I left Copenhagen and my dearest Nora after a week and a half of Danish bliss and took the train south and then a ferry across the Baltic Sea to another train on the other side, in Germany.
I arrived in Hamburg that afternoon and checked into my hostel – a room with four beds, two of them occupied by very sweet Taiwanese girls. I went off in search of a vegan restaurant I found online, The Loving Hut (turns out to be a chain – I love finding vegan food in Europe!). After dinner, I continued on foot, crossing little bridges and admiring the architectural details – grimacing faces scowling from the cornices.
I wandered into a lovely garden park and spent some time there as the sun sank low in the sky. A temporary amusement park shimmered beyond the green of the garden, a large ferris wheel glowed blue. I decided to check out the city’s famous Reeperbahn – a street that runs not far from the port that is the source of Hamburg’s wealth.
I walked toward the Reeperbahn and there was no mistaking it: neon lights and restaurants which proclaimed “authentic American food” (the mind reels).
I walked down the Vegas-like strip, sex shops and stripclubs advertising their wares. Suddenly, I found myself in front of a row of some of the prostitutes which are the hallmark of any real red-light district. I found myself ready to leave the Reeperbahn, on the double, finding its seediness anything but charming.
I walked back to the respite of the garden before continuing back to a cute little square I passed earlier for a calmer spot to have a beer and do some writing.
The next day I decided to try the free walking tour of the city, advertised by a group called Sandeman’s. I walked toward the town hall (in German called the Rathaus) and learned all sorts of interesting things from our guide, a Spanish man who visited Hamburg once and fell in love.
We saw the old port and learned about the great fire which once consumed large portions of the city, and the firebombing during WWII, which destroyed even larger portions of the city and many of its inhabitants with flaming jelly that burned for weeks and melted pavements, nevermind people. It was sobering and saddening to see what destruction was wrought by the allies in that terrible time.
After the tour, I continued with an Israeli guy and an English girl who had been on it with me. We walked along the waterfront and then to a yummy Indian meal not far from the Reeperbahn. After, we went our separate ways, but with plans to meet up that night for an evening on the town.
I went back to my favorite garden for a bit before returning to the hostel to get ready.
We went out in an area called Sternschanze for drinks and then wandered in search of dancing or some other night life, enjoying the freedom to drink beers in the street.
Sadly, I began to sneeze and felt the warning of a cold coming on, so I returned to the hostel, since I planned to leave the next day for Berlin.
My sneezes predicted correctly and I awoke with a runny nose and sore throat.
I bought medicines on the way to the bus and made it in time to get on board, taking my vitamin C and tablets before sleeping as much as possible.
I got to Berlin that afternoon, made my way to my funny little hostel, the Sunflower, and got settled in.
Despite my cold, I went for a walk across the Warschaurstrasse Bridge to Goerlitzer Park (stopping for a vegan wrap along the way – seriously – so many vegan options!) and ended up in a cafe in Kreutzberg. Eventually, a German guy named Matyi approached me and eventually some Belgian girls sat next to us and suddenly it was past midnight and I decided it was time to turn into a pumpkin.
The next day was a market at Mauer Park (mauer, I learned later, means wall). I took my guitar and started off from the hostel, making a big line across the city, through Volkspark and Freidrichshain Park, stopping to play my guitar where I felt the call, including Grosse Bunkerberg – a hill made from the ruins of a bunker which was used by the Nazis and which was bombed and destroyed. Berlin is pretty walkable, so I arrived at Mauer Park in the middle of the afternoon and enjoyed watching the karaoke which takes place in the park every Sunday afternoon. I wanted to sing, but the battery ran out and so they ended the karaoke early.
I walked along the remains of the Berlin wall which is now a kind of outdoor museum, recounting the history of the wall and the many daring escapes that Berliners made to get from the East to the West to escape the communist part of the city and rejoin loved ones on the other side.
Finally, I got back to the hostel in the evening and went out for Indian food with a friendly Moroocan guy who was staying in the hostel with me.
The next day I made plans with a girl from the hostel, a Quebecoise called Lily-Charlotte, to go to the Pergamon Museum and take a walking tour of Berlin (it was so helpful in Hamburg).
We arrived at the meeting point for the tour, to discover that we had gotten it wrong and the point was elsewhere, so we decided to go straight to the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island, right in the center of Berlin. It is named after a city in Turkey from which German archaeologists lifted the remains of an entire temple.
Unfortunately, the line was enormous and it was estimated to take 4 hours just to get to the front and buy a ticket! In addition, it was spitting a light rain and 4 hours of waiting in the rain was pretty unappealing. We rethought our plans and, once again, having cell-service while traveling saved the day. (I have T-Mobile, which has decided to allow its users to access data and send SMS for free, even abroad! It is a real game changer for a traveler!).
We walked down to the river and bought tickets for the museum online (at a 1 euro discount, even) and then, voila, we skipped the line and walked right in! We felt bad for the people waiting, but quite good that we weren’t among them!
What I was most keen on seeing at the museum was the Ishtar Gate, transported from the remains of ancient Babylon by German archaeologists in the 20s.
The gate and the processional way have been mostly reconstructed in the museum and they are quite impressive! Even more impressive is the fact that the larger of the gates is too big to fit into the museum – there were two sets of gates leading to the ancient temple to the goddess Ishtar, and the other gate is in storage!
Also quite impressive is the remains of the temple at Pergamon, depicting the Gigantomachia, or the battle between the gods and the monsters of ancient Greek mythology.
Aside from that, the museum contains many sculptures and artifacts from other temples and excavations in Turkey and Iraq. Normally, the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti – the Beautiful One – would also have been in the museum, but it was relocated to the neighboring Neue Museum at the time, since they are refurbishing parts of the Pergamon Museum.
After the museum we continued to the walking tour of Berlin where we visited several interesting points near the Brandenburg Gate, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews and the former headquarters of the Luftwaffe, which later became the communist Ministry of Ministries (what a name) and is now the German tax bureau. We also spent some time in the parking lot which is where Hitler’s bunker was located during the war and, subsequently where he killed himself and was mostly incinerated just after.
At the finish of the tour, we continued with a nice Russian girl, a Brazilian guy, a German, and an American whom we met on the tour. We got dinner and then made plans to go out that night, even though I was still on the mend from my cold.
When in Berlin!
We roamed around the area and found a fun science fiction themed bar called Astro and eventually ended up in a club not far from the hostel, where we danced until the early morning.
Finally, we made it back to the hostel and I watched the sun come up before finally retiring.
The next day, I planned to meet my friend Susanne, who was traveling in Europe for the summer. She is German and used to live in Berlin. Despite problems with my alarm clock, we finally connected and spent a lovely day together in Kreutzburg, exploring her old haunts and visiting some of the really nice shops in the area. She helped my straighten out my train ticket for the next day and we finished the evening with Moroccan food and a glass of wine at a nearby cozy bar before I returned to the hostel for my final night in Berlin. I packed my things and set my alarm for early the next morning to catch the train to Prague.
Luckily, I woke up on my own with not a minute to spare to catch the metro to the train station – the alarm had failed me again!
I hoofed it and made it just in time to get the train, where I was able to get a bit more shuteye, despite the canoodling Italian couple who were kissing and cooing, completely oblivious to the other people in the compartment.
We arrived in Prague by noon and my hostel there was located in the old city, not far from the main train station, so I walked through the charming streets and admired the architecture as I sweat under the weight of my backpack.
I got there quickly enough, but the room wasn’t yet ready for me, so I left my things there and went off to explore the city I’ve heard so much about but never before visited.
I walked across the bridge closest to the hostel, just to the north of the famous Charles Bridge, and explored a lovely formal garden beneath the famous chateau of Prague. When I crossed back across the Charles Bridge, I couldn’t fully enjoy much of the beauty of the sculptures, as the bridge was full of tourists, but it was lovely just the same.
I returned to the hostel by way of the famous astronomical clock designed by Tycho Brahe – the same astronomer whose island Nora and I visited in Sweden. Apparently, after the death of the king who had been his patron, he had to leave Denmark, and he chose Prague to live out the rest of his life. It wasn’t known exactly where he was interred in the city, but he was easy to find with a little looking, since he lost his nose in a duel as a young man and wore a fake nose made of silver and gold!
When I was finally able to check into my room, I met a party of boisterous Australian guys and a couple of very friendly Dutch girls.
I wen off in search of one of the several vegetarian restaurants in the area and found Maitrea, where I was lucky enough to get a table before the dinner rush. It was very popular and very yummy! I had a started of vegan sausage with onions and whole grain bread and a main course of traditional goulash (without the traditional meat) and delicious bohemian dumplings. It was the best dinner of the trip so far!
After, I returned to the hostel to get some shuteye. I had my ceremony coming up, so none of Czech’s famous beer for me.
The Australians returned from their night of partying in the early morning and commenced to serenading us, first with Bon Jovi and then with a symphony of snores – a snore-chestra, if you will. Ah the joys of hosteling.
The next day I went for another walking tour. We met in the Old Town Square near the astronomical clock and commenced our tour, which covered much of the history of the city and many of it’s architectural and cultural wonders.
I met a friendly Egyptian fellow and we discussed the political situation in his country and my travels there last year.
We stopped for lunch, yummy veggie soup in a bread bowl, and finished the tour. I said goodbye to my new friend and made my way from where we wrapped up, near the famous Jewish cemetary, back toward the Old Town Square. It started raining, so I ducked into the National Gallery and spent some time with the ancient things there.
After, I went to the Alphonse Mucha Museum, stopping to do some shopping on the way, as I had some camping ahead of me and no sleeping bag.
The Mucha Museum was small, but lovely, and it brought to my attention his masterpiece, The Slav Epic, which I had never really heard of before.
On the way back to the hostel, I stopped by the Municipal House, where an exposition of art nouveau was taking place.
I filled my eyes and mind with the designs, the jewelry, the posters – there was a bit more Mucha there, and some lovely costumes from the turn of the century.
Finally I called it a day and went back to the hostel. I’d moved so much that day, I just ate leftovers at the hostel and planned the next day’s travels.
In the morning, I got my things together and checked out of the hostel before heading to the modern art museum across the river, where I went in search of the Slav Epic.
Luckily for me, it was there, despite the fact that it is normally housed in a much smaller venue outside of Prague.
I spent over an hour with his enormous paintings, full of history and symbolism, just like I like my art. It was breathtaking to see his mastery of technique, of light, of composition. It was like entering into another world.
Unfortunately, I had to leave it, back to the hostel to get my things and then to the train to leave Prague for the countryside. Once again, my phone came to my aide and I was able to buy a ticket for the train en route. I was heading a few hours outside of the city to a rural and charming area near the mountains.
There I planned to participate in an Ayahuasca ceremony.
I first learned of ayahuasca in 2006 from reading a clip in National Geographic, written by a woman with the same first name as me. I was in Oklahoma at the time, working for Bill Wiseman, former Oklahoma state legislator. I was interested by her account but it sounded pretty foreign to me: she visited a shaman in South America and imbibed a special tea – a mix of two plants found only in the rainforest.
Later that year, as I was traveling the world, I read a book called The Supernatural, which discussed human development in connection with different psychotropic substances: mushrooms, the fabled soma of Hindu mythology, and ayahuasca, among others.
When I returned from my travels, I met a Native American roadman who invited me to participate in peyote ceremonies. I did my first one in 2007 and another in 2012, not long after the death of my sister, Erika.
These were powerful ceremonies, but I was still curious about the ayahuasca ceremonies.
Then, last year, when I was in India again, I met a Czech man who told me he had participated in such ceremonies in the Czech Republic. He put me in touch with his friends who do the ceremony there and finally I made plans to try this powerful medicine.
I arrived in the afternoon and walked a couple of kilometers to the house where the ceremony would take place.
It was a beautiful sunny day and the countryside there was beautiful and wild. I met some very nice people there and we prepared for the ceremony that evening.
We all found our places on the floor and the ceremony began in the darkness. We took the first round of medicine and received the first purification from the shaman, an Ecuadorian man who comes to the Czech Republic a few times a year to lead such ceremonies.
The sounds and feelings are difficult to describe and I don’t think I can attempt it yet. Sensations, vision, thoughts, emotions flooded through me in the dark. I was overcome with thoughts of Erika and I found myself weeping openly in the dark, experience the sort of grief for her I’d hadn’t felt since I first learned of her sudden death.
The night was long and eventually I made my way outside to watch the night sky and finally to get a little sleep before the sun rose and the night was over.
In the morning we all took a walk in the forest together and sat among the trees, discussing our experiences and what we went through. Everyone but me spoke Czech but one of the others girls there translated for me.
We returned to the house and I played my little guitar and sang for a while before someone came to say goodbye to me and in the end, offered me a ride back to Prague. I got my things together quickly and went with him back to the city, stopping to buy some fruits along the way.
We got back to Prague and had lunch at another vegetarian restaurant, this one was mostly Indian food, not too different from what I might find in an ashram. He got me back to the hostel, where I’d left my backpack for the night. I cleaned up and prepared for the next step in my journey: a flight to Marseille, where I would meet up with someone I met 7 years ago, the first time I was in India.
As I checked in for my flight, the guy behind me asked me if it was ok to take guitars on as carryon: he, too, had a little guitar, about the same size as mine. We started talking and it turned out he was from close to Marseille and was returning home urgently after hearing that his uncle, who had been injured in a car wreck a few weeks earlier, had taken a turn for the worst and would likely leave this world very soon. We got on immediately and discussed many things as we waiting for the plane.
As we boarded, I got a text from the friend I was going to meet in Marseille that there had been a train problem and he couldn’t make it that night. This was a bit unsettling, as he had been supposed to get the key for an Air BNB rental that night. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure where I’d be sleeping that night.
My new French friend assured me that he would do what he could to get me to someplace I could sleep and would have invited me to stay with his family, if it weren’t for the difficult timing, with the impending death of his uncle.
Luckily, when I arrived, I discovered my friend had booked me a room at an airport hotel. My French friend introduced me to his mother who came to get him from the airport and they drove me to my hotel, where I promptly passed out and slept a deep exhausted sleep.
The next day, Dorian, the person I’d met in India so long ago, arrived and we set off on the next chapter of my travels. We picked up a rental car and headed north toward Grignan – a small medieval village where a friend of mine owns a campground. We stopped along the way for lunch in Salon de Provence, another charming Provencal town which I had visited several years before with my friend Quitterie. We explored the old city, where Nostradamus has once lived, and visited the museum in the chateau there.
Then we continued on our way to Grignan by the small roads, passing by picturesque villages, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers on the way.
We got to the campgrounds a bit after 7 pm and had time for a quick swim in the pool before it closed.
That night we went out to dine in Grignan, finding a creperie where we sat outside next to a friendly French family, with whom we conversed in French about New York and other pleasantries.
The full moon rose over the chateau as we walked around, exploring the tiny, maze-like streets of the city.
We passed a night in our tent and the next day, after another lovely swim, we set off to explore the area near Grignan. Many little cities with chateaus and churches dot the region and we explored several of them as we made our tour.
We also visited the Valley of the Nymphs, a former pagan site which had later, of course, been adorned with a church. But the spring there was clearly the reason for the holiness of the place and it felt very mysterious and somehow sacred there. Large frogs and small shrimp swam in the shallow rectangular pool where the springwater collected.
We headed back to the campground to find my friend Jiline, who had invited us to dine with her and some of her friends at the restaurant there.
A good time and a yummy meal was had by all, not to mention several pitchers of rose. After dinner it was quite late and we retreated to the tent, the full moon shining down on us, illuminated the night.
In the morning we did some yoga and Dorian tried to teach me some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (not the most graceful of sports – * when attempted by an amateur like myself). Then we walked to a nearby farm to buy some goat cheese and got to love on the goats there a bit before returning to the camping to eat some of the yummy cheese for breakfast.
We went for a swim and later a bike ride into Grignan to explore the chateau and see about going to the play that was being performed there that night. Sadly, the play was fully booked, so we had to content ourselves with the gorgeous views from the ramparts.
We bought some wine and food to cook and returned to the campground. Unfortunately, there was a bit of confusion and we ended up unable to cook our food, but we were able to get some delicious ratatouille from the restaurant and enjoy our rose before retiring for our last night in Grignan.
That night it rained like crazy and we were a bit unprepared for it, so ended up with water in the tent and a wet morning that prevented us from leaving as early as we’d planned. I made us a big omelet with all the things we’d bought for dinner the night before and we had enough left over to make sandwiches for the road.
We finally got our things together and headed south and west toward Pau, where I studied one summer when I was in college, ten years ago.
We stopped off in Montpellier to explore a bit and found a Lebanese place where we got taboule and dolmas before continuing toward Pau.
We made it around 10:30 pm and found my friend Quitterie and her boyfriend Will still awake with their sweet baby, Morgan. It is always a pleasure to see Quitterie, whom I met my first time in Pau. I also met her boyfriend, Will, two years ago, when I was last in France.
We’ve had fun adventures in the southwest – I took Dorian to the chateau of Pau – the birthplace of king Henri IV, but more important was that we should have the crepes there at a traditional restaurant called Chez Maman. Though it had been ten years since I tasted their crepes with piperade (the salsa of the Basque region in southwest France), they were just as good as I remembered.
We walked around the downtown area, enjoying the lovely day and each others’ company. Eventually, we bought some bread and wine and went back to join Quitterie and William for dinner
The next day we went for a hike in the mountains, stopping along the way for picnic supplies, though it was difficult to find a store that was open, since it was a jour ferie – a holiday in France – and almost everything was closed.
Finally, we found the Platueau of Benou, which Quitterie had suggested we visit. We had a lovely picnic, joined at the end by some friendly dogs whom we plied with some of Dorian’s ham.
We went for a lovely little randonee (a hike, but kind of a lazy one) and enjoyed the view it afforded us of the valley below. The Pyrenees of southwest France are not as well-known as the Alps, but they are beautiful just the same.
We headed back to Pau and Quitterie joined us for a very late dinner in town. I’ve had such luck finding vegetarian food on this trip, but France is a different story. In the end, I had the crudites plate – which I was afraid would by a pile of uncooked carrots and other veggies, but I was surprised to find it was a tasty mix of cooked aubergine (eggplant for Americans) salad and taboule with other yummy things beside.
The next day was Saturday and since William could stay home with the baby, Quitterie, Dorian, myself, and Quitterie’s mother all went to the beach in Biarritz, a resort town about an hour’s drive from Pau.
We had a lovely time there, walking around and enjoying the sights.
In the afternoon we went swimming on one of the little beaches not far from the Grande Plage. The water in the Atlantic is refreshing and invigorating and I must say, I love doing at least a little topless bathing when I am in France.
When in France!
We had a dinner of pizza a mussels at a nearby restaurant and Dorian and I got a bit tipsy on rose before we walked back toward the car and headed back to Pau. (to clarify, we were not driving! had a DD! Quitterie!)
The next day Dorian had to leave. I drove him to Bordeaux that morning and we got to see a little of that city as we searched for breakfast before he caught his flight.
I returned to the south by way of little roads to Seignosse, another beach town, though this one is better known for the surfing there. Quitterie and her mother were there and I found them, eventually, on the beach. We had a lovely afternoon of swimming and chatting before they went back to Pau and I stayed on for dinner there.
It was all going so well until I couldn’t find a gas station and I had some tense times searching for one, only to discover when I finally found one that my card wouldn’t work there and there was no one I could pay. After a bunch of wrong turns, I got on the autoroute and found a gas station where I could pay in cash, but then I had no more cash to pay the tolls. I tried to find some town (a town called Urt, in fact) with an ATM. When I finally succeeded, after a tour of Urt, the only ATM in town turned out to be empty. Luckily, it was simple to get through the toll booths and I even exchanged pleasantries with the attendants as I explained my situation and how I had tried to get money out etc.
I drove the rest of the way to Pau on small and rather industrial routes, blue lights blinking in the distance. Quitterie and her mother agreed that I was fortunate there was someone there at that hour.
I made it back to Pau near midnight, exhausted, but happy to be off the road. Quitterie and Will were waiting up for me and I had some wine and went to bed.
Now I am on my last days in Pau – one more chance to see something of the area before I catch a plane to London tomorrow!
Well, it took forever to recount this all, so I will leave it there!
Love and miss,