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Solo Travel: Berlin Day 3, Memorials and a Unified Germany

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Holocaust Memorial

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Holocaust Memorial

The morning started out on a somber note with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, just around the corner of the Brandenburg Gate.  It was early in the morning, so I was the only tourist.  The site comprised of 2,711 concrete blocks that looked about the same height before entering, but then as you walked through you realize that the blocks are of different heights, and you were walking up and down slopes.  It was difficult to stay on the site for very long.  Inside the Tiergarten across the street were two other memorials that are lesser-known:  one for the homosexuals that were persecuted, and another for the Roma and Sinti.

After seeing the memorials I realized I was right next to the Reichstag (Parliament) Building, which is well-known for the dome designed by Norman Foster, so I went and asked about visiting the building.  I was lucky enough to get an evening slot at 9pm.  Whew.

I then walked through the Brandenburg Gate once more to catch the train to Nordbahnhof and see the Berlin Wall Memorial.  I had been there just the day before for breakfast – but on the opposite side of the station.  Inside the Nordbahnhof station were several panels that told the story of “Ghost Stations” or Geisterbahnhöfe, stations that were closed after the Berlin Wall was erected.  Nordbahnhof was one of such stations.  See a quick before and after video on YouTube.

Outside of the station was the Berlin Wall Memorial along Bernauer Straße, which was where a section of the Wall once stood.  This section of the wall was also where many amazing escapes took place when the wall went up in 1961.  As the street belonged in the West, those who lived in homes along the border were able to escape to the West by jumping out of their windows, or climbing down via a rope.  The GDR regime then sealed off the windows with bricks, and eventually demolished all of the border buildings and created what was called the “death strip” along with watchtowers and another wall, further dividing East and West Berlin.  I took my time walking alongside the wall, and then into the memorial, visiting each exhibit inside the grounds.  It was just difficult to image how a world can be so divided just like that for 28 years, and it came down as fast as it went up.  This November 9th will mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and there will be many events, including a “Balloon Action” event that involves the release of 8,000 balloons along a 15km stretch of where the wall once stood.

Stretch of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Straße at the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Stretch of the Berlin Wall along Bernauer Straße at the Berlin Wall Memorial.

Two sides of the Berlin Wall:  the left was the East, the right was the West.

Two sides of the Berlin Wall: the left was the East, the right was the West.

Berlin Wall Memorial.

Berlin Wall Memorial.

I kept walking along Bernauer Straße and then across the way to climb up an observatory area where you can see a section of the Wall along with the watchtower and the inner wall – the enclosed area was called the “death strip”. Across the way was the Fernsehtrum (TV tower) and Alexanderplatz. Standing up there I kept thinking about how crazy it was to have a 156.4km (97-mile) enclosure all the way around West Berlin, complete with watchtowers and the death strip, and then the 138 or more people who died trying to escape.

Watchtower behind the inner wall.

Watchtower behind the inner wall.

Bird's eye view of the Berlin Wall with the watchtower and inner wall.

Bird’s eye view of the Berlin Wall with the watchtower and inner wall.

 After visiting the memorial, I walked to get lost in the East – just so I can see more of it.  I ended up at Rosenthaler Platz (which also had a U-Bahn station that was a ghost station as it was on the border), where I gave myself a bit of a break before heading (again) over to Alexanderplatz, and then over to Jannowitzbrücke station to take more photos along the Spree River.

Rosenthaler Platz station.

Rosenthaler Platz station.

Rosenthaler Platz station.

Rosenthaler Platz station.

I then headed towards the East Side Gallery, where the largest single stretch of the Berlin Wall still stands, and has been turned into – an open air gallery.

Then I hopped onto the trains again, stopping at random places, such as Hackescher Markt, a market square that is quite lively, with the Hackesche Höfe (courtyards) in the art nouveau style.  It was great getting lost in the city.

East Side Gallery.

East Side Gallery.

Hackescher Markt.

Hackescher Markt.

I had to head back to the hotel a bit to get some real rest before heading out again to catch the sunset over the Brandenburg Gate. I ended up catching the tail end of the sunset, and then headed over to the Museumsinsel (Museum Island) for more photos, before heading to the Reichstag building for my tour, ending a very long day of walking (15+ miles).

Brandenburg Gate at sunset.

Brandenburg Gate at sunset.

View from the Museumsinsel.

View from the Museumsinsel.

Alexanderplatz at night.

Alexanderplatz at night.

Alexanderplatz at night.

Alexanderplatz at night.

Reichstag Building.

Reichstag Building.

Reichstag Building.

Reichstag Building.

Reichstag Building.

Reichstag Building.

