Sunday, December 18, 2011

Flying through Amsterdam

After years of flying through Amsterdam and never staying to explore, we've now been 3 times in the last 3 years. We love it and given the opportunity to fly though again on our way home from Germany we jumped at the chance to stay a couple of days.

We booked into T'hotel where we stayed on our first trip, even getting the same canal view room. Immediately we set out for a Genever tasting at Proeflokaal de Ooievaar near the red light district. Proeflokaal means tasting room and this one is "sponsored" by the Ooievaar distillery. The tiny bar has been open since 1782 making it one of the oldest in the city. The building tips crazily out towards the street making you think maybe it's tipsy on it's own liquor.
We are really in love with the Indonesian food in Amsterdam and ate at one of the best restaurants for it, Tempo Doeloe. The food is amazingly flavorful- sometimes it can get over the top spicy. And the service is wonderful even with the constant crowds of people rotating through their doors. Go if you have the chance, be sure to make reservations!

We were also happy to check out 2 nice cocktail bars- Door 74 which has had a lot of press over the years and the newer Vesper.  I have to say that we weren't impressed with Door 74. There was a lot of attitude from the servers and the customers. The bar itself was messy and the drinks were just ok. We loved Vesper. Very friendly crew and wonderful cocktails- anyone been recently to say if they are still doing a great job?

After fueling up on the best fricken stroopwaffles in town at Bakery Lanskroon we spent a lovely morning at the History of Amsterdam Museum. It's overflowing with paintings, armory, furniture, even recreations of houses and their rooms. The stroopwaffle had worn off by the time we left so it was onto Vleminckx for some of the best frites in town!
As we were walking around town we stumbled upon a treasure chest of antique silver and crystal at Gastronomie Nostalgie. Take a look at the video on their site to get just a glimpse of everything that is packed into this teensy tiny shop! Dayne just said to me the other day that next time we are near Amsterdam he wants to go back there.

We stopped in at another Genever tasting house called Proeflokaal Wynand Fockink. This one dates from 1679 and has a standing room only tasting room next to the distillery. Here you can learn the proper method of slurping the "filled to the brim" glass of liquor.

And no visit to Amsterdam would be complete in my book without a trip to DeKaaskamer for a little cheese shopping!
We were able to hook up with our friends Klary, Dennis, Mark and Mara for great night of drinks at De Gouden Reael followed by a very lovely dinner at Marius. I just sent friends to Marius and they reported back that it is still a very good meal; small, casual and chef owned and operated. 

All photos from Amsterdam here


Eating Berlin

While in Berlin our friend gave us a copy of a book called Berlin Bites that is filled with great info on everything from fine dining to neighborhood bakeries. It doesn't seem to be available online but if you know me and are headed to Berlin anytime soon feel free to borrow it.

The first day we met said friend at Fischers Fritz, a 2 star Michelin in the Regent hotel where he had secured us lunch reservations at. 3 courses will run you 47€, you can take less but really why would you? Look at this beautifully poached egg that was my first:

And this second, a stunning seared cod:
And this dessert of stewed pineapple in butter carmel & vanilla ice cream:

If you feel like treating yourself I highly recommend Fischers Fritz. They've had their Michelin star for 5 years and the food and service were spot on.

We also had a very nice meal at Cafe Einstein which I would recommend especially if you are going to check out drinks upstairs at Lebensstern. It started as a coffee house, they still roast their own beans, and expanded to a nice casual bistro with a menu of traditional Berlin fare.

Another friend of mine had suggested Rutz Weinbar which happened to be just down the street from our hotel, so we walked over one night expecting a casual wine bar. Instead we found a swank 2 story building housing both a casual eatery and upstairs a formal coursed menu- completely full with us not having reservations. The hostess found us a table in the more casual area, surrounded by shelves of bottles and glass wine cellars holding over 1000 wines. The food here was fantastic and I would go out of my way to eat either up or downstairs here again. But I'll make ressies next time!


While sightseeing one afternoon we had lunch at the very old and very popular Borchardt. It's been around for ages and attracts politicians, actors and the wealthy. It's a huge, scene and be seen type of bistro. Fun if you like that type of energy (and service) with good if overpriced food.

Our last meal was at Stadtklause which could not be more authentically Berlin. It's filled with locals and manned by a funny German who looks like Grover with his googly eyes. No one speaks much English and everything on the menu sounded so good that we completely over ordered. No worries though as everything was very inexpensive (making us believe that the dishes were small). Go here for a big hearty meal like Strammermax- caraway rye bread, eggs, prosciutto, lardon, ham hock shreds & a pickle. YUM!!

