Monday, December 21, 2009

Mmmm . . . cake.

This weekend was a snowy cold one, so it was mostly indoors. Friday's cheap event was the annual Lexington Handel's Messiah Sing-a-long. Going on for nearly 50 years, there were dozens of folk that had been coming for over a decade. Two ladies had been coming for over 40 years! No wonder it was the best chorus I've ever heard; these people were well-practiced.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Berlin for Beginners

From time to time I hear that a friend is going to one of my favorite destinations. My skills as the finder of all things good and cheap do extend out of this country. I am excited to help point them in the direction of the best, cheapest, and most inspiring things to take in in town. Let me know if you ever would like me to write a mini-guide for you. For Libby and Mary J, here's a Berlin Primer.

My first tip is to pack warmly! But you probably knew that, no?

First, stop by a hostel on the City Spy list to pick up a Mr. Gordonsky's City Spy Map. It's funny, useful and fits in your pocket. It was a valuable reference for me in many European cities. Do this right away!

Do you like art? Well, free museum day is Thursday. 4 hours before closing time everything is free. I think Pergamon Museum was my favorite--it had a giant Athenian temple. Most of the museums are on MuseumIinsel (Museum Island) so you can hit up most in the 4 hours.

I went through an WWII obsessive phase when I was younger, so Berlin to me was also the place of so many unbelievable stories from my youth. But Berlin made them all come alive. If you're into WWII, I highly recommend Checkpoint Charlie--one of the places where folks would cross between the East and West. Outside is often an American and German soldier (or actors, rather) and the museum is full of objects and stories of the people that tried to escape and resist. I read The Fall of Berlin 1945 right before I got there and I recommend the book to get you in the mood.

The East Germany Museum isn't free on Thursday, but is a new, well-done look at life under communism.

You must go to the Reichtag Building. This is Germany's parliment. It was in use until 1945 where it was one of the last stands of Hitler's Youth. Needless to say, the building was pretty bombed out. As soon as the Wall came down, Germans rebuilt the building and is now in use again as the parliment. Today Germans and tourists alike can tour the top of the building for free which now has a beautiful glass dome. You can look down on the desks of the representatives, symbolizing that Germans are now watching their government and will not let anything like the Third Reich happen again. Get there early as lines can be long. Buy some currywurst, a favorite Berlin snackfood to eat while you wait.

Only thing better than cheap is Free Tours! We took a free tour from a student--they work for tips and therefore, work hard. It was really wonderful and probably the most educational and entertaining thing I did on my whole trip.

Get your passport stamped in East Germany. Over where the hostel boat is, is the last longest stretch of the Berlin wall. Follow it down for a bit and you'll find a tacky gift shop, that will stamp your passport with the DDR (Democratic Deutschland Republic) mark. The boat also has a bar on it, which is quite swanky if you need refreshments.

Also nearby the hostel boat is the Friedrichshain & Kreuzberg districts, which are hip and up-and-coming. Filled with youth, artists and Turks there are beautiful city streets to get lost in and cheap restaurants abound with not a tourist in sight. For other hip neighborhoods and restaurants check out this great article in the New York Times about hidden dining spots.

Overall Berlin is just about as perfect combination as you can get. The city is easily navigable and cheap. It's a hot spot for radical politics and artists. This city is full of history and trying to remember it, so as not to repeat it. But at the same time it is trying to reinvent itself to leave all that nastiness behind. So double wrap that scarf around your neck, pick up your beer (I recommend the Heffeweissen mixed with banana juice, a Berliner favorite) and start exploring!

Be a Winner!

So your chance of getting in a car accident, plane accident or getting struck by lightening are better than winning the lottery. But your chances of winning travel and local contests? Very good!

This weekend I did the JP Holiday Stroll and collected 10 different stickers from local businesses to be entered in a raffle. It was either bad advertising or the cold rain, but each of the dozens entrants won. I think I got the best steal with a $50 Ten Tables gift certificate. On Thursday I'm going to a concert courtesy of Berklee School of Music.

So far I've won a 70 lb (and worth 70 British pounds) World Atlas, a book on Australian wine, pocket guides for Beijing and Madrid, and how-to books on surfing, snorkeling and skiing from DK Travel. I've won a USA tour book from Lonely Planet. Rick Steve's Travel as a Political Act, from Rick Steves. . . and more! Most contests require you do a bit of writing, like reviewing your favorite restaurant on DK Travel, or answering a survey for Lonely Planet. But nothing so difficult. Here's a few recommendations of places to try your luck:

  • Friends of Harpoon: You get nifty little card that gets you discounts at a few bars and shows, but you can also enter drawings to go to special tastings. I attended the wet hops beer unveiling there this fall with 50 other invited guests.

  • Berklee School of Music: Sign up for the newsletter and you get info on all the upcoming shows (sometimes free), but they have contests to win tickets. This Thursday I'll be attending a Mark O'Connor concert for free!
  • Another newsletter with good stories, and a contest every month to win a stay at a hostel. (Suppose you still have to get to the hostel, usually located in Europe, somehow.)
  • Lonely Planet Newsletter: Again, good stories each month, special deals, and answer one travel trivia question to be entered in a drawing to win a book each month. Right now if you sign up for the newsletter, you are entered in a contest to win $10,000 worth of travel.
  • Travel DK: These guys make the inspiring, yet awful in use colorful eyewitness guidebooks. But, they do have fabulous prizes. I've won 3 times already! By sumitting a new highlight for a city, or designing your own city guide with their program you are entered to win prizes every month.

If you do win, let me know!

The Proverbial Cherry on Top

On Tuesday I flew out of quaint and quiet San Cristobal straight back into the devil's mouth--Mexico City. The flight was uneventful. Though I saw an interesting news story on the tv at the airport about a woman falling in the path of what looked like the orange line in Boston!)

I had reserved the cheapest room nearest to the subway line that would get me back to the airport the following morning--which turned out to be right next to the main square, the Zocalo. A complete 180 from my wide-eyed marveling on the train when I arrived 17 days before, I rode the subway head down, ipod on, not even blinking at the pda and shady sales going on around me. I emerged in the Zocalo. It looked like at any minute a massive rock concert would be starting and children everywhere had glowing toys resembling quidditch balls that they'd fling into the air and let fall back down gently.

I dropped off my luggage, and ate the free dinner of butter and cheese coated spaghetti. I met some Israelis who informed me that the square chaos was a celebration of Mexico's Revolution Bicentennial and recommended it. I headed back down to the square.

What followed was the most spectacular spectacle that ever was created by man. Better than the Boston Pops Fourth of July, better than the Mummer's Parade, even better than Disney World.

This video does the most justice to the show, but really you had to be there. It's hard to describe what happened but I am now convinced Mexico is the greatest country on Earth.

Well, convinced during the duration of the 15 minute show. At the very least, Mexico City has lost my deep loathing and instead redeemed itself as a visit-worthy city.

I went to bed early and steeled myself for 16 hours of travel the next day.