Museums

Belgrade, Serbia–A Wonderful Surprise!

When planning our trip, we did not know exactly which cities we’d be visiting.  We had our flights and a basic plan, but we did not map out specifics in order to allow ourselves flexibility.  If you had asked us before we started whether or not we would visit Serbia, our answer would have been, “You never know, but probably not.”  Now, here we are, thrilled to be in the heart of Serbia: Belgrade.

Belgrade has a lot to offer, so we decided to start our day at the Nicola Tesla Museum.  Going into this, Phil knew a lot more about Tesla than I did.  In fact, if you had asked me who Tesla was, I might have made vague reference to a crappy band who covered the song “Signs.”  As it turns out, Nicola Tesla’s inventions changed the course of human history and we all use his technology daily.  In case you are like me and don’t know who he is, Tesla is best known for inventing the alternating current (AC) electrical system.  You may have heard of the Tesla Coil, his most well known invention which is integral to the AC system.  Nicola Tesla was born in Serbia, and here in Belgrade they have a museum dedicated to celebrating his work and his contributions to human history.

The Tesla Museum was a fun, interactive and incredibly informative experience.  We were given a tour by a young woman who just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.  Her passion and knowledge for the topic shone through in her presentation of the material. The one floor museum situated in a beautiful old 19th century home was as much about Tesla as it was about his inventions. We learned that Tesla was a legitimate genius level inventor who could never be accused of thinking small. His inventions ranged from Hydroelectricity to a theorhetical global communications array that was never completed. Especially cool was the interactive exhibits like the giant Tesla Coil and a reproduction of the world’s first remote control toy boat that was showcased in Central Park in the early 1900’s. What really helped make the museum, or any museum for that matter, is that the guides were certified experts on the subject matter and sincerely passionate about all things Tesla. After our visit, our head was swimming with fascinating facts and information about Tesla. It is truly a sensational museum!

The light bulbs are being lit by the magnetic field created around the Tesla coil. Phil’s body is the conductor. Don’t get too close or you’ll get a shock!

After the Tesla Museum, we slowly wandered through the city toward the Belgrade Fortress.  Our eyes were filled with wonder at seeing bombed out buildings, still in crumbling ruins, adjacent to beautiful, historic structures.  The NATO bombings of Serbia, which took place over the course of almost 3 months in 1999, have left evidence almost everywhere you look in Belgrade.  At the same time, this city already feels more forward thinking, cosmopolitan and progressive than either Bucharest or Sofia.  We were expecting a sort of sadness…or at least the feeling that they were still trying to get back on their feet.  Not only are they standing on their own two legs, Belgrade is thriving.  There are cafes, corner stores and markets everywhere.  The streets are bustling with people and the nightlife here draws visitors from all over Europe.  There is a pulse and vitality that we haven’t felt in other Eastern European cities.  However, wages are still quite low and the younger population is dwindling as they leave to find jobs in other countries which are unavailable here.  The city seems to be growing, but it is not happening at a fast enough pace for to meet the demand of people in need of jobs.

We continued to walk along Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian only street which leads toward the fortress.  We happened upon a robotics exhibition and also discovered that Serbians love their popcorn like Romanians love their pretzels.  Finally, we made it to Kalamegdan Park, a huge park created on a plateau in front of the Belgrade Fortress.  Filled with people, the park is the best place to watch the sunset at the spot where the Danube and Sava Rivers converge.  It also houses several public art pieces, including a series of photographs of depicting gorgeous landscapes from each state in America.  We got a little misty at both the photograph of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio and the view of the city from New York’s Central Park.  As we gazed out over the river, talking about all things past, present and future, we realized we are missing some small things about America.  This was punctuated by our discovery of several Buckeye Trees.  The characteristic seeds lay all over the ground, and I picked them up, dreaming of home and just wishing they were made of chocolate and peanut butter (a popular treat for Ohioans).

We finally found the fortress at the top of the park.  Originally built in the 1st Century A.D., it (of course) has been destroyed several times over the years.  This is somewhat surprising because the location is the highest spot around and one could easily see the advancing enemy coming in by river.  The current fortress has been turned largely into parkland, but also houses the Military Museum, an Entomology Museum and an Observatory.  Hunger spoke louder than our desire to see these exhibits, so we plan to head back there tomorrow.  As we strolled back through the park toward the tram, we realized that we have had yet another day of perfect weather.  With the exception of Brasov, Romania, Eastern Europe has been a meteorological utopia.

