Apologies in advance for how long this post is, particularly the Berlin section. When I initially started writing it I did not anticipate to go on for an entire year about the month of October.
European fall. What a (colder than anticipated) treat. Seriously. While all my Southern Ontario friends have been out and about in a glorious Indian summer, I’ve been wearing a toque since September. At least it hasn’t snowed here. Despite that, the streets are decorated with Christmas lights of snowflakes and presents. I guess when you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Halloween, you really go early on the Christmas train.
Though the Haguesy’s had somewhat rainy and chilly fall weather, I seem to have lucked out on my travel/visitor weekends and had completely beautiful weather. Two big trips this month – Bruges and Berlin, in case the title didn’t clue you in – plus a visit from my soulmate, Tina, and a weekend with my 1L crew (who are now 3Ls, which makes me sad) at the world’s largest indoor DJ event.
So Sarah and I kicked off October with the Major Lazer concert in Brussels. The concert was really good, minus the fact that what would eventually become the Sarah and Mel Loopty-loo™ was born there, but honestly, do not bother going to Brussels unless it’s for a specific event. Just go to Bruges, because it is the most delightful place in the world.
Seriously, it was like walking in a fairy tale. Every corner we turned had another beautiful sight, and I don’t think there was a single point where we weren’t delighted.
Our first day we literally just wandered around the town and repeatedly commented on how beautiful it was. Like, that was our activity for the day.
That night, we went out to an old bar in a former church cellar, called the Trappist, and I sampled a pint of Westvleteren, a Trappist beer, which is one of eleven such beers in the world. They’re beers brewed according to the Trappist order, a set of rules governed by monks, with French origins. Six of these breweries are found in Belgium. There are four main criteria which the monasteries must follow in order to have the Trappist label:
- The beer must be brewed in the walls of the Trappist monastery, either physically by the monks or under their supervision.
- The brewery is of secondary importance to the monastery: they need to keep God in their hearts while they brew.
- The brewery is not for profit: it covers the monks’ costs of living, and the rest if donated to charity.
- Constant monitoring to ensure amazing quality beer.
Not exactly beer that I can afford on a daily basis, but it was pretty awesome to try, and the ambience of the bar was incredible (only slightly above Chester’s Beers of the World, one of Hamilton’s finest establishments, where you can actually buy this beer!).
We went on a tour of a local brewery the following day, but first…. apparently Bruges is famous for a very specific reason, other than the film. It is home to a Roman Catholic minor basilica. As far as Roman Catholic churches go, I’ve been to far more impressive ones, even in North America. This church was originally built as a chapel by the Count of Flanders, Thierry of Alsace, in the 1100s. Ol Thierry went off on a few Crusades in his day, and apparently returned from Jerusalem with, wait for it, a vial of Christ’s blood.
Bizarre Catholic relics are one of my favourite things, especially when they’re this creepy, so I clearly had to go see it.
For some reason, I expected the blood to still be liquid, and be in like, a vial with a cork in it, or something simple like that. But, in true Roman Catholic fashion, it is in an insanely gaudy tube that looks like it belongs in a Da Vinci Code book/movie (being raised Catholic, I should have known better). And the blood is just crusted along the sides of the phial inside the tube. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but if that is Jesus’ blood, I was underwhelmed.
In all likelihood, it isn’t his blood – recent investigations have shown that Thierry probably didn’t even bring it back after his Crusade; instead, the relic likely originated from the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, after Thierry’s time. Obviously, the phial has never been opened, but it’s been determined that it is a former perfume bottle dating back to the 11th or 12th century – just before Thierry’s time, and well after Jesus’. Regardless, pilgrims who visited the relic were granted indulgences (for all you heathens who didn’t take Catholic studies until you were 18, an indulgence is a way of reducing the amount of punishment for your sins, kind of like a plea bargain to Purgatory… that screwed a lot of people over by making them pay the Church for their time out of Purgatory, but I won’t get into that). Anyways, if this relic is the blood of Jesus, it is clearly very important in the Catholic faith, so it is obviously a huge draw from people worldwide. Luckily we were at the front of the line for veneration, because that basilica packed up quickly! If you want more info, the relic has the best domain name ever: http://www.holyblood.com. Tell all your friends.