Solo Travel: Berlin Day 2, Continuing Eastward

In my past visits to Berlin, I had never been to the Berlin Wall.  As the past visits were always about visiting family, we mainly stayed in the western part of the city, except just after reunification that we went to the Pergamon Museum in the East (or maybe I did see part of the wall…  but I just don’t recall).  This time around, I wanted to spend as much time in the East as possible.  So I started out with a big German breakfast at the Alpenstueck Bäckerei & Café in the Mitte district.  I got myself the Alpenstueck Breakfast I along with a Mutschel, which is a sweet roll that was super yummy.  It was the perfect way to start out the morning for 12,60€.

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Breakfast at the Alpenstueck Bäckerei & Café.

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Breakfast at the Alpenstueck Bäckerei & Café. This is the Mutschel.

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Breakfast at the Alpenstueck Bäckerei & Café.

After spending more time walking around, I took the train to Markthalle Neun, in the Kreuzberg district, within walking distance from the Görlitzer Bahnhof station.  The area felt like the Mission District of San Francisco.  Unfortunately most everything was closed in the market that day, except the supermarket and one restaurant.  I was already so tired so I had to sit down and enjoy a meal – and had a wonderful potato risotto with aubergines.  And the price?  8,50€.  For a capital city, Berlin is really affordable!

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Markthalle Neun from the outside.

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Markthalle Neun.

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Potato risotto with aubergine at Markthalle Neun.

From there I decided to walk along Friedrichstraße, which is a major shopping street, all the way down to the famous Checkpoint Charlie, which was an Allied checkpoint during the Cold War for crossings into East Berlin.  Sadly the place has become a major tourist trap, with tourists wanting to take photos with “fake” American soldiers.  Diagonally across was a Berlin Wall attraction where people had to pay; but right outside were panels that explained what led up to the building of the wall, which was quite interesting.  This was also when I discovered that the city had put in rows of cobblestones representing where the wall once stood.

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Checkpoint Charlie.

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Checkpoint Charlie, the tourist trap.

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Cobblestone marker of where the Berlin Wall once stood, at Checkpoint Charlie.

I then proceeded to walk to see a well-preserved section of the Berlin Wall, but then stumbled upon the Topography of Terror, which is an exhibition site that told the history of the Nazi Secret Police (Gestapo) – on the site where the headquarters once stood.  The section of the Wall was right outside the Topography of Terror, which was quite a sight.  I ran out of phone battery after I took this photo.

After a day’s worth of walking (12 miles), I was ready to give myself a rest.

Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror, looking from West to East.

Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror, looking from West to East.

Solo Travel: Berlin Day 1, Evening Walk to Alexanderplatz

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a travel post.  This year has just been insane both personally and professionally; by July 1 I had already traveled more than 100,000 miles.  I’ve never traveled this much in my life.  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy it, but in doing so I have not had any time to write.  So here’s my first real travel post for 2014, and hopefully I will be able to go back and write about my trip to Australia earlier this year.  Here goes:

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Berlin Tegel Airport

If I remember correctly, Berlin was the first European city I visited with family back in the late seventies.  We were there to visit my uncle and his family.  It was wintertime, and all I could remember was snow everywhere.  We went back to visit twice in the 90s, and my last trip was in 2001.  For many reasons, this city holds a lot of meaning for our family.  I decided to visit Berlin this year as I wanted to walk down memory lane once more, but this time without my uncle, who passed away almost ten years ago.  I didn’t want to disturb my aunt, as she and my cousins had not been in touch with us, and we’ve never been close to them (not for any particular reason though).  So this trip would be my first opportunity to explore the city on my own.

I landed at Tegel airport after a tiring four flights (San Francisco-Houston-London-Frankfurt-Berlin, that’s a story for later), and the place seems to have stopped in time.  The airport departures and arrivals signage still had the flap display from as far back as I could remember.  There is a feeling of familiarity as I walked through the airport terminal to catch the bus to the Swissôtel Berlin on the Kurfürstendamm, or commonly known as the “Ku’damm”, which is the main thoroughfare in the western part of the city.  I settled into a comfortable room on the 8th floor with a wonderful view of the Ku’damm, and after resting a bit, I was determined to go for an evening walk – all the way to the Brandenburger Tor (Gate).

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Swissôtel Berlin.

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View from my room at the Swissôtel Berlin.

The walk didn’t take very long from the hotel to the Gate, it was just that I had to walk around the Tiergarten, which was pretty dark.  When I arrived, I was definitely in awe.  This famous German landmark was right before me, with the famous Unter den Linden just behind.  What I didn’t realize at the moment was that I was already standing in the former East Berlin, behind the Berlin Wall.  After taking a few more photos, I proceeded to walk toward the Fernsehtrum (TV tower), which is right around Alexanