A Travellerspoint blog

All Roads Lead To...: Embarkation

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

The day had finally arrived. Despite having already spent time in the incredible cities of Berlin and Rome, the main component of my graduation trip had not even begun - an 11-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise on the Celebrity Reflection. And this, a sunny summer Monday in Rome, was when the cruise would finally embark. We had several hours and one train ride before we would be at the port of Civitavecchia, which is considered the port of Rome, but is really about 45 minutes to an hour away from the city. Obviously, I couldn't leave Rome without one final cappuccino, so off to a cafe we went. And then I perhaps got a bit distracted by a shop window. Thirty minutes, 30 pairs of gloves, and well more than €30 later, I owned a beautiful pair of Italian leather gloves and Clay had managed to purchase a couple of ties.

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To prevent spending all of our money before we even stepped foot on the cruise ship, we checked out of our hotel and caught a taxi to Rome's Termini Station. We had purchased 1st class Trenitalia tickets for a non-stop train between Rome and Civitavecchia. They cost a total of €30, which is much less than we would have paid for any other form of transportation to the port. However, booking the tickets prior to our trip was quite the hassle - the Trenitalia website only seemed to work intermittently and was somewhat confusing, especially when trying to figure out which type of ticket to buy. To sum up all of the complicated advice that I found online, my strategy when choosing which tickets to book was to narrow it down to trips that lasted between 40 and 50 minutes (which meant there were no stops between Termini and the port... I think) and then compare price, time, and availability. This was much more complex than it sounds, so I printed our tickets and crossed my fingers that we wouldn't have to end up paying ridiculous amounts of money for a last-minute taxi ride to the port. I decided on 1st class tickets to ensure there would be plenty of room for our luggage. Plus, there was not a significant price difference between 1st and 2nd class tickets. Not that I ever overcompensate due to anxiety.

With all of the hassle of booking the tickets, I was somewhat concerned that the day-of would be a hassle and/or disaster. Fortunately, it was as easy as could be. We arrived at Termini Station and waited for our platform to show up on the impossible-to-miss schedule board.

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One important thing to keep in mind is that trains are primarily identified by their first and last destinations. In this case, our train was continuing on to Milan, so we needed to know the specific name and number of the train in order to be directed to the correct platform. We easily loaded our stuff - I had picked seats at the back of the car, so our big suitcases easily fit behind us (and no one could have moved them without our knowledge) and our small bags could fit either overhead or at our feet.

I was so excited. I hadn't been on a train trip since our honeymoon and this time I was on a train in Italy of all places!

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Although I had been somewhat nervous about this form of transportation, I was ultimately glad that we chose to take the train. It was straightforward and relaxing once we were on board. And there was something so Italian about riding a train through fields of sunflowers as we approached the sea. But let's be honest, by this point I was mostly just really excited about the cruise. After a quick taxi from the train station to the port and a relatively painless check-in (aided by the fact that we were in Aqua Class - more to come on that - and had a designated line), we were officially on the cruise.

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I couldn't wait to start exploring - starting with our BALCONY CABIN!!!! For real, I should get a PhD every year if I get to experience this... On second thought, maybe not.

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The room was spacious, comfortable, and had plenty of storage.

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That was not even the best part. Clay had booked an Aqua Class cabin. This meant we had upgraded bathroom amenities like a shower with multiple shower heads and spa quality bath products.

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We also enjoyed extra benefits like in-room canapes in the afternoons. Because we needed more food than the seemingly endless options already available.

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But really, one of the primary reasons to book an Aqua Class cabin is access to the truly gorgeous Aqua Spa.

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Throughout the cruise, we could use the Relaxation Room or the Persian Garden at any time we wanted.

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In case that was not clear, for 11 days, I had access to heated tile loungers with a view of the Mediterranean. Or I could sit in the sauna. Or cool off in an icy room. Or take a scented rain shower. Or call my spa concierge to book a priority access appointment. I'm still pinching myself!

As if all of this wasn't exciting enough, in our cabin we were greeted by champagne and the first piece of paper to ever be addressed to Dr. Platt, that is if you don't count the notepaper doodles reminiscent of the I heart so-and-so drawings from the middle school years (I needed something to get me through psychophysiology).