Obviously we needed a drink after that, hence the brewery tour.
The only brewery within the walls of Bruges that still operates today is Brouwerij De Halve Maan, sometimes called Henri Maes, the name of the founder. The brewery opened in the 1850s, and has been in the Maes family ever since. The tour included a bottle of Bruges Zot (Fool of Bruges), and a delightful rooftop view of the city!
After our brewery tour, we did a bit more wandering, but had to get back to Brussels to make the train back to Den Haag.
It was such a beautiful weekend though: we had perfect weather, and Bruges is truly just one of the loveliest places I have ever been. If you like good beer and being delighted, it is the village for you. If you aren’t in a perpetual state of dying alone like I am, you should bring your significant other here. They have maps in which they mark good locations for kissing. Like please, stop being this adorable, Bruges.
The beauty of Bruges was able to wipe away one of the weirdest travel experiences I have ever had, particularly in the Western world. Sarah and I didn’t bother printing off our train tickets, because they emailed the bar code, as the world works now, and had them on our phones. On the train between Bruges and Brussels, I was BERATED by the train ticket man for not printing my ticket. And it wasn’t like he was unable to check my ticket, he literally had a machine to scan it with IN HIS BACK POCKET. I just let him yell at me and scan it, and then he gestured as though he were going to punch my phone with his ticket puncher. Just the angriest man, really trying to destroy the beauty of the Bruges experience. He’s probably just bitter because he lives in Brussels. Blech.
Anyways, we made it back from Bruges, and my post trip relaxation did not occur because Tina came for a visit!!!!!!! Tina’s my soulmate, for the uninitiated in Missy and Chrissy. We’ve gone to school, driven across Canada in an SUV with a cassette player and only about 10 cassettes worth listening to (Alanis all day), planted trees (you little sidewinder), had mental breakdowns, swam in a concrete lake, lived in a two man tent for absolutely no reason in the middle of one of northern British Columbia’s larger centres, and just many other experiences. If you don’t have a friend with whom you can talk about absolutely nothing and make it the funniest thing in the world, I am so sorry for you. Because, to sum up how we are together, one person in a planting camp once remarked to us that they initially thought that I was really funny, because Tina was always laughing, but then they sat with us for ten minutes and decided we just were weirdos.
Tina was kind enough to cycle alongside me while I ran 30k as part of my training, and to provide me with nutrients so I didn’t have to carry them myself before our weekend in Oudewater/Amsterdam.
So Saturday we did a bit of a day trip to Oudewater, which is a small town of roughly 9500 people outside Utrecht.
Not your average tourist destination, which was made clear when we were foiled by the world’s sneakiest bus connection (we literally watched our bus pull up and leave without realizing it was our bus because it looked like a handicapped bus), but again, the weather was beautiful while we sat on the corner of a not very busy road. We eventually made it to Oudewater, which was 100% worth it, as it is home to the Heksenwaag, one of the most famous witch weigh scales in the world, if not the most famous!
Monty Python was clearly the inspiration for this side trip. Oudewater was actually famous in the 1500s for being the fairest city in which a woman would be weighed in order to legally show she was not, in fact, a witch. The Oudewater weigh house was known to not be rigged, so any woman who could afford to make the journey came here from all over Europe in order to get a certificate saying that her body weight was in proportion to her build (which meant she was not a witch). The theory was witches didn’t have souls, and also that they needed to be lighter to fly on their broomsticks, so if you were lighter than your build, you were a witch, and thus could be killed.
You can still get weighed and get an official certificate saying you aren’t a witch if you go to Oudewater and stand on the scales. This was clearly the number one to-do item on my list for Mel and Tina’s Excellent European Adventure, sorry anything in Amsterdam.
