Frühlingsgefühle in Sächsische Schweiz

February is a strange month: it’s short and you never know what to expect from it weather-wise, so it’s better to focus on the relevant cultural happenings, such as Berlinale. This year I took a bet and stayed in the city, overbooking myself throughout the festival, but at the same time, the weather surprised me in a very positive way.

The days are definitely longer and there is more light everywhere – almost as if the springtime is ready to kick off. This reminds me of a remarkable weekend trip I took with my best friend Wero to Sächsische Schweiz two years ago around this time of the year.

Thanks to one of my colleagues, we knew where to focus on this short, 48 hours trip. We booked a little apartment to stay in Kurort Rathen, a picturesque, yet pretty touristy town. We were quite lucky to be there outside of the high season, as it was fairly quiet and not overtly crowded. The only issue WE had was the culinary diversity – almost everything available was pretty represented by particularly heavy, traditional food. It proved it served us well after a long and strenuous hike!

Upon our arrival, on a late Friday evening after work (it took us about 2,5 hours to travel from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Dresden and further with a regional train), we had to cross the Elbe river with the ferry and we were literally the last passengers of the Fähre. Next day, from the very beginning we headed off to Lilienstein and Festung Königstein, wandering around meadows, woods and climbing up the typical rocky foundations in the region, which was pretty exciting. After having walked for over 20 kms of the steep terrain, we gladly ate a big Roulade mit Sauerkraut and not being used to such heavy food, fell asleep at 8 or 9 pm.

After a typical, German Sunday breakfast-feast at the hotel next door, we headed off to Bastei to explore a few hiking routes around this most emblematic ‘rock bridge’, often associated with Sächsische Schweiz. It seemed that there was a plenty of Sunday visitors from Dresden which came for a stroll as the weather was sunny and blissful. Still, the views were breathtaking. At the end of our trip we headed off to Bad Schandau, from where a train was taking us back to Berlin directly.

I wish I could repeat this trip and see more of the hiking routes, however, time flies and I actually never re-visited Saxony, instead I went to Harz, which I can definitely recommend for the nature-loving Berliners to visit over the weekend.

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Winter wonderland

Some people go ice-skating to Berghain these days during CTM festival, some prefer to escape the centre to face the nature. The longer I live in Berlin, the more I admire how many species live in the city and how easy it is to spot within and outside of its vast borders.

I especially like escaping to the seaside, as Pablo Neruda said ‘I need the sea because it teaches me’. After leaving behind my flat at the beach in Barcelona almost five years ago, even living in the greenest place of Berlin can’t give me the same thrill of being connected to the natural wonders. It’s possible to visit a cold, beautiful beaches of Rügen or Polish side of Pomerania pretty easily though.

I do appreciate the winter breeze and fresh, cold air which you can experience not that far away from the city either. A train to the Baltic Sea coastline can take you there in approximately 3 hours, so it is truly feasible for a day trip.

What is great about sea in the winter is its remoteness, lower prices than usually during the high season, but also being able to spot unusual bird species that come down from the Arctic areas for the coldest months. So if you are lucky, you can bump into endangered species of ducks pretty much anywhere in the Northern coast nearby Berlin, including e.g. eiderdowns.

Seagulls squeaking, swans dancing, empty landscapes in the winter breeze can truly make the winters magic. This year everyone’s complaining about the particularly dark and grey light since four months already. From my experience I can recommend staying as much outside as possible, getting out from your winter sleep mode and you will see the world in a gradient ranging from other colours than shades of grey.

By the way, the day lasts almost 9 hours by today, yay!

Richtung Ost: Suwalszczyzna & Podlasie

I enjoy building small repositories for my foreign friends about my country of origin, and the nearest bordering country to Berlin at the same time: Poland. So far, I’ve mentioned bits and pieces about the city I was born and grown up: Poznan, the capital: Warsaw and the North-Western coast altogether with the city of Szczecin.

This time I’d like to focus on the North-Easternmost region of Poland: Suwalszczyzna and Podlasie, which is the home region of my boyfriend and thanks to whom I managed to discover this beautiful remote landscape this summer.

