Every year, sections of the path where the Berlin Wall once stood (Berliner Mauerweg) turn pink with the blossoms of the cherry trees or sakura.
In 1990, the Japanese set up The Sakura Campaign and managed to come up with enough funds to donate around 9,000 cherry trees in celebration of German reunification. It has been almost 16 years since the first trees were planted by the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, and today little remains of the ugliness of the Cold War years.
There are hanami events in Berlin every spring but I managed to miss it again this year. Hanami is a traditional Japanese custom of gathering around for picnics to appreciate the transient beauty of cherry blossoms, and less popularly, plum blossoms. The blossoms usually last for just two weeks, so I was very glad that I managed to catch it mid-season. There are some trees that haven’t blossomed yet so I’m keeping my fingers crossed on seeing them again next week. Spring rolls in way too fast for my liking yet the temperatures take too long to warm up.
I visited the section of the Mauerweg just beside S-Bahnhof Bornholmer Straße. It’s a small stretch with just about 200 trees but it’s one of the popular ones out there.
The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and Environment has a detailed list of the trees planted by The Sakura Campaign which you can find here. You can also check out the last page of The Sakura Campaign flyer for a map of where the cherry trees are located.
Whether you’re going alone or with company, Happy Hanami!
n. the desire to hold on to time as it passes, like trying to keep your grip on a rock in the middle of a river, feeling the weight of the current against your chest while your elders float on downstream, calling over the roar of the rapids, “Just let go—it’s okay—let go.”
I’d like to call this unwelcome winter episode in Berlin now as ‘hot chocolate weather’, and without fail, the feeling of nostalgia always comes with it.
Today, I finally got down to doing my spring cleaning and it’s quite terrifying how much stuff I have accumulated within two years. I threw and gave away a lot of things before I moved out of the Philippines, and seeing as I have to move out soon, I will have to let go of a lot of things again. I find it terrifying how we are always accumulating stuff. I came to Berlin with nothing but the things in my huge red suitcase and now, just a month short of my two-year anniversary here, I have stuff that fill that same suitcase and a huge closet to the brim.
I’ve met people who have lived with just a suitcase of stuff and I always had this romantic notion that I could do it. I’ve done it before; I would have to do it again; but it would always be the same cycle of accumulating stuff I don’t need or even want long enough and then give it away only to accumulate more stuff all over again. Humanity inherently comes with that flawed intrinsic need to possess something, anything, everything. You’ve probably felt the desire to hold on to time as it passes – and certainly that great longing to be in a moment that has passed and to experience it all raw once more. It doesn’t help that we always romanticise the past.
I myself collect a lot of memorabilia. In an inexplicable desire to immortalise a memory, I started writing journals when I was eight. I reread some of them a decade on and they were mostly of no worth: old movie plots, books I read, childhood crushes. Memories, like everything else, are relative. I ended up throwing a lot of ‘rubbish’ then, like I did today, yet there are some things I know for sure I will always hold on to.
I am an avid collector of postcards and handwritten letters. It doesn’t matter that I never met the person who sent me the postcard or that it may never again cross my mind that out there is a woman in Tenerife setting her table for dinner, exactly the way it looked in the photo she once sent a stranger. To me, postcards and letters are treasure chests forever sealed – I am never going to get anything else from them other than the story that was written there.
Travel knick-knacks? I keep the guidebooks and maps I’ve used, public transport tickets, museum tickets, and even restaurant napkins with the name of the place printed on it. And yes, I collect the currency as well. Don’t we all?
I also find so much beauty in the fallen that I leaves, rocks, sticks, pine cones, and random things I find on my walks. I dry flowers too. On a rather queer note, I also collect beer caps. I got the idea from a good friend of who I met on a beer fest in Berlin. I love a good beer and a lot of my most poignant and spontaneous moments involved beer. I just didn’t anticipate I’d be exploring beer so much.
And let’s not forget all the digital trash – unfinished stories, photos I never sorted through, chat threads, old reservation confirmations.
I guess that’s all just a part of being human, and maybe it’s supposed to be this way. In the end, we want our stories – or even just fragments of it to remain long after we’re gone. Or it’s really all just anchorage – a way of holding on to time. Humans are quite unique in the sense that we gain satisfaction out of collecting things purely by seeking and owning them.
What about you? What things do you collect? Why do you collect them?
Nestled in the Tyrolean Alps, you will see the mountains rising above you whichever direction you look. There are hike trails all around and you can be on your way up the Nordkette within twenty minutes of walking from the main train station. You can catch a train, bus, or chairlift to any of the trails around town or if you feel like truly leaving the city, simply to the next town. The network of hiking trails in the Innsbruck region is vast! You can walk for a day – or a week.