So Tina and I were very excited to get weighed and be declared soulful nonwitches.
Tina was up first, and after some careful measuring, was declared to be a human woman – not a witch! She was given her certificate, saying she was in proportion to her body.
I hopped on the ol heksenwaag next, and the weigh lady did some fairly intensive measuring, before declaring that I am, in fact, a witch.
It was pretty devastating to find out I officially have no soul. Also, because I was a witch, the weigh lady determined that I had used my witch powers to trick her into thinking Tina wasn’t a witch, and that we were really both witches. We have to go back to the weigh scale in a year if we haven’t been burned yet and try again.
We figured the best way to celebrate our soullessness was to head to Amsterdam, where we had to explain our way into a club. Literally, we waited in line for like half an hour, and then at the front they asked us what event we were going to. CLEARLY THE ONE WE LINED UP FOR. But we made it in and got overly excited for Red Hot Chili Peppers mashups. It was an “oldies” party.
We also got some culture in, and managed to hit the Van Gogh museum!
And, fortunately, Tina was here for Thanksgiving, so we had some arts and crafts time (since we couldn’t be bothered to actually cook any semblance of a Thanksgiving meal) to make ourselves some turkey hats. As one does.
But, flames to dust, lovers to friends. As Nelly Furtado said, all good things come to an end. And so my brave little Teenster got on her mighty steel bird and flew back to Canada. And we shall reunite again some day in a most glorious fashion.
After the Mel and Tina moment passed, I continued to fail in my quest to ever relax, and promptly headed to Amsterdam that evening to watch the Dutch vs Czech football match, which was part of the EuroCup qualifiers.
The Netherlands lost, unfortunately, 3 – 2, and even more unfortunately, scored a goal on themselves off a corner. But, it was an exciting match to see, and I’m pretty pleased to have now seen an international European football match.
Then that weekend, because I really hate sleeping apparently, I headed to Amsterdam to meet up with some Queen’s Law crew for ADE, the largest indoor DJ event in the world. One of my favourite DJ duos, Goldfish (of course they’re South African), was playing, so they were the Friday night event, followed by one of the craziest lineups ever on Saturday: Klingande, Robin Schulz, Oliver Heldens, what was supposed to be Alesso but then ended up being Afrojack, David Guetta, Tiesto, and DJ Snake… it was a great time. There was a significant portion between 3 and 4 am where I realized that I am too old to be out all night, but after a hilarious/harrowing solo mission, I pulled it together.
So if you thought I was finally going to take a weekend off, you’d be wrong, because another fun filled UN holiday was up last weekend (literally, this one was just straight up called UN Day), so Sarah and I had planned a while back to head to Berlin.
I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome of a city it is. Other than Cape Town, it has been the coolest city I have visited thus far, and I think if I lived in Berlin, it would give Cape Town a run for its money (though let’s get real, the weather means Cape Town would always come out on top).
Essentially Sarah and I had both been travelling for an entire month – just really avoiding spending a weekend in the Hague – so despite the fact that Berlin is known for its amazing clubs, we decided to take it a bit easier and make our way through the city by eating and drinking cocktails.
The food scene in Berlin, guys. It’s so cheap and amazing. Foods from all over the world, such amazing quality, I just am still not over it. I’m describing all my meals now, so if you don’t care to hear about them, move along (I am also in my carb loading phase before my marathon, which is less than 10 days away, so literally food is all I think about. I’m eating salted bread from a Flemish bakery as I write this and it is fantastic).