It takes between 13-18 hours altogether to reach Suwalki, the capital town of the region by train or bus from Berlin, so it made sense to visit our friends and family in Poznan and Warsaw on the way, especially that the summer was extremely hot this year and the journey was tedious. Then, the train took us to Bialystok, the capital of Podlasie, and all the way up to Suwalki, surpassing one of the largest woods in Poland and making way to the region of countless lakes.

It was my second time in Suwalki, since I’ve visited it on my way to Lithuania when I was a teenager. It’s actually quite close to the Russian, Lithuanian and Belarusian border, which naturally brings various culinary, linguistic and architectural influences to this region, including having banyas for the long and cold winters. Actually, Suwalki is considered the most remote and cold city of Poland. The weather forecast always places it as the frozen North Pole of Poland, and during winter it’s not uncommon to have the temperature drop to -25 or -30 Celcius degrees.

This is probably why the current tagline of the city is ‘Pogodne Suwalki’ which can be loosely transalted to ‘cheerful’ or ‘sunny’ at the same time. I could experience that for real. We were discovering the city on bikes thanks to the currently expanding infrastructure. It’s not entirely possible to visit all the surrounding lakes by this means of transportation yet, but it’s a great leap forward for the region to preserve the nature.

We were also very lucky to participate in the jazz concert from the series of the local cultural society SOK. We watched a jazz recital by the Silesian pianist Krzysztof Kobylinski, a founder of the Silesian Cultural Centre Jazovia where he invested most of his earnings from his previous life as a business man.

During the remaining days we were mostly day drinking, daydreaming, eating out at local Tatar vegetarian (yes!) bistrot, and birdwatching. The silence of the woods and the lakes made us spot such rare species as Osprey Eagle. My boyfriend could not believe such species exist, i.e. eagles that hunt fish from the lakes. And now while I write this blog post, he’s binge watching the osprey channel on YouTube.

On the way back to Warsaw we have stopped by Bialystok, the largest city in the Eastern part of Poland, the capital of Podlasie. Contrary to its current fame of being the most right-wing city, and that it’s not very welcoming to strangers, in the past it was one of the most multicultural cities of Poland, bringing together Jewish, Tatars, Orthodox and Catholics. Even its city hall is grinning all the time, despite the controversy.

Bialystok has as well a very impressive Branicki palace complex and a cosmic-shaped opera house. Speaking of birds again, we wanted to visit Silvarium – a unique, forest-based shelter for wild animals that need rehabilitation but we did not manage to find time this year.

Altogether, it was a great insight to the remote part of Poland which is a secret well-kept, so if you ever explore these natural wonders, do it with consideration, which is my usual ask for the places I write about. Even though, as the last rumour I’ve heard, the airport is built in Suwalki, and the remoteness of the place might be gone soon…

 

Harz – for life, and for a weekend too!

Last month I decided for a very spontaneous weekend getaway with my boyfriend. It was very close to our unofficial anniversary and his birthday anyway so I thought about planning a short & sweet trip for us. Since I’m definitely the more wanderlust-craving spirit in our constellation, I simply thought about the location we’d both enjoy and told him in advance of one week or so not to book anything for that weekend.

With a Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket in hand we met at Alexanderplatz and after 2,5 hours and changing trains twice (he really couldn’t tell where is our final destination and hence the suprise was even better) we arrived in Wernigerode. It’s a lovely town on a former Eastern German border of the Harz mountains region,just below the highest mountain: Brocken, and a house of a renowned technical university.

While Berlin is NOT Germany in most of ways, the heart of Germany (and Harz region is located in the middle of the country) definitely is. We could finally practice our German almost everywhere, as English was scarcely in use.

Wernigerode offers a glimpse into a typical Prussian-style architecture, has a cute old market square with tiny owl-shaped bells ringing a melody every hour, a magnificent Schloss (German castle) and a lot of green spaces.

One can spot some peculiarities like teeth in a garden and enjoy a delicious local cuisine. Thanks to my colleague’s recommendation we had a chance to try ZeitWerk – creative & purist menu awarded by a Michelin star in 2018. Forget about the heaviness of the German dishes and try the seasonal dishes – most of them being vegetarian or if needed, offering vegetarian option menu, not always common for the star restaurants.

We also had great fun traveling on a steam train from the early 1900s all the way up to the Brocken top. It stops in various locations where one can either hike around the rocky formations or enjoy a number of Biergarten spots. The only hassle with it is the all-time present steam which is actually bringing us back in time, where industrial pollution was a part of the landscape. Now, we can observe how heavily polluted the local forest and the area around the station is. Maybe some eco-version of the same will come up soon.

