AA on the road: Day 3 – Crossing the Germany – Czech Republic border

Day 3: August 29, 2015
Time: 11:00
Location: Berlin, Germany
Destination: Skutec, Czech Republic

Hallo! After 2 days spent in our wonderful Berlin we are ready to hit the road. The bags are packed, the car is tanked, and it is time to say good-bye to our lovely hosts – Miro & Isabell.

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Miro & Isabell – our dear friends in Berlin (Photo credit: Miroslav Mateev)

Miro is from Bulgaria, Isabell – from Germany, and now they call Berlin their home. Their love story is a beautiful one, I will just say that they had to travel all the way to Alaska to find each other there <3.

I first met Miro in 2010-2011 at my Deutsche class, when Andreas and I were living in Berlin. He was one of the most hard-working students in the class, on par with me (I am modest I know), and that is how our friendship was struck. I like hard-working people :) Miro is also a crazy bike enthusiast, he probably averages around 100 km a day or more, which according to my standards is insane and worthy of a trophy! So if you are ever in Berlin, you might bump into Miro, the famous cyclist of Berlin. Isabell is the sweetest English language/history teacher. She is probably the most diligent teacher in Germany, she puts so much care and love in her lesson preps, that one should seriously envy her students. Isabel is less into biking and more into hiking/strolling, which suits Miro just fine.

These lovely friends of ours became our first hosts of the road trip, and we couldn’t wish for a more wonderful start of the trip :) Tschüss Berlin, tschüss Deutschland, country #2.

Fahren fahren fahren auf die Autobahn. The course is set towards Basteigebiet, the last German stronghold before reaching the Czech border, the country #3 on our list.

The breathtaking scenery of Sächsische Schweiz

The breathtaking scenery of Sächsische Schweiz

Basteigebiet is an incredible bridge built in the rock formations in the natural park Sächsische Schweiz reaching across the border into Czech Republic. We heard about this place some years ago when visiting Dresden but couldn’t make it there at that time. Now the opportunity presented itself on a silver plate.

Rock formations

Sandstone rocks were eroded millions of years ago and now stand as breathtaking columns. To ease access for the less adventurous visitors, a wooden bridge was constructed in the early 19th century. The heavy load of the visitors called for a sturdier construction and in the 1800’s a sandstone bridge was built between the columns. Today the number of tourists feels nearly as breathtaking as the view.

Basteigebiet

The bridge, the rocks, the view across Elbe and the plains were incredible, however the place felt a bit crowded. Probably visiting it in the 1800’s would have provided a nicer thrill of adventure than walking on the bridge together with an army of hundred others dominated by Chinese groups and selfie stick couples. Nevertheless, it is quite a thrilling sight especially from a distance standing in a secluded corner and taking in the view.

#fromwhereistand

#fromwhereistand

#fromwherewestand

#fromwherewestand

After making our way back through the hordes of tourists it was time to refuel our own engines. We found a small selbstdienst cafeteria just by the entrance to the bridge. To put it in a nutshell, it was a bit dodgy food featuring deep-fried schnitzels from a place run by funny ladies and overruled by angry wasps. The only good thing about that place was the commanding view of the valley. Shame it was spoiled by this joint.

Rocks, Elbe and fields

Rocks, Elbe and fields

Time to get back on the road. The first international border is waiting to be crossed. Ahoj Czech Republic! First off you need a vignette of course. It is only Germany that allows foreigners to borrow their super nice highways free of charge, probably not for much longer though.

Ahoj Czech Republic! We have made it to country #3 :)

Crossing the German-Czech border was smooth as always in the EU, we barely noticed the small sign indicating the change of countries and the imposing structure in dull concrete. Andreas was very excited at the sight of the former customs station that barely had energy left to give us a wave for a safe journey.

The German-Czech border crossing or what is left from it.

The German-Czech border crossing or what is left from it.

Just across the border we found the next stop on our itinerary: Hrensko. Supposedly a small village with traditional brick and timber houses, instead we found a local version of the Chinese markets we frequented in Beijing. Later we learned from our hosts in Zlin, that the cheap Chinese goods are in high demand with the Czech people. Who would imagine?!

Hrensko - the timbered houses that we were looking for turned out not to be quite so spectacular.

Hrensko – the timbered houses that we were looking for turned out not to be quite so spectacular.

 

 

The apparent landmark of Hrensko - the copycat Chinese market.

The apparent landmark of Hrensko – the copycat Chinese market.