So we arrived in Berlin last Thursday night, and, as an aside, before my food tales commence, an interesting difference I find between European and North American culture is multiculturalism and the stages of immigration. By that, I mean that in North America, we’re all a bunch of immigrants, and though it is still common for people of certain ethnicities or faiths to group together when they move to Canada or the US, in Europe, it’s like, THE MOST EXCITING THING IN THE WORLD for a visible minority to see another member of that group. Like, nobody is ever going to come up to me and be like, “Are you from Poland/Sweden/Norway/some other blond generic country?” but they will walk up to someone of Chinese descent and ask if they’re from China, even if that person speaks with a clearly North American accent. And then be super excited by even a tenuous link. Which is better than in South Africa, where multiple people would see Hannah, who is from Hong Kong, and say, “China, China, Jackie Chan!” but this is still such a bizarre thing to witness. In North America, we’re accustomed to seeing people of different races all the time (in most major cities), but Europe can still be very whitewashed. I understand it, as a new immigrant you want to make a connection with someone familiar, and I feel for these people who have moved to a place that can seem hostile, depending on the city, but god, it can be absurdly uncomfortable to see (and I’m sure even more uncomfortable to be the target of).
Anyways. Food in Berlin. And cocktails. And I guess some sights.
We arrived really late last Thursday night (and then had an Amazing Race challenge to get our damn Airbnb key, in which we essentially had to guess what name was on an envelope, and no, it was not as obvious as you would think), and with all our traveling we passed out. I wanted to get in a run on Friday though, so I got up at a decent hour and went running through Tiergarten, which is like Central Park but less busy, and there are ping pong tables randomly set up in open grassy areas so adorable old men can play. It is such a nice park – it’s huge, it has twists and turns and trails everywhere so you can run into something new and exciting everywhere you look.
When I returned from my run, Sarah and I went to an amazing coffee place, called Oslo Kaffebar (run by Norwegians), and I subsequently went there every morning for the rest of our time in Berlin. The coffee was so good. I haven’t found really good coffee in The Hague yet (I have found above average coffee, but nothing to get excited about), so this place was just a dream come true. And they had freshly baked croissants that were warm whenever I got them. I had toyed with the notion of trying another coffee place, but I couldn’t break away from Oslo.
Happily caffeinated, we went on a walking tour of the city to get our bearings.
That evening, Sarah and I decided to head out for pre-dinner drinks at Redwood, an amazing cocktail bar run by a guy from California. The drinks were amazing: one thing about cocktails in Berlin, if you go to quality places, the drinks are STRONG. They’re meant to be slowly enjoyed, which is something I never do in North America (mostly because I don’t drink cocktails that often in Canada). This guy was incredible: he did his own interpretation of certain drinks, and the menu was stunning. But, nightlife in Berlin doesn’t get started until very late, so showing up for pre-dinner drinks at 19.00 meant we were the only people in the bar. So, service was great! We had dinner that evening at Standard, which served some of the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. I am literally hungry all the time because of marathon training, so Sarah and I ordered two pizzas and I crushed an entire one. The dough was probably the best pizza dough I have had in my life. We followed it up by heading to the Ballhaus, which made me feel like I was at a prom in the best way possible. I will never forget the ancient man (you need to go to experience it). On the way home, we stopped into a bizarre bat bar, after which we completed another Loopty-Loo™ before finally making it home.
We did a bit of window shopping the following day (clothes in Berlin are uber cool and it is reflected in the prices), and stopped in for lunch at The Store Kitchen, which is part of an amazing concept store.
The food was so fresh and delicious, and effectively prepared us to hit the East Side Gallery.
So Berlin’s history is amazing, and seeing the wall was incredible. We also visited the site of Hitler’s suicide (it’s now a car park with zero notification of what happened, to ensure it wouldn’t be used as a meeting point for Nazi sympathizers or Neo Nazis, aka Donald Trump supporters). It is interesting to see the way in which Germany has dealt with its past – the country is very much aware of the horrible parts of its history and is extremely active about taking measures to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Perhaps because of that, WWII and Nazi regime history in Berlin seems to be somewhat harder to find. Other than, of course, all the bombs that are still being found underground in Berlin – while we were visiting, the Jewish museum was closed to remove a 250 kg American WWII era bomb. These bombs are still live, and have been commonly found in Berlin since the end of the war. A team of experts was called in and two subway lines were closed, but we would have had no idea were it not for my google alerts of Berlin news (thanks, creepy smartphone tracking device).