Innsbruck is Austria in microcosm.
Small cities are like big cities, except with less of everything.
Innsbruck is a very livable small city. Public transport is great, the city is quite compact and it is bike- and pedestrian-friendly. The locals are laid-back and very outgoing. There is not much of a consumer culture in this region. A lot of the locals just start heading up the mountain trails for a short hike or their daily run in the afternoon. Maybe it’s just the mountain air, but life in Innsbruck seems so relaxed.
There are a lot of breakfast clubs in the city and plenty of the Austrian coffee culture we all want to experience. Unlike so many European cities, the Altstadt is actually not a tourist ripoff and the cafés there are frequented by locals.
There is no shortage of Austrian fare and with the activity that comes with the Innsbruck lifestyle, no reason to think twice about getting an Apfelstrudel with your coffee or having that Kaiserschmarrn for breakfast. You’ll burn the calories… eventually.
And men in Lederhosen? ✓
The best drinking water in the world – free, as it should be.
Innsbruck has extremely high-quality water straight from the Alps and there are drinking fountains all around the city and along the hiking trails. It’s quite crazy to think that the same water you use to shower is of the same quality as the one you drink.
Returning from a short yet very eventful two-day sojourn in Innsbruck, I find myself periodically looking up at the sky and thinking something is very missing.
I love my rocks – so much I collect them as souvenirs. Mountains have always been impressive, albeit daunting. This year, after all I’ve seen of the Alps, I vowed to climb a mountain. Innsbruck seemed like the baby of the hiking world: relatively short mountains and well-marked and well-traversed hiking trails scattered within such short distance of the city.
I managed to convince my good friend Himeel that Innsbruck was a good idea. We didn’t have proper plans because we weren’t sure of the time, and time was indeed a challenge for us. Innsbruck lives on two seasons: Summer and Winter. It’s spring now, and not a good time for specifically heading out there to hike. There is not much snow left for the winter sports so a lot of the ski lifts are closed, while the few snow left means a lot of the higher altitude hiking trails are still closed.
I was aiming to do a long day hike on a segment of the Adlerweg (Eagle’s Trail) and then doing a relaxing walk on the famous Zirbenweg. We were disappointed by the knowledge that the Patscherkofelbahn, which runs all the way up to where the Zirbenweg starts, is closed until the end of May.
Himeel and I spent a good chunk of time at Cafe Katzung, gawking at the maps we procured from the Tourist Info Office. While Austrian café culture was playing all around the two of us, we were only concerned about finding a trail to walk. We both has this unspoken dread of having nothing to do in Innsbruck.
By 12:30, we were making our way up to Hungerburg, having decided we didn’t want to take the funicular. Doesn’t it look so close in the map and what is a few hundred meters uphill?
Unfortunately for us, we took the wrong trail and ended up covering a steep ascent in such a short time that up in the Alps in early spring, I was reminded of Philippine summers. It was burning, and contrary to the weather forecasts we had been mulling over in the past few days, there was plenty of sunshine.
At the end of this first ascent was a blessing from earth: the best water I have ever tasted in my entire life. Innsbruck, I later learned, has one of the best water in the world, and there are drinking fountains scattered all over that you never need to carry so much water when hiking as long as you know ahead where you can fill them up.
After that stretch, it was a relatively flat walk all the way up to the city district of Hungerburg. The day was still young and we still had plenty of daylight left so we decided to push through with the plan we drafted earlier: Hungerburg, up to Arzler Alm, then walk to Höttinger Alm and spend the night there.
From Hungerburg, it was a good walk through a pine forest to Arzler Alm, unfortunately we had to change plans because Höttinger Alm was on spring break. (Yes.) That meant, go all the way back to the city, stay there overnight, and worry again about what to do the next day.
But it was fine. Himeel got his wurst and pommes and beer, and I got my coffee. We were ready to keep walking a few miles more.
The forecast finally turned out right for a couple of minutes when we got back to Hungerburg and it rained a little. That was a perfect excuse for some gigantic slice of Poppy Seed Cake and the Ginger and Honey Tea I needed so desperately. I was in a bad state the whole week and was on the verge of canceling this weekend trip before deciding my immune system was good enough to survive a bad cold without resting.
It seems tea makes me superhuman.
