An art gallery with a difference: Urban Spree, Berlin, Germany

Urban Spree
Revaler Strasse 99, Berlin
http://www.urbanspree.com/

If you’re not a big believer in “what’s meant to be, will be,” let me tell you a little story that may change your mind. After a long day in Berlin, I was flopped on the bed in my PJs having a look at the Berlin city map on my beloved Sygic Travel app to see what else was in the area of a particular Christmas market we planned to visit the following day. I saw a little logo right near the market and clicked on it: Urban Spree. The description read “This eclectic space hosts concerts, workshops, exhibitions, markets, festivals and other artsy events – just dive in and explore this vibrant place.” Great idea! Until I looked at the rest of the day’s activities and realised it was one of those days we’d be doing lots of stuff I’d enjoy/stuff that husband just tolerates because he loves me.

Fast forward to the next morning, and off we go to the Christmas market. We walked from the train station and followed the blue dot on the phone’s map towards the area of the market. And found ourselves in an absolutely incredible area that can only be described as hipster art gallery meets the apocalypse; we accidentally turned up at the back entrance to the market, which happened to be the front entrance of Urban Spree. And husband thought it was awesome, anyway. Meant. To. Be.

It’s actually kinda hard to describe Urban Spree. The website says:

“Urban Spree is a 1700 sqm artistic space in Berlin-Friedrichshain dedicated to urban cultures through exhibitions, artist residencies, DIY workshops, concerts, an art store and a large Biergarten.

Within Urban Spree, the Urban Spree Galerie is a 400 sqm independent contemporary urban art space. Set in a 70.000 sqm postindustrial compound in the heart of Berlin, the gallery benefits from its large urban grassroots ecosystem and offers its invited artists and photographers an ideal space for experimentation through ambitious on-site residencies.”

On the day I visited, without having read any information about it other than what was on the app, what it looked like to me was a crappy old industrial area full of abandoned buildings left to decay. Which was then taken over by a band of entrepreneurial hipsters and artists who decided to make something beautiful out of it. What you have to understand here is that I’m a Melbourne girl; I’m spoilt, I’m used to great street art projects, and it takes a bit to impress me. Urban Spree totally knocked my socks off. The bars and shops and galleries within it weren’t open on this particular day, but that only made for a better experience – there were only a few other people around, so we got to wonder around this phenomenal area in peace. Instead of snapping a photo and running to the next mural, we got to actually look at the pieces; I’m quite an introspective creature, so I couldn’t have been happier with all of that physical and mental space to take it all in and mull it over.

I imagine it’d have a pretty awesome atmosphere in full swing with people all around, live music playing and drinks flowing, but if you’re there for the art, I’d really recommend visiting early in the morning. We spent a good hour walking around before we finally made it to the Christmas market, and could have easily spent an hour more pouring over all of the artwork. With the rise of artists like Banksy, it’s really great that cities are slowly forming a more progressive view on art in its many forms – what would have once been considered graffiti on derelict buildings is now seen as real art, and the casual, outdoor gallery that is Urban Spree is getting a new generation involved in art in a way that the stuffy art galleries of old never could.

   

A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

Top 10 Things To Do in Prague

I thought I’d kick off the new year with one of my favourite new cities – Prague was incredible! It was one of the cities I picked out for this trip because it looked beautiful in photos I’d seen, and sounded fascinating from the books and blog posts I’d read. Expect to see a lot more about this gorgeous city here in the coming months, but for now, here are 10 things you can add to your Prague bucket list!

 

1. Eat some seriously good traditional home-style food at U-Medvidku.

http://umedvidku.cz/en/
Where? Na Perštýně 7, 100 01 Staré Město
Why go?
They’re a restaurant, hotel and brewery all in one, and the food is warm plates of pure comfort. I highly recommend the potato dumplings filled with smoked ham on a bed of red and white sauerkraut – it looks almost as unappealing as it sounds, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. So much so, we went back the following day to order it again!
How long will you need? An hour or so for a good meal – food actually comes out pretty quickly,  but you’ll want time to enjoy it!
Cost? Soups and entrees from AUD$3.00, mains from AUD$12.00

 

2. Cross Charles Bridge – duh.

Where? In the middle of the city
Why go?  Don’t expect it to be quiet and romantic; it’s as packed with tourists as the Brooklyn Bridge! If you’re willing to get up and go early in the morning, you’ll enjoy a nice sunset with less people around, otherwise join the throngs later in the day and enjoy!
How long will you need? Leave at least half an hour each way
Cost? Free!

 

3. Then, see the bridge from above, at the top of the Old Town Bridge Tower.

http://en.muzeumprahy.cz/201-the-old-town-bridge-tower/
Where? The end of Charles Bridge – Old Town side
Why go? After crossing back into the Old Town from the lesser town side, you’ll reach the beautiful Old Town Bridge Tower. Most people we saw stopped to snap a photo of it, but very few seemed to notice the little entrance – head in, pay around AUD$6.00 for entry, climb the stairs to the top, and be rewarded with the best view of Charles Bridge in the city.
How long will you need? An hour or so, depending on how you do with the stairs
Cost? About AUD$6.00

 

4. Take the stairs on Zámecké schody to Prague Castle.

Where? Corner of Thunovská and Zámecká Streets, then head west (turn left) at Thunovská
Why go? Most people enter the castle complex on the opposite side, via the Old Castle Stairs, but that’s actually starting at the back – it was meant to be entered from the first courtyard. But that’s not the only reason; the view out over Prague from the top of the Zámecké schody stairs is unbeatable, especially around sunrise.
How long will you need? 10 minutes or so to the top
Cost? Free again!

 

5. Buy a ticket at Prague Castle to see more than just the outside of the buildings.

https://www.hrad.cz/en
Where? Take the stairs – see above
Why go? There are a few options depending on how much or little you want to see; we went with the middle ground and bought tickets for “Circuit B” which included access to the incredibly imposing St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, St George’s Basilica and Golden Lane (you’ll find Frank Kafka’s house among the tiny colourful dwellings here).
How long will you need? At least 2 – 3 hours
Cost? Circuit B cost around AUD$15.00, plus around AUD$6.00 for a license to take photos

 

6. Indulge your sweet tooth at Café Savoy.

http://cafesavoy.ambi.cz/en/
Where? Vítězná 124/5, Malá Strana, 150 00 Praha-Smíchov
Why go?
It’s one of the most opulent places you’re ever likely to eat cake, and they have a great big tea list, too! It’s also great for a spot of people watching, with locals and tourists both pouring through the doors.
How long will you need? How much cake do you wanna eat?
Cost? A fancy coffee, a pot of loose leaf tea and a gourmet slice of cake will cost around AUD$15.00 – $20.00

 

7. Feel the love at Lennon Wall.

Where? Velkopřevorské náměstí 490/1, 118 00, Prague 5-Malá Strana 
Why go?
While the man himself never had anything to do with the wall, he became a bit of a hero to the pacifist youth when he died in 1980 – his songs of peace and freedom were a pipe dream to many back when Communism was king – and for whatever reason, they took to this wall to paint their own messages. So many of us take our freedom for granted now, so it was actually pretty moving to stand before this wall that so many young people risked their lives to promote that message on.
How long will you need? Leave time to stay a while
Cost? Nothing!

 

8. Try one of the city’s most famous street foods from a vendor in Wenceslas Square – fried cheese.

Where? Wenceslas Square – look for the carts labelled “Vaclavsky Grill”
Why go? Yup. A solid chunk of cheese, crumbed, deep fried, and nestled in a bread roll. Add a little mustard and mayonnaise, and tell me that’s not the greatest thing ever.
How long will you need? 30 seconds… it’s so good it won’t last long!
Cost? A few dollars

 

9. Shop for books at The Globe Bookstore.

http://globebookstore.cz
Where? Pštrossova 1925/6, 110 00 Nové Město
Why go? 
While there are a few book stores floating around the city, this one was the first in the city to stock English language books, and it was the best one I found. They also have a great little café/restaurant in there with surprisingly good and well priced food.
How long will you need?
Browsing and eating can take a while…
Cost? Depends how many books you want; food is very well priced – you can get a decent sized meal for around AUD$10.00 – $12.00

 

10. Walk up Celetna Street into Old Town Square.

Where? Celetna Street – just follow it all the way to Old Town Square!
Why go? Because you can’t possibly leave Prague without seeing the Astronomical Clock! Celetna Street itself is one of the oldest streets in the city, and it’s unbelievably beautiful. And the clock really speaks for itself – it does get super crowded on the hour for its little song-and-dance routine, but it’s absolutely worth seeing!
How long will you need? At least an hour
Cost? Another freebie!

How to day trip by train from Bern: Interlaken, Grindelwald & Thun

In the course of our trip planning, I spent many hours trawling through travel blogs and websites, trying to find the most helpful information I could, in order to plan the best trip possible. For the most part, that wasn’t too hard, but when it came to Switzerland, I honestly had no idea.

We wanted a good mix of places we’ve been to before that we wanted to re-visit, and some cities that we didn’t know a lot about, so we’d have something new to discover. I threw Bern into the mix, and husband said “yeah, why not?!” Great. We’re going. Now what?!

Grindelwald

I picked Bern because it looked like a really pretty, charming Swiss city, but not as busy as Zurich or Geneva, and I figured it’d be the perfect city to slow down for a while in. I started Googling, and found that there’s actually a bit to do around there, if you want to, which led me to looking for rail information. After spending some time trawling the internet, I landed on MySwissAlps.com, a cornucopia of helpful information for someone with no idea past “it looks like a pretty place to visit” but still wanted to explore by train.

