It’s been three weeks since Mr. Mate and I returned from our European adventure and I thought I’d share some of our experiences.
The first leg of the journey and, really, the excuse to get out of the US and back to Europe for the first time in 10 years was the Berlin Marathon. Lest you think I was the one running, let me set the record straight: Mr. Mate and his friend were the runners and I merely an athletic supporter (cue adolescent snickering and the movie Grease).
This marathon meant we shared our Berlin adventure with Mr. Mate’s friend, wife, and 20 month old daughter. We rented an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg and loved the neighborhood for its seemingly endless little shops, parks, and charm. Berliners ride bikes a lot more than I thought and the U-Bahn seems to be bike friendly which I loved. There were lots of kid on bikes both peddling themselves and being pedaled by their larger counterparts. This made the city seem much more accessible and livable than I’d imagined from the population (3.5 million city/6 million metro) and geographical size (344 square miles).
We spent 5 days exploring parks, museums, the history of the city, wandering through different neighborhoods, absorbing the history of the city, and enjoying navigating the U- and S-Bahn.
Mr. Mate and Mr. Friend ended up having a great race running the whole thing together and in 3:06:20. The Berlin Marathon is one of the marathon majors (the others being New York, Boston, London, and Chicago). It attracts around 40,000 runners, most of them coming from Europe. Mr. Mate has been running mostly trail and ultra marathons and I’d forgotten how time consuming it is to navigate through these huge events.
Because the event is so big, Mrs. Friend, baby friend and I up missing the first 4 corrals of runners start. Unfortunately that also included our significant others. After some debate we ended up walking around a bit to see more of the city and then planted ourselves approximately 5k from the end of the marathon. Here the crowds weren’t too thick and we had the opportunity to see both the elite runners pass as well as our mates. Even situated we almost missed them as they came in 10 minutes earlier than the very earliest we were told to expect them, and, because the race has so many runners even at this fairly fast pace they had a lot of company.
After meeting up with the mates in the family area at the end of the race we hung out near the finish and soaked up the sun before heading back home.
That afternoon after a bit of recovery and cleaning up for the runners, and the next day we spent touring different parts of the Berlin Wall, the Topography of Terror, and the GDR Museum.
After Berlin, Mr. Mate and I headed to Poznan, Poland to meet up with a friend who we’d met just once when we were scoping out moving to Seattle back in 2004. Poznan is a university town in the western half of Poland and is roughly the same population as Seattle. It has the classic town square configuration from which the streets radiate out. We met our friend at a restaurant on the outskirts of a park. Poland was probably the place we felt most like dumb foreigners as most people didn’t speak English and we certainly didn’t speak much Polish so it was easy for us to be accommodating and thus be taken advantage of. This was a bit bruising to our egos, but since nothing really terrible happened besides us spending a bit more money on a taxi, imbibing apple juice with chopped up parsley, and ordering extra beer it all worked out in the end.
Our friend went out of his way to make sure we had a pirogi-packed Polish experience. We consumed more food and drinks at more bars, restaurants, cafes, and homes during our three days in Poland than we did the rest of our trip! We also got a taste of family life with his two little girls who speak Polish and English and were able to hang out with his wife and some of his friends and family. Super fun. Did I mention how many cozy cafes we saw and how adorable the Czech cartoon Krtek is?
After an enjoyable three days, the weather turned rainy and we headed back to Poznan to take a sleeper train to Amsterdam. Once in Poznan we checked our luggage into a locker at the train station and headed into town. That took much longer than we thought it would (lots of curving streets = confusion). We finally found ourselves back in the town square and kind of cold and wet. We decided to eat and wandered around for a while before we found a restaurant that was full of people and good energy. We scooted out of the rain and into the last two-top in the place. It ended up being a fun and tasty meal and allowed us to dry out and fill up before our night train. After we walked a bit and stopped into a somewhat hidden cafe we’d seen the first day in Poznan. There we had what tasted like a snickers cake and our final cappuccino before heading back to the train station.