View of Innsbruck from Hungerburg
The Inn River
On our descent, we met more people making their way up – running their way up in fact. The trails and nature are in such close proximity to the city that it feels like locals just rush up to retreat from everything – city life and all – in the afternoon.
Day 1 ended with just a few meters short of 23km covered on foot. My legs were fine, it was my back that took the toll of the heavy backpack. A backpack full of things I didn’t even need.
Before February of this year, I have never made a big trip entirely on my own.
I can come up with a lot of excuses why I didn’t have to. In retrospect, the hardest part is simply to set a destination.
I love trains and I find a certain charm in long-distance train travel. When I was 17, I managed to convince my mother to take the sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi with me. That journey certainly didn’t leave a good impression on my mother.
Now, I’m in Europe but the Trans-Siberian is too far-fetched so I settled with another one of my great dreams: to take the Bernina Express. Admittedly, I dread winter travel and I wanted to do the trip in spring. I wanted to see typical Swiss scenery: the happiest cows in the world grazing on green fields, chalets by glacial lakes, and snow-capped peaks looming in the distance. Then I saw that the Interrail Global Pass was 15% off and if I took the Bernina Express for just an additional €10 seat reservation fee, took some trains in Switzerland as well, the pass was already going to pay for itself. I did more calculations, made rough estimates of train journeys I might end up taking, and in five minutes of decisiveness purchased the Interrail Global Pass within a week before the departure date I was eyeing.
I’d been wanting to go interrailing ever since I saw Before Sunrise. But like a lot of things, they took a back seat to my Australia plans. My life took a big change in January and Australia was suddenly off the list. Suddenly, my savings were for nothing. Anything.
The rail pass prices had increased a little for the new year, but they finally allowed you one journey from within your country of residence and back. Initially, the rules regarding the pass can be daunting and reading it as one ponders whether to purchase a pass or not is rather discouraging. In the end, it is the indecisive soul that profits from it.
As German law insisted I had to take my vacation before the end of March, my flowering Switzerland was out of the question. I wanted my Bernina Express in a winter wonderland – but with blue skies and good visibility. The middle of February seemed to have a ray of sunshine in it, but everyday I checked the forecast was changing. I couldn’t make definite plans. I had ideas on where to go, but I couldn’t give fixed dates or trace a fixed route. My travel plans were entirely dependent on the weather and had to be extremely flexible. I didn’t want disappointment so I simply said ‘fuck it’ and improvised what places I wanted to see along the way.
It was from here on that I pinned Strasbourg as the first stop. I really didn’t care what was in Strasbourg. I had somehow just decided I had to see a new country every month this year. January was Italy. February couldn’t be just Switzerland or Italy again – I’d been there before. It had to be France for a change.
I was supposed to spend the night in Strasbourg, then head off to Basel the next day, but Strasbourg turned out to be quite small and after a few hours, my CS host and I concluded it was best for me to take the sleeper to Nice.
Vaulting of Strasbourg Cathedral
Stained Glass Windows at Strasbourg Cathedral
A little too high/A little too low
I arrived at the central station with twenty minutes to spare and still no reservation. I had to spend ten minutes of eternity waiting for my turn to talk to the girl at the travel center, only to have her be rude to me and tell me there was no way I could get a reservation as the train was going to leave in a few minutes. Luckily for me, the French conductors were more hospitable and in about the only French sentence I learned way back when I didn’t need it yet –Parlez–vous anglais? – I got my tired bum onboard. I ended up paying quite a lot for my top bunk on the spot, but whatever. This was the price of capriciousness. Wifi-less and windowless, when the lights went out an hour later, I had the best sleep in my entire journey: 10 unbroken hours of dead sleep.
The train breezed through the French countryside, towns at the foothills of beautiful rock mountains – deserted save for plants, then rolling hills, coast-side cities – Cannes, Antibes, a forested golf course, then finally Nice.
I loved Nice. I loved the architecture, the mild weather, the abundance of sunshine, the gentle sea breeze, the promenade, the turquoise waters, the pebble beach, the waves… just about everything.
Pebble Beach in Nice
I was wifi-less and mapless in Monaco, having taken the wrong way out the station so I missed the tourist info center. Luckily for me, I managed to get wifi just before getting on my train for Milan, so in desperation, I booked the cheapest AirBnb I could find.
I spent exactly 120 minutes in Monaco, 60 of which was spent just walking to find the Monaco they show in movies – which I did end up at by pure luck. I sat to a €6 Americano at the Cafe de Paris, and gawked at the rich and famous living their everyday lives.