That evening, we ate at a really highly rated pho place, Monsieur Vuong, which had good pho and was (as every other restaurant we ate at) reasonably priced, but I found pretty overhyped. The bar scene Saturday night though – we started our trying to go to Buck and Breck, a bar I had heard about when I was looking into places to visit, and which was subsequently recommended to us by our walking tour guide. When we went at around 20.00, the sign said it was closed and there was someone taking a delivery out front, so we decided to go to another bar in the neighbourhood and try back in a bit. So we headed to the St. Oberholz, which is a two storey restaurant/bar/cafe. While we were drinking mezcal, most people were getting coffee (again, because they go out so late, people drink coffee super late – we were so obviously North American). After a couple drinks there, we did some investigating into Buck and Breck. Turns out, it was ranked as the 21st best bar in the world in 2014, and was the only Berlin bar to make the list. We obviously had to go back, closed sign and delivery aside.
This bar. Was so cool. I don’t even care how much of a hipster it makes me sound like. You go to this hole in the wall out front, which has a closed sign, and you ring the bell. Someone comes, asks how many there are in your party, whether or not you’re expecting more people, etc., and if there is room, will bring you into the bar. If there isn’t room – the bar seats only 14 people at a time – they ask you to come back in half an hour to try again. Sarah and I got extremely lucky and got in without having to wait. You aren’t allowed to have your phones out at all – they kick you out if you pull them out – and it is such an awful part of society nowadays, because I desperately wanted a photo of how cool this bar is.
It’s a single room, with one bar that you sit at – no room to stand or walk about. The bartenders are there to make your drinks, they don’t chat with you, so make sure you enjoy the company of whoever you go here with. They had these amazing displays in glass cases along the bar (my favourite was a stuffed animal octopus – like a soft fluffy child’s octopus). And the drinks. The first drink I tried was called the Aviation, based on a hilarious novel of a yelp review, and it was absolutely incredible. Second drink, I went for a classic Gimlet, which was probably the strongest Gimlet I’ve ever had in my life, but was also so well made. Again, the cocktails in Berlin are meant to be slowly enjoyed, so with only two drinks, we were able to spend a few hours here. I highly recommend this place if you want a good drink in a really cool atmosphere in Berlin – definitely not for groups, but well worth it as a couple.
On the way home, I got hungry again, and we had noticed a Syrian restaurant, Yarok, close to our place. This was literally the best shawarma I have ever had in my life. Hands down. Nothing comes close. The yogurt sauce was just insanely delicious, the hummus was so good, the pita was freshly made, and the seasoning on the meat. I can’t even talk about this because now I’m hungry again.
The next morning, we found that my post-bar food, which was six euros, so cheap, was of course from one of the highest rated restaurants in Berlin, and frequently shows up on must visit spots in the city. YOU NEED TO EAT THERE. Sarah will also vouch for their hot chocolate. We walked by on Sunday evening and there was easily 20 people lined up outside. We ended up going back on Monday for lunch to their falafel and vegetarian platter, and it was incredible as well. Seriously. Best shawarma ever. EVER.
The following day, I decided to head to the Mauerpark Flohmarkt (Sarah slept, it’s been a long month haha), which is an absolute must do if you’re in Berlin on a Sunday. It literally has everything: vintage clothes, indie designers, antiques, food, accessories, posters, bags, LITERALLY everything you could ever want. I bought my new favourite fall coat there from a young Berlin-based designer, and there was so much to choose from. I love markets.
My market browsing was short lived though, as Sarah and I have been absolutely dying for a proper brunch, and we thought we might have found one in Berlin at Geist im Glas.
We were so right.
