Berlin, a city contrasted

We stayed a week in Berlin–and wished it could have been longer. Berlin is a huge city filled with history, art and nightlife. I didn’t know too much about the capital of Germany before we arrived, but after multiple tours and wandering around, I have a better grasp of it. Everyone is so hip here–they dress well, listen to music that we’ve never heard of and go to clubs we can’t get in to. There are countless parks, flea markets and farmers markets, an abundance of street art. The contrast of old and new architecture accompanied with the street art is really what makes the city so unique.

The Berlin Bear

The Berlin Bear

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Catherine at the Berlin Wall

Catherine at the Berlin Wall

Hannah at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Hannah at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

We went on a free Sandeman’s tour the first day with our new Canadian friend Paige. I highly recommend this three-hour tour–filled with history and cool stories, it was well worth the 5 euro I tipped our guide at the end. We saw the Holocaust Memorial, the place where Hitler killed himself (which is now an understated parking lot), The Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and The Berlin Wall. Realizing that the wall came down only 25 years ago and seeing the actual thing–touching it even–was shocking and thought-provoking. The city was divided for so long; the wall was up for 28 years. The most frightening thought is that if the Holocaust happened, it could happen again. In the Holocaust Museum there is a quote from Primo Levi, a Jewish chemist and survivor of Auschwitz:

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

After seeing the sights in Berlin on a quite chilly day, we decided to get some pizza. We found this little Italian place close to our hostel (The Generator) and ordered the largest pizza on the menu and told the chef to put whatever he wanted on it. We ended up with three variations: blue cheese and red onion, salami and margherita on a big wooden board that barely fit on the table. All I can say is: if this dream of a meal is Italian in Germany, I can’t imagine how good the pizza will be in Italy. It was a perfect end to a long day of walking.

The next day, we went on a day tour of Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp outside of Berlin. Seeing a concentration camp is something everyone should experience. I felt as if I could barf at any moment, but that was the point. People were tortured here, crammed into the smallest imaginable housing, starved, killed and burned just because of their beliefs and religion. It’s a horrifying thing to see, but it definitely puts life into perspective.

The gate to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: it means work will set you free.

The gate to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp: it means work will set you free.


That night we went out with our new Canadian and Australian friends and tried to hop on a pub crawl for free–to no avail. We ended up in a tiny Asian restaurant to pregame because the alcohol was so cheap there. We were the only ones there and it was a hoot. We followed the pub crawl to Matrix, a touristy club with pricey drinks. In Berlin, the party really never stops. Clubs stay open to 5 a.m. or later and somehow no one gets tired of dancing and drinking and sweating until then. And of course when you walk out of the club, the sun is shining in your face. No one judges you though, because it is a normal thing here.

Canadians and Australians and Americans: a great mix for partying in Berlin!

Canadians and Australians and Americans: a great mix for partying in Berlin!


We went on an alternative city tour the next day, which was our favorite tour of the trip. It focused on Berlin’s street art and music scene. Street art in Berlin is plentiful, and most of the art is done on posters and glued to the walls because it does not permanent damage to the buildings. After having a beer and a kebob, we headed to East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall that is dedicated to street art and symbolizes freedom.

Victor Ash's astronaut: iconic stencil street art in Berlin

Victor Ash’s astronaut: iconic stencil street art in Berlin

East Side Gallery art

East Side Gallery art

We rented bikes the next day–which is a must in Berlin–and rode all around the city. The city is so huge that it isn’t a walking city, so the bikes helped us to explore more places more quickly. That night we went up the Television Tower to see the entire city by night. We caught the end of the sunset, which was stunning, and got a 360 degree view of the coolest city in Europe.

Sunset atop the Television Tower

Sunset atop the Television Tower

Af wiedersehen, Berlin, we loved you and all your hip vibes. We will definitely be back someday soon.


Ode to Amsterdam

We may never leave this city; it feels like ours now. Picnics in Vondelpark, strolls in the sunshine along the canals, great food and interesting people–Amsterdam is the place to be. This is a visual representation of why we haven’t been writing that much: there is just so much to do and see–we haven’t taken the time to write. But we do apologize.

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The laid back atmosphere of Amsterdam is what appeals to us the most. No one seems to be in a hurry and time just slides on by. The sun doesn’t set until 9:30 p.m. here, so there is more sunlight and more time to hang out outside. The weather has been absolutely fantastic. It has been sunny every day with a cool breeze and a high about 70 degrees.

Everyone rides bikes here. Everyone. So staying alert while walking around is a must. There are bikes, mopeds, cars, trams, buses and pedestrians to look out for while in the city. The bikes rule–and I love it. It makes it a cleaner, greener, healthier city to live in.

It is a very watery city. There are canals everywhere and that makes it difficult to get around because every street looks pretty similar. I think we have gotten the hang of things now, though. We stayed in The Bulldog Hostel the first two nights and met some really fun Canadians, then stayed in the Van Gogh Hotel in Leidseplein, and the Stay Okay hostel in Vondelpark.

Brussels Day Two

Waking up late on Friday, we caught the noon train with picnic in hand and went to explore Brussels for a second day. It was a better day because we knew more about the city and how trains worked.


Chocolate. Belgium is known for chocolate and we were craving some, badly. We found La Cure Gormande, a local chocolate shop recommended to us by our beer guy, Jeremy. We chose five pieces each. Each bite was a smooth, creamy party on our palates. I laughed at Catherine when she took her first bite–her eyes rolled back and a smile spread across her face. This chocolate is the best in the world. It is homemade and the perfect consistency.

After we got our chocolate fix, we were determined to find the Royal Palace and St. Michael’s Cathedral. We found the Royal Palace first. It is magnificent: huge, gold details and definitely fit for a king and queen. We lunched at the park across from the Royal Palace, called the Parc de Bruxelles. Tori made us a fresh sandwich with ingredients from her organic garden and fresh meat and cheese. She also packed another Belgian specialty–speculoos. These cinnamony cookies are the perfect dessert. We laid in the park in the shade and enjoyed the beautiful day.


After lunch, we finally found St. Michael’s Cathedral–and oh, what a cathedral it was. Stained glass, extremely high ceilings and beautiful paintings. As we were walking up the steps, the bells of the bell tower started ringing and walking in was magical. Walking around cathedrals always makes me feel like there is a greater purpose of life for me and for everyone. A sense of awe combined with peace is a wonderful feeling to have on this great adventure. I lit a candle for my mother and we walked out into the busy Brussels streets.


Then we picked out some beer to bring home. (A beer after seeing a cathedral is the most delicious, satisfying beer because it feels rebelious) We went back to Jeremy, our beer guy, who helped us pick out 6 different beers to try. Orval was his favorite, and we liked it, too. We also tried Westmalle, Delirium Nocturnium and Tripel Karmelier and two others.

We had a lovely dinner of duck, pommes de terre and butter lettuce from Tori’s garden with a second course of cheese and German bread. We also ate some speculoos yet again, for dessert.

After staying up until midnight discussing life with Tori and Philippe, we went to bed with heads full of European dreams.

Bonjour from Brussels

Our adventure has begun–we landed on Thursday, May 15 at 9:30 a.m. after an exhausting flight and Tori, our lovely hostess, picked us up. We hoped to go with only a carry on and a personal item, but our backpacks were too large, so we checked them. Image

Many people have warned that if you go to sleep after an overnight flight, you will never get adjusted to the time change, and that has proved to be true because it is day three and we are still exhausted. We slept for a few hours on Thursday, and Tori surprised us with a fantastic picnic in her garden. A basket full of German bread, two types of cheeses, salami, bologna and delightful cookies. The view from her organic garden is magnificent, and this picnic was the idea of Europe that we had been thinking of for so long. A leisurely picnic with tea and sunshine and great conversation. Beauty is in the simple things here, and we love it.


After our picnic, Tori took us to the train station and we headed off to Brussels. Starting at the Grand Place, we had a kriek on the patio of Chaloupe D’Or. Kriek is Belgium’s famous cherry beer. We liked it, but it was a little too sweet for our palates. The weather couldn’t be more lovely here. The sunshine and cool breeze is the perfect cure for exhaustion.


Catherine is very good at reading maps- and me, not so much. I just like to ask people for directions. But putting our strengths together we tried to find St. Michael’s Cathedral to no avail. It was our first day in a city that we knew nothing of and didn’t speak the language, so finding things was quite difficult, but we got better at it the next day. By this time, we really needed another beer, so we found a place called The Zebra Bar and asked the bartender for a good brew. He brought us Zinne Bir, a Belgian pale ale brewed at Brasserie de la Senne. It has been both of our favorite beer so far on the trip. I highly recommend it for any occasion. After the Zebra Bar, we searched for Delirium Cafe, a bar known for having over 2,000 beers. It is laid back environment and has a very diverse crowd. We met two guys, Eric and Alex that are Ph.D. Students in Brussels and they were our first inside look into the city. The beer was delicious- and much higher in alcohol than the beer that we are used to in the states. The thing about Brussels that pleasantly surprised me the most was how nice the people are. Everyone we spoke to spoke English and were very eager to help us. Day one was quite a success–more to come on lovely Brussels.


Before you backpack: A Comprehensive Guide

So, you want to go backpacking. First, get carried away with daydreams of swimming in the lakes of Switzerland and sipping wine in France. Make sure this is what you want to do. Ask yourself some questions:

-Do I have enough money?

-Can I get off of work/school for the length of the trip?

-Is this a once in a lifetime opportunity?

-Do I have a longing in my bones to get the hell out of here?

-Do I desire to wander across Europe?

It didn’t take us long to figure out the answers to these questions. We were sitting in Highland Coffees, a little local coffee shop in Baton Rouge, La., and said: Let’s do it, let’s go to Europe! We worked out some practical things and were ready to make a commitment.

1. PURCHASE FLIGHT: The best time to buy an international flight is 3-4 months in advance on a Tuesday at 3pm Eastern. The cheapest day to fly is Wednesday. Sign up for alerts- they will send you an email when the price of your flight changes.

We didn’t really care what European city we landed in: we just wanted the cheapest. So plug in many different cities in Kayak and similar websites to see which one is cheapest. Brussels was the most affordable, so we are starting there. Being flexible will work in your favor for getter less expensive flights. We noticed a very big jump ($100-300) in prices departing the week of May 12-16 and the week of May 19-23. I’m not sure why this is, but that’s why we decided to leave the Wednesday of that week- May 14.

2. MAKE ITINERARY: Figure what cities you want to visit, and don’t be overly ambitious. A good rule of thumb is to plan to spend at least a week in cities you are very excited about, and 4-5 days in cities you aren’t as excited about. Get a big calendar and a map, and decide where you want to go and for how long. Remember that you can move things around once you get over there, but it is good to have a primitive idea of what you are doing.

3. PURCHASE EURAIL PASS: There are different option depending on how long you will be in Europe. We purchased the one that is 15 days of travel within 2 months. It was $827 for anyone under 25.

4. GET YOUR BACKPACK: If you really want to backpack, well… you will need a backpack! We chose Osprey Packs, the Aria and Ariel 65s. It seems like it will be the perfect size to carry on a plane, big enough for everything we need, but not too big to lug around for 2 months. North Face has great backpacks as well. Most backpacking stores have student discounts, so ask about that before you buy. We also got compression packs in order to fit everything we need in our backpacks.

5. START LINING UP WHERE YOU WILL STAY: If you know anyone living in Europe, see if they wouldn’t mind you staying with them. Get a Couchsurfing account and look up good hostels. Make your first 3 weeks’ reservations in hostels, and figure out the rest when you are traveling.

6. GET ALL MEDICINES NEEDED FOR THE TRIP: You will have to call your insurance company to get an override on refills, then call your pharmacy to make sure they got the override. You may also have to call your doctor to let them know you will be out of the country.

7. INFORM CREDIT CARD/ DEBIT CARD COMPANIES OF YOUR TRAVEL PLANS: If you don’t, your card will not work in Europe. Make sure to do this at least a week in advance!

8. START HYDRATING/ EXERCISING:  Backpacking is going to be a lot of walking and a lot of biking. Getting into shape now will help you not to be as exhausted while on the trip. Make sure you are getting enough water.

9. CELL PHONE: If you want an international plan, go to your cell phone provider and look at options. We are not using our phones, except when on Wifi, so we are not getting a plan. Apps such as Viber and What’s App are great for calls and texts over Wifi. If you choose to only communicate over Wifi, make sure to turn your roaming off on your phone.

10. PASSPORT/ ID: Make sure both of these are up to date.

11. BREAK IN YOUR HIKING BOOTS:  Or any other shoes. Your feet will thank you later.

12. TELL YOUR FAMILY/FRIENDS:  Or, don’t. As much as we would love to just run away, it is in our best interest for people to know where we are.

13. GET A RIDE TO THE AIRPORT: Bring your own snacks, airport snacks are expensive. Have a plan for what you will do when you land- taxi, someone picking you up?

Okay, you are ready to go! Fly off into the horizon, young grasshopper.  Have the time of your life– we are planning on it!