So within a 2,5 hours reach from Berlin, we ended up in a very different landscape, culture and although short, we could taste the little getaway outside of Berlin. This year I aim to visit more German cities, but also parks, mountains and wildlife.

 

Birds of Berlin

Spring/summer feeling in Berlin has been very special this year. After a very cold winter, it’s been mostly sunny and balmy since April and the perceived quality of life brought smile to even the most gloomy Berliners. Even though I could not make the most of it this year’s outdoor activities such as dancing in the open airs, biking to the lakes, as I was injured for a few weeks, I decided not to FOMO about it.

Trying to find a bright side of this situation, staying at home or in the nearby parks, it helped me appreciate the nature in the city. The sheer abundance of bird songs sparked my curiosity in search of who stays behind their beautiful voices.

Unfortunately (or fortunately to the birds themselves), they hide very well deep in the trees and bushes that has also grown wildly during the past weeks, turning Berlin into a green city jungle. I was lucky enough to portrait some of the (un)usual neighbours in the city though. You can have a look at some better or worse attempts of capturing their presence below.

The biggest and the most colourful pigeon in town, love it or hate it: a ringdove (die Ringeltaube):

The true hunter-gatherer of the city, always hungry sparrow (der Spatz):

Monogamous mandarin ducks (die Mandarinente):

Heroic heron in the park (der Reiher):

A sullen swan in Strausberg (der Schwan):

Inspired by Birdhain, I even tried to welcome the birdy neighbours in those little huts. It proved that it only attracted ringdoves, which couldn’t obviously get in to this club due to their size, and frustrated enough, destroyed them. Or at least this is the version of the story I made up for the sake of this blog post. Didn’t caught any of them red handed.

My passion for birds emerged in my childhood when I tried to pursue a scientific dream of becoming an ornitologist. Funnily enough, when I started sharing my quirky passion with friends, it proved that I am not alone. One of my best friends, Krajonek, has even started a literary blog (you can only witness the wittiness of it in Polish only though) a while ago. Not only he writes amazing stories and research on the bird population in Greater Poland, but is a talented photographer too.

And even when the winter comes, Berlin is not empty – there are thousands of birds from the Northern Europe awaiting the springtime here, not only at the city murals. Additionally, there’s a plenty of literature on birds for long winter evenings I can honestly recommend, including Noah Strycker’s ‘The Thing with Feathers’, Bernd Heinrich’s ‘The Mind of the Crow’ or chapters from Peter Wohlleben’s ‘Spiritual Life of Animals’.

There is one more project I wanted to mention, as I recently backed it up on Kickstarter and could see it growing from scratch: a global sound installation called Birdhouse, check this out!

Balkan Hot Step

It took me a very long time to put together my impressions from various travels around Balkans. The diversity, and the amount of beautiful pictures I took was simply overwhelming and I couldn’t really decide should I be crafting a single blog entry or multiple ones.

Truth is, it’s been over a year ago since my last visit to Croatian Zadar, Nin, Plitvice Lakes and Ugljan island and I am officially ashamed of procrastinating publishing these gems.

To start off with, visiting Zadar in April 2017 was a great idea, since the springtime in Berlin didn’t really kick in, and the amount of sun, friendliness and music coming from the famous Sea Organs were literally a bliss to me, after a few intense weeks and healing after some operations I had to take last year.

I decided to take a day trip to Plitvice National Park, where the spring was only blossoming, as it is located further up in the mountains. It was still not so crowded, so I could enjoy myself visiting at my own pace, not worrying about the massive groups stepping on my shoes.

I can imagine though that Croatia, being one of the most popular tourist locations, attracts thousands of visitors to their national parks during the high season. To avoid getting too much crowds, there is a daily limit of entrance, which seems a valid thing to do to protect this stunning nature.

Some other sites around Zadar’s area I’ve visited include the picturesque town of Nin and nearby island Ugljan, where you can explore various hiking trails and peace of mind. I didn’t manage to visit the islands of Kornati where thousands of bird species are nesting, due to the lack of ferry service around the lower season.

Looking back to 2016, I spent over a week in between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, as I was invited to speak at a conference in Dubrovnik.

I was amazed by a daily trip to Mostar in Herzegovina region, where the cultures truly melt, and years after the war, the city is shining. Driving through the country, the signs of the painful times remained, making me wonder how come such terror could have happened in this beautiful land.

Dubrovnik itself is a special city. Located in a land strip between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, is typically more expensive than the rest of Croatia, but is a gem nevertheless. Old town, villas, riveras and wonderful neighbourhoods are spread around the hills and various bays.

I also took an opportunity to visit the Kotor Bay in Montenegro, which stole my heart, especially taking a boat trip to a monastery located in the middle of the bay, and exploring the sleepy and not so crowded town of Kotor.

Even though Montenegro is not a part of EU, due to an economic post-war treaty, it is possible to pay in Euro currency.

Taking time to drive around these three countries was a great experience, as I wanted to learn much as I could about various cultures, religions, conflicts and its resolutions alongside the history.

Last but not least, I explored the area of Split, where my flight was originating from and I had a great time both in the city and on the surrounding islands of Hvar and Bol.

Split is a lively port connecting Croatia and Italy, and Dalmatian history is very well preserved there. Besides the old town rich in historic monuments, there’s a lot of city beaches and relaxing spots.

It is very easy to travel from Split for a day trip and hike around the magical islands, like Hvar and Bol, with its turquoise waters and golden sands, some of them rated as a top sites according to the beachtesters.

Since Croatia has over thousands of islands to visit, I don’t think this is the last time I’ll be exploring that place and can’t wait to be back in the warmth of these regions. I still would love to visit the inland part and countries of Serbia and Macedonia, but sooner or later I know I will, especially knowing I have some great friends coming from these places. Hvala!

Italianissima

I don’t think there is such a thing like the Italian overdose, but if there is, I am close to trespassing the limit. I am the lucky one who managed to visit Italy twice this month and following the addiction metaphor, I want more of it!

I’ve been to Italy many times and it’s been always a great and intense: with an exception of working out the frustration in the touristic sites (Venice is such a dead place experience). Having said that, I loved wandering around Roma’s diverse neighbourhoods (and not caring about the infamous public transport), meeting the locals in Sardegna (and trying the best sea urchins in my life) or hiking around the beautiful Lago di Como.

More importantly, I met amazing Italian people on my way in almost all the locations I’ve lived in: be it Poland, Portugal, Barcelona or Berlin. I hate to generalize but all of them were from a different part of their country and I loved the diverse aspect of it. Apart from that, for a reason of being loyal to dressing in mostly Italian brands,  my friends call me Italianissima. Funnily enough, I never felt attracted to an idea of living in Italy or learning the language. My best friend Olga is a witness of some of my most embarrassing attempts of speaking Spanish with an Italian accent and failing it. Big time.

These two city breaks: in Naples and in Milan this month gave me such a great energy and creativity boost. The spontaneity, certain level of chaos and celebration of life and art of living with all the senses (for a reason one call it dolce vita) makes Italy so different than in other places. For a reason the Renaissance, Baroque and Quartieri della Moda were invented.

Visiting Naples was a perfect balance between the urban and landscape, and the highlight of the stay was the spontaneous visit in the Teatro San Carlo, the oldest and the most picturesque opera in the world for the acoustic concert of Al di Meola and his band. On the other hand, Milan is the non-traditional, creative burst I always enjoy, regardless of the temperatures one can expect in June.

So what’s the connection with Berlin? Of course, the cheap flight connections, though I think it’s the level of craziness and creativity. And a lots of Italians influencing the scene that make the German capital especially vibrant or sensual. And edible. And black-colour-clothes-loving.

I came back with a sound resolution of making more weekend breaks in Italy, not only to charge myself with the sun, day and night.

Update: I revisited Italy once more that year, on Sicily, and quite recently, in April 2018 in Sardegna. Seeing the diversity of these islands and the country in general, I’m looking forward to come back for more.

Sicily included a trip to Catania, Taormina, Palermo and Isola delle Femmine.

Sardegna was more of a long weekend getaway and included Costa Smeralda: Olbia, Pittulongu, and Golfo Aranci. I’ve visited the North of Sardegna in 2013 and am still in love with Alghero, Stintino and the surroundings. Hope to be back soon!