I don’t even like pancakes. Like, whatever, they’re fine. But these pancakes. Guys. Buttermilk with dulce de leche and whisky infused maple syrup. That was dessert; we started with some of the best huevos rancheros that I have ever had, which is not something I say lightly, as that is my go to brunch order. Add in a gazpacho bloody mary, with shrimp and garlic vodka (don’t judge me), and I was the happiest person in the world. We were so concerned when we initially walked into the place – you know how North American brunch places are bright and sunny and welcoming you into Sunday? This place is kind of a grungy bar at night, and it maintains its grunge feel at brunch. The menu is limited and reservations are necessary but it’s so worth it. And the price. We each paid 15 euros. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m used to Hague prices or what, but OMG THAT IS SO CHEAP.
We had to work of the post brunch sweats, and since the majority of Berlin shops are closed on Sundays, we decided to hit Museum Island.
We only went to one – the Neues Museum, which is home to the bust of Nefertiti. Unfortunately, no pictures of her, but that museum is worth visiting for that bust alone. It was honestly one of the most beautifully crafted things I have ever seen in my life, and the condition it’s been kept in is unbelievable. The exhibit was also absolutely phenomenal (I literally could not shut up about how much I loved the lighting in this museum) – you could see her lit up from down a long corridor filled with other exhibits. The displays were stunning.
Other than Nefertiti, the building itself is one of the most beautiful, if not the most, that I have ever been inside.
The museum was originally built in the mid-1800s to house collections that couldn’t fit in the Altes Museum (right next door). It was the first building in Berlin in which a steam engine was used during construction. The museum was intended to house ancient artifacts from Egypt and Rome. It closed at the beginning of WWII, and was extremely damaged during the war (along with many great artifacts of human history. As an aside, I think it’s really important that the destruction of these types of monuments is now punishable under international criminal law. Ancient artifacts amaze me, especially when you sit and think about them for a while – think of the technology we currently have, and what existed in the 800s or even the 1800s, and what people were able to create. What are we making now that would go in a museum?).
Following WWII, the museum, which was in East Germany, sat in ruin until the late 1980s, when the East German government began its reconstruction. Something happened in 1989 that kind of put a hold on that until the late 90s, when British architect David Chipperfield was given lead over the project. It was completed and reopened in 2009, and in 2011, Chipperfield won the EU prize for contemporary architecture. The building retained its façade and interior – rather than covering the damaged parts of the building, Chipperfield incorporated them into the updated design.
The soothing lighting and calm atmosphere of the museum meant we had to take an evening nap before heading out for our last night in Berlin. We ate at District Mot, a restaurant with a really cool vibe and amazing cocktails, but compared to the other food we ate in Berlin, it didn’t blow me away. What did though, was the wine bar we went to afterwards, Forum, which is a pay what you want wine bar. That’s right. You pay 2 euros for a glass, and then sample as much wine as you would like. Before you leave, you pay what you think is appropriate. It closes pretty early (midnight, practically dinner time in Berlin), so is a great and cheap way to spend a couple of hours in the evening. Forum is a larger bar, and it honestly felt like sitting in someone’s house. Very cool vibe, and the price is right (minus the fact that they were leaving the door open and it was chilly at night).
We had wanted to revisit a few historical sights before we left on Monday, so called it a night early and just relaxed. We ended up heading back to Tiergarten for some fall strolls, because it is just such a beautiful park.
So if it weren’t obvious, I absolutely loved Berlin. European fall has been swell, and October has been a great (if not exhausting) month. I’m actually spending this weekend in The Hague (Halloween with mah gurls!), but the rest doesn’t last long, because my long anticipated Athens Marathon is only nine days away! Which means I leave for Greece in six sleeps!
And, mixed emotions, but I am leaving Europe earlier than anticipated – my last day at the Tribunal is this upcoming Wednesday. I’ve had a really exciting opportunity come up, so I’ve decided to cut my time here short. That means that I will be back in Canada in three weeks, and will be visiting Ontario (Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay/the north, and London) for roughly six weeks before heading out again. So, the blog lives on to fight another day and I continue the life of a nomad!
My next update will likely be from Canada. Send me many good vibes on November 8 – I’m nerrrrrrvous for my race!