Aside from the rail help and the usual information about what to do, where to go, how to find accommodation etc, they have a few forums, which is where I found the most useful information:

1. Rail: the place to ask ALL questions about rail travel.
2. Accommodation: the place for all things accommodation, including the more niche spots (eg. where to base yourself if you’re going to hike).
3. Trip Reports: the place for travelers to post their itineraries and talk about how their trip went.
4. Miscellaneous: everything else!

Thun

While we already had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do, it was great to browse the forums and look at other ideas. It was also nice to see how helpful users were when someone asked for help with an itinerary! And when it came to finding information on specific cities, I found it easiest to just type the city name into the search box rather than hunt through the site. A good example was Thun – I’d seen some beautiful pictures of the place and that got my attentions, but I didn’t know what else there was to see or do there. A quick search showed me So, I typed “THUN” into the search box gave me options for boat trips, hiking paths and sightseeing options.

Grindelwald

Arno and Annika who run the site actually aren’t native Swiss – they’re a couple from the Netherlands who fell in love with Switzerland and decided to create a hobby out of it, which then turned into a business! I liked their site because they’re independent operators who specialize in rail travel, and that’s what we needed; a company who could advise us on how to get around by train, but that wouldn’t try to sell us something they were being paid to sell. And when I emailed for help, they got right back to me and explained that I didn’t need to buy several different tickets for our day trip – I could just buy one return ticket Bern to Grindelwald and break my journey in Thun and Interlaken. Lucky I asked!! Also, just for the record, the trains are really very comfortable and spacious…

 

As for the day trip itself, it may seem like a lot of ground to cover in a day, but because the rail system is so efficient and simple to use, it was actually a really easy and stress-free day! Here’s what our itinerary looked like, in case you need some ideas…

How did we make this work by train?
It actually couldn’t have been easier; as I mentioned before, there’s no need to purchase multiple one way tickets, nor do you need to worry about booking tickets in advance. Just buy a Bern to Grindelwald return ticket at Bern’s main railway station (around CHF 80 per person) and you can break your journey at Interlaken in one direction and Thun in the other! Easy!

 

STOP 1: INTERLAKEN (55min from Bern, getting off at Interlaken Ost station)
Why go? Other than the fact that everyone’s photos looked really nice, the forums told me that Interlaken was the place to go for adventure sports and adrenaline experiences, and I’ve always wanted to go paragliding…

What did we do there?
– I went paragliding with Paragliding Interlaken, and couldn’t recommend them more highly – complete professionals and so much fun!
– If you’re a shopper, you’ll love Interlaken’s bounty of boutiques.
– And chocolate. Swiss chocolate. From the Swiss Chocolat Chalet; get a 200g bag of mixed chunks of chocolate (milk choc hazelnut, dark choc almond, that kinda thing) for CHF 12.80.

 

STOP 2: GRINDELWALD (35min from Interlaken Ost)
Why go to Grindelwald? It’s a good base for the snow bunnies, but for the rest of us, it’s an incredibly beautiful town sitting around 1000m above sea level and surrounded by mountains.

What did we do there?
– Walked around the village and stopped every few metres to admire the view!
– Lunch at Alte Post – think old-style, straight out of the movies wooden chalet with a cosy interior and homestyle cooking!
– You can also easily get to the ‘top of Europe’ at Jungfraujoch from here.

 

STOP 3: THUN (1hr 15min from Grindelwald with an easy change at Interlaken Ost)
Why go to Thun? Honestly, I saw a gorgeous photo of Thun’s perfect blue lake and thought it would be nice to see… Turns out it’s a much bigger town than I first thought and there’s quite a lot to do there! And the best view of the lake is from the window of the train as it passes…

What did we do there?
– This is another great place for shoppers, but less high end designers and more every day affordable stores! Get onto the islet in the centre of town and walk the main street Bälliz.
– For multi-cultural restaurants, cafes and a more personal shopping experience, try Obere Hauptgasse street; think hand crafter jewellery, second hand book shops, and small fashion boutiques.
– Thun Castle was beautiful – a bit of a climb with a view more than worth it! There’s a restaurant and shop in the castle walls which can be accessed by anyone, then it’s a CHF 10 fee for some extra access including the museum exhibits.

 And your last train is an easy 20 minute ride direct from Thun to Bern! The stations are all well signed in terms of which platform you’ll need to get to which city, and there’s no need to validate your ticket – just hold onto it so it can be checked by one of the train conductors when they walk through. And that’s it! Three towns in a day: no tour bus or guide necessary!

 

* Disclosure: This post was partially sponsored by MySwissAlps.com, however the opinions contained herein are completely my own based on my experience, as per usual 🙂 *