It had been such a lovely day, and we were excited to experience our first real Serbian meal.  After a recommendation from our Air B ‘n B host, we went to Orasac.  Our stomachs growled on the short walk to the restaurant, so we were psyched when we spotted the sign.  The man who greeted us warned that they were busy and it might take a while for the food.  We decided to stick it out since we were already there and didn’t really have a back-up plan.  In retrospect, we should have left when we had the chance.  Annoyed that we didn’t speak Serbian, the waiter was brash and rude.  We ordered “light domestic draft”, which is how the beer was described on the menu.  No brand.  No other option.  We think it was Lav, but we aren’t completely sure.  After being told the first 3 items we asked for were unavailable with a brusque “Ney,” we hastily ordered our meals.  Willing to overlook the bad service, dirty tablecloth and crumbs at the bottom of our beer glasses, we finally drew the line.  Phil cut into his chicken skewers and they were completely uncooked on the inside.  Bright pink.  Raw.  After the experience we had thus far, we decided it wasn’t worth it to try to explain or argue.  Instead we just showed it to the waiter and asked for the check.  The message was clear and we soon left unsatisfied.  We’ve had some really amazing meals in the last week, so I suppose we were due for a stinker.

Dinner aside, today was really wonderful.  We have such a positive impression of Belgrade and we are excited to explore it further tomorrow.  We are planning to explore the Military Museum, plus partake in a bike tour which sounds awesome.  We’ll let you know how it goes!

–Brooke

Wishing these Buckeyes were the sweet treats I love so much!

The fortress offers beautiful views of the Danube and the entire city of Belgrade.

 

Categories: City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More from Romania!

Hello again from Romania! We continue to explore Bucharest through a series of self guided tours, bus rides, museum visits, dinners and more. Unlike other places we visited, there aren’t many tourists who swing through Bucharest. The larger hotels like the Hilton, Ramada and Novotel are largely stuffed with business travelers. Romania is only on a few people’s Top 10 list which, for us, makes it a very cool place to visit.

The George Enescu house and museum!

We took a ride on Bucharest’s newly-launched $8 Hop On Hop Off tour. Another double decker city tour bus, but this one with a somewhat sparse audio-tour component and even sparser crowd. The bus cruised around two of the main avenues of town. These rides, in any city, always deliver a quality up close look at sights worth seeing. Or at least worth driving by. In this case, we got a great look at musician’s George Enescu’s home, The National Museum of Art, Embassy Row and more. We also rode past Bucharest’s own Arc De Triomphe, statue of Charles De Gaulle and Parisian fountains. See a theme? Tons of french words and a bit of French culture have wiggled their way into Romanian culture.

Later, Brooke and I were oh so excited to visit the National Museum of Romanian history located right next to Old Town in the beautiful old Post Office building. This was our chance tor really sink our teeth into the complicated, sometimes tragic history of this country.  We have found some of our favorite and most educational stops have been at museums such as this one.  We walked in the beautiful old building, and there was some sort of presentation regarding the Apollo 12 mission to the moon. We were hoping the very obviously American ambassador’s wife would speak so we might understand, but that didn’t happen.  As we ventured further into the museum, we realized the exhibits were all in Romanian and French.  That is understandable, but what surprised us is that there were no English brochures, audio guides, tour guides, nothing.  So far, we weren’t feeling much of this had to do with Romanian history.  Then we found the jackpot–a huge column which had been pieced together and put on display.  The carvings featured Romans fighting and we were sure this must be significant to Romanian history.  Since this exhibit filled the entire basement we figured this must be some amazing find.  We managed to ask our English Speaking front door guy about the column.  Did it stand on this very spot?  Was it destroyed with everything else during the 1980’s?  His answer was a clear NO.  This column is a REPLICA of one from Italy.  It never stood on Romanian soil, was not built by a  Romanian sculptor.  This put us over the edge.  Why was a replica  taking up so much space?  What did this have to do with Romania’s history?  We walked out of there learning a whole lot of NOTHING about Romanian history and instead feeling like we made a charitable contribution to the museum.  Argh.