I had to transit at an Italian city called Ventimiglia and when the train stopped a full 5 minutes before the station, I started getting really worried. I only had 20 minutes to get a seat reservation and get on the train to Milano. Thankfully, TrenItalia served with little fuss – I got my seat reservation for €10, less than 10 minutes before departure. No further questions.
Throughout the entire journey, my cold was trying to kill me. I felt so awful and the air circulating inside was of such poor quality that breathing it was making things worse. I managed to crack the window open for a few minutes when the Italian lady I shared the cabin with left for the washroom but she wanted to close it when she got back because it was getting chilly. That was the moment I decided I wanted to learn some Italian. The lady I was with had tried to start a conversation earlier but the languages we spoke just didn’t match. She spoke only Italian and French and I spoke only English and German.
By the time I got to Milan, I was surprisingly resigned to the unknown. Luckily, the Airbnb place accepted. For reasons that I will talk about in a different post, I ended up staying the following night in Milan too. After the weird and disturbing two nights in Milan, I crept out of the AirBnb place in the wee hours and took the train to Venice.
Travel is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding; and by the time I got to Venice, too much physical strain and insufficient sleep had almost worn me out. Venice, in spite of the tourist crowds and bleak weather, was beautiful. But in Venice, the past caught up with me. On hindsight, it was a good thing because I managed to leave it there, and made it stay there.
Bridge of Sighs
In the afternoon, I set off for Florence – the original goal, Venice being something I somehow just inserted along the way because why not? I had an interrail pass and I had to make the most of it. I was so exhausted when I arrived in Florence, and I felt the whole world was against me when I couldn’t find out where to get the bus tickets. It was a horrible twenty minutes, but I found my AirBnb place and my Italian host, Stefano, was lovely.
I managed to complete my plan for the rest of the trip. I ended up spending only a day in Florence, and after beer and football with Stefano the next evening, I took the night train to Innsbruck.
I shared the cabin with an African man studying European Law and who was making his way to Geneva, and an Italian couple who were on the wrong train, but since they were locals, they were pardoned by the inspector. The African man spoke French, English, Italian, and some German as well (‘It is a nasty language’) and we spent a good couple of minutes talking before they all got off at Bologna.
I was happily getting ready to take my boots off and stretch out but a few minutes later, two Koreans and one Italian turned up to share the cabin with me. The next few hours to Innsbruck were agonisingly long. I couldn’t sleep peacefully, as there were no announcements for the stops. The scenery was dead eerie – snow upon snow upon snow in the darkness of the night.
My train was over an hour delayed so I missed my connecting train to Zürich and had to wait two hours for the next one, but I was happy. There was wifi and a warm waiting room at Innsbruck Hbf, and coffee at 4am – basically my happiness kit for much of the trip.
I found Austrians strangely endearing. Their accents sounded so cute that I found myself speaking German just to hear them answer in German. I only had to pay €3 for the Innsbruck-Zürich leg and there was wifi, comfy seats and charging sockets. Deutsche Bahn’s ICE only gives free wifi to first class passengers.
For those of you who still think of Germany as the land of efficiency, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Deutsche Bahn is just one of Germany’s embarrassing little secrets. It’s a joke here among its closest neighbours. A little bit of snow and the rail system becomes riddled with delays. Meanwhile, Swiss and Austrian trains run perfectly on time under these conditions:
I arrived in Zürich to find that it hadn’t changed since the last time I was there in August 2014. Same old expensive Züri. I had only ever spent my time in the central and eastern part of the city – despite having stayed there for two weeks. This time, my AirBnb was in the western part and I met the most interesting host ever, AJ, who treated me to truffle oil, salami, cheese, and whiskey at 3pm. Though Zürich absolutely didn’t go as planned, I had a good time and met a couple of amazing folks. You had AJ, a man with a masters in chemistry and who completely deviated from his career path and now runs this velo-taxi business. You know how sometimes it’s so easy to connect to a stranger? After our first cup of tea, we were already talking philosophically. Oh well, he made me go buy MY mattress with him after that. On his velo-taxi. It was good publicity, I’d admit. Everyone took note of us on the street. You had Philip, a Russian guy with so much enthusiasm for life but stuck working a mundane job just for security. Then there was Darren, a Canadian dancer who had this aura that he could make it through any audition.
Fluffy Cheetah meets Icy
The Shared Room Project
I set off at the crack of dawn the next day to take the regional train to Chur, from where the Bernina Express departs. It turned out to be a perfect winter day with plenty of sunshine and a clear blue sky. Having been born and raised in the Philippines, I had never in my entire life seen so much snow.