Our night train to Amsterdam was punctuated by some of the most pungent farts (produced by our unseen cabin mate) ever and an open window whose freezing air tried and failed to mitigate. As a result I spent most of the night huddled under my blanket, with my scarf wrapped around my head and nose, and my coat spread over my torso trying to keep warm and smells out. Luckily our friend left around 4 am allowing me to close the window and actually sleep.
We arrived in Amsterdam around 10 am, which meant our journey had taken nearly 12 hours, stored our luggage in a locker and headed out to explore the Jordaan district and visit the Anne Frank Museum.
We had a great day full of walking and wandering and headed back to the train station to pick up our luggage and head to our apartment by 4 pm. I’m not really sure whose to blame, but our apartment and the experience was, shall we say, lacking. We ended up waiting nearly 3 hours for the owners to arrive to give us the keys and in the meantime we hung out at the snack shop two doors down. The owner of the snack shop was incredibly kind, generous and helpful and we were grateful in the way you are when you don’t have a phone, you don’t speak the language, and you have no idea where a payphone might be found.
When the apartment owners finally showed up we were just happy to have a place to stay. But once they left all the things like filthy stairwell, graffiti covered front door, mold infested washer, unfinished laundry, smelly fridge, and stinky kitchen sponge added up to make us feel more than a little deflated.
But we rallied, showered for the first time in 2 days, and headed out into the night to the Van Gogh Museum.
We never made it. Instead, we got lost. Walked in circles. Couldn’t find the museum. Until we did and it was under construction. Finally we figured out that the collection was being exhibited in the Hermitage Museum a mile north. By that time it was 9 pm and being of cranky mind and body, I sulked on a park bench. After I collected myself and shreds of good temper, we headed back to, what Mr. Mate christened “the rats’ nest.” On the way we stopped at a grocery store and picked up cleaning supplies, breakfast supplies, and a bag of stropwafles.
Have you ever had a stropwafle? They are delicious and those delectable caramel cookie-like waffle wafers became a favorite treat during the rest of our trip. So much so we brought some home with us. That’s right, we declared bags of cookies when clearing US customs.
The next morning I gave the kitchen a through cleaning before we headed to Haarlem for a day of walking through a typical Dutch town. We visited the Franz Hals Museum, and enjoyed the sun when it wasn’t being obscured by vast stretches of clouds.
Back in Amsterdam that evening, we walked through the Red Light district and headed to dinner at an Indonesian restaurant. It was a disaster with mediocre food and dismal service. We waited for an hour for what the host said would be 30 minutes. We were starving by this point and ordered an appetizer. While this helped curb our appetites, all our neighbors who’d been seated after us got their food before us. After waiting for an hour our waitress came appeared with what we surmised to be our food. She then completely wiffed and our food went ker-plat all over the floor and fellow diners. When we finally did get our dinners they were disappointing and then we left a big tip. What can I say? I used to work in restaurants and I’m a sucker.
On day three Amsterdam decided to cut us a break. Mr. Mate found a 50 Euro note on the ground as we walked to rent bikes. We then proceeded to rent bikes and ride 10 miles out of town along the Amstel river. This was my favorite day of our stay in the Netherlands as we were able to ride bikes which I love. We saw lots of rowers on the river, a windmill, sheep, adorably quaint houses, and understood first hand why biking is the mode of transportation in Amsterdam.
Our last full day in Amsterdam had us visiting the Rijiksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum and popping into different shops on the way. Both museums were interesting and thankfully easily digestible (the Rijiks was also being renovated so only 250 pieces were exhibited), but really what impressed me the most was the display at the Van Gogh Museum. It was well executed and I loved the use of strong color on the walls.
Our last morning had us walking around the streets around our apartment and stumbled on a charming cafe where we had breakfast with a furry friend and a healthy dose of 1960s California rock ‘n roll before jumping on train to the airport to head back to Seattle.
All in all we had a great time and while I don’t think we can afford a trip like this every year, we definitely want to do more overseas travel before another 10 years pass. And next trip I’ll plan on doing a lot more shopping.