Brooke with the replica column at the National History Museum

The potato on a stick

The highlight of our day was rendevouzing with Dorothrea whom we had met through RedditR. Dorothea is a native Bucharest resident currently studying in Berlin who took a turn at playing gracious tour guide. Brooke and I spent a good chunk of the day walking the streets receiving a sensational, informative guided tour of the city all delivered from a local perspective. It was a phenomenal way to see Bucharest and we we’re so thankful that Dorothea took some of her own time just to show us around! We met her near a centrally located piece of art that locals (with affection? With disdain?) call the “Potato on a Stick”. (It’s reassuring to know that the art that we sometimes think looks kinda stupid, locals think looks stupid also.) Since central Bucharest is an area that’s relatively densely packed, we were able to cover a lot of ground in just a few hours. We walked through nice neighborhoods just off the central avenue, stopping to get some history and back story on the buildings and way of life. Our journey took a detour into a great bookstore and we even sampled a fresh baked pretzel which doubles as the most popular Romanian street fare. Between showing us a pair of sensational old Roman Orthodox Churches (there aren’t a lot of old doings left in Bucharest), Dorothea snuck us into a bank in Old City whose lobby rivaled some of the rooms that we saw in the Palace of Parliment yesterday. Amazing! We walked past a beautiful local hospital that had just recently been renovated from top to bottom.  We never would have suspected that two years ago, it was on the verge of falling down. Dorothea helped us to see that there IS an effort out there to preserve and restore Bucharest, it is just a very slow process. She showed us several nice neighborhoods that we likely wouldn’t have discovered on our own.

Indian Food and new Romanian friends Dorothea and Ionuca

Later in the day, the three of us met up with two of Dorothea’s local friends, and enjoyed a long Indian lunch in Old Town (the food is half off before 5:00 PM!) while trading stories over beers and Masala. We talked out Romania, got to know about their lives here, we talked about our RTW trip and they asked questions about the United States. (Yes, our gas is considerably cheaper then most gas in Europe. Yes, there are a lot of overweight Americans.) Dorothea and Ionuca gave us some fantastic. wonderful insights into Romanian daily life. They even put up with all of our questions – from Gypsys to Politics to the state of Education some of which must have seemed insufferably stupid. Such a quality experience to talk to people who live in the city about their city. These three have a fondness for Bucharest, but a also a realistic view. (Corruption in many forms, Dorothea told us, was common.) It was so incredibly generous of these guys to spend a large chunk of the day with us. The lesson we walked away with here was if you love your town, show it off!

Our voyage continues! We are just trying not to accidentally refer to Bucharest as Budapest as Michael Jackson allegorically once did. Understandably, it’s a point of exhaustion and frustration for the locals. Soon, off to Brasov. Who knows what we’ll see there? But for now, we’ll try to soak up everything we learned today like a sponge and hope it sticks around the noodle for at least a little while.

-Phil

In front of the sculpture of famous characters from a Romanian playwrite outside the National theater. Also a popular protest location.Roman

As seen in Old Town, what a great name for a bar

Categories: City Visits, Eating, Europe, Museums, Romania, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Last Day in Copenhagen

 

Brooke enjoying some wine in ole 4026Our wonderfully relaxing and easy-living nine day Baltic Sea cruise has come to an end. The time has come to leave the boat. We started the day with one final delicious breakfast buffet at our favorite spot on Deck 11 of ye olde Norwegian Sun. And, for the last time, walked away from the table without worrying about  settling a check or removing a single dish. After docking in Copenhagen, Brooke and I attempted to remain onboard as long as we could but around 9:00 AM the crew pulled us off kicking and screaming. It was quite a scene that disturbed some of the older passengers. In all seriousness, we’ve enjoyed the cruise but we’re ready for what’s next.

Copenhagen's most famous art musemSo, we find ourselves back in Copenhagen for one last day before we close the book on our Northern European leg. Now off the boat and away from the all-English all-accomodating lifestyle, we’re back to the little things being a touch more difficult and occasionally frustrating. Today’s particular challenge was our attempt to spend some time in the local library. We figured a Copenhagen “bibliotek” would be a good place to cool our heels for a few hours, flip through some travel books and hop online. We were able to pinpoint the location, determine walking directions, and check the hours. But what the Danish language website did not make clear is that this funky library is open on Sunday only to library card holders who must swipe their way in via key card. See? Frustrating. Also, please don’t alert the Copenhagen Transit Authorities, but due to issues with the ticket machine, we managed to take a pair of rides on the local trains without forking over a single dime.

