Berlin: The Tattooed City

The third place I went to for my Europe trip was to Berlin, the capital of Germany. I was really looking forward to the trip because I spent a summer in Berlin four years ago for an exchange and absolutely loved it. I made a bunch of friends then and so I really wanted to catch up with them too.

Going back to Berlin after four years was quite nice. I’ve experienced and seen so much in the four years since I was last there and so I essentially see things through a different lens now. It was definitely interesting to check out all the things that changed and seeing the different sides to the stuff that hasn’t changed.

To me, Toronto is still the city I want to live, retire, and die in. I’ve challenged myself to find a city that’s better than Toronto and in all my travels Berlin is probably the city that comes the closest. Not only is it full of history and culture, but the people are awesome and the lifestyle fits my style quite a bit.

Relaxing by the Spree river.

Probably my favourite thing about Berlin is the character of the city. Every single city you go to has distinct characteristics that really define the atmosphere and feel of the city. It’s kind of the ambiance that wraps up your entire experience. Either it’s good and it makes everything you do better, or it’s not very good and things just don’t feel right. To me, the “dirtiness” of Berlin is one of the most defining traits.

And I say that in a positive light actually. I thought places like Malacca are kinda dirty, and even many parts of Korea aren’t very clean either. But Berlin somehow managed to make itself into a “dirty-in-a-cool-way” city. I don’t really know how to explain it.

But walking around the city, it’s really obvious as to what I mean. There’s countless amounts of graffiti everywhere. On buildings, cars, even on the remaining portions of the Berlin Wall. There’s millions of cigarette butts just strewn on the ground and on the train tracks. Beer bottles and other garbage are also very common in the city.

And yet, it just all works.

Some colourful graffiti on the East-Side Gallery.

Parts of Berlin just feels very edgy and cool. Like you took the most stereotypical tattooed gangster and turned them into a city. This is reflected in a lot of the young population too. Self expression and individuality is pretty strong amongst the young people and so you see lots of people with piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair.

This just fits perfectly with the city, and is honestly one of the reasons why I like Berlin so much. But of course, that’s not all of the city. Due to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, there’s still a difference between the Eastern and Western parts of the city. The Eastern side has more of what I described above, and it just so happens that I stayed there during my exchange and during my trip, so it worked out well.

The Western side and the city center are a bit different, but they’re all sums of the same whole really. You have some more residential areas that really feel like a city suburb even though you’re still in the city with all of the conveniences. The city center is fairly modern and interspersed with historical buildings and other points of interest. That entire stretch between Tiergarten and Museum Island pretty much covers most of the standard sightseeing areas in Berlin. It’s perfectly walkable and doable within a day too.

The Brandenburg Gate.

I have to admit that one of the weaknesses of Berlin as a city is that it’s not very exciting to sightsee for a couple of days. You hit up the major sites within a day or two and then.. you’re done? There’s a lot of museums to check out as well, but for your traditional tourist, there really isn’t that much to do.

But I think that’s fine. After spending a summer in Berlin, I realized that the best part of Berlin is actually just finding your own niche and sub-culture. The people there are so multicultural and open minded that you can find a lot of underground things there and honestly there’s something for everyone.

For me that’s definitely video games. The gaming scene in Berlin is pretty huge and they even have their own Meltdown bar where you can drink, play video games, and even watch people play video games. I made most of my friends through that bar and it was definitely one of the highlights of my exchange. On the last trip back I made sure to go back and meet some of my friends too.

Meltdown Berlin, still my favourite bar.

And of course you can’t talk about Germany without talking about the beer. Berlin, like the rest of Germany, has pretty good beer. It’s also really cheap. In fact, a lot of the food in supermarkets are ridiculously cheap. It feels so good to just shop for food in Berlin.

But going back to beer, it’s cheap, accessible, and tastes good. What more can you ask for? Not only can you get a half liter bottle of good beer for like a dollar, but you can drink it anywhere. Outside on the sidewalk? Sure. On the trains? Yup. Even in one of the many parks they have in the city? Definitely.

People hanging out around the Soviet War Memorial.

