Monday, 6 August 2012

Israel: Las Banias at Golan Heights


It's another pricey place, but again for good reason. Officially the border between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, people seem to forget that at one time - the birth of civilisation originated in these countries. So expect amazing waterfalls as the wettest region in the area.

This area isn't for the faint-hearted. The Golan may be a rural area and largely safe, however it is also one of the world's largest military barriers, and while it offers many hiking options, you should always be cautious for firing and mining fields. I found the Hitchhiker's Guide to Galilee, which is definitely a website to watch in the future.

Places to see and do: 

Definitely the Banias are worth a visit (entry fee is NIS 27). This national park follows the Banias stream, and includes some easy and fairly short hiking trails that pass by old water mills, vigorous rapids, and the ruins of a temple to the god Pan. The city was located within the region known as the "Panion" (the region of the Greek god Pan), and is named after the deity associated with the grotto and shrines close to the spring called "Paneas".

Getting to and from Golan Heights: 

Very strange place to try and get to. Apparently has the worst transport connections in the country, which really tells you a lot. It is off 'Route 99', and the nearest bus station (I say it very loosely) is Kiryat Shmona Central Bus station.

From Mikhmoret, take route number 872/852, one of the Egged ones, then you take the 841 bus when changing at Khadera Central Bus station. It takes several hours, and it doesn't end here. Or you can change at Netanya Interchange with the additional option of taking 910. When you get on this interchange, you will need to take 842 to Kiryat Shmona.

You need to see if you can catch a ride through Route 99 to the Banias as it is a little outside the town. If you have a driving licence, you can rent cars from the station, which is always useful. On the way back, it's another case of hitchhiking- and believe me, it takes time to flag down a car that arrives once every half hour.


Getting around the Banias Nature Reserve, is a bit of a doddle if you're fit and you take shortcuts (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more). But getting there and out is the biggest issue, so I suggest you make car rental plans or go with a tour.

So this place is a hiker's heaven. You need to trek several miles just to get to the place, after hours of travelling on a bus some distance away from the nature reserve. But it's really no wonder. What used to be seen as an important Christian pilgrimage, wouldn't quite have the same effect if it was only a cab ride away. And it could be quite strenuous for those not prepared for the great outdoors. 

Remember: water is a must, and when we were there, we were still allowed to have a quick dip in the waterfall. Not quite sure whether that's the case now. Hats, sun screen, emergency supplies - and all that jazz.

We eventually made it to the Kiryat Shmona, after a hop, skip, jump and a food stop all the way from Mikhmoret. The beaches were a distant memory after visiting the slightly cooler highlands of the country. It was a strange feeling. It took almost 38 hours to feel a change of scenery and climate in India and China, yet this tiny country had the same impact in 4 hours. 

After being left stranded in the nearby town, we realised it wasn't going to be as easy as we thought. We stood on a street corner (completely appropriately of course) and attempted to flag down a car going down route 99, waving our arms frantically as if we were trying to fly there. In the back of some hippy student's car (as always) we made it halfway through the route, before being kicked out. It was time to try flap our wings again.

It took a wee while, but we did eventually make it there in the same day amazingly. And it was packed to seams with tourists, all wearing multi-coloured caps, eager to catch a glimpse of Pan's Labyrinth...I mean Pan's temple.

The temenos (sacred precinct) included a temple, courtyards, a grotto and niches for rituals. It was constructed on an elevated, 80m long natural terrace along the cliff which towered over the north of the city. A four-line inscription at the base of one of the niches relates to Pan and Echo, the mountain nymph, and was dated to 87 CE.

This was just the beginning in the long line of ancient history that followed. After this came the Romans and associations with Jesus, the Byzantine empire, the Crusaders, the Ottoman empire and last but not least, the British empire.

Apart from the history lesson, it had breathtaking landscapes lining the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese border. The Banias has the mother-of-all-waterfalls in its vicinity.

Depending on one’s pace, there is a 45-minute trail passing both Roman and Crusader sites, followed by another 90-minute walk passing by the Govta Stream until reaching the waterfall, which is generally considered the most impressive in Israel.

A point nine kilometres (about 5½ miles) further, where the Hermon Stream meets the Dan waterway, is the head of the Jordan River.

So what seemed like endless miles, wilting in the heat, we finally saw a glimpse of the waterfall through all of the flora and fauna. And it felt like a mirage, that much water spewing from the rocks, and all we wanted to do is jump into it. 

Except, it being a nature reserve and all, we needed to find a remote spot where the authorities wouldn't bust our chops about it. And a remote spot we found, so far out the loophole that it was behind some revolving gates that said we wouldn't be allowed back, unless we climbed another 2 hours to get to the outside world. We chanced it, despite seeing the gates were against a sheer drop off a cliff side. 

After a speedy dip in freezing cold water, in some bizarre part of the reserve which had an overturned tank, we decided to head back and attempt to take a shortcut. However, this shortcut consisted of climbing back over those gates without preferably falling to our death. And after careful contortion-ism, we made it back, feeling bad for the school kids who had to make that extra journey via the other side.

We finally got back to one of those obscure highway routes and realised that there were two elderly ladies attempting to also flag a car. It wasn't much of a competition, rather it was kind of pathetic. Guys were happily stopping for two young girls but not for those 'mature' women. We stopped a car, who wanted to take us and then pointed to them. He arrogantly shook his head and drove off. 