Philospohical Phil!We did manage to make a visit to the renowned Glyptotek museum in central Copenhagen. The museum offers free admissions on Sundays and boasts an impressive art collection started in 1882 by beer baron Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame (see our post mentioning Carlsberg here). Jacobsen also donated, among others, the sea-side dwelling Little Mermaid statue that is forever associated with Copenhagen. We strolled through a handful of the galleries, enjoyed some of the architectural features of the museum building as much as the art and took in some great paintings and sculptures. There was art by Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Rodin, Gaughin and two dozen other European artists and painters I should probably know but have already forgotten. The sculpture gallery was loaded with marble and bronze creations and was positively great, although I wouldn’t want to be there at night. My personal favorite was a sculpture of Perseus severing Medusa’s head in action. We were kind of thrilled when we saw that the museum was the home of Rodin’s iconic “The Thinker” as part of a comprehensive Rodin gallery. But that was until we learned that there are like twenty other “original” casts of the statue throughout the world. Maybe not as special, but the Glypoteck is still a great museum.

Amazing lunchOf course, for lunch, we couldn’t resist one last hot dog. This time we asked around for the best hot dog in the city. We went gourmet with arguably the best deluxe wiener in town from Nimb. These dogs were a bit more expensive, but they delivered the goods. Gourmet taste-bud satisfaction from one end of the bun to the other.

Final impressions of Copenhagen? It’s kind of a great city. Locals give off a vibe of general contentment – they seem especially merry whilst mounted on bicycles. The town is sophisticated, forward thinking and awash in eye-brow raising design. Highbrow, but accessible. Expensive, but doable. The town even managed to surge my own bit of creativity. Growing up, my friends and I used to watch a lot of professional wrestling. We were always coming up with ideas for new gimmicks for the wrestlers to use in the rings. I now have a fantastic concept: The Angry Dane. He’s big, he’s blonde and he rides a bicycle to the ring which he locks to the ringpost once he arrives. During his match, The Angry Dane illegally uses the Bicycle as a weapon against his opponent. The announcers will call that move the “Twelve Speed.” Pure gold. Someone get me Vince McMahon on the phone.

The Denmark Airport Bids Adieu

Now, we’re off to Romania and Bulgaria as we open the door on our Eastern European segment. We start by visiting yet two more nations that we know virtually nothing about. (As always, we’re open to suggestions!) A pair of flights from Copenhagen to Vienna and then Vienna to Bucharest and yet another quick time change where we jump ahead two hours. We selected a landing spot in Bucharest in part because of it’s Eastern European location in relation to points Westward and in part because, well, it sounded like an interesting place to visit. It’s so cool that this trip has allowed us to point to a strange, new location on a map and just go. By tomorrow, we should have some new insight into yet another town that seems to be begging to be discovered. We’ve already begun reading up on Romania to prep a bit for our visit by taking a sneak peek at the culture, food and airport taxi scams.

For the next month, our schedule gives us much more flexibility on where to go and when. Our next scheduled flight isn’t until Mid-October. Little by little, I’m discovering that the world is such a big place, but it is also a finite place as well. Who knows what we’ll see, but the odds are that it will be worth sharing.

-Phil

Brooke studying a painting in the Glyptotek’s French Impressionist wing.

 

Our final dinner in the Norwegian Sun! Ah, we’ll miss meals like this.

Another look at the outstanding sculpture gallery in the Denmark museum.

Our exceptional bartender Maxwell from the Windjammer of the Norwegian Sun. He took good care of us many nights.

Categories: City Visits, Copenhagen, Destinations, Differences, Eating, Europe, Flights, Museums, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Carlsberg, Christiana, and Copenhagen

Hello again from Copenhagen! We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy three full days of absorbing Danish culture, food, sights, fun and history. And now that we get into these older European town, there is more than enough history to go around. In keeping with one of the goals of this trip, we continue to see, learn and grow just a bit more each day. For example, we know now that the Danish flag employs one of the oldest flag designs in the world. And, finally, we’re back in a part of the world that has paper towels in the bathroom. Also, I’m slowly becoming able to sort out the distinct differences between the three Scandavian countries: Denmark, Sweeden and Norway. Until now, all three unfortunately ran a bit together like a jumbled mess in my mind.

