Our Wild Trabi Safari

August 15, 2016 at 2:52 pm

Our Wild Trabi Safari
Who wouldn’t want to cruise around Berlin driving a 1960’s East German Trabant? Traveling with two young adults in their 20’s often pushes me outside of my comfort zone and honestly, the Trabant is a car with no claim to comfort. We tend to waffle between seeing the great sites of a destination like the Brandenburg gate or The Berlin Wall and lounging around cafés near our hotel just people watching. We decided it was time to spice up our trip to Berlin with a truly unique tour. Trabi Safari offers escorted tours through former East Berlin and a chance to drive a vintage Trabi. Count us in!
Explore East Berlin on Trabi Safari

The Trabant, nicknamed “Trabi”was manufactured in East Germany between 1957 and 1991. These smoky, two-stroke engine cars were in such demand that East Germans waited up to ten years to get one. Party officials and celebrities usually managed to jump the line, but for an average citizen, owning Trabi was a sign of prestige. They took meticulous care of them, so they could last for years and many remain today. At 18 horse power the Trabis top out at 62 miles per hour and are often missing conveniences like turn signals and gas gauges. These details make for a crazy driving experience, so we screwed up our courage when we signed up for the tour.

Trabi Safari is located just steps from Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. We showed up a bit early which was not necessary as the tour took quite a while to get organized. The Trabis aren’t always cooperative so selecting 8 to 10 of these little beauties that run at the same time can be a challenge.

Trabi Safari

In time we were escorted out to the Trabi yard where we could choose our car. We selected a pea green sedan but could have upgraded to a convertible or one of the crazy Trabis painted as giraffes, tigers, or the pink panther. Our guide walked us through a crash (pun intended!)course in Trabi operations. The little cars have a two-stroke engine and are basically like driving a riding lawnmower. …… through the streets of Berlin! A guide leads the tour and another follows behind offering instructions and commentary through a radio. We were off.

Soviet Era Apartments
Trabi Gas Station

The tour includes sites like Soviet era apartment buildings, the Berlin Wall and various communist party headquarters. What with the frequent stalls and lack of braking ability, driving the car demands the bulk of your attention. Don’t expect perfect photo ops or an in depth history lesson. One of the high points of our tour was a stop at the gas station to refuel the Trabis. After some intense maneuvering we managed to line up 10 Trabis at the pumps and were soon gassed up and ready to roll on. We were often the object of pointing, laughing and photo taking from pedestrians on the sidewalks. We ended up loving this quirky tour, laughing through East Berlin on Trabi Safari.

Tips:
We had wrestled with their online reservation system. So I sent them an email begging for a chance to take their tour. Keep at it. It’s worth it.

Don’t stress too much about the actual driving. If you can drive a manual transmission, you’ll be fine. You don’t need for an International Driver’s license, just a sense of humor.

Our 2015 Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip Budget

July 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm

tOur 2015 Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip Budget

In the interest of comparison, I’ve decided to take a look at our budget and expenses for our 2015 Europe trip. You can read about our 2016 Japan budget here. We knew we wanted to go back to Europe after spending two weeks in Ireland, London and Paris the year before. We weren’t sure where we would go, so we watched for airfare deals in countries we might want to visit. When a good deal on a flight to Copenhagen popped up we jumped on it. Scandinavia is well known for being pricey, but was definitely on our bucket list. We had heard wonderful things about Berlin, so we added a week in Germany. Once again, there were three adults and the trip was my treat. So here’s what we spent:

Airfare (American)                                            1954.

Hotels: Copenhagen (3 Nights)                       460.
Stockholm (3)                                                      354.
Hamburg (2)                                                        361.
Copenhagen Airport(1)                                     267.

Airbnb Berlin(5 nights)                                     459.

Eurail Passes and Reservations                     1028.

Stockholm Subway Pass                                      60.
Hamburg Subway Pass                                        62.
Berlin Subway Pass                                             137.

Tours: Hamburg Miniature Museum               38.
Berlin Fat Tire Bike                                             165.
Berlin Trabi Tour                                                 132.

Starting Cash (euro, Kroner, etc.)                   500.

Spending Money                                               2700.

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Total                                                                   $8677

 

The conclusion? This was a 14 day trip for 3 adults. We averaged $620 per day and $2892 per person. Again, certain expenses were shared, so the average doesn’t reflect what a single traveler would pay. Compared to our Japan trip(18 days, $7989 total, $444 per day,$2663 per person) we spent quite a bit more. I’d say we’re learning.

 

Our Meeting the French Bakery Tour

July 12, 2016 at 7:37 pm


Meeting the French Bakery tour

My two adult children are often aggravated with me because I am an over planner. I believe half the fun of a vacation is researching and booking your time well before hand. My daughter was very surprised when we got to Paris and didn’t have every minute of the trip planned out. I knew we would see the big sites, but to be honest Paris overwhelmed me a bit. I had been apprehensive about the Parisian’s brusque reputation . From the minute we got off the train however, things felt really wonderful. We got lost walking to our hotel and a lovely French woman led us all the way to it.  This was the first of some great surprises. The Parisians were so warm and welcoming!  

I asked my daughter what she wanted to do and she decided she would love to tour a French bakery.  I didn’t think I would be able to make this happen without reservations weeks in advance, but started researching on the internet just in case. There were a number of companies that offered bakery tours or special tastings, but they were very expensive and already booked up. Then I found Meeting the French. This company offers special experiences like tours of bakeries, flower markets and vintage shopping excursions with a Parisian guide to give a behind the scenes experience. After some discussion, we decided to book a baking lesson at a French bakery for the next day.

The bakery was tucked away on a quiet street, but we had no trouble finding it. We met our guide and the one other participant inside and were taken to the back room for introductions and an overview of the morning’s activities. Our guide was amazing! She graciously translated the French of the baker to Japanese for the other guest and English for us. She never missed a beat and was able to make the complicated process of making baguettes understandable to each of us.

French Baker with Baguettes

Our Charming French Baker

We headed down into the basement of the small, family-owned bakery, where our baker charmed us with humorous anecdotes and inside stories about life as a Parisian baker. He gave us an overview of the types of flour and other ingredients used to bake traditional Parisian baguettes. He explained the difference between boulangeries (bread bakeries) and patisseries (pastry bakeries.) Baguettes are created using a very specific set of rules: #55 flour, Parisian water, hot steam ovens and careful shaping techniques. Once we had the rules down, we started  baking. He guided us through each step until we had created a variety of breads and croissants. When we got our loaves into the oven we headed back upstairs for a mini pastry baking lesson. It was fun to see all of the fillings for the elaborate pastries.

Learning to Mark Baguettes

Learning to Mark Baguettes

Two hours later we left the bakery loaded with toasty, fresh baguettes, croissants and a deep affection for the French. We would heartily recommend this tour. Our tour cost 113 euros each and lasted over 2 hours. Our guide and baker were warm, friendly and knowledgeable. We definitely loved “Meeting the French!”

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5 Tips for Your First Trip to Europe

September 11, 2015 at 5:28 pm


5 Tips for Your First Trip to Europe

On my first trip to Europe in 1980 I only visited London but made memories that will last a lifetime. I won’t lie, though, I had a bit of a rocky start. I got off the train from Gatwick Airport at Victoria Station and nervously hailed a cab. I read out my hotel address and the cab driver drove me the two blocks to my hotel! Clearly, I had a thing or two to learn. I settled in and was thrilled to visit the classic museums, hang out in the parks and shop in the iconic London department stores. I learned a trip like that can be a great introduction to travel abroad. You don’t have to have a crazy, adventure experience to make wonderful memories. While I am by no means an expert, in the last couple of years I have learned more about traveling through Europe and how to make it a comfortable AND fabulous experience. These are my quick five tips for a first European vacation.

1. Start in a small country. Often fares to Ireland, Denmark, or Portugal are less expensive than the biggest cities. These are great destinations to start out your trip. Small countries have smaller airports and the logistics of getting to your hotel or Airbnb are much simpler. Starting your trip at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris can be really overwhelming. I found the people in smaller countries tend to be friendly and helpful to first-time visitors.

2. Start in a country where English is common. Europe is wonderfully different from America even when you don’t factor in the language differences. If you begin your trip in Edinburgh, you will get a taste of those differences and yet still be able to manage the challenges of being in a completely new place. Again, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland are great starting points. We struggled to find the Ice Bar in Stockholm and needed to stop at least half a dozen people to get directions. Everyone spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful.

3. Explore your neighborhood first. Fight the urge to run to the Louvre the minute you hit Paris. After years of waiting to see the spots on your bucket list, it can be tough to hold yourself back but if you spend some time making your neighborhood a home base your entire trip will feel more comfortable and relaxed. Naturally the big sites are packed with tourists and can feel overwhelming. If you spend some time sitting in a local café, people watching and getting the lay of the land you will learn so much about the amazing European culture you came to see. Then see the Louvre!

4. Plan the important stuff and leave the rest to chance. We always make sure we know how to get from the airport to the hotel and what form of transportation we plan to take in a new city. We check online before we leave to see if our most important sites require advanced tickets or have unusual hours. We would have waited in a huge line at the Hamburg Minatur Wunderland if we hadn’t bought our tickets before we left home. This was an important stop for us so we made sure to plan ahead. Also leave some things to chance. The parks we just stumbled on in Hamburg turned out to be a highlight of our time there.

5. Meet the people. On the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm we chose to not sit together and this led to a lovely morning chatting with a Swedish gentleman headed to a month alone on his family’s own island. The times we got out of our comfort zone and asked for help or were just willing to start a conversation with a stranger led to some of our favorite memories. It really is about the people.

Do you have any tips for first timers?

 

 

 

 

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Copenhagen-So Easy to Love!

August 29, 2015 at 9:39 pm


Copenhagen from Hotel Window
When we booked our flight to Europe this May, we were only thinking about the lowest fare and not our first destination. We chose Copenhagen because the seats were cheap! Our original plan was to fly in and out of Copenhagen using it for a launching site to Sweden and Germany. When we arrived at our hotel in the middle of the night we conked out, exhausted from a long day of travel. I woke up at four in the morning and peaked out the window for my first look at the city. Just as I was taking in the lovely view, a group of young people sailed by on their bicycles after a night of partying. Each boy had a pretty danish girl perched on his handlebars or behind him and they were chattering away on their cool, early-morning ride home. This was just the first of many times I was thankful we chose Copenhagen as our first stop.

 

Denmark is fun. With such friendly outgoing citizens, how could it not be? If you are on holiday in Denmark it is perfectly acceptable to crack open a Tuborg beer on the train and relax and chat with your neighbors.  In the U.S., some might look askance at you, but in Denmark life is meant to be enjoyed.  We laughed and giggled at the Fish Kiss Spa, while tiny fish nibbled at our feet and gave us a pedicure. At the large outdoor beer gardens, we relaxed at a tiny table and watched the world go by. After a long dark winter, the Danes come out to enjoy life to its fullest in the summer. Having fun is high-priority.

 

Denmark is healthy. We’ve all heard this, but until you witness it first hand you can’t really understand how great this is. Everyone is out biking, jogging or kayaking. As we walked through the parks groups of grammas jogged by happily chatting with each other. Little danish children enjoy riding in the front of fabulous custom made bicycles. Even the dogs look healthier here!

 

Denmark is so clean. When you visit a country that takes such good care of the earth it is hard not to be inspired. Each little house has a beautiful flower garden in front   The streets are spotless and the water crystal clear. When we used a public bathroom in the center of town an attendant ran in afterward to clean the toilet after each use. This might seem a bit much, but it makes a traveler’s experience so much brighter.

 

Denmark offers good value for the expense. It’s no secret that Scandinavia is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit. This was hard to adjust to at first, but later we realized we would rather spend more and have such a high-quality experience. We stayed in a budget hotel, and that worked well because it was so clean and well appointed it felt luxurious. When you know the quality of food you are receiving is top notch, it feels perfectly reasonable to spend a bit more on a meal.

 

We left Copenhagen feeling blessed that a happy accident turned into a wonderful memory. We can’t wait to return and explore this tiny, fabulous country some more.