The next guy stopped for us, but we gave it up for the two women, who gave us absolutely no time of day and not even a courteous thank you! We scoffed and vowed never to help any old-biddy ever again. It was pitch black by the time we got home. And our legs and arms needed a cast from all of the aches and pains.

Israel: Ancient Caesarea Sea Port

Accommodation: So I didn't stay here, mainly because it was worth a day visit from Mikhmoret. It is directly midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. If you're really desperate to stay, then there are some pretty pricey places so prepare to splurge.

Even local B&Bs start from around £50 per night. Dan Caesarea Hotel is the upmarket version of all of these hotels around £168 per night. Not exactly 'student-friendly' hence travelling from Mikhmoret.

Places to see and do: Well, itself is a national archaeological park, so that's the main thing to see. However, within the park, there are a few standout areas. The ancient and medieval city are preserved within the Caesarea National Park, so expect to find Roman aqueducts, moats, amphitheatre, various mosaics and an excavated palace. The history of this place is fascinating.

Getting to and from Caesarea: Not the easiest place to get to. From Tel Aviv or Netanya, take any bus along the coastal road towards Khadera, where you can disembark and connect with bus No 76 to Caesarea, the best of which depart at 8.20am, 11.25am, 1.10pm and 2.45pm.

Coming from Haifa, get off at the Caesarea intersection and hike or hitch the last 3.5km to the site. Alternatively, take the train (638 8007) to Binyamina from Tel Aviv (21NIS, 45 minutes) or Haifa (17.50NIS, 30 minutes) and look for a taxi to take you the last 7km.

Bus Line 76
Route: Hadera Shopping Centre, Central Bus Station, Hillel Yaffe Hospital, Nahal Hadera, Or Akiva, Caesarea, Sedot Yam

Bus Line 77
Route same as Bus Line 76

Moat surrounding the area.
Transport: It's walkable, but once you're outside, you may need to hitchhike, as buses seem to disappear after a certain time. People are nice enough to let you ride with them to the nearest bus stop. Again, do it with caution.

This was my first lone trip of several in the next few days, my friends having a life of their own and all. So I was pretty nervous. At this point, I started writing down basic phrases in all eventualities. One of the most useful phrases I found was "Le tachana merkazit Hadera?' (change as appropriate) which basically means 'Hadera Central Bus station??'

I actually did need the phrase as I ventured out of Mikhmoret. My friend dropped me off at the nearest bus stop just outside the village, at a motorway junction. I then took a bus to 'Hadera bus station', and eventually after several hours, waiting and twiddling my thumbs, I made it to Caesarea.

Chariot races at the theatre.
By then end, I was just following anyone who was wearing sweatpants tucked into their sandals, or those with a giant camera around their neck - the sign of a bad tourist.

And I was greeted by a moat excavated as part of the ruins, the outer wall of the national park. It seemed endless. All the unearthed parts of the Roman and Byzantine city, built by Herod the Great about 25–13 BCE.

I had seen the splendour of the ancient world at the Great Wall of China, Egypt's pyramids and tombs, India's two thousand year old temples. But this felt more authentic, because it resembled an archaeological dig.

Caesarea Maritima was named in honor of Augustus Caesar. The city became the seat of the Roman prefect soon after its foundation. Caesarea was the "administrative capital" beginning in 6 CE. In Byzantine times, Caesarea remained the capital, with brief interruption of Persian and Jewish conquest between 614 and 625.

In the 630s, Arab Muslim armies had taken control of the region, keeping Caesarea as its administrative centre. No doubt, it was a place of great importance and I felt a bit like Indiana Jones with the Holy Grail.

Even now, the site remains a place for fishermen to do their jobs, which gives the area a sense of purpose rather than turning it completely into a theme park. Of course there were little cinemas, eateries, galleries and an actual stadium created out of its former glory, but it all existed only to highlight the seaport's importance.

I spent the time soaking up every bit of its history including watching the 'cinemas', although some were in Hebrew. There were even men dressed up in costumes, attempting to recreate the people from the various empires that resided there, just to give some context to the history.

Eventually, the sun started to set over the sea, and it was beautiful to watch it glimmer of the waters. Except, I got carries away, and realised this meant it was 6pm and the park was about to close, and the buses were about to run off into the distance.

I ran out of there and waited for a good half hour at the bus stop before realising it was the end of the day. So looking a bit like a damsel in distress, I paced about until an elderly Jewish woman with her family stopped and gave me a ride to a bus stand near the motorway.

On the return journey, I couldn't help and buy a falafel kebab. You can't beat an authentic one from the country. Absolutely tantalising, so much so that it can still make my mouth water after all these years.

I was back on 'home turf', and it dawned on me that it was a bit of a trek from the junction to the house. Now I was sceptical about hitchhiking in this area, especially since the general motto was "where everybody knows your name" aka. you can jump into a car, and it wouldn't matter because everyone always knows someone through someone.

Well, it worked. Everyone knew the Hummus king. So it was all good. Generally a successful outing, with a tan to prove it.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Israel: Mesmerising Mikhmoret Beach

Accommodation: As I said before, The Resort Hostel is next to the beach, where you can meet amazing people and chill out in the dorms. Off peak it's about 12/13 euros per night and there are even hammocks to laze around in. Rooms are basic, but the whole area is made up of filling 'basic needs'. Not the place if you're looking for an actual beach resort. The nearest transport is a bus stop 50 metres away, but hitchhiking is widely acceptable in this area, as it is a small village.

If you're thinking of becoming a long-term hippy here, this is the place to be. Apparently The Resort has volunteering roles in exchange for accommodation, working 4 hours a day and organising barbeques galore. You need a driving licence and be between 20-30 years old.

Places to see and do: Horse-back riding on the beach at sunset, biking and hiking in the park, kite surfing courses, scuba diving, visiting the marina, or just getting a tan on the beach. There are plenty of beach bars and restaurants, which is just something you have to do when you're on holiday.

Getting to and from Mikhmoret: From Ben Gurion Airport, take the train to Tel Aviv Sevidor Station (Arlozerov terminal), 10 minutes. Then switch to bus number 872/852 on the northbound, 30 minutes. Get off at (Beit Yanai) Yanai Interchange. Or from Tel Aviv's central bus station, same buses to the same junction via Egged bus company. It's only about £3!

Transport: It's pretty walkable, but you can hitchhike in some cases - always take caution!

I arrived at Tel Aviv in some godforsaken hour in the morning, which is what happens when you try scrimp on flights. It was pitch black outside the airport, after being ushered out by angry security men. I was greeted by my lovely friend and her partner, so I automatically felt reassured.

Now Mikhmoret is outside of Tel Aviv, almost 24 miles away and closer to Netanya. It is an absolutely tiny fishing village with apparently just over 1,100 people living in the beach town.

The moshav (Israeli settlement) was founded in 1945 by demobilised soldiers from the British Army, and was named Mikhmoret due to the profession of many of the founders being fishing. And now a lot of young ex-Israeli army members live there as hippies and teachers of the local school.

So after a tiring flight and restless night, I awoke to the sounds of the sea hitting the sandy shores, and the smell of hummus!!

Cliche as it sounds, the first sensory experience had to consist of the Levantine (Middle Eastern) cuisine in all of its glory. My friend's partner happened to be a master Hummus creator, and was taking part in an annual competition to see who could make the best one.

So why is Hummus such a major fad in the Middle East? Well, it isn't just a trend, a significant reason for the popularity of hummus in Israel is the fact that it is made from ingredients that, following Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), can be combined with both meat and dairy meals. For Palestinians, hummus has long been a staple food, all of the ingredients in hummus are easily found in Palestinian gardens, farms and markets, thus adding to the availability and popularity of the dish.

As one of my friend's partner's groupies, I aided by tasting the concoctions as well as drawing a makeshift banner with 'Make Hummus not Hamas' as the main motto.

We set up at a small school adjacent to the beach, and paced about with the poster, urging fellow Hummus eaters to try some of his mix.

Now it was the first time I had ever judged a competition. And it certainly was the first time walking around with a pitta bread, dipping it surreptitiously from bowl to bowl around the school courtyard.

And it's true. I had never seen so many varieties of the chickpea-based dip, with chilies, olive oil, lemon garlic, aubergine...the list goes on. After the winner was announced (sadly, my friend's partner lost his championship title) a boogie ensued under the canopy.

It wasn't a bad first morning, and probably a little unusual for a tourist to encounter. But I guess that's the gift having friends living locally.

After this, my friend and I decided to climb along the rocky coast that lines the shores alongside the sandy plains. On the way, we saw groups of young children from the nearby school making their way on boats. The College of Marine Sciences bring a very young, and lively crowd to the village. The older university students (some formerly army recruits) now take on some of the teaching at the school aka  fishing, cycling, kite-surfing, trail hiking - not a bad life is it?

A quick swim in the warm waters was enough for the first day, especially as I wasn't appropriately attired. In the evening, we celebrated with burgers at a local restaurant. No doubt, it is one of those towns where you do need a car, or some sort of transport to get by, as I found out. It was like an island of local eats surrounded by a car park off the motorway.

On the way back, we were greeted by friends. It seems like the best place to catch a chat with someone you will never usually meet. Especially when it comes to religion and politics and the controversial time I had arrived. Several days before, Israeli armed forces fired on flotilla heading towards the Gaza strip. Everyone was under scrutiny, the country was under scrutiny. And as a journalist, my ears and hands were itching to ask questions.

I heard a variation of facts from several sides in the few days that I was there. But I avidly listened, and was sympathetic to what I heard. I was painted a very different picture from what the mainstream news had portrayed.

Other days when I wasn't politicking, I would dip my feet in the waters, or read a book while swinging in a hammock. It was the nomadic life that I always dreamed of.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Israel On a Shoestring

I've been meaning to write this blog for a long while, probably because out of all my travels it would be the most obscure place I have been to. 

Never been a big fan of the tourist track, political places seem to be more appealing for me (within limits of course).

The Essentials

First things first, sorting out all of the nooks and crannies of the visit. Believe me, Israel isn't like Europe or South East Asia, so keeping that in mind, organisation is crucial to visiting the country.

So you probably won't do things the way I did it, mostly because I stayed with friends when I was there. However, I will write around it, making sure all the boxes are ticked in order for you to get to the main sites in one piece.

The political situation in Israel makes the country incredibly volatile. You may arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv one day, and see that security are perfectly friendly towards you. At other times, if they get a whiff of suspicion, you may have to hang about for them to 'interrogate' you or simply be rude towards you. 

Border between Israel and Lebanon, Golan Heights
Passport Situation

Due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen block passports containing stamps or visas from Israel.

You may also have difficulties getting into and/or be refused visas to other Islamic countries, such as Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc. 