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And there was a balcony!! There are no words that can express my excitement about this aspect of our cruise! Sadly, our first view from the balcony was this:

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But it wasn't too long until the view changed to this:

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All of this and we had not even left our room (well, except the spa part, but it was practically across the hall from us, so it doesn't count). When we did get out to explore, I continued to be so impressed. We grabbed lunch at the buffet restaurant - the Oceanside Cafe. Throughout the cruise, the options were varied and for the most part quite good.

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We checked out various areas around the ship before finding a spot for the sailaway.

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And then I won a spa treatment. We had entered the giveaway during an earlier tour of the spa and then later returned for the drawing. It was basically an opportunity for spa and fitness center staff to share the various treatments and classes available (mostly for a price, of course), but they were also giving away prizes. Of course, winners had to dance in front of everyone to get the prize, so needless to say I was moderately mortified. And thanks to Clay there is video evidence of said mortification, but it will not be making it to this blog. However, I think dancing (with a hot fitness instructor, by the way) is a small price to pay for a facial.

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That evening, we got to enjoy yet another benefit of Celebrity Aqua Class. That would be the speciality restaurant Blu. Blu is included for guests in Aqua Class, although others can make reservations and pay for the restaurant based upon availability. The restaurant was certainly beautiful, but we were even more pleased to learn that the food lived up to our expectations. Throughout the cruise, we ate a variety of delicious dishes. Considered to be perhaps the best restaurant on the Reflection, we were never disappointed.

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The caramel creme brulee was pretty spectacular.

Following dinner, we decided to take advantage of embarkation spa specials. We both booked 75 minute treatments for the price of 50 minute treatments.

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After modeling the luxurious robe, I experienced the hot stone massage and Clay went with a bamboo massage. My massage was fantastic. It was much needed after several days of extensive traveling and walking. The relaxation continued with some time in the Persian Garden following our massages. Not wanting to ruin the blissed out state I was in, I ended our embarkation day sitting on our balcony watching the stars and listening to the ocean.

Posted by cgplatt 17:55 Archived in Italy Tagged trains food cruise spa europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Ancient Rome

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

No first trip to Rome is complete without spending time delving into the history of Rome. Our method of choice was a "small group" tour that we booked through our hotel's concierge. At €86 per person, the tour provided the ideal balance of quality and price - it was much less expensive than a private tour and much less crowded than a standard group tour. The tour was offered through Italy's tourism board.

After the absolutely necessary pre-tour cappuccino and Nutella croissant, we were picked up from our hotel at promptly 9 am.

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Our drivers dropped us off near the Forum where we met our tour guide.

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Our tour guide was a 20-something Californian who had been living in Italy for 4 years. She did an excellent job of providing an overview of Ancient Rome from the time it was founded to the Roman Republic to Imperial Rome. She even threw in tidbits from more recent times, like the controversy over the "wedding cake" building and information about Mussolini.

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Although our group could have included up to 12 people, it ended up being just Clay and me along with one other couple, so it was practically like having a private tour.

Our tour began in the Forum and continued along Palentine Hill and ended at the Colossuem. In other words there was lots of walking. I would recommend wearing comfortable shoes and sunscreen and bringing a water bottle. You can refill it along the way at one of Rome's fountains, which function from the ancient aqueduct system (just think about that for a sec - pretty incredible).

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The tour culminated at the Colosseum. It was amazing. It is impossible to even describe the vastness of it. Imagining it as it would have been when packed to capacity was goose-bump inducing both because of the horrible things that occurred there, but also because of the sheer size and number of people that would have been inside the arena. It was truly incredible.

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I was fascinated the entire time. There were so many amazing things to see. And, best of all, we didn't have to wait in line. That alone was worth the price of the tour. For real. Especially at the Colosseum - the lines were ridiculously long.

By the time we were finished with the tour, we were ready for some lunch. We found the nearby (but not too nearby) Naumachia for pizza. Yummy!

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We waited out another afternoon thunderstorm in our hotel. We rested and prepared for what would be The Best Dinner Ever. For that evening we had made reservations at Osteria 44. A relatively new restaurant, but one with outstanding reviews, it was in the same area of Rome as our hotel. We enjoyed a somewhat rainy and quiet walk through the streets of Rome before arriving at the restaurant.