Towards the border to Italy, the scenery changed dramatically. There were suddenly palm trees in the valley. I spent two hours in Tirano, where the Bernina Express terminates, and from there took the train to Bergamo to catch my flight back home to Berlin.
It was one heck of a journey – and a type I would definitely do again for the love of trains and rail travel. The spontaneity and flexibility it offered was absolutely wonderful. As the saying goes, I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.
Well, it seems Indians are generally unaware of that. Well, since Ryanair flies there for €20 return, I wouldn’t say it’s not worth that day trip from Berlin.
I definitely have some personal issues with Brussels though. First off, they haven’t really decided what language to use so place names appear in either Dutch or French. Brussels/ Bruxelles. The Belgians have never picked one name. Brugge/Bruges. Antwerp/Antwerpen/Anvers.
Second, they have bizarre street layouts. It took us well over ten minutes and two locals just to find out where the fuck our Airbnb address was. We found the street, we just couldn’t find the number. They cut off a perfectly straight street and just decided to give the other stretch a different name and start the count to zero. The street we were looking for, was apparently decided to be L-shaped, just because Belgium.
Third, eating out is expensive and I hate it when cafés charge exorbitant prices for bottled water.
Fourth, except for a huge Belgian crowd gathered outside an Irish pub near Grote Markt, to celebrate some hockey victory (I assume), there really was nothing exciting in Brussels. Sure, I am not supposed to think of Berlin in Brussels, but that was exactly what I was doing. I missed Berlin when I was in Brussels. I missed all the random shit you would encounter in Berlin.
I used to think Zürich was boring, but that changed when I visited it again last February. That changed again with my Brussels trip.
Guide books will tell you of the grandeur of the city’s architecture. Yes, the Grote Markt is beautiful but if the city’s most memorable landmark makes your head wander away after ten minutes, you’ll come to conclusion that a day is good enough in Brussels.
After the Grote Markt/Grand Place, we found ourselves trying to come up with things for our to-do list in Brussels which was basically:
We found ourselves with more than ample time to head far north of the city for the Atomium, which for the benefit of those who have no idea what it is, is the Belgian equivalent of the Eiffel Tower.
A seminal totem in the Brussels skyline; neither tower, nor pyramid, a little bit cubic, a little bit spherical, half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look, museum and exhibition centre; the Atomium is, at once, an object, a place, a space, a Utopia and the only symbol of its kind in the world, which eludes any kind of classification.
We had no real interest in the exhibitions inside the Atomium and were more than satisfied with just seeing its architecture up close. We had overpriced and bad coffee at the site café, and I wanted to use the toilet and was willing to pay for it but the lines stretched too long I dropped the idea after five minutes of no movement. They must have had just two cubicles in the ladies toilet.
Brussels was underwhelming, but I can’t blame it for that. I guess Berlin has grown too much on me and I just couldn’t find the right personality in the Belgian capital. There were definitely some good things I loved about it – not just the chocolates, waffles and frites!
Comic Book Murals
The city is dense but has a lot of parks, and I just loved the lake near Flageypein. I, of course, loved how it was hilly – I have always hated living in Berlin’s flatness.
Brussels is not something you would have to visit in your lifetime, or a stopover you would have to add on your eurotrip. There are far more interesting European cities and towns for that. Brussels is more like a destination for those living close by who have come to admit that they have ignored it enough and are just bored enough to finally book the cheap flights to get there.
There is a big sharing community in Berlin, evident in all the facebook groups around.
My favorite has always been Free Your Stuff Berlin – which I joined back in January 2015. I got a lucky clover, a corkboard, and some German novels out of it, but it’s been ages since I’ve been active on it.
Yesterday, Gaurav sent me a photo of a box he was going to pick up, and naïve as I am, I ended up agreeing to slavery and went along with him.
It was a beautiful bright spring day with only the gentlest breeze every now and then. I completely missed spring last year (a.k.a. The Year of Two Autumns), and this year was my first chance to fully experience spring. I’ve been watching the trees closely, and I am still at awe at the speed the leaves are sprouting. They just started growing out yesterday, today it already feels like it will be completely out tomorrow.
It was quite a lovely neighbourhood, a little stretch from U-Bahnhof Moritzplatz, but nice and quiet and dotted with park patches all around. We came back home with a box of books in four languages: English, German, French, and Spanish.
The best part of the day was finding out that I finally got my hands on one of Kerri Smith’s books to wreck – for free! And there is no one to challenge its being mine because Gaurav doesn’t speak German.