I remember this being a cash only place but I can't be sure of that. I do remember really liking the vibe and the beer.
And of course you can't go to Berlin without trying Currywurst which is said to be invented here. It's all over town but we ate ours near Checkpoint Charley.

all Berlin Photos

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Berlin Sightseeing

When you aren't drinking up Berlin there are plenty of things to see and do. Too much really unless you're around for a couple of weeks which we weren't.

We stayed at the Arcotel Velvet in Mitte which we both really liked. It was easy to get just about anywhere with the Bahn around the corner and the tram running right out front. Our room was small but seemed more spacious by the lack of internal walls, using just sheer curtains as partitions.
The only downfall of the hotel was their breakfast which was included. It didn't go very late in the morning and consisted of basically some hard rolls, yogurt and fruit which was not replenished as it was taken. But luckily there is a nice little coffee shop next door which had free wi-fi and well made latte's and breakfast goods.


You can rent a "classic" East Berlin relic, the Trabi and take a Trabi Safari Tour of Berlin but we chose to do a lot of walking instead. The best way to start is with a stroll down the grand Unter den Linden where all the embassy's are located (amongst Bentley dealership and high end boutiques) until you reach Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstat (Parliment Building).
One day we took the train out to the Stasi Museum. On the outskirts of Eastern Berlin in the bleak, 70's building complex of the former Stasi sits this relic to all things GDR. There are communist leader artifacts, stories of the secret police units, surveillance equipment that looks like early James Bond equipment and even the "command unit" from the office of the Chief.
Staying with the GDR theme we made our way back to the Friedrichstadt area of Berlin to Check Point Charlie. You can walk along where the Wall was and see pictures of how it all looked during the Cold War. There's also a museum which showcases all the methods of escape people tried, many dying in the process. It's an amazing area if somewhat overwhelming.

Having reached our limit of Communist history absorption for the day we headed to the stunning area of Potsdamerplatz. Crumbling Cold War buildings are replaced in this "new Berlin" area with glass skyscrapers and modern art sculptures. It's a "Time Square" of sorts but clean and modern and inviting. There is a small section of the Wall that you can explore but for the most part this area is about the future of Berlin.

Back near our hotel in Mitte we stopped in at the Kunsthaus Tacheles, an interesting building dating from the early 1900's. Built as a department store, it became a Nazi prison for a short time, was used for some movie shots and was taken over by an artist collective shortly after the Wall came down. It's an interesting space housing all kinds of modern art but they are continually being threatened with evacuation so if you're interested go before it's too late!
On another morning we went to the new Holocaust memorial. It consists of 2711 concrete slabs spread across a few city blocks. The slabs are all different sizes and the paths under them are uneven. As you walk thru you feel as if you're in a cemetery of sort. As I walked I experienced feeling peaceful and then lost and then stressed. Dayne shot an interesting video which gives you a bit of an idea of the experience.
video
Under the memorial there is the amazing Information Center which highlights the fates of some individuals and families during the Jewish persecution. Gut wrenching but beautifully done, it is a not to miss site.

Continuing on our somewhat macabre morning we headed to the Topographies of Terror which is located next to a piece of still standing Berlin wall. This use to be the location of the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security main headquarters. Now it's an open air exhibit which gives a timeline overview of the Third Reich.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the beautiful and historic Mitte area including a stop at the Bebelplatz where in 1933 the Nazi's hosted a book burning, destroying over 20,000 books.
East Berlin is filled with gorgeous old buildings, different from the West with it's modern glass structures. Another mark of the East are the crosswalks signals called Ampelmann, which is a beloved character and was actively saved as a reminder of their own style. Besides seeing it on the streets in the East you can find all sorts of souvenirs in the Ampelmann shops.
As I mentioned there is just so much to Berlin, a true onion with layer after layer of history. I spoke to our friend Mike about his family and their history being Berliners. He told me that his mom was in a parade once, part of a group of little girls all lined up to welcome Hitler. She was photographed for the newspaper handing him a flower! Mike told me many family stories and how the separation literally divided his family members, many never reconciling.

It's an amazing city and I hope to go back again!

There's many more photos of Berlin here.



Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Boozy Berlin

We wrapped up our German adventure with 4 nights in Berlin, a city I had been eagerly wanting to see for years. The city's juxtaposition of buildings survived by the war and modern glass architecture, starting with the train station, was stunning. The east & west sections now open to each other continue to have distinct personalities. We saw a lot which I do plan on posting about but one of the things that shone most brightly about Berlin was its incredible cocktail culture.