Berlin just feels so stressfree and refreshing. And it’s not only because the alcohol laws are less restrictive, but because there’s just so many places to just relax. The city is filled with parks and other recreational areas so there’s always a place you can sit outside and just hang out and enjoy the weather. The city itself is also incredibly green for being such a large city and so it really does feel nice to be outside.

So yea, I really like Berlin. I would recommend it to everywhere to go check it out, at least for the historical significance of the city if anything. But the city really shines when you spend actual time there I think. Just have to go there and just enjoy.

Moscow: The Soviet Capital

So I have a really bad track record of putting out these blog posts on a consistent basis huh? Since the last one I got sidetracked by life since I ended up moving back to Canada from Korea. I’ll likely write another blog post about this sometime in the future.

Until then, I’m back to writing about my Europe trip! The second destination that I went to was Moscow, the capital of Russia.

After a nine hour overnight train ride from Saint Petersburg, I was in Moscow. I was excited about getting a chance to visit Moscow because to me, that was “real Russia”. Saint Petersburg is a special city, and as such it is quite unique. Moscow, however, is the capital and should be more representative of what Russia is like as a whole. The difference between the two cities were apparent from the moment you stepped off the train.

It’s hard to miss the giant Soviet era buildings.

The view from the Leningradsky Railway Station.

Now before I go on, yes, I know that the Soviet Union fell apart decades ago. I was born a year after the dissolution and coupled with my Western upbringing and education, my knowledge and impression of the Soviet Union and Russia is biased, as you might imagine. This made it even more exciting for me to go to Moscow because not only is it the capital of Russia, but it was also the capital of the Soviet Union. Can’t be a better place to learn.

And man, Moscow was really neat. Everywhere you go you see remnants of the Soviet era. They developed so much of the city during that time and they just left everything there. The buildings, the statues, murals, everything. You never saw any Soviet flags being flown, but I saw so many depictions of that sickle and hammer that it might have actually been more common than the tri-colour.

 

The ceiling decoration in Taganskaya Station.

You hear about so many post-Soviet countries that went through a period where they just ripped down as much as they could that would remind them of that time, but Moscow, and probably Russia as a whole, embraces it as part of their history and it’s clearly visible no matter where you go.

For example, one of the places I went to was called Gorky Park. It’s a large outdoor park with lots of festivities and people just chilling and honestly the atmosphere there was quite nice. On the boardwalk next to the water there was a projector showing what the park was like during the Soviet era. It was really cool to look at that and compare it to what it looks like in modern times.

When you enter or exit the park, there was this giant arch with Lenin’s face on it and the Soviet emblem. Walk a bit further from there and you reach an art museum that has a garden filled with statues of Lenin, Stalin, and many other Soviet figures and symbols.

The entrance to Gorky Park.

You literally can’t escape it. It’s so ingrained into the city it’s absolutely fascinating because it kinda feels like the entire city is a time capsule. It really is like you’re delving into a different world. VDNKh, an exhibition center with an outside area and fountain, was no different. The fountain itself is made up of golden statues each representing a country of the Soviet Union and there are pavilions surrounding it which are also themed after areas and countries.

That entire area actually had a weirdly similar feel to Epcot in Disney World. Kinda made me think about what things would be like if history turned out differently.

The Friendship of Nations fountain in VDNKh.

Of course, no trip to Moscow would not be complete with a visit to the Red Square and Kremlin. Out of the all the sightseeing places in Moscow, it was the one I was most looking forward to. After going there though, I have to say that it’s nice to look around, but there really isn’t that much to do there.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral is one of the main attractions, and it’s really beautiful to look at from the outside but the inside was super disappointing. I was expecting an actual church but it’s actually a weird museum. The State Historical Museum was again cool on the outside, but you really needed to have a pretty in depth understanding of Russian history to appreciate the contents. Unfortunately, we were late to Lenin’s Mausoleum so I couldn’t go and see Lenin, but hey, I guess that will have to wait until the next time I go back to Moscow.

The Kremlin itself was also fairly nice to look at. The grounds outside has some monuments to World War II, and by extension the Soviet Union, and the inside has a bunch of nice looking churches to check out too. Overall I’d say the Kremlin was worth checking out.

The Red Square is quite red.

Another sightseeing place that I went to was Ostankino Tower, which fun fact, was actually the tallest tower in the world until Toronto’s CN Tower eclipsed it. The tower’s appearance is interesting and the view was alright. Moscow is fairly flat aside from the large Soviet buildings that are scattered throughout the city so the view isn’t that impressive, but it’s still kinda nice to visit.

The most interesting thing about the trip to the tower was the security. It’s pretty normal for towers to have some sort of security check to make sure you’re not going to bomb the place, but this tower had some pretty intense security. There were two metal detectors and a passport check, which is actually more than an airport. That was a bit inconvenient, but I guess it’s part of the experience.

The Ostankino Tower looks like some weird sci-fi tower.

Another thing I wanted to check out in Moscow was the Soviet Arcade Museum because come on, how can you not check that out? As a giant video game nerd and as a dude with an interest in modern history, that was literally a place I could not miss.

Growing up in Canada you know about the American and Japanese arcade machines. That’s pretty much all we had or would hear about. But it makes sense how the Soviet Union would’ve had their own arcades too, and again it makes sense how we wouldn’t have heard of it. The museum itself was a bit small but every machine was playable. They even gave you some Soviet coins for the machines because why change it if it works right?

The games were alright. Some of them had some interesting designs, like a foosball-like game but the bars are vertical instead of horizontal. But the most impressive thing in my opinion was the amount of augmented reality that was used. A bunch of the games actually had some form of AR integrated into the gameplay and that blew my mind. I certainly didn’t expect that.

One and a half floor of old Soviet games.

We only spent two full days in Moscow and I kinda wish we stayed for a bit longer. I think that to me, Moscow is worth visiting and explore just due to the stuff that I find interesting. If you have no interest in modern history or the Soviet Union, then maybe it’s not for you. But for me, I would definitely go back and check it out some more if possible.

Saint Petersburg: The Seat of the Russian Empire

So about a month ago (man, how often do I write blog posts about stuff I’ve done a month ago?) I embarked on trip to Europe. I just finished my master’s and so I wanted to make sure my grad trip was special.

Since I’ve already spent so much time in Asia, I decided that I wanted to go to Europe, a continent that I’ve only been to once and had a really big urge to go back to. So after months of deliberating of where to go and what to do, the day of my trip arrived. So I got to the airport and got on a plane to Russia.

The two largest countries in the world.

Yes, Russia. As a Canadian, Russia is not a very common tourist destination. It’s one of those countries that you hear a lot about (especially recently), but it’s also one of those countries that people don’t typically visit. For one, people don’t really know too much about it. Second, we require a visa to go and it’s honestly a pain to get, plus expensive. Third, well, it’s Russia.

Anyways, I wanted to go and since my girlfriend is Russian it makes sense for us to go together. So, we went. The first stop on the trip was to Saint Petersburg, which now has the distinction of being the most northern city I’ve been to in my life.

Prior to going there, I didn’t really know what to expect. Of course I know the Russian stereotypes and I’ve looked up some pictures online, but for the most part the city, and the country, was a mystery to me. So it was exciting because it was a chance to compare the real country to all the random internet memes and stereotypes that I’ve come to know.

Of course there’s McDonald’s in Russia.

You know how the first thing people say when you mention Russia is that it’s cold? Well, we went in the middle of July and man it was not hot. We may have been a bit unlucky with the weather but it was cloudy, rainy, and windy. Aside from one awesome day, the temperature was in the teens like the entire time we were there.

Weather aside, the city was awesome. It has all of those European elements that you would expect: the churches, the palaces, the squares, etc. But everything felt, bigger. The size of all the buildings were all huge, giving the city this grand atmosphere. It’s hard to explain, but you know that feeling when you see a tall building? It’s like that feeling, but in this case it’s because the building is long/wide.

A portion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace is the best example of this. Man, that building is big. We didn’t go inside, but seeing it from the Palace Square or just from the waterfront is a spectacle in and of itself. The scale of the building, the colours, everything is just so ornate and impressive.

Speaking of ornate and impressive, you know the really famous church in the Red Square? The red one with the buildings that look like they’re tipped with ice cream. Well, Saint Petersburg actually has one of those too, it’s called the Church of the Savior on Blood. So not only does it have a really sick name, it turned out to be one of my favourite places in the city too. The city is fairly walkable and the church is near the historic core so you see it pretty often, and each time I saw it I was always impressed by how awesome the church looks.

The Church of the Savior on Blood.

We walked through the main street in the city, Nevsky Prospect, a bunch of times and it was really cool just walking down this street and just check out the random shops and buildings that were on it, but even cooler when every couple blocks you’d see a giant church or another impressive looking building. I highly recommend doing the walk down the street at least once, but make sure you take the subway too cause the subways in Saint Petersburg are pretty special, at least to me.

So I’ve heard a lot about the Russian subways before actually going to Russia, and Saint Petersburg did not disappoint. For one, it has one of the deepest systems in the world and so every station had this giant escalator you had to take in order to get to the platform. In fact, one of the stations,¬†Admiralteyskaya, is so deep that they had to make two giant escalators because “it’s difficult to build elevators longer than 125 meters”. Not only were the elevators long, but they were also super fast too, which was a nice change of pace compared to the slow Korean escalators.

One long escalator.

Aside from the depth, the subways are also kinda neat. They were built during the Soviet era and honestly it looks like nothing has changed since then. The trains look like they were built in a different generation (cause they were), and some of the stops even have these metal doors that open up when the trains arrive.

But one of the neatest things about the subway stops are the decorations. Each of the platforms are uniquely decorated and it gives off such a nice atmosphere. It’s especially interesting because some of the older stations still have a lot of Soviet decorations so you’d be walking down to the platform and see a quote by Lenin or hammer and sickle imagery. It’s a bit surreal but really cool.

Subway station celebrating Russian and Soviet science.

Anyways, enough of the subways. Let’s talk about boats next.

Saint Petersburg is right off the Baltic Sea and there’s a lot of rivers flowing through the actual city itself, meaning that there’s a lot of bridges and boats. We actually took a canal boat tour which was kind of a nice way to see the city, but the more interesting thing is what happens at night.

Every night, the big bridges are raised so that the big boats can get through. So what you have are these giant bridges that are just open and large shipping boats and cruise ships just take turns going through. This is kinda neat to see, but it’s also interesting because it means if you live on the other side of the bridge, you aren’t getting back home for a while.

This was cool to see, but it wasn’t as cool as what I expected based on what I’ve heard. Regardless, it was interesting because since we went in the middle of summer, the sun doesn’t actually fully set. So you could be like us, outside at 3 am by the water looking at these giant boats pass by these raised bridges while you can still see sunlight. It’s a bit unreal.

Sunlight and big ships at 3 am.

The last thing I want to talk about is Peterhof Palace, another one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg. This was built by Peter the Great as one of his many palaces, and honestly it’s really beautiful. We were really lucky because the day we went was literally the best weather we could’ve hoped for cause it was sunny and warm, making the palace look even more grand.

There are a ton of fountains and statues on the grounds and it’s actually like the perfect size so you can see a lot without having to actually walk that much. Perfect for a leisurely stroll. There’s a lot of cool things in there, but by far the coolest is the main fountain by the entrance, which honestly might be the most impressive fountain I’ve seen. For one, it was big. Second, it had a lot of golden statues decorating the fountain area. Third, right behind the fountain was another grand looking building which made the entire view just fantastic.

Beautiful fountain.

Honestly the entire palace was great. It was a bit strange there though because it didn’t really “feel like Russia”. It kinda felt you could take the entire palace grounds and throw it into any other European country like Germany and France and it would fit right in.

And I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things about Saint Petersburg. It’s a Russian city, but it was designed by an emperor who wanted to emulate other large European cities, making it a really unique city since it’s the most “European” Russian city. That said, it’s unique among European cities too because it definitely has it’s own twist which makes it different and stand out.

Overall, I had a really great time in Saint Petersburg. The entire city is very beautiful and it was so nice to walk around and check out everything. The only thing is that since the city was founded a couple hundred years ago, a lot of the historical elements are lost on me since my knowledge of Russian history is a bit lacking. Regardless, I learned a lot and would definitely go back. I know this might sound crazy but I kinda wanna go in the winter. I think it’ll look even more magical then.