Looking closely behind the seemingly endless rows of cheap merchandise we did notice some traditional houses, but all the charm had been lost with the Asian invasion. In one of the local restaurants we enjoyed a local specialty of three sorts of schnitzel! Together with us there was a very merry crew of Germans that made it across the border for a cheap dinner and some local schnapps. They were quite an amusing sight worthy to have been photographed for memories.

When leaving Hrensko the car started to misbehave just after hours of buying it. In the moment of panic on my side and trying to keep it cool on Andreas’ side, he put on his favourite headlamp and opened the hood of the car to locate the point of cause. After feeding it some lovely motor oil, we resumed the drive. Little did we know that motor oil was not the point of cause and that the first signs of a motor shutting down while driving would become quite a troublesome mystery keeping us stranded in a small city for days to come. But I am running ahead of things…

On the Czech roads...

On the Czech roads…

Back to the Czech roads. We still had some kms to cover and the night was catching up. Apparently when booking our stay for the night we had misjudged the map and ended up booking a place that was much farther from the destination we initially wanted to find us at. After spending a few long hours driving through the Czech hills and forests we have finally arrived at the hut little past midnight. Fortunately our kind host was up waiting for us.

To be continued…

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

AA on the road: Day 2 – First day with the Land Rover

Day 2: August 28, 2015
Time: 09:00
Location: Berlin, Germany

Guten Morgen aus Berlin!

Today it is all about the car. We spent the morning anxiously counting the minutes until the clock would ring 10:00 o’clock so we could call Ali the car dealer. First high five moment of the day! Our Land Rover has passed the toughest test, the bureaucratic exam necessary to deregister the car in Germany and get the export license plates. Phew… we can breath freely now. After all the craziness of yesterday, the chances of obtaining the necessary papers, stamps and license plates did not look so fat. Anyway all the big worries are behind now, the plates are secured, and the car just has to pass a check up at a workshop that is of course friends with the car dealer. Pick-up time 17:00 and we can hit the road as planned the day after.

Seeing as we got some time on our hands before we brought our Rover back home, we decided to take care of one important business. Stock up on some road trip essentials. Nope… not camping gear or a trailer… Wool clothes of course! On the insistence of Andreas, the man cannot resist his shopping urges. He has recently discovered a newfound passion for Merino wool clothes.

When travelling long and constrained on the amount of luggage you can carry, it is great to have clothes that don’t need to be washed every day. On this trip some of the Merino wool items became our travel companions. To put in a word of admiration, this wool has all the benefits of wool and the softness of cotton. It keeps you warm when it’s cold, and cool when it’s hot. It’s naturally odour-resistant / antibacterial so it can go days without washing. Woah if this was happening in a movie you would by now be bombarded by major product placement all over the place. But seriously the Merino sheep didn’t sponsor us unfortunately, so this is only a tip for the road from two travellers who have crossed many roads.

Yes! The license plates with the famous bear of Berlin are secured. Let the adventure begin!

Yes! The license plates with the famous bear of Berlin are secured. Let the adventure begin!

Little after 17:00 we arrive at the all-too-familiar car compound, and are presented with our red license plates. Second high five of the day! After a few moments of pure joy, and signing of Kaufvertrag, that suddenly had a much lower price neatly scribbled in for the official records only, we join Ali on a short drive to the car workshop. At the workshop before getting off the car, we are kindly asked to settle the workshop payment in the car… Hmm… not shady at all! But we are pressed on time and the sight of our Rover is far too tempting to renew price negotiations.

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Here it is – our Rover!

After what seemed like eternity, the car is ready and we can seal the deal.

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A few Euros and a handshake and the deal is sealed!

 

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First spin of our baby Rover – we are all smiles!

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One proud owner. Just look at his smile :)

After two days spent exploring the used car markets of Berlin, we are now proud owners of a Land Rover Freelander in British racing green, the one and only iconic colour! Third high five of the day. Roads of Eastern Europe we are coming!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

AA on the road: Day 1 – Buying the car in Berlin

Day 1: August 27, 2015
Time: 04:30
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Destination: Berlin, Germany

The dawn is about to break. Despite catching just 4 hours of sleep we wake up fresh as morning dew hyped from joy and the anticipation of the wide road that lay in front of us. After months of dreaming, worrying, planning, drawing, reading, searching, and dreaming again our big adventure is about to start.