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We were greeted with a glass of prosecco, which we happily enjoyed while the owner, Sergio, personally welcomed us and explained the menu in detail.

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Sergio was British and, at the very least, he spoke English, Italian, and French. He took the time to interact with each customer. He was clearly passionate about his restaurant, a fact that was most apparent in the taste and quality of the food. After discussing the menu, we decided on several courses that we paired with the Italian merlot he recommended (one that was pleasantly affordable).

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Our first course was red wine soaked pears with ricotta baked in a thin pastry then topped with honey and walnuts.

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We next shared homemade ravioli. This may be the best dish I have ever even thought about putting in my mouth. The handmade pasta was delicate but perfectly firm. The cheese inside was flavorful and perfectly balanced by the tangy, yet slightly sweet, tomato sauce.

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Clay and I each chose individual secondi, so I could enjoy my own dish, but also demand bites of the deliciousness that Clay decided upon. Clay's choice was rooster stuffed with sausage and fried (it sounded so much more sophisticated in in Italian). There was also this potato dish that came with it that was beyond words.

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My choice was calamari topped with bufalo mozzarella and roasted tomatoes. The calamari had the perfect texture - meaty but not too chewy - and the combination of flavors was balanced perfection.

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And no fancy meal would be complete without dessert. We enjoyed deconstructed cannoli. As the name implies, the components of cannoli were stacked rather than being piped into a pastry. It was an amazing combination of textures and flavors and the perfect way to end an already amazing meal.

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It was truly The Best Meal Ever. And I do not say that lightly. We have enjoyed many amazing meals and this one topped them all. I would go back to Rome just to eat again at Osteria 44. Everything from the atmosphere to the food to the presentation was ideal.

After our meal, we enjoyed a pleasant walk back through the cool, nighttime streets of Rome away from the hustle and bustle of the more heavily touristed areas. A perfect meal, a romantic evening, the expectation of the cruise we would embark on the following day - I cannot imagine a better evening.

Posted by cgplatt 15:15 Archived in Italy Tagged tour favorite_food europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Rome!!!

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Italy. For years, really for most of my life, Italy has been the place I have wanted to go. That I singled out any particular place is quite remarkable given my habitual indecisiveness combined with the fact that the list of places I want to visit includes well over 100 countries. So imagine my excitement when I first learned that Rome would be part of my graduation trip. I cried. I giggled. I was speechless. I could not wait to see, in person, places like this:

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Imagine again my disappointment when our flight from Berlin to Rome was delayed, thus shortening one of our precious few days in Rome. And it was the most annoying kind of delay - the kind where you are on the plane, almost on your way, merely teased with the possibility of take-off, and then have to get off the plane and wait through minute after seemingly endless minute (occasionally sighing in frustration and impatience - or is that just me?) to reboard before finally getting on your way. Air Berlin was 0 for 2 by this point.

Eventually we did arrive in Rome, albeit a few hours late. So could the hassle and delay of the morning be overcome by the beauty and splendor of Rome? We would have to wait an hour (an hour!) on our bags and fall prey to a taxi scam before we found out.

A brief word about Rome and scams before I continue with what, I promise, will be a less negative continuation of this admittedly downer of a post. And , if nothing else, there will be pretty pictures. Almost every second that I was in a public place in Rome, I felt as if someone was trying to scam or hassle me. Although we were only in Rome for a brief time, I grew weary of feeling like I must constantly be on guard. The tone for this was set as soon as we set foot outside of the airport. Tired from the delay and the long wait for bags, and more than ready to get to our hotel and begin exploring Rome, we did not pause long enough before getting into what we thought was a taxi. Essentially we unwittingly "hired" a private car rather than taking a taxi, although I hesitate to say that we hired the car given that the drive misrepresented himself. Taxi fares are very regulated in Rome (do your research beforehand because even legitimate taxi drivers will sometimes try to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists), so our first tip off was when the price he quoted us (after we were already moving, by the way - stupid us), was twice that of the flat fare between the airport and Rome (which I believe was €45 at the time). Or perhaps we should have been curious about the angry conversation he had with another "taxi" driver (probably a real one) as we were getting in the car. But alas, neither of us speaks Italian. Had we been less tired and less impatient, we would have taken more time to get our bearings, rather than taking what was seemingly the first offer for a taxi. And we (and by "we" I actually mean Clay - the designated Talker to Taxi Drivers) should have discussed the price before getting in the car. Admittedly, the driver was quite nice (despite being a thieving scoundrel) and provided an overview of Rome on the drive in. And when I caught my first breathtaking glimpse of the Forum and the Colosseum, it was difficult, although not entirely impossible, to continue being so annoyed.