Sometimes, these countries don't notice that you have a stamp from Israel, or if you're lucky, the Israeli authority may not stamp your passport- in that case, you won't have to worry about visiting other countries. Right now however, it wouldn't be a good idea-so choose your travels wisely. They didn't with mine, and so I had no issues crossing into Indonesia (the largest Islamic country in the world).

If you intend to visit any of these nations, ask immigration to stamp a blank page, rather than your passport, when entering. Note that those countries will also search for Jordanian/Egyptian exit stamps from land borders with Israel and will likewise prohibit your entry if they find one. KEEP YOUR PAPERS SAFE!

All EU states can enter Israel visa-free for up to 3 months. 

If, however, you are suspected of being of Arab descent, Muslim, or a political activist, it is possible that you will be subject to prolonged questioning, searches and/or denied entry.

Getting to and from Israel

Israel's main international airport is Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is approximately 40km from Jerusalem and 12 km from central Tel Aviv, and serves both cities. 

Cheapest time to fly is between November- March, avoiding peak time summer. I went via Lufthansa which is a pretty reliable airline to travel with. According to, in July 2012, flights were £237 return, which is very cheap for peak time travel. It can easily go up to £400 even with low cost airlines. But local airlines (if you don't mind supporting Israel's government) such as EL AL Israel Airlines usually provide cheaper fares then the big flash ones.

January can get very cold in the high areas, but actually summer is far too hot to appreciate nature in the country. Any other season, gives you a selection of nature's best vistas.  In January, return flights can start from around £148.
Mikhmoret Beach


Right, you may think that the Middle East may be exempt from Europe's extortionate prices, but unfortunately Israel still falls into that trap. It being one of the more developed countries in the region and its strong associations with the West, means that prices can reach the same levels as a Western European country.


I stayed with friends at the initial destination in Mikhmoret Beach (outskirts of Tel Aviv), which isn't the most touristy area. It is filled with hippy Jewish students teaching the way of surfing and yachting on its famous beaches and is famous for being a fishing village. But no doubt, it's a fabulous beach, so if you want to put your feet first in water, than staying in a cabin is a great idea. 

The Resort Hostel is next to the beach, where you can meet amazing people and chill out in the dorms. Off peak it's about 12/13 euros per night and there are even hammocks to laze around in. Rooms are basic, but the whole area is made up of filling 'basic needs'. Not the place if you're looking for an actual beach resort. The nearest transport is a bus stop 50 metres away, but hitchhiking is widely acceptable in this area, as it is a small village.

I used this place as a hub, and that way it wasn't so strenuous lugging around a suitcase to the different cities. 

NOTE: Israel is a pretty small country, you can go across the entirety of it between 5-10 hours, so it's not really worth moving around too much.


Citadel Youth Hostel
I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the Citadel Youth Hostel in Jerusalem. A unique experience staying in what seemed to be a cave with all of the cobble stones in the wall. But the fact that the open rooftop was also utilised as a sleeping space for all those adventurous souls wanting to nap under the stars, just seemed positively quirky (only from May-October). You can watch the sun set on the famous Dome from the top, well worth it really! It's again very basic meant for students (or not even that), so don't expect silk bedsheets.

WARNING: If you have a lot of luggage, finding this place is a bit of a nightmare. The cobble stone pavements make it impossible to carry a trolley around. And it's a little bit out of plain sight. Also, the cave like walls make sleeping quite stuffy.

Places to See

Caesaria Sea Port
I can honestly say 5 days is not enough to see the splendour of Israel. However, in that amount of time, it was well worth seeing: 

  • Caesarea Sea port
  • Visit the Dead Sea
  • Tour of the Old City in Jerusalem
  • Wailing Wall
  • Sea of Galilee
  • Baha'i Gardens in Haifa
  • Golan Heights
  • West Bank (again if you are interested in the political side, it's not a tourist trail)
  • And if you have enough time, definitely see Masada.


I lived on buses in Israel. They have quite an extensive bus route, but it isn't for the faint-hearted! At times, I would keep a phrasebook with me, just in case, and at times I definitely needed it. They are fast and reliable, and a lot cheaper than the West. It's definitely smart to plan well ahead.

The extensive national bus system is run by a public corporation called Egged (pronounced "Eg-ged"), the second-largest bus network in the world. Additionally, a bus company called Dan operates mainly in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and other major cities such as Be'er Sheva, check their web site for details. 

Egged, and Dan have English-speaking representatives with nation wide phone numbers. Some other companies are active as well.

I had to hitchhike several times, which seemed like the norm, but choose your areas wisely. You would be downright stupid to do it in the West Bank.

Berlin's best parks

Berlin is not short of parks, and it's incomparable in terms of its foliage. Expect more than flat terrains, with a variation of flora and fauna, and even outdoor parties!

  •  Tempelhofer Park
On first look, you may think who the hell would want to sit on an airport runway? Well, never fear, it is actually an abandoned airport, which makes it all the more unique. This space is a haven for skaters, bikers, roller-bladers, anything with wheels. Just think, there were 40 inch tyres going at 150mph at one time!

Now there are people in stripy aprons cooking up a storm with portable barbeques, watching sports on giant screens, wind and kite surfing, and planes still hang around the area! Party revellers like to hang around the area to sweat off a hangover.

Tempelhofer Park 
Platz der Luftbrücke, 12101 Berlin
Phone: +49 302 8018 162
Transport: Bus U Platz der Luftbrücke: 104, 248, N42, N6. U- Bahn Platz der Luftbrücke

  • Mauerpark
(Daniel Antonaccio)
Mauer literally translates into 'wall', which basically is how this park came into existence. It was formerly a part of the Death Strip and Berlin Wall. In a completely different fashion, the park now hosts great music with a mini ampitheatre in the centre and people lugging around instruments and sound boxes in trollies. The Bearpit Kareoke is sadly under threat, as is anything that is free in Berlin, so enjoy it while it lasts. 

The Max Smelling Halle stadium for sports events is also held nearby. And you can stroll around on Sunday to catch all the vintage goodies at the flea market.

Eberswalder Straße/Schwedter Straße, 10437 Berlin

  • Treptower Park
This place is known for its Soviet Union Memorial in south central Berlin, so whilst you're lapping up the foliage, you can soak up a bit of history at the same time. It commemorates the 50,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle in Berlin in April–May 1945. It was opened four years after the war ended on May 8, 1949.

The coolest bit of Treptower, is the Spreepark section. In the 1960s', it was an entertainment park known as Kulturpark Plänterwald. It has been abandoned, but still has some remains of attractions on-site.

12435 Berlin Treptow
Contact: kontakt@treptowerpark
Phone: +49302 50025
Transport: S-Bahn Bahnhof Treptower Park

  • Tiergarten
Okay, so we covered a bit of Berlin's imperial park on 'Day Two' of the tour. But it's worth reiterating that Tiergarten is the largest park in the city.  Forested areas, lakes, fields of flowers, streamlets, meadows and large stretches of grass turn this part of former West-Berlin into one of the cities most appealing green spaces. 

While I was there, it was also used as the main spot for marathons, the equivalent to Hyde Park in London.

Tierpark Berlin-Friedrichsfelde
Am Tierpark 125, Berlin
Phone: +49 (0) 513 8141      
Transport: Bus 100, 187, 200, or 341. S-Bahn Tiergarten

  • Görlitzer Park
Indoor minigolf Berlin
It's not the prettiest park, but it's not around for that reason. This once railway station (1867-1951) and home to British anarchist art communes, is now a seasonal snowball stadium and a full-time run-down park. It's a bohemian rhapsody for all hippies to enjoy themselves.

And at night, it becomes an ultraviolet underground crazy golf area. Located underneath Café Isa Mitz in Kreuzberg's Görlitzer Park, this mini-golf course has become a favourite word-of-mouth success.

Görlitzer Park
Görlitzer- / Wiener Straße, 10997 Berlin

  • Sanssouci Park, Potsdam
Sanssouci is the name of the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in Potsdam, just on the outskirts of Berlin. It's like the Versaille of Germany. The baroque-style palace is surrounded by a panoramic vista of the garden. A series of architectural and landscaping masterpieces were built within a single space in 1745 to 1747.

Other highlights include the Chinese tea house with the floor plan in the form of a cloverleaf and the Orangery, with its Raphael Hall. The Evangelical Church of Peace and the dragon house is worth a peek.

Potsdam - Sanssouci palace 
14469 Potsdam
Phone: +49331 96 94 20 2
Transport: Potsdam Park Sanssouci railway station, located on the Berlin-Potsdam-Magdeburg line.

The palace is considered the major work of Rococo architecture in Germany. And surprise, surprise - it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Berlin: In Three Days - Day 3

Day Three

Right, so it's the last day. And you've still got to see the one site that makes Berlin one of the most unique cities in the world. A division that almost destroyed the country, but the destruction of it gave Germany a new lease of life. It could only be the East Side Gallery or as it is better known as the Berlin Wall.

For 28 years, the Berlin Wall cut an unrelenting gash through the whole of downtown Berlin in an attempt to prevent the citizens of East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic from fleeing to the West. By 1989, the wall fell with the collapse of the GDR.

The East Side Gallery is now an international memorial for freedom, which allows 106 artists from all around the world to display their message of hope through art.

The build-up to seeing the wall is exhilarating enough for any avid traveller. On the Mühlenstrasse stretch, the nearest stop to the wall is Ostbahnhof (line S5, S7, S9, S75) and it being a beacon of freedom, it only seems apt that it's free.

Seeing it in person, is a whole other kettle of fish. It's truly bizarre to imagine that such beautiful paintings reside on top of a canvas that caused so much misery. Only 23 years ago, 136 people had died in shootings, were killed in accidents or committed suicide after failing to cross the Wall.

In between the cracks of the wall, there are places to relax alongside the river. Oststrand or the 'East Beach' is a bar on the banks of the River Spree. Apparently, it's Berlin's biggest urban beach, so when it's sunny, you may think your in the Mediterranean somewhere. At this point, public transport is in order, as the next destination is 4km away, and you may not be up for walking for a third day running.

Spend the rest of the afternoon checking out Museum Island, (Alexanderplatz S- and U-Bahnhof). It has its own micro-climate, like putting your foot in the past. From ancient History to modern art, you can see everything Berlin has to offer in this square. Choose wisely, as time and money becomes rather precious here. I went to the German History Museum to get a better feel for the country for a mere 5 euros. There's even The Ramones Museum, solely dedicated to the Punk band. This whole area has been deemed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Other Great Places to Visit

  1. Gendarmenmarkt - Reported as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. 
  2. Charlottenburg palace- largest palace in Berlin, originally constructed in the 17th century.
  3. Potsdam - 24km outside the city, contains the large baroque Neues Palace.
  4. Russian Memorial - Dedication for soldiers who died in the war.
  5. Tempelhof Park - Amazing abandoned airport, now used to host concerts and barbeques.

Berlin: In Three Days - Day 2

Day Two

Again, the History student in me tells everyone that you can't leave Berlin without visiting the infamous border, Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie, along with Glienicker Brücke (Glienicker Bridge) was the best known border-crossing of the Cold War days. The sign, which became a symbol of the division of Cold War Berlin and read like a dire warning to those about to venture beyond the Wall – YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, it signified the border between West and East, Capitalism and Communism, freedom and confinement. The Museum, known as Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (entry is 12.50 euros), contains the best documentation available on the many escape attempts from East to West. The nearest station is Kochstraße U6, and around the corner is Wilhelmstrasse, which houses Germany's former governmental administration.

Wilhelmstrasse was the site of the Third Reich's most important ministries and embassies. The Topography of Terror is an open-air exhibition (free), which documents the history of this site as the control centre of the National Socialist programme of persecution and annihilation. Niederkirchnerstraße is the road you need to look for to find the site.

Walk far enough down Wilhelmstrasse, and turn left onto Hannah-Arendt-Straße, next thing you'll see is a grey labyrinth of concrete boxes. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also known as the Holocaust Memorial, literally dawns on you as you meander through a field of of 2,700 concrete slabs.

The abstract graves is open to personal interpretation, however the overall feeling getting lost through the mammoth maze, is of suffocation and impending doom as the blocks gradually grow.

Back on Wilhelmstrasse, you can catch a glimpse of the Brandenburg Gate. The neoclassical triumphal arch is one of the most illustrious landmarks of Germany. It is the only remaining gate of a series through which Berlin was once entered. Just one block north stands the German Reichstag (Parliament), which once the governmental home of the Prussian Empire.

After being sufficiently 'historied'-out, Tiergarten not only was the preferred hunting ground of the elector princes of Brandenburg, but its swampy forests is like a magical wonderland. It's apparently the largest park in Berlin. And that's another thing, Berlin parks are like no other - and must be explored.

Again, the best way of unearthing a great place is to actually take a bicycle or your feet and get around the place.

It's time to head back for today, if you're feeling drained from the walk, but there's plenty of nightlife in Berlin to enjoy- so rest beforehand!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Berlin: In Three Days - Day 1

Day One

I had been to Berlin before when I was a wee little'un, but it doesn't quite have the same impact visiting it with friends as a young adult. For one I didn't need to hold someone's hand crossing the road (well, not always!)

It inadvertently became the day of trailing art. And it wasn't a bad start to get a better sense of the city. So the first stop was to Berlin's art district at Oranienburger Tor (line U6), which consisted of a dilapidated warehouse, with graffiti resembling a modern-day Sistine Chapel. It was literally caked in paint, beautifully formed into a master craft. But sadly, I'm not sure if it's still in existence, as last I heard, they were pulling it down.

At first glance, it's rather difficult to establish what the building was. Was it a building with Banksy replicas or were there actual artists at work here? As we made our way to the top of the tower, it became apparent that there skilled masters crafting a new piece, and showcasing their paintings and photography. Apparently, it is the skeletal ruin of a 1907 department store that has been occupied since 1990 by a collective of artists from all over the world.

There were two in particular that stood out. One was surrealism galore, as if Primus had been poured into the paint. The other had photographs of an aged woman, her innocence and sweetness peered from behind her eyes. It would be a shame if it no longer existed, but it being entirely run by donations, it's hardly likely to stay open.

Then a walkabout was in order. Down Oranienburger Street, a strange museum appeared next to the beautiful new Jewish synagogue. It must have been the C/O Photography exhibition, with an apt Soviet Union car sticking halfway out the building. Entrance was a 'student'-pricey ₤10, so I gave it miss that day.

Walk far enough down the road, and you will hit Hackeschen Höfe, a series of inner courtyards located in the district of Spandauer Vorstadt, in Mitte. They were built in 1904 as a sequence of buildings to be connected by inner courtyards that are not only areas of housing but also shops and workshops.

In these courtyards, you can find the “Chamäleon” theatre as well as the cinema Hackeschen Höfe Kino, not to mention a clothes, food and craft market open on Thursdays and Saturdays.

From there, turn right onto An der Spandauer Brücke and right again onto Anna-Louisa-Karsch-Straße (street), which will lead you towards the TV Tower (the tallest building in the country and an iconic image of Berlin). At the TV Tower, you can get a panoramic view of Berlin for 12 euros, remembering to book in advance to avoid the queues!

The Neptune Fountain (The neo-baroque fountain, decorated with bronze statues Zeus, was created between 1886 and 1891 by Reinhold Begas) and the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall) are also down Spandauer Straße. This is also the place you can catch a hop on hop off city tour bus.

Next thing you know, you're at Alexanderplatz eating a burger on the steps.

Berlin, Germany: On a Shoestring

The Essentials


Okay, I've been rather blessed over the last few years to have people to stay with in Europe. Berlin was such a place, but I heard that Ostel is relatively cheap, (though the price has increased), and gives an 'authentic' feeling of East Berlin under the Soviet Union. If you're looking for something eccentric, then this place offers bunkbeds galore. Or if you really want to try something kooky, then my old friend Couchsurfing is supposed to be at the height of its services. Nothing beats staying in Berlin with a local who knows the night-life like the back of their hand.

And location-wise? Again Kotti/ Kottbusser Tor, is outside of the main tourist area and has quite a lot of restaurants, parks and random entertainment to explore. It is predominantly a Turkish area, so you know what that means- 2am kebabs. Again, I stayed in Berlin for about a month, so I had enough time to pace myself. But three days should be enough to get a taste of the Berlin flavour.

Places to See: 

The Reichstag (Parliament), Jewish memorial, Checkpoint Charlie (DDR Museum), Museum Island, Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz, Berlin Wall, Art District (Kunsthaus Tacheles), Russian Memorial as well as all the various parks to visit. Former airport, Tempelhof Park is well worth the visit if you have extra time to spare.

Getting to and from Berlin: 

Both Easyjet and Ryanair do cheap-ish flights from London Stansted or Luton to Berlin Schoenefeld, which is less than the main airports. But you have to factor in transport to and from the airport which is ₤15 as well as extra luggage for ₤30. So a small bag should suffice. I had a handbag for one month! Ryanair can do return flights from £40 excluding tax, while Easyjet is a little more expensive £65.


Berlin is well-designed to get around fairly easily. Whether you want to cycle through the town or take the overground train/tram, there's a stop everywhere. Buying tickets was a little annoying from the machine, so you need to know your destination in advance. Insiders Berlin gives a handy guide on buying tickets:

When buying a ticket you need to choose your zones, which you can find on the map. Usually you’ll be travelling in Zones AB and to get to Schoenefeld airport you’ll need a zone ABC.

A basic zone AB ticket will cost you €2.10. The ticket is good for 2 hours and allows you to make as many changes as you need (from bus, to tram to U-bahn etc) in a 2 hour period as long as you are travelling in the same direction. In other words don’t try to treat it like a return ticket.

And Deutsche Bahn's Call-A-Bike service is a great place for renting a bicycle and the first-point of call to get a hold of one.

Luckily, a lot of people speak English, so don't be afraid to ask for help or try the Reisezentrum (Travel Centre) inside any train station. Otherwise it's a great place to stretch your legs and soak up the sights.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Final Countdown: Penang, Malaysia

Accommodation: The Banana New Guest House was cheap and convenient ranging from RM25 to RM70 for a double/twin room. We stumbled upon the guesthouse on arrival to Georgetown, the best area to find cheap hostels, a buzzing nightlife and great restaurants nearby aka India town.

Places to See: Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I think partially because the entire tiny island mixes all of the best sights together. From waterfalls, secluded beaches, to cultural heritages bringing a melting pot of yummy food together.

Getting to and from Penang: Buying a ticket in advance or extremely last minute for flights from Surabaya to Penang is VERY important. The prices can range from £34 to £87 on Air Asia, which is relatively pain-free. You can get some really good deals on South East Asian flights from there. From the airport, you can (most of the time) get a taxi from outside of the Penang Bayan Lepas International Airport. On the way back to Thailand, we took a train from Butterworth, the main port that connects Penang to the mainland. It takes about 23-27 hours on the train, so no mean feat and costs around £24 in a second-class sleeper.

Transport: We rented our own motorbike or scooter to get around. These shops can be found along Chulia Street and also Penang Road. Cost is around RM25 for 24 hour rental. Deposit is often RM200. We got ours from Banana Guest House's travel and tour company next door.

It was quite a change from the mountain-hiking, sooty landscape of Bromo. It was pouring in Penang, far from the idyllic sandy shores I had in mind, and finding a taxi outside of the airport was next to impossible under the rumbling thunder. But eventually, we arrived at Georgetown, which seemed to be buzzing with its humdrum nightlife and hundreds of tourists. And Banana New Guest House appeared to be the most enticing, specially as motorbikes lined the vicinity - which meant only one thing - travelling around Penang in style.

Around the corner came little India in the form of little restaurants and stalls. It was weird to be eating great home-cooked- style food, something that I cook myself, in Malaysia. There was South Asian faces everywhere, and I could understand everything they were saying, even conversing with them all myself. It's like I never left home. My boyfriend was also on a mission to eat the best Channa Masala since his trip to India, so we were in the right place.

Being back on the rear of a motorcycle was an exhilarating experience, and not just a painful one. Closing my eyes, letting the sun and wind seep into my skin. I got my much needed Vitamin D intake in Penang, particularly after 6 months of hibernating in Beijing. There were no plans or restrictions.

We went where the open roads took us. From eating authentic local cuisine from stalls lining the coast, to being the only people on our very own private beach. We even attempted to climb a steep hill to see the waterfall at the Botanical Gardens, but after the first flight of steps, it didn't quite fulfil the 'relaxing' leisurely time we had in mind. After trekking through Borneo, climbing volcanoes and other structures for the last five weeks, it started to take its toll.

But I did attempt to drive the motorcycle myself and that's when I realised that I am officially bi-wheel challenged. Whether it be bicycles or motorcycle, if it doesn't have an extra wheel, I have no sense of balance, and so riding the bike was not a pretty picture.

Then it was all over. Six weeks of being on the road ended with us taking a boat back to Butterworth for the final journey back to Beijing. It was one of those moments, a sigh of sadness rather then relief, despite all of the ups and down encountered. One word to sum up - unforgettable.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Apocalyptic Gunung Bromo, Indonesia

Accommodation: Well, we first stayed in the centre of town, in which they organised a one night stay and transport to and from Mount Bromo. Okay, I can't be completely sure, but we definitely stayed on a main road, so I think it was Hotel Bromo Permai. It was clean and my partner was over the moon when he found out he could watch the Arsenal match on TV.

Once we were on the actual mountain itself, we stayed in basic lodges, which was adequate for one night. I remember distinctly that it was part-owned by German people, hence sausages were on the menu, so I think it was Yoschi's Guest House (145,000- 180,000 for two and season dependent).

Unfortunately, since Bromo had just erupted 2 weeks before we arrived, they had struggled to clean the ash-sodden lodges. It was a good 5km hike from Mount Bromo, but worth the walk and smiles along the way. But watch out for the steep hills, and potentially toxic air. If you have breathing difficulties- wait until Bromo has been given the all-clear or otherwise bring a face mask! 

Places to See: Well, apart from Gunung Bromo, - I was excited to find out that it was named after the Hindu god Brahma - Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park contains the highest mountain in Java, Mount Semeru (3,676 m), as well as four lakes and 50 rivers. The nearby mountain village Cemoro Lawang is also worth the walk around. The town of Probolinggo itself is just a stop-off point for Mount Bromo.

Getting to and from Probolinggo-Mount Bromo: Bus from Yogyakarta to Probolinggo takes about 10 hours, not the most comfortable, but you get your money's worth (120,000Rp) and its direct. Then the local hotel can arrange minibus transport to Cemoro Lawang (nearest town to Mount Bromo) as well as accommodation. You can also book your bus back from them as well - we bought tickets to Surabaya airport. An express Patas air-conditioned bus from Probolinggo to Surabaya takes about 2/3 hours (about Rp 25,000).

Transport: Both towns are walkable, and transport to Cemoro Lawang/ Mount Bromo can be arranged in advance.

Right, being stubborn as a mule stuck in concrete, I made a rather dramatic scene when my compadres became reluctant to go to an erupting volcano. Two weeks prior to our arrival, Mount Bromo had given way, and it wasn't a common occurrence. The site had to be evacuated and was still in the danger zone.

Granted, it wasn't my best idea, but as things had already gone awry on this trip- including sinking boats, indecisive decision-making and general nuisances when you travel in a quintet-I was determined to, even if I had to go it alone.

After throwing a big enough tizzy (not my best moment I must admit) we decided to take a bus to the drop-off point, a town named Probolinggo.

The journey seemed endless, and it was dark before we hit the Indonesian town. After phoning a Lonely Planet hotel frantically before our arrival, we were thankfully greeted by local staff at 11 o'clock at night. I honestly didn't think it would happen, as my guide book is about 4 years old and starting to brown.

The hotel were friendly, but everyone was rather cranky (I take full responsibility). And it was then that we decided to book our trip to Mount Doom. It would be the next morning, so after a wee nap, wash and quick shop for all the essentials downtown, we jumped on our ride towards there.

We did have a bit of a queasy feeling as the rickety minibus slowly climbed higher. Especially the sheer impact of the eruption started to dawn on us.

It was a scene from The Road, or something rather more apocalyptic. Everything the eye could behold was covered in a powdery ash substance, it was like all the colours had been drained from a landscape photograph.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by an air of tension as loud moans could be heard from Bromo's stomach. Every 5-10mins, he made his presence known, although he was a good 5km away from the area. And a beautiful moth, victim to nature's calamity, lay silently at the entrance to the wooden lodge.

The lodge itself had sadly taken a massive hit as well. It was literally covered by a layer from Bromo's breath, and we started to realise that it wasn't over. Our eyes started to sting, and soot started to crawl down our throat and nostrils. It was everywhere you went and everything you could see.

Inside our rooms however, I wasn't sure if the volcano had hit it or if it was naturally topsy-turvy, but there were beds overturned. It look like whoever resided there previously had left in a hurry. Was it a precursor to what could happen in an eruption? I hoped not.

After 'settling in', a stroll seemed in order, especially since I had just eaten my much needed English breakfast. It was an odd moment. Watching perfectly blissful, content people in front of an end-of-the-world backdrop. As if they had resigned to inevitability. The children played in a black field, using ash rocks as footballs, without worrying about the sulphuric residue left on their bodies.

It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs to the volcano, except it was miles of black stormy clouds shrouding the sky leading to Mount Doom. The people happily waved as we made our way through the hilly mountain pass. And the closer we got to it, the harder it became to breathe.

At one point it seemed endlessly distant, so close and yet invisible. And then it appeared in all of its glory. A barren wasteland, dry desert-like plains with large, black, cratered peaks- booming and spewing molten lava like it had a bad cold and was seriously pissed off.

We had been hearing Bromo grumbling since our arrival, and he sure as hell wasn't happy to see more tourists. But we gasped at its almighty splendour, savouring the moment with a much needed coffee. It was worth every moan and disaster on that trip hands down.

On the way back, we managed to catch a glimpse of the sun setting behind layers and wafts of smoke. Like the light at the end of a long tunnel.

Only when we returned did we realise we were literally caked in ash, and a shower was in order. We then traipsed through the lodges attempting to find warmish water. And I washed I did, with a spider as my companion.

Sleeping was terrifying, hearing the rumbles every few minutes. And waking up at twilight to catch the sunrise was a surreal experience. It felt like we were being kidnapped, we were hustled by what seemed to be hundreds of locals pushing us into a darkened minivan. But everything feels creepy when you are awoken abruptly.

Next thing we know, we're being ushered on donkeys up a hill. Climbing in the dark is a whole other kettle of fish. But watching the sun rise was even more climactic then it seeing it set. Bromo was beautiful.