don't believe that you can ever truly see everything there is to see in one country. Even though I've lived in the UK for two years and tried to see most of it through day trips, weekends or longer, there is still so much to see! 
  • Live in another country for at least three months
Unfortunately one of the side effects of moving country (and hemisphere) every few years, is that it doesn't take me long to start thinking about where to move next. I'm quite happy in London for now (and I imagine the next few years at least) but I would still love to live in another country for at least a few months. I find that when you live in a country, you discover so much more about it than if you were only there on holiday. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Taking a walking tour of Berlin

Let me start this by saying that usually I hate guided tours of any kind. Just the image of someone waving an umbrella as 50 tourists follow (missing a bunch of interesting things along the way) makes me cringe. However, when I visited Berlin, a few people had recommended doing a free walking tour. I had a look online to see what kind of sites were included and it looked okay, so I decided to overcome my tour prejudice and take a chance.

There are a lot of free walking and paid walking tour companies in Berlin. If you are around Brandenberg gate at around 11am or 2pm you will see what I mean. The company I picked was Sandemans New Europe. Their tour was in English and took 2 hours. A few of the other companies that offered paid tours took 4 hours, which didn't sound very appealing in the freezing cold!! I'm sure that all the free tour companies would offer a similar kind of layout of the tour, and as I have only tried one company I can't say it is better or worse than the others!

Our tour started at 11am. Everyone was instructed to meet at a certain spot, where the massive group of people were then orderly split up into tour groups. Our guide was Seb/Sebastian who had perfect English from living in the UK for ten years and was also very knowledgeable and entertaining. 

We visited a few of the top sites in Berlin including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the old Nazi HQ, Checkpoint Charlie and the spot above where Hitler's bunker was. Much of the information in the tour were things that I would probably not have found out had I just walked around on my own. I can always vouch for the value of local knowledge! Although the tour was quite fast paced, I didn't feel like I was going to miss anything. As it was only 2 hours, I knew that I could easily go back and revisit anything I wanted to.

I didn't have to worry about my fear of looking like a lemming either. I don't know if it was because I was so engrossed in the tour or that we actually didn't look like losers, but I didn't feel uncomfortable at all about being part of a tour. There was no waving umbrella or obnoxious tour guide dragging me along. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I was kind of sad when the tour ended! 

The only catch to the tour (which I had already assumed beforehand) is that it isn't technically free. Everyone was encouraged to give what they think the tour was worth. So although you could just walk off without paying a cent, you would look and feel like a bit of a jerk. I didn't have a problem with paying though, because it still works out cheaper than a normal tour if you want it to, without feeling cheap. Also, because the guide knows their income will be based on how awesome their tour is, it means that the free tour is likely more interesting than a prepaid tour.

I can highly recommend taking a free walking tour of Berlin. Most of them are quite short, but still pack a lot in which means that you can get a really good overview of the city. If you take the tour at the beginning of your trip, you can figure out what you want to see again and what you would be happy to skip. Also, having a local guide means you can ask them what else is worth seeing!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A short guide to Berlin

Berlin is a city that is absolutely bursting with history. I feel like Berlin and Germany as a whole is one of the most underrated places in Europe. If you tell someone you're going to Venice or Paris they sigh with envy, but when I tell people I'm going to Germany they tend to react more like, "ah that's nice...have fun...". I guess part of the reason is that places like Italy & France have the romantic edge. German is not a very romantic language and somehow the German people have been stereotyped over the years as being quite harsh and unfriendly. I have to agree that the language isn't very pleasing to the ear... schweinefleisch anyone?? (That's pork by the way) 

But in terms of the people, they are nothing like how they have been portrayed in media, which I think is so unfair. They are very polite and helpful, and although they aren't as emotional as Italians or the Spanish, it doesn't mean that they are rude. They are very logical and orderly people (as a whole), so they tend to talk in quite a direct manner. You want a spoon? Here is a spoon. They don't need to delve into conversation about what kind of cereal you are going to eat with that spoon. I really like the Germans as I think my inner organisational freak kind of likes the extreme orderliness of the people and the country. I have been back to Germany more times than any other country in Europe, which I think says something about how much I love it!

Although, I have been told off for stepping on the grass there more times in Germany than I care to count...

Moving on to Berlin now! Like I said above, Berlin is just packed full of history. The city has seen its fair share of tumult over the centuries, and no more so than in the last century. I was really interested to learn about more of its history, and was so loaded up with facts and historical dates by the end of the week I think I could have qualified to be a German history teacher!

Where to stay

Berlin is quite a large city and there are a few spots that would be good for seeing all the sights. The area of Mitte holds the majority of the tourist attractions. Your own personal interests will determine which sights you want to see, so the best way to pick where to stay would be to decide the top things you want to see and pick accommodation near there. I stayed a 10 minute walk south of Potsdamer Platz which was not too far from Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate & Topography of Terrors. Museum Island (which holds the Pergamon museum) was about a 40 minute walk away, so if you want to see lots of museums I would recommend staying closer to there.

Potsdamer Platz

What to do

There is loads to see and do in Berlin, most of it of course involving history. I took a fantastic "free" walking tour (you give what you think the tour was worth) which included the main sights such as Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Hitler's Bunker. As well as these top sights there is the Jewish museum (which I unfortunately didn't get to), Museum Island where the Pergamon museum is, Topography of Terrors and the East Side Gallery. I also didn't manage to get to the East Side Gallery which I regret now, but I did manage to see lots of segments of the Berlin Wall throughout the city, some with art and some without. 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Part of the Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terrors

If you decide not to do a tour, I would highly recommend reading up on Berlin's history before you see the sites, because it really is interesting. From the history of the Brandenburg Gate, to the events that happened during World War II, and more recently the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany. I'm showing my age here, but before I visited Berlin I had no idea that Germany was divided just over 25 years ago! What did those Australian schools teach me, hey?

If you are not into history, then fear not! Have a wander through the Tiergarten or Grunewald (forest) or look upon the city from the glass dome of the Reichstag. You could also head to an art gallery or simply eat some delicious German food and beer!

A pond in the Tiergarten
Glass dome in the Reichstag

If you can't stand crowds, then Berlin is the place for you. After getting used to the crush of London, it was refreshing to not be pushed around the streets. I can imagine of course that it will be more crowded in summer, but I still don't think the crowds would be too bad. There is a lot of space in Berlin, large areas to walk and lots of squares to mill about in. I would love to go back and enjoy Berlin when the trees are green and I can spend more time walking through the parks and forests. It was just too cold to do that for long in February!