Thanks to our friend Mike Meinke we were in for quite a tour of the cities best bars. It started on our very first night at Mike's own TrioBar. Trio is a secret museum of liquor with an unpublished address and open only a few days a week. To gain entry you'll need to call the number and answer some questions. If you gain admittance you'll be wowed by the staggering inventory of over 900 (many old and rare) bottles of things like the original Kina Lillet, 100 year old Old Tom Gins, Black Tot, etc. There's no menu, this is the ultimate candy store for cocktail nerds.

Mike invited us over along with another friend of his who was entertaining some guys in from San Francisco, one who turned out to be the CTO of Mozilla. Rare liquor & techy big wigs? Dayne was in heaven to say the least.
Our Tasting of Rare Old Tom Gins

There's a small connecting room that Mike co-owns called Rum Club which is a members only type of set up. Serious collectors of either establishment can rent lockers for their prize bottles and visiting bartenders can work one night a week or so in exchange for a free room.

The next night we did a mini bar crawl starting at Lebensstern which won the award for World’s Best Drink Selection at Tales of the Cocktail in 2010. This comfortable little bar upstairs from Cafe Einstein has not only a delicious cocktail menu but the glass display cases of liquor are lovely to browse and they are also all for sale. Shop & sip? I like it!

Mike then had our cab take us to Fasanen 47 which even though he told us not many people knew about, was packed with fun loving regulars. At one point the tiny bar ran out of ice so Mike called his bar & had them send over some in a cab! Turns out almost none of the bars have their own on site ice machines instead buying it from others and then keeping it in their freezers.
The Boys Plotting...
We left Fasanen 47 and walked a short way down to Rum Trader where Herr Scholl has been in command for quite some time. After buzzing in to confirm we had a reservation we were allowed entry to this tiny 20 seater. Delicious drinks crafted exceptionally in the small kitschy bar with some seemingly unspoken rules gave it a " Soup Nazi" feel that I enjoyed (I do realize that may not be the best analogy to give but fans of Sienfield should understand). Gregor Scholl is actually an ultimate host and has one of the best professional bartender reputations in town.

Another night we met Mike at Becketts Kopf, a quiet classy little place doing perfectly made classics. The owners are a wonderful couple who give their bar manager full reign and enjoy just being customers.


And perhaps my favorite bar of the week was the wild west themed Stagger Lee. Outfitted like an old fashioned saloon with its swinging doors, collection of antique whisky bottles and peanuts in the shell for cracking. Stagger Lee offers an awesome cocktail menu with over 40 choices, somehow us American's felt right at home there.

Even our hotel bar at the Acor Velvet served up delicious drinks once we started chatting with the bartender. We made it a habit to stop in nightly before turning in to speak to Uwe about our day and our evening and the various places we visited. He was so excited about our interest that he gave us a "friends and family" discount each night and on our last sent us up to pack with minis of champagne on the house.

I would venture to say that Berlin is one of the best places I have visited for cocktails in the last 5 years!

All Berlin photos here

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hamburg, Take Two

We left Bavaria behind and took the train from Frankfurt to spend the weekend in Hamburg. We had reserved in advance but when we boarded the train we found someone else in our seats, they had been double booked. Dayne used his high school German with the conductor and soon we were in 1st class. It wasn't all clear sailing though as the conductor told us that if someone boarded in one of the other cities with our seats we'd have to move again. Luckily that didn't happen and soon we were checking into the über hip hotel The George.

We grabbed a few pre-dinner drinks in the hotel bar which does more than a just passable cocktail and then headed to Carl's out on the harbor for dinner. I really like this area of Hamburg, it's actually very similar to what's going on in London's Dock Lands (post coming). And the food at Carl's was a nice change from the big heavy Bavarian dishes we had been eating for the past week+.

After dinner we met our friend Cirsten at The Four Seasons in their "Luggage Room" Bar.

This tiny, 2 level bar tucked inside the elegant hotel is rumored to have once been a luggage storage area. Not a lot of people seem to know about it (besides the locals) and it's got a real speakeasy feel without being one at all. Great service and cocktails- Dayne took this photo standing in the doorway.

The next morning we went and did a bit of shopping at Weinquelle Liquor Store. This store was amazing, carrying a huge selection of things we can't find in the states and even giving us tastings (at 10:30am) of rare gins and whiskeys. Among other things Dayne picked up an amazing bottle of gin aged in Isley Scotch barrels.

