Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Steins and Historic Graffiti: Our Trip to Germany

The majority of March was sniffle-filled. Just when CK and I had almost finished Month 1 of Insanity, a terrible cold appeared like a wild Pok√©mon. They used coughing and high fevers… it was super effective.

CK seemed to get better, but I seemed to get worse. I had nausea, a fever, and uncontrollable coughing, which then turned into one heck of a sinus infection. And with our trip to Germany coming up, I wasn’t looking forward to having sinus trouble on the plane. (Imagine the feeling of needles or broken glass within the sinuses, a sharp pain that is tear inducing and not fun when changing altitude.)

But we had made it to Germany without delay, and our first stop was in Munich.

Munich is the sort of city that is meant to have an overcast sky. The architecture is wonderfully Gothic, and the people balance the grey with their own vibrant personalities. Colors pop out in the rain. 

The city is, in short, a perfect one to look out from a coffee shop window. 

We stayed at the Cortiina Hotel, plain on the outside and rather hard to find (the sign was small and minimalist looking), but our room was amazing. For one, it had a bathtub, a sure sign I’ll be happy. For another, you are able to look out from the bathtub into the bedroom because the wall is one big window. It does have the option to curtain the bathroom with wooden panels, but I just found it fun to knock on the glass to get CK’s attention, acting like a quirky aquarium exhibit.

I enjoyed the atmosphere of the hotel, but I didn’t think our breakfast buffet should have cost €22,50 per person. That basically meant a plate full of cheese and soft-boiled eggs for me, maybe a pastry or two for CK, and a cup of black coffee and a smoothie for each of us. Freshly squeezed orange juice and cappuccinos were extra.

But because of this, CK and I were more adventurous in looking for other places to eat. Munich is rather a meat, beer, and bread sort of place, however, so we struggled to find local cuisine places that would be safe for us. We did find some pretty neat places to indulge, but that also meant my eating meat and CK eating gluteny delights on occasion.

First up, Indian Mango. Indian restaurants tend to be the safest places for vegetarians and gluten free eating people to eat out at, and neither of us had any issue. The strangest thing we encountered, however, was the lack of heat of the dishes. In the United States, you have the ability to designate how spicy you want your food to be, from the not spicy to the “Are you sure? This is our medium.” to the calling the kitchen to witness a non-Indian person who ordered Spicy with a capital S to see whether or not they regret their decision. At this restaurant, it was wonderfully balanced with spices, but it wasn’t hot at all. CK and I speculated whether or not it had to do with the restaurant adhering to the local tastebuds, but as we only went to one Indian restaurant during our stay, we can’t say for certain.

Regardless, their papadum and naan (according to CK, as I couldn’t eat it) are delicious, and their paneer dishes were filling and flavorful.

Nearby, there was a restaurant that claimed a tall order: “Real Mexican Food.” Mexican food is CK’s favorite cuisine, and so we did a double take and looked at La Taqueria’s menu. Around this time, we’d found a pharmacy that had medicine for my sinus trouble, and after weeks of feeling the worst, I was starting to feel better, which made my desire for food increase. We decided to give it a try, and after talking with the people behind the counter, we ate and shared a couple of plates of Vegetarian No.2 nachos. Still, not particularly spicy, but their homemade salsa, corn chips, and white sauce were phenomenal. They even had a variety of aquas frescas to choose from, but since they typically contain sugar, I abstained.

Finally, and quite possibly the most positive eating out experience we had was at Brenner’s Grill. It was loud with chatter and populated by customers and employees alike, and CK and I were astounded by the staff’s level of professionalism. Our waiter attended to our needs spectacularly, and it was refreshing to watch how the employees interacted with each other, like one big family. The food, of course, was delicious. They made it a point to explain on their menu about keeping ingredients local and humane, and there were enough vegetarian options and gluten free options to keep both of us quite content. I ordered the organic chicken breast with pesto with a side order of rosemary potatoes. Chris ordered the avocado and couscous starter followed by homemade gnocchi. The wine was also fabulous. 

As far as sightseeing goes, we primarily stayed at the city-center. For giggles, we walked through the Beer and Octoberfest Museum, which led to a burning desire of owning my own stein. We also went to Dachau, a town just a few train stops away from Munich with a much darker past. Interestingly enough, when CK had expressed interest in going, I had a feeling I had already been there but wasn’t sure. It turns out, I had in fact visited the Dachau Concentration Camp in 2007, when some members of my high school choir and I traveled around Germany as short-term exchange students. It was as sobering as it had been the first time.

Other notable places to eat/visit in Munich are: 1001 Sense, a small chocolate and confections shop; dean&david, a make your own salad, sandwich, and juice bar; and Coffee Fellows, a classic coffee shop.

On Easter Sunday, we initially planned on taking the train from Munich to Berlin (I romanticize long train rides, never having been on one), a seven-hour trip.. But CK’s intuition and my struggle with finding packable Morri-safe food led us to buying last-minute plane tickets, removing the travel time with only an additional thirty euros or so per person.

