The Colours of Spring

While many other European cities started blooming at the beginning of March, Warsaw slept under its grey blanket a little longer, and it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that it finally grew out of the dull winter mood.

Warsaw is an ugly city. It’s a mess of stark contrasting communist blocks and modern steel and glass high-rises. The center is the place to be, and at times it seems like it’s the only place where anything is happening. Despite the sizeable expat community, it is still very homogeneous, and generally, you will get the impression that service is foreign to the Poles.

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Under the Bridge, Służew

But come spring, and suddenly the city is so much better. The first greens remind you that it isn’t such a dreary city – there are plenty of green areas – it just really sucks in winter (which is half the year), when all is bare and the communist era buildings stick out of the cityscape. When Warsaw finally wakes up from a winter-induced dullness, it’s beautiful.

April began with the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit cheekily called “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”. It’s set on its new pavilion by the Vistula and managed to lure me there because it’s free. It’s a small exhibit and rather lacklustre. It deals with the origins of the siren in Warsaw’s crest (already in use in the 1400s), the mythology surrounding it, sexuality, and the siren’s relevance to the city.

A highlight of the exhibit is “Him” by Danish duet Elmgreen & Dragset which depicts the Copenhagen Little Mermaid as a man. The exhibit runs until June 18 if you are interested. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you’re at the Copernicus Science Center or the Warsaw University Library which are right across, it’s worth a stop. The museum cafe is decent and there’s an outdoor platform where you can sit on beach chairs and chill.

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Promenade along the Vistula

With the warm days coming up, it’s worth noting that Warsaw is really embracing the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). They’re building hang out spots on the promenade along the river, and by the looks of it, it should be completely ready by summer. If you prefer a wilder side, the untamed beaches of the Praga side of the banks of the Vistula is the perfect place to relax, and it comes with a view of the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

To celebrate the colours of spring, a Holi event took place at Castle Square in the Old Town and being the kid that I am, I eagerly dragged my friend along. It was a small crowd but it was fun, colourful, and messy – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny day.

Warmer days also mean eating out and lazing around in the park which means – food truck season!

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April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…

 

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P.S.

Of course all happy days must have a dash of sadness… mine was because I learned the random palm in the middle of an intersection in Warsaw is not real. And I was so impressed by it.

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Spargelzeit Alarm

 

If you rank the spring vegetables by how eagerly the Germans anticipate them, the asparagus or ‘Spargel‘ (pronounced shpar-gl) in German would occupy the top pedestal without contest. Spargel is so beloved by Germans that it is considered the Queen of the Vegetables.

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Every year, with the coming of spring comes the German newspaper reports on the first spargel shoots and forecasts when the first harvests will occur. Spargelzeit (asparagus season) begins sometime between mid- April or early May and ends in late June.

It’s easy to tell it’s Spargelzeit: Almost all restaurants and even takeaway places will offer an asparagus dish. There is hardly a menu board that won’t have ‘spargel’ written on it. Supermarkets and kiosks will start selling them at pretty reasonable prices.

It used to be that asparagus was grown only in the warmer areas of Germany and left to grow as it would. This meant a harvest season of early May to late June. Farmers looking to make more money, started covering the fields with black foil so the sun heats up the soil much quicker resulting in earlier harvests. Thus, these days you can find spargel already around Easter.

But what makes asparagus so special in Germany?

IMG_0903Asparagus is very popular in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Italy, and Switzerland, and is almost exclusively white; if not, it is specified by the local language term for “green asparagus”.

White asparagus is the result of a blanching technique applied when the shoots are growing. Soil is piled over young shoots as they grow, and tarps ensure that no sunlight reaches them. Without photosynthesis, the stalks remain white. The result is an asparagus that is less bitter, more tender and thicker than its green counterpart.

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Spargel Home Dinner. Can spring get any more German?

The classic way to eat spargel is boiled, with boiled potatoes, hollandaise, and meat. It becomes the ultimate German food when it’s prepared by your Bavarian flatmate who learned to perfect the art from his parents. Yes, spargel is a serious art in this part of the world. If the Italians have al dente for pasta, I’m guessing the Germans have something for a perfectly boiled spargel too.


Spargel 101:

  • to store fresh spargel stalks, wrap them with a clean cloth (‘einwickeln‘) and put them in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. Your spargel is guaranteed to stay fresh for a few days.
  • the head is the best part of an asparagus
  • Beelitz, a town in southwest of Berlin has a long history of growing spargel (about 150 years and counting). The sandy soil of the Brandenburg region makes it an ideal place for growing spargel. The town thrives so much on spargel that it celebrates an annual asparagus festival on the last weekend of May.
  • The spargel in Beelitz is shorter than in other regions, and since the head is the best part of the spargel, you get more taste for less. You’re welcome!

Enjoy the warm and longer days and eat spargel! Spring can’t get any more German.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sakura Campaign

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.

IMG_3980In 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.

 

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Chilling by the Cherry Trees: the Japanese believe sakura bring people inner peace and serenity

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!

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Innsbruck: Stuck in the middle

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.

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Innsbruck is surrounded by the Alps while Berlin is part of the Great European Plain

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.

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Café Katzung

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.

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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.

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Himeel with Woody the staff drinking fresh water from the Venusquelle

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.

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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.

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Arzler Alm

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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.

 

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.

3 Things to do in Brussels: Eat, Walk, Sleep

Brussels – that city I ignored the whole time I have been in Europe because I have been told it is expensive and there is not much to do and see.

Not convinced? Well, hear some folks out.

Brussels – the most boring city in the world
Yup, Brussels is kinda boring
Most Boring City in Europe

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.

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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.

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Grand Place, Bruxelles

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:

  • Waffles
  • Frites
  • Chocolates

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Things to do in Brussels

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.

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The Asian

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!

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Frit Flagey

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.

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Lil’ bit of quirkiness: Brussels’ famous statue is of a peeing kid
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Birthplace of the Smurfs

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.

The Box

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.

 

 

 

 

3 Escapes from the City

As the milder and longer days are coming, it is only befitting that my first list post be of the outdoors. The rising temperatures and the surplus of daylight also heralds the coming of the tourist crowds and the awakening of Berlin’s frantic pace.

At one point, it can all be too much.

The good thing is, in Berlin it is very possible to escape the city while staying in the city. Here are my three picks for when I need a breather:

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View of the Grunewald and the Berlin skyline from the Drachenberg

Grunewald

Yes, that’s right: Berlin has a number of forests, the largest of which is the Grunewald. Although the ‘Green Forest’ is really most impressive in autumn, it stays beautiful all year round.

Also situated in the Grunewald are the famous Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), a rubble pile from WWII, and the Drachenberg, another hill just beside the Teufelsberg, which is usually packed with Berliners having picnics or flying kites on fine days. The views of Berlin from the Drachenberg is definitely worth the walk.

How to get there: S Bahnhof Grunewald is served by the lines S5 & S7.

 

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Tegeler See

Tegeler See

At the terminus of the U6 is Alt-Tegel, a rather quiet neighbourhood that gets sleepier the closer you get to the lake. This is a retirement neighbourhood so expect to see a lot of old people hanging around, soaking up the sunshine. The promenade is lovely. There are boat tours here and you can rent paddle boats as well.

What better way to spend an afternoon than walking along the lake and having Guinness at the Irish Pub right outside the U-Bahnhof on your way back to the city? Oh yes, ice cream before all that.

How to get there: U6 to Alt-Tegel

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Sunset over Wannsee

Wannsee

This is about the closest an island girl can get to a sea in landlocked Berlin. Sticking out of the map with its strange form (or formlessness), the Wannsee is popular with families when the sun is shining.

Locals flock to Kladow, another sleepy neighbourhood across the lake, but mostly just stay by the pier. There is plenty of room for solace if you walk along the lakeshore all the way up north. There are small beaches dotting the shores too.

How to get there: There are many ways to get to Kladow but I prefer to go there Berliner style. Take the S-Bahn to S Bahnhof Wannsee and the ferry across the lake. A typical Berlin AB ticket covers the ferry. Don’t let the line deter you. It can seem reallyyyyy long but you’ll get onboard.