Since day one, we’ve been resting our head in a variety of different hotels and hostels, but we’ve also had some terrific luck trying out Air BnB- a handy webstie that helps travelers find paid homestays. Currenty, we’re hosted by an incredibly gracious and friendly Dane named Thais who lives a short bus ride from central Copenhagen. We’re staying in his small, airplane-themed flat for three days; Thais has been a stellar host. His dream is to live in an old airplane, but since he is currently unable to do that, he brought the airplane to his apartment. Complete with a safety card that has important information, genuine airplane seats and an overhead compartment for storage, it is clear that he is a bit obsessed with airplanes. It is certainly the biggest theme home we’ve seen in a long time, but it works really well for him! In part, because he is a writer for several European flight magazines, reviewing aircraft, airports and all things aeronautics related. Thais has provided directions, suggestions and even pointed us to a nearby park, Utterslev Mose, where we were run in the morning. Our stay at “The Aerohotel” here has been great and we are glad the weather is finally cool enough (55-65 degrees) for us to run again.

Today we began with a tour of the Carlsberg Brewhouse and Museum. Until about a week ago, I though that Carlsberg (along with Heineken) was a Netherlands based beer. Wrong again, Phil. Turns out that not only is Carsberg one of Denmark’s biggest exports and industries, they are also the world’s 4th largest brewing company with over 500 brands including acquisitions of other European beers. While not that big in America, bottles and tap heads were common throughout Asia. The self-guided eleven dollar tour of Carlsberg (the etymology of the beer’s name is the combination of the name of the owner’s son and the Danish word for hill) was well worth it. The fact that the price of admission included a few beers didn’t hurt. While most of the main brewing facilities have been moved to the Jutland area of Denmark (just don’t ask us to point it out on the map), the company headquarters go back over a hundred years with plenty of well-perserved buildings that show off an interesting history.

I found some of the exhibits on the well-organized Carlsberg tour more interesting than some at the National Museum. The tour took us through that stables that are home to the company’s remaining Jutland Horses. This stout, large and somewhat rare breed, which resemble the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, were historically used to pull beer carts throughout the city and are still used in ceremonies today. The museum also houses a collection of 22,000 unopened beer bottles from the last couple of hundred years! 22,000 glass bottles, many donated from one Dane’s private collection, placed carefully on glass shelves in one room! Good thing we’re not in an area prone to earthquakes. They also really have kept their original buildings in wonderful shape to illustrate the brewing life back around 1900. The trip out there was worth it alone to see the entry gates complete with giant elephants and to watch the modern day brewing of small batch Jacobsen’s Ale while perched from an upstairs bar.

From Carlsberg, we took a trip to the famous Freetown Christiana: an area of Copenhagen that has been occupied by squatters on an old set of military barracks for more than 40 years. Christiana is intended to be an open commune where anyone can live and designed to encourage artists and foster free thought. But our reality was that it looked more like a bunch of burned out hippies sitting among sub-par graffiti art splattered across random buildings. The central draw is the Greenlight district or Pusher Street where they sell weed- lots of weed – openly. Just don’t take out your camera while nearby. Christiana residents declare themselves as not part of the E.U and eschew taxes, but they still receive city services such as mail, electricity and water. It has a long, complicated history and apparently the city officials conduct pre-announced raids from time to time. But for the most part, everyone is allowed to just occupy this space without much resistance. Visitors are welcome and a happy community of about 900 live carefree and proud of their little neck of the woods. It’s…odd. After a worthwhile visit, we left with more quetions then answers. We have determined that squatting is handy when you have an entire complex of well kept old buildings to live in and no one is going to kick you out, but even with understanding some of the turbulent past and issues, were still surprised that this large chunk of land is just allowed to be occupied unpaid by a collective mass.

As we wrap up Denmark for now, note that starting tomorrow Brooke and I are embarking on the most luxurious and relaxing part of our round the world trip- a nine-day Baltic Capitals cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Whilst we sail the open seas, we’ll have considerably limited internet access. For the next little bit, our blog posts may be intermittent as wifi becomes available. Off to Germany, Estonia, Russisa and beyond courtesy of the Norwegian Sun!

–Phil

So many bottles at Carlsberg!

Another photo from Thais’ Aerohotel!

Phil is showing his Denmark Pride (on Flag Day, nonetheless)

Categories: Beer, City Visits, Copenhagen, Differences, Hotels, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Discovering Copenhagen

Colorful Buildings along the canalThere is no mistaking it…we are NOT in Asia anymore.  From the moment we stepped off the plane and every moment since then, it has been quite clear we are in an old European city.  But even more than that, it is clear we are in Denmark.  Everywhere we look there are beautiful blondes riding bicycles (very politely, I might add).

After a short morning run, we truly began to explore Copenhagen.  Going off recommendations, we started our day with a canal cruise.  This hour-long cruise through the winding canal system was a great way for us to see several different areas of the city so we could then determine what we really wanted to visit. When the tour-guide began speaking German, we were afraid we had gotten on the wrong boat.  We checked to make sure the tour would be in English, but she definitely wasn’t speaking English.  As it turned out, she gave all the information in three different languages–Danish, German and English.  We were relieved we would be able to understand, and again felt awful about the fact that we seem to be the only people in the world who only speak one language.  As for the tour, we especially love looking at the architecture of the city.  They really take pride in their old buildings, some of them date back hundreds of years.  However, they also have a lot of new construction, including an opera house right on the water which was built less than ten years ago.  Because of this, the newer buildings really have to be spectacular so they can stand the test of time.  Unlike Tokyo or Hong Kong, there is no race for the tallest towers or highest buildings.  In fact, there are very few skyscrapers in sight.  As we walked the streets, we kept saying that it all looks so European–old, grand, brick buildings lining the street, some with huge squares in front where people gather.  It is exactly what we pictured before we got here.

CopenhagenThe riverboat cruise inspired us to head to the National Museum so we could understand a bit more about Danish history.  As we walked over there, we saw a crowd gathered outside an old church.  Today was Flag Day or Soldier’s Day, so there were lots of celebrations and officials about town.  There were clearly secret service types outside of the church, so we thought we might glimpse the prime minister.  As it turns out, they were waiting for the Queen (Queen Margaret) to come out.  Apparently this was her private church and she was inside.  The royal family here seems to be fairly accessible to the people.  Of course, they are guarded, but people can walk the palace grounds and the royals are often spotted about town.  We waited for a bit to see Queen Margaret, but as it seemed like she wasn’t coming out anytime soon, we continued on through the Parliament grounds and over to the museum.

Not real!The National Museum (Nationalmuseet) has a completely free admission and is rather large, consisting of exhibits from the beginning of time through the year 2000.  That seemed a bit overwhelming to us, so we started with Danish pre-history through the Viking era.  Intermingled with the exhibits discussing burial rituals and ancient tools were art pieces that provide a “modern interpretation” of history.  Clearly the Lego version of the Deathstar from Star Wars was a piece of art.  Unfortunately, they were not all so clear and we found ourselves incredibly confused about what was real and what was art.  We questioned the exhibit showing the grave of the “bog witch” who boiled diseased children creating a dense fog over the bog. However, it was the mermaid that really made us confused.  Laying in a case are the bones of a mermaid with the story of a man who dug her up while tilling his farmland.  We looked at each other, completely unsure of what was happening.  We know mermaids aren’t real, but was the story real?  Had someone placed bones together to make it look like a mermaid and trick the farmer?  We backtracked down to the information desk to figure out what was happening.  The woman working at the museum was not at all surprised by our questions and confusion.  She cleared it up…kind of.  Bog witch–fake.  Mermaid–fake.  However, they are next to other very real graves which are genuine museum exhibits.  She told us these artists are “interpreting history in a modern way to push the limits of our thinking.”  I think that is complete garbage and they should say instead they are creating mythology to go along with the history.  It is far too confusing to figure out what is real and what is made up.  If a seven year old kid walked through there, he would walk out thinking Mermaids are real.  I don’t think that’s what they are going for.

After feeling completely confused and like I had just wasted an hour, we scrapped Danish prehistory and learned about more modern times.  It was interesting to learn of their history with Sweden and Norway as well as the other countries in the region.  There is so much history and it was all jammed so closely together that it got to be a bit overwhelming and we found ourselves skimming through parts.  In more modern times, the history is quite similar to the America– Industrial revolution, child labor laws, women’s rights, etc.  With all of this culture and history under our belts, it was time to learn what Copenhagen was really all about and we figured the best way to do that was to find a good bar.

Awesome Bar

Amid the cutesy cafes and upscale bars in a rather touristy part of town, we managed to find Lord Nelson, a basement bar specializing in craft beer filled with locals and regulars.  Our friendly brother-sister bartending team, Morton and Ricki, were awesome.  Not only did they let us try every beer they had on tap, they  encouraged us to branch out our tastes and go with beers we might not normally drink.  We both enjoyed the Kiss Me Hardy, a delicious hoppy beer named after Lord Nelson’s final words to his First Officer.  Through this discussion of beer, we also learned a bit about Morton’s favorite places in Copenhagen and a little bit about life here.  We also talked for a long time with Perm, an older gentleman who has traveled the world and was excited to talk to us about all the different places he’s been.  We asked lots of questions about the relationship between Denmark and other countries and truly learned as much there as we did at the museum.  Lord Nelson is exactly the kind of bar we’ve been looking for and we were happy to spend a couple of hours resting after touring Copenhagen.

Beautiful, but not worth itWe managed to drag ourselves away from the bar so we could head to Tivoli, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, known for its beautiful lights and gardens.  We know it for being a huge disappointment.  We had to pay to get in, which we figured since it is an amusement park.  However, we had to also pay to do anything inside.  Rides, restaurants, games–everything cost additional money.  We walked around, unimpressed, and left thinking we could have spent our money much more wisely.  Oh well.  We were tired and ready to head home anyway.

Our first day in Copenhagen was a roaring success and we can’t wait for tomorrow.  We plan to hit the Carlsberg Brewery, Christiana and eat lots of delicious pastries.  We look forward to sharing what we find!

-Brooke

At Lord Nelson's

Morton, our awesome bartender at Lord Nelson’s, showing off his tattoo from his time in the Queen’s military.

Don't drink and drive boats

Here’s a bar right on the canal where boats can pull up to have a drink.

Soldiers

Royal Guard lining up for Flag Day events.

A typical example of the beautiful buildings that remind us we are in Europe.

Categories: Bars, City Visits, Copenhagen, Destinations, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Museums, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vietnam: Wonderful and Strange!

Brooke and Phil at Ha Long Bay!As our time in Vietnam has come to a close, we are realizing some important things.  This is truly a developing nation.  I bet it was far different 20 years ago and I’m sure it will be vastly changed 20 years from now.  In spite of that (or perhaps because of it), it has also been a wonderful place to visit and would be a great vacation destination for anyone looking for an exciting and interesting place to go.

As we’ve said before, we have been staying in a section of Hanoi called the Old Quarter.  The narrow streets were developed long ago when foot traffic was the only transportation.  Today, the combination of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and walkers stretch the limits of these skinny roads.  In addition, the sidewalks where one might walk are filled with shops, people eating and drinking as well as parked motorbikes.  We looked at a few of the markets, seeing what souvenirs we could get from our time in Hanoi.   So much of what they sell is clothing and shoes.  At one store we saw a big pile of Tom’s, the canvas shoes which I love.  The concept with these is when you buy a pair, one pair is donated to a person in need.  When I saw this pile of shoes, my first instinct was that they are all fakes.  I considered them, and as we walked away I said to Phil, “I have a feeling that there will be no donation to the needy when I buy those shoes.  As a matter of fact, those may be the ones that have been donated.”  Now, I certainly am not getting on a moral high horse and we did buy some  souvenirs.  However, with the rumors of child/forced labor that abound in countries which manufacture goods cheaply, we have found ourselves a little more aware of what we purchase.

Four is too many!

This photo is a little grainy, but can you see the two kids on the bike with their parents? No helmets, which is very typical.

Another huge sign that this is a developing nation is the general lack of safety regulations. It isn’t that we felt unsafe being there at all.  Quite the contrary.  However, the streets are filled with motorbikes, some packed four deep and children inevitably are rarely wearing helmets.  When we asked about helmet laws we  were told they are required starting at age 8.  Age 8!  The only protection for the little ones is the arms of their parents.  On several occasions, we saw children sitting on the laps of their parents in the front seat of a car, as well.  We also inquired about the driving age and after they hemmed and hawed for a moment, they told us it is 18, but no one really sticks to that.  The road regulations are not the only place where we felt this lack of safety enforcement.  It is not at all uncommon to be walking down the street and have electrical sparks shower down from work which was being done overhead.  No fencing to block the sidewalk, no sign of warning.  On more than one occasion I jumped out of the way so as not to be right underneath the spray of sparks.

The other thing that really seals it as being a developing nation is the lack of potable drinking water and the general conditions of the public toilets.  Of course, it is not uncommon to go somewhere internationally and not be able to drink the water.  However, along with that are the scams that arise from bottles of water being reused and refilled with the local water and then being sold as new.  In order to make consumers feel safe, companies like Aquafina and Evian put safety seals around the caps which ensure it has not been opened before.  In addition, the public restrooms are by and large gross.  This was to be expected.  However, the lack of toilet paper and soap only add to the feeling that things in Hanoi just aren’t very clean and visitors have to be careful not to spread germs and get sick while here.

Amazing viewsI hope I haven’t scared you off, because even with all that said, Hanoi has been one of my favorite stops on the trip so far.  We were able to take a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a group of 1900 tiny islets about three hours south-east of Hanoi.  It was far to go for a day trip, and it would have been better if we had done a 2 night/3 day which is their specialty, but we’re working with tight timing.  We had a delicious lunch on board the boat, then traveled around the bay.  Our first stop was a traditional fishing village, with small homes permanently on the water.  These homes only have generators for electricity and the children only attend school up to 8th grade.  (There is a one room schoolhouse on the water and if they want to go to the upper grades they have to move to the mainland.)  We were particularly interested in the wide array of houseboats, including some made with brick and mortar.  Sadly, having people live in the bay means it is littered with trash; however, further out in the water it is absolutely gorgeous.  We made our way over to “Heavenly Cave” and walked around looking at different rock formations.  Honestly, the tour itself was a little underwhelming, but being out on the water made it all worthwhile.  It would be a wonderful place to come for a longer stay.

Just a small section of Ha Long Bay

Just a small section of the former prison, this was one of two rooms of exhibits on American POWs. John McCain’s flight suit can be seen in the rear of the room.

Our final few hours in Hanoi found us doing two things neither of us is likely to forget soon.  First, we went to Ha Loa Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. This was the infamous jail where many American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam war were taken and held prisoner for several years.  What we didn’t know is that this prison was built during the French occupation of Vietnam and was first used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists in wretched conditions.  Most of the museum focused on the horrible abuses of the French towards any Vietnamese fighting for freedom.  Exhibit after exhibit spoke of the heroism of the Vietnamese Comrades and the torturous, villainous behavior of the French.  We kept waiting for any mention of the role this prison played during the war with the U.S.  Just when we thought it wouldn’t be mentioned at all, it finally came at the end of the exhibits.  Two rooms housed photos and artifacts “showing the conditions of the Americans” during their time here. It was filled with photos of them playing volleyball, basketball and putting up Christmas decorations.  It focused a great deal on the days when the American P.O.W.s were released, even mentioning the fact that they were given a “souvenir” of their time here.  We could hardly believe it.  They essentially made it look like summer camp.  There was not one picture of the prisoners in a jail cell.  At the end, it even said the Americans were grateful for the human treatment they received.  Unbelievable! That is not the same account we have heard as Americans–just read about the experiences of Senator John McCain while he was imprisoned there.  This illustrated another example of the one-sided information that we have come to expect from the museums here.

Brooke outside of Ho Chi Minh’s grand mausoleum

The final, most fascinating and most creepy thing we’ve done here is visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex, most notably the mausoleum.  Just like other important communist leaders Stalin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been preserved, encased in glass, and is on display for public viewing.  This seemed like a unique experience that we just couldn’t miss.  First of all, the lines stretched outside the complex and down the street.  It was packed with people, partially because it was a holiday weekend.  Luckily, the lines moved very quickly and we were up to the mausoleum within 10 minutes.  We were told going in that we should wear long pants, covered shoulders and close-toed shoes.  It was very important that we be respectful.  Upon entering the mausoleum, I was instructed to take my sunglasses off the top of my head and others were told to remove hats.  As we filed around Ho Chi Minh’s body, gawking in horrified fascination, the guards moved us swiftly along.  We were not allowed to stop or walk too slowly.  The general feeling was one of excitement and intrigue.  We were afraid people would be more reverent and seem like they were in a sacred place, but there was really just a sense of curiosity.  As we walked outside, we immediately discussed what a strange experience that was.  Uncle Ho wasn’t looking too great, probably because he’s been dead since 1969.  By all accounts, this kind of fanfare is the last thing he would have wanted and doesn’t really fit with the kind of life he led.  All in all, I’m so glad we went because it is such a strange thing to do.

Adios VietnamAnd now, sadly our time in Vietnam must end.  We really wish we had more time and we are already planning to come back.  The people here are so friendly, the food has been awesome, and there is so much to see and do.  Now, we head off for a very brief 2 days in Singapore.  Interestingly, no other city has brought such a variation of opinion than Singapore.  Some people love it and say we’ll need more time.  Others have told us to skip it all together.  We met a British family living in Singapore who told us two days is just right.  We’ll go with that!

-Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Landmarks, Museums, Unusual Experiences, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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