We arrived at Hotel Louisa’s Place, a historical building situated along a long stretch of famous brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent. But due to arriving and a holiday, followed by another bank holiday, Berlin appeared to be deserted and closed. Thankfully, our hotel was considerate in asking us ahead of time if we had dietary preferences or interests we wanted to pursue during our stay, and came up with a list of vegetarian/vegan and gluten free restaurants throughout the city.

It was much easier to find places to eat in Berlin than it had been in Munich. Sadly, the hotel was much like Cortiina, charging €26,50 per person for the breakfast buffet that had even less for us to eat. Luckily, many of the rooms have some sort of kitchenette (what we had was bigger than our own kitchen in Italy...) that can be of use. Aside from getting coffee from across the street, we made our own breakfast without issue. The massages, however, are worth every euro.

Because Berlin seemed closed and bleak on Easter Sunday, we were initially concerned with where we were going to eat for dinner. It turns out the restaurant I had made reservations for later on in the week was not only connected to the hotel itself, but open.

Balthazar is a multiple course, high-end sort of establishment, a quieter version of Brenner’s Grill but with the same focus on detail and perfection. The staff was kind enough to seat us despite not having a reservation, and accommodating to both CK’s and my dietary needs. They treated us to an espresso shot of fantastic tomato soup while we were poured a delicious German wine (I have a newfound appreciation for Germany through their wines now.) As the soup I was interested in having wasn’t safe for me (yellow lentil soup), they made a vegetable soup with a wonderfully fragrant consomm√© on the spot. When we finished, CK’s and my plates of truffled risotto of porcini with porte wine and parmesan arrived. It was superb.

We didn’t do this, but you can order Balthazar delights to be brought directly to your room. Perhaps next time…

A complete first for the both of us, we went to a purely plant based restaurant called La Mano Verde. It is a gastronomic experience for those who follow a vegetarian/vegan diet, and caters to both gluten free and raw food eaters.

We had a late dinner there, and based our orders on what we wanted to share together. (CK and I like to share. It’s special to us.) Thankfully, I made sure to check, but I had mistaken a main course for us to split to be gluten free when it wasn’t (the lemon pepper cappelletti). So after the creamy lime-almond gazpacho, we simply split the two starters (the ravioli blanc and the zucchini rolls) and switched the main courses (I had the garden lasagne instead).

The food was an experience. It felt like I was eating someone’s artwork more than a meal, but the presentation for all of the dishes were spot-on and perfect. The only problem that I wished I had considered was the richness of each dish. Raw foodies know how to add calories and protein to their diet, and practically every dish had some sort of nut or seed to add body to it. By the time our main dishes came out, I felt stuffed. I also felt the ravioli blanc was overwhelmingly sweet (probably had sugar added, which accounted for the less-than-awesome feeling after), and the lasagne was huge. It was very difficult to eat it gracefully, to be honest, and it wasn’t my favorite. We did, however, order the raw plum and walnut “cheese” cake to go to have for breakfast the next day, and I thought it was pretty good.

The only thing I wished I had mentioned before ordering was that I was gluten free (I know, I know... bad gluten free blogger). I was so embarrassed for forgetting, and I agree that was on me. The staff was very professional, but more standoffish than the warm welcome we’d experienced at Brenner’s Grill and at Balthazar.

CK surprised me with not one, but two places that offered gluten free pizza. After a day of walking, we ended up at this adorable restaurant called Ciela di Berlino. This place felt like the home of a very good friend we were visiting. The energy was warm and inviting, and we were served by quite possibly the friendliest woman in Berlin. She seemed delighted by our excitement trying their gluten free pizzas, and kept checking in with this knowing, mischievous smile that seemed to say, “See? I knew you would like it.” I even got to have beer (but not in my stein)! 

It was a total bro date, which included my first time seeing the East Side Gallery in person, and we loved it.

The second place, Simela, was smaller and just within walking distance of the hotel. The pizza here was also good, but the energy wasn’t as warm and inviting. It does, however, make pizzas to go, but we didn’t know that at the time. Like the other restaurant, any pizza listed could be made with a gluten free crust. They also had gluten free pasta (Schar’s brand), and we split their zucchini and mint pasta dish that had a white sauce (all it needed was a little more salt, but it was an interesting combination).

CK showed me a lot of historical sites, including Brandenburg, Checkpoint Charlie, the Pergamon Museum (I wanted to see the Ishtar Gate and was not disappointed, but a lot of the exhibits were under construction), and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (extremely haunting and thought-provoking). 

As this was my first vacation trip with a partner outside of a country we lived in, it was a very special occasion for me. And I found that, aside from feeling adult and capable, we grew closer because of the experience.

There is nothing quite like your first trip traveled together, and Germany made it all the more special for us.

(Also, feel free to post your gluten-free eating experiences in Germany below. Are there certain places in the country that are easier or harder to eat out at?)

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