Okay, so the morning was not fantastic. Would the hotel live up to our expectations and overcome the disappointment and fatigue of the first part of the day? Take a look at these pictures and you tell me!

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For our two nights in Rome, we used Marriott points in order to stay at the incredible Boscolo Palace Roma. Located in the elegant, embassy- and cafe-riddled Via Veneto, the building itself was originally a private home. It is located across from the US embassy, which was built as the summer palace for Queen Margherita, the namesake of the classic Italian pizza. It was a quiet and convenient neighborhood and truly lovely.

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Rooms at Boscolo Palace Roma started at well over €300 per night. In other words, probably not the kind of place we would have stayed had it not been booked on points.

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Staying there made me feel luxurious and sophisticated... with one exception. The shower. It was beautifully designed, but was apparently not functionally designed. One had to risk flooding the entire room just to take a shower, which I did before I realized the risk. To be fair, I can't see without my glasses and thus couldn't see the water leaking out as I enjoyed what should have been a relaxing shower with my choice of custom bath products and the variety of shower heads.

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And it was relaxing, at least until Clay started yelling something about the floor and something else about water everywhere. I assure you there is nothing luxurious or sophisticated about frantically mopping up a flooded hotel room while naked. Despite multiple calls to hotel staff, the problem was never resolved. I would have been quite annoyed had we been paying for the room. As it was, we made the best of it by enjoying the other incredible aspects of the hotel and showering in 3-minute increments.

After settling in to the hotel, we tried - and failed - to find a spot for a late lunch, having not eaten since early that morning. However, we learned, to the chagrin of our empty stomachs, that everything is closed in the afternoon. After we begrudgingly accepted the fact that there was, in fact, no place open at which we could eat, we met with the hotel concierge to assist us in making a plan to maximize our time in Rome and then waited out an afternoon thunderstorm.

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At the earliest possible opportunity, we enjoyed an early dinner at the nearby Trattoria Tempio di Bacco. I think the restaurant owner must have taken pity on us and opened early.

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Hunger satisfied, we decided to walk to the nearby Spanish Steps and then to the Trevi Fountain. There's not much more to say - the pictures convey more than any words could anyway. I can now say I have enjoyed the sunset from the Spanish Steps and viewed Trevi Fountain gloriously lit up after dark. Romance and beauty were easy to find despite the crowds.

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And what day in Italy would be complete without gelato?

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Despite the often difficult and frustrating day, it was impossible to feel anything but happy and relaxed while taking in Rome from the vantage point of the Steps or while eating cold gelato next to the unbelievably majestic Trevi Fountain on a warm Rome evening. All of the hassle, every bit of it, was totally worth those moments.

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Posted by cgplatt 18:48 Archived in Italy Tagged food hotel sunsets europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Walking Berlin

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

We had one full day in Berlin before we flew to Rome, so of course we wanted to pack it as full as possible in order to see as much as we could. That’s why we woke up at 6:30 in the morning. On vacation. Hmmm, I wonder which one of us made that decision? (Hint: his or her name probably did not rhyme with "play"). To fuel such a busy day, we took advantage of the included breakfast buffet at our hotel. It was probably the most extensive “free” breakfast I have ever seen in a hotel. It was truly impressive with a variety of delicious hot and cold options. As well as a few options that could only be explained by the fact that we were in Germany.

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We used Berlin Step-by-Step (from Insight Guides) to structure our day. There were so many things we wanted to see, so we combined the self-guided walking tours for Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, Brandenburg Gate, and Checkpoint Charlie. We began our day with a pleasantly cool walk through Berlin’s beautiful Tiergarten. The Berlin Zoo, which we had enjoyed the previous afternoon, is only one small portion of Berlin’s largest park, so there was plenty left for us to explore. One of the first sights we stopped at in the park was the Victory Column.

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Built to mark the Prussian victory in the Prusso-Danish war of 1864, the eye-catching golden Goddess of Victory was later added to commemorate additional victories over Austria and France. The statue initially stood in front of the Reichstag, but was moved to its current location in 1938. There was an observation deck, but it was not yet open when we walked by. In other words, we got such an early start that not even the tourist attractions had opened yet.

One thing I loved about the Tiergarten, other than the peace and quiet that could be found in the middle of the city, was the unexpectedness of it. We never knew when we would run across a statue or a glimpse of the Spree River or an open field that looked perfectly designed for picnics. It was lovely.

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Another Tiergarten highlight was Bellevue Palace. It was built in 1786 for a Prussian prince, but is still currently in use as the official residence of the president of Germany.

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Next up was the uniquely designed Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Sometimes referred to as the oyster building, it is primarily used as an exhibition hall. For us, it provided a shady spot for a short rest while I lamented that my morning dose of caffeine was beginning to wear off (although perhaps Clay lamented it more).

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After leaving the Tiergarten, our day was just getting started. Our next stop was the Reichstag – the German house of parliament. The building was first used in 1894, but fell into disrepair after World War II. Reconstruction of the building did not begin until after the German reunification. It was almost a decade later when the reconstruction was completed and the German parliament (Bundestag) convened in the building. One of the highlights of the building is the glass dome. Visitors can walk inside the dome and glance down into the main hall of the parliament while also enjoying 360-degree views of Berlin.

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Unfortunately, because we only had one day in Berlin, we decided not to wait in the really longs lines to go inside. Instead, we headed toward the Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz. The Brandenburg Gate has existed since the late 18th-centruy. It was initially one of the main gates into the western side of the city, but is now in the heart of modern Berlin. Like much of Berlin, Pariser Platz, which extends behind the Gate, has been significantly reconstructed since the 1990's and now houses embassies and luxury hotels - including the US Embassy - as it did prior to World War II. Incidentally, it was also an ideal spot to stop for a drink and find wifi in order to take pictures of said gate and moderately gloat about being in Berlin via Instagram. Not that I know anyone who would do that...

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From there we walked toward the bustling Potsdamer Platz, stopping by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. From Potsdamer Platz, it is easy to find the line demarcating the path of the Berlin Wall. There are also pieces of the wall located throughout the area.

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By this point we were quite hungry, so we chose a restaurant in the Sony Center for lunch. We had to ensure that we at least sampled some traditional German fare during our single day, so beer, wienerschnitzel, and a pretzel at Lindenbrau it was. Of course because it was the oh-so-early lunch hour of noon, we had the restaurant practically to ourselves.

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Our afternoon included walking (yes, more walking) around the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra building (unfortunately the season ends in June, so we were a couple weeks too late to get tickets to a concert), the former SS Headquarters, and Checkpoint Charlie. One of the things I loved about Berlin was how uncrowded it felt. Literally, the only place I ever felt crowded was in the immediate area surrounding Checkpoint Charlie. Even walking a block or two away to a lesser known site easily removed us from the pressing crowds around Checkpoint Charlie. This was also the only place in Berlin where someone tried to scam us - the same would not be true of any other city we visited on our trip. At the time I did not fully appreciate these aspects of Berlin, but I certainly would by the time we made it home.

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By this point, we had walked, and walked, and walked (and walked some more) and were both pretty tired. However, Clay really wanted to see the Topography of Terror. We half-heartedly perused the site before locating the nearest U-Bahn station that would get us back to the station near the hotel. There was no way I was walking all the way back!

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I had downloaded a Berlin Subway app that was incredibly helpful and worked without wifi as long as you had a reasonable idea of where you were. The U-Bahn seemed straightforward - tickets were priced by zone: A, B, and C. You buy a ticket for the zone to which you are going. At least that’s what we did. There were maps outlining the zones and automated machines at which to buy tickets. I will be honest, I am still not entirely sure we didn’t make a mistake, but if we did, we still got where we needed to go, which was back to the hotel so I could take a nap and spend some quality time not walking.

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Of course, there were many other things I would have loved to see in Berlin. I mean, we didn’t even make it to Museum Island and I would definitely like to spend a day in Potsdam. Regardless, I feel like we fit a lot into a single day. And we definitely felt like it! After another “rest” (aka a ridiculously long nap from which I only awoke because it was our last chance at a dinner in Berlin), we decided to find a nearby restaurant for dinner. After walking by several charming restaurants, we eventually settled on the French restaurant Brel. I paired my sausage and frites with a delicious German wine. We ended the meal with a flaky, warm pastry topped with cheese and fruit.

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We wrapped up our day in Berlin by exploring more of the neighborhood around the hotel.

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Next stop – Roma!

Posted by cgplatt 16:13 Archived in Germany Tagged europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Berlin Zoo

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

After a long day and night of travel, we arrived in Berlin at 1 in the afternoon. In case you were counting, that was 40+ hours of wakefulness, plus a 6-hour delay, and an 8-hour international flight of intermittent sleep later. Thankfully customs, though seemingly unorganized, moved relatively quickly and before long we were in a taxi on the way to the Hampton Berlin City West.

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Clay had chosen the Hampton because it received positive reviews for location and quality, as well as being reasonably priced. At €86 for the first night and €96 for the second (which was a Friday), the Hampton was not only affordable, it also offered a great value for the money. Additionally, every staff member we encountered was friendly and helpful.

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The rooms were updated, spacious, and comfortable. Located in a charming area of West Berlin and surrounded by many shops and restaurants, it was within walking distance of several Berlin highlights and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn were also easily accessible.

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After settling into our hotel room, we showered (is there anything that feels better than a shower after a looooong international trip?) and then decided how we wanted to spend our unfortunately shortened day in Berlin. But first, and very importantly, I used my nonexistent German language skills to attempt to decipher which coffee would be stronger. I'll be honest, had I not been in Berlin and thus compelled to do something productive, I would have taken a really long nap. As it was, I had to resort to coffee.

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While I drank my mercifully strong coffee, we decided that our first stop should be the Berlin Zoo. Within walking distance of the Hampton, the Berlin Zoo - or more accurately the Berlin Zoologischer Garten - was opened in 1844 and is the oldest zoo in Germany. Sadly, the majority of the zoo's animals were killed during World War II and the zoo itself was entirely destroyed. Since being rebuilt, it has become the most visited zoo in Europe with one of the most varied and comprehensive collections in the world, including many rare bird species.

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The afternoon we visited was cloudy and cool with the occasional drizzle. Fortunately, the thick canopy of trees provided sufficient protection from the intermittent rain. Tickets cost €13, but we received a 5% discount with a coupon from our hotel. There is also a combination ticket available for the zoo and the nearby aquarium. That particular afternoon, we were content to simply meander hand-in-hand through the zoo, enjoying the cool temperatures and the many beautifully designed exhibits (and sympathizing with our friends back in Texas who were suffering the 100 degree heat). And we may have become a little obsessed with the otters.

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The zoo was busy, but never felt crowded. Although the zoo remained open until 7, many of the exhibits began closing at 6.

The zoo provided a low key and relaxing introduction to Berlin for two very tired individuals. After the zoo, we stopped at a nearby curry stand (Curry36) to sample the iconic local dish. The stand seemed primarily frequented by locals in search of a post-work snack to tide them over until a late dinner. At the time, that was our plan, as well - minus the work part.

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We tried a currywurst and a bockwurst. Both were delicious!

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On our way back to the hotel, we explored the surrounding area to scope out a spot for dinner. However, I decided to rest for "just a few minutes" once we got back. Uh huh. Instead of eating dinner, we ended up calling it a night at 8 pm when I halfway woke up from my "short" nap just long enough to decide to go back to sleep. Good thing, too! We would need to be well-rested for the packed day ahead.

Posted by cgplatt 17:32 Archived in Germany Tagged food zoo europe_2013 Comments (0)

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