We then met Forest who came over from Paris to join us for the night. And after lunch another friend Liz, met up.  Unlike us this was Dayne's first time in Hamburg so we went for a little sightseeing cruise around the harbor area.

One of the ships we saw was the Eclipse, the world's most expensive yacht being built for Roman Abramovich. It's 558 feet long, has nine decks, pool, cinema, 20 onboard jet skis, 4 boats, 2 heli pads and supposedly a missile defense system. All that and more for $500 million. 


Also in port at the time was the Maersk Sheerness which at 1,099.1 ft and carrying 8,000 20 foot containers, is one of the largest cargo ships in the world.

After the cruise we strolled around charming Hamburg for the rest of the afternoon.
That evening Forest, Dayne and I met our friend Cirsten at the wine shop she use to work at for champagne before before heading out to dinner at VLET. This is a wonderful restaurant which puts a modern spin on many classic German dishes and also uses some French influences.

No trip to Hamburg is complete without cocktails at Le Lion, where we headed to after dinner and stayed late into the night/ or early into the morning- however you like to look at it!

All photos from Hamburg are here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Romantische Strasse

And speaking of Germany... After leaving Munich we spent the day driving along the Romantic Road, a motorway connecting 27 medieval towns. It wasn't feasible to try to stop in even a handful of the towns so we chose just three.

Our first stop, Landsberg am Lech, was just a bit south of Kaufering, where we had been staying. Landsberg is a lovely walled town dating back to 1800BC. We spent the morning exploring, taking in the buildings which are hundreds of years old and are mingling with more current things like satellite tv disks and IKEA delivery trucks.

We chose a little restaurant right on the river and had lunch outside, enjoying the sunny fall day.

And then it was off to our next stop- Augsburg. Augsburg is the 3rd largest city in Bavaria so we had to narrow down what we wanted to see. We chose to visit the Fuggerei which is called the oldest social settlement in the world. It was established in 1521 as a neighborhood for the needy. Rent for one of the 140 apartments is still just one Rhine gilder (.88 Euros) a year and three prayers a day for the founder and his family.
It's a really interesting settlement, the alms houses are the originals and one is set up so you can see how small they are inside. Since there was no electricity back when they were built each door has a rod which activates the door bell and the handle of each rod is unique so people could feel which one was theirs. The whole neighborhood is a little town within the city and is walled off with private entrances for the residents.

After enjoying a beer in the Fuggerei cafe we were back on the road to our final destination of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This is perhaps the most popular of the towns along the Romantic Road as it is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany.

We were staying 2 nights at The Burg Hotel which is built right into the town wall and has amazing views of the valley. We had been warned about the day trippers who clog the tiny streets so we were looking forward to having the town emptied out during the evenings. That evening was spent dining outside under huge trees with glowing gas lamps. Not the best meal of our trip but great atmosphere.

We spent the entire next day enjoying the town. We climbed the tower at the Rathaus. This was the scariest view ever. You climb up a rickety wooden spiral staircase and literally have to crawl out the hatch onto the bell-tower walk. The circular platform holds 4 at a time and is barely wide enough for one. But the views were gorgeous!

After lunch we walked the city's wall- you can go almost completely around Rothenburg although for Dayne it was a bit uncomfortable as the ceiling beams were just shorter than he is tall which meant he had to cock his head!


Rothenburg is also known for their Criminal Museum. It's filled with all means of implements for torture and punishment including chastity belts,  drunk tanks, racks and weapons. We got quite the education in medieval torture.

And, although it's not as grand as the Glockenspiel in Munich there is a clock and sundial on the outside of the "Councillor's Drinking Room" where every hour two figures appear at the chime drinking steins of beer. 

We took advantage of the lovely terrace at our hotel, some leftover gin and cheese from the house in Kaufering and had aperos at sunset outside.


The other big attraction is the Night Watchman's tour. This takes place at dusk when the watchmen use to go around lighting the gas street lamps and locking up the entrances to the city. Although a bit hokey there is a lot of history and it's quite a fun walk. It just so happened the night we went was the largest attendance he'd ever had, what happened to all the day trippers leaving at night?

After the walk we had a delicious dinner at Zur Holl which is in the oldest original building in town, dating from 900.
The town is just impossibly cute and we were really glad we decided to stay a couple of nights to take it all in.

The next morning we drove to Frankfurt to catch our train to Hamburg. I drove 180km on the autobahn. It was a serious thrill, and this was in a crappy Opal rent a car. If only I'd had my Saab!!

Lovely photos of the Romantic Road area here.