Rewinding a few hours into the evening before, Andreas, the packing-master did an impeccable job of cramming our month’s of travel essentials into two medium-sized The North Face duffle bags. As he pulled the zipper shut on the bags in the late hours of the night, I had two thoughts:

1. Andreas is the Yoda master of packing! Seriously. Every inch of what to me seemed a rather small bag, was masterfully utilised. Every nook and cranny was neatly packed. Every single item we wanted to bring found a home. If there was ever a championship for packing, he would with no doubt win the title. You will discover more excellent proof of this later on as he artfully packed all the goodies of Armenia from lavash, peach, grapes to jams and wine into a 20 kg suitcase.

2. How on earth did I go from doing a weekend travel with a fully packed North Face bag to the same fully packed North Face bag rationed for one month of travel! Insane. I must say at that moment I secretly felt rather proud of myself for developing traits that helped me to exercise self-discipline on my urge of packing ah these 3 cannot travel without dresses, and oh that absolutely essential t-shirt collection, and 3 pairs of shoes… Don’t be fooled, it was a darn hard struggle, firmly led by the packing master, Andreas. After a month on the road though as I was unpacking the bag I found that there were even clothes I simply didn’t manage to wear throughout the trip. Ah girls…

Back to the morning after. We have a flight to catch. We are going home. To Berlin. Our home for a year and a city that has become the site of our annual pilgrimage since then. Quite symbolically Berlin is what we chose as the start of our road trip.

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This oh-so-familiar corridor at Tegel airport in Berlin. Magical city, here we come!

One hour on an AirBerlin plane, and we are taxiing to the gate of TXL. This airport is not one of the world’s most glamorous, but oh it is so efficient. 5 minutes in and out the door and you are on your way to a TXL airport bus taking you into the city that has so much to offer, to amaze and to make you fall in love with.

Our mission for the day is to locate and secure our ride. A rather important mission, given a car is an absolutely essential attribute of accomplishing a road trip. After many hours of online search Andreas had already shortlisted three potential candidates for us to check out. We naively thought that it would not be such a hard task buying a used car, after all it is civilised, law-abiding Germany we are talking about. But oh no… Berlin car dealers. Many pages could be dedicated to this particular segment of the city’s population. We will suffice with only a brief summary of probably the most intense day of our trip.

Around 11:00 we arrive at the first address, a huge impound, somewhere in Neukölln to check out the first candidate, an old Mitsubishi. After just a few seconds on the site we already felt like we were in Turkey. After some Turkish/Arabic exchange of screams among the various dealers, we are finally shown the right car dealer who possessed the Mitsubishi from the online ad. But the first attempt is almost never a success. Voila the car miraculously broke down yesterday and of course the dealer did not even bother to remove it from the online system or even try to fix it. Disappointed we leave the impound, off to the second location.

This one is half-way across Berlin somewhere in Südkreuz. This time the impound, or rather the car yard, was a much smaller site, with only a few exhibits. The dealer – another Turkish member of the Berlin car mafia, constantly on the phone and constantly screaming. In between those calls he showed us the car – a scratched, beaten up, plastic parts broken off Land Rover. Test drive did not make it better. After futile attempts to try to say thank you and good-bye to the dealer, who did not even bother to interrupt his 20 min and counting conversation, we left the premises to find the third car place.

Seems like we arrive at the hornet’s nest run by a Lebanese familia. Ali was the man who was juggling around a couple of bosses. He had many cars for sale, and among them with a dead battery parked behind a couple other cars, stood our beauty, an old, very old Land Rover Freelander. For Andreas it was love at first sight. His eyes were set on it and only on it.

After 3 hours spent walking around in the impound, being called kollega left and right, witnessing many phone calls, negotiations, Polish buyers, money flying around, and observing firsthand a closely tied network of dealer-car workshop-paper fixer, we were finally taken to a werkstatt where cars were piling on each other. So Andreas’ dream car was deemed unfit to pass the TÜV test, the German car test that is needed for obtaining a car registration. We drive back to the impound, and after some more hours and many more phone calls and a brief meeting with the Big Boss himself we negotiate a price and a plan to make the car ready for us by Saturday, the day we would like to start our drive towards Czech Republic.

After a total of 5 hours on the impound, feeling exhausted, hungry and dusty we were released to enjoy the evening in Berlin.

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Exhausted. 5 hours with Gebrauchtwagen händler in Neukölln finally paid off. Maybe? Awaiting TÜV test and Ausfuhrkennzeichen.

Every time we visit Berlin, there is one special place that we always return to: Sony Center & Potsdamer Platz. If you have been to Berlin, you will probably say just about now, but that is so touristy, why, oh why? Well, yes it is. Potsdamer Platz is quite popular amongst the crowds of people visiting Berlin. The Berlin Wall once ran here. We love it for two reasons: #1 it houses the Sony Center, a beautiful piece of architectural mind. We have our beloved spot, lying on the metal benches under the center’s colourful roof, surrounded by all the life passing by, and gazing dreamily at this sky… And that is exactly what we did to release the long day’s exhaustion.

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There is no place like this – Sony Center

#2 is the sight of the three skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz. Somehow standing there on that busy sidewalk, at the crossroads of Berlin’s turbulent history, looking up at these three buildings, you think back on the past and look forward to the future.

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Potsdamer Platz in evening light.

So here we where, in the midst of enjoying pizza at our usual pizza joint on Potsdzmer Platz, when Ali the car dealer, tracks us down to sign some papers for the car registration and receive cash, of course more than initially agreed for the broker’s service, another guy in the familia, to handle the registration for us with a small price bump along the way. After a really long day, we say good night to Berlin, hoping that the morning after will come with good news…and hopefully no more last-minute pricing surprises.

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan

Weekend in Hamburg – bricks, water, red lights and summertime chilling

Hamburg was on our to-visit list for some time now. Somehow the right occasion did not present itself until a couple of weeks ago. A few hours on the Danish roads and a few more accelerated ones on the German autobahns brought us to this merchant Hanseatic city that is famed for its port and red light district and not to forget their special bond to Beatles.

Strange as it may read, the red light district was our first encounter with the city. Our home for the weekend was located very centrally, in the hip and colourful St. Pauli district.

Colourful St. Pauli

Colourful St. Pauli

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Street art with a character. Ouch for the inhabitants behind that open window!

In addition to its hip feel, abundance of bars and outdoor life, St. Pauli is rubbing shoulders with the famous red light street, Herbertstrasse.

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Herbertstrasse, the heart of Hamburg’s red light district with a very fitting graffiti

Here it is, the street that is off limits to female and underage representatives of the population, though the neighbouring street puts a daily live show of what awaits behind the closed gates. Once we witnessed one of the ladies literally chasing a plump old man who happened to walk on the wrong side of the street. That was an amusing sight.

Enough about that little red street. There is much more to Hamburg than Reeperbahn. Just a few minutes walk from St. Pauli is the Hafen City, the harbour district of Hamburg, with its buzzing activity of ships and boats, and loading and uloading, and of course tourists walking in and out of the sail boats.

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The buzzing port of Hamburg

Elphilharmonie

Elbhilharmonie – a cool addition to Hafen City

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A local hangout spot

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These tall brown buildings, the brick warehouses, give Hamburg a certain charm. On some of them you can still find traces of World War II with bullet holes and broken stones. Yet they stand tall as ever.

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In many ways Hamburg is similar to Amsterdam, and I do not imply the red light district only. Nestled on the shores of the Elbe river, water shaped the city with its trading past and still brings it to life. On a hot summer day water is also where you will meet many of the city dwellers and us :)

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Our lovely ride for the evening. Paddling around the waters of Hamburg.

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Water has a special place for the city dwellers. And on that hot summer day it seemed like the entire city took to the lakes and canals to cool down.

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A local beach bar

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A very Hamburg way to chill off in the summer.

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Navigating the open waters.

We discovered quite many faces of Hamburg. It is not Berlin of course, but then again nothing can match Berlin. Hamburg is the queen of the German northern waters rooted in old trade traditions and in a certain air of poshness. I don’t think I have seen so many fancy residences in rich Munich, as I saw in Hamburg.

A bright showcase of this poshness is an outskirt area called Blankenese, a hilly spot great for escaping the city into a forest tale of pretty sights. We dubbed it the Beverly Hills of Hamburg, where the narrow labyrinthine paths leading up and down the hills are dotted with expensive houses indulging in fresh air and blooming trees and overlooking beautiful Elbe.

Beverly Hills of Hamburg

Beverly Hills of Hamburg

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How cute is this house! Any minute you would expect hobbits to step out of it.

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These were the main sightseeing highlights of our weekend trip to the city of bricks and red lights. Our last day in Hamburg we spent inside one of the brick warehouses on what can seriously qualify as one of the coolest and cutest exhibitions. But more on this in my next story 😉

Auf Wiedersehen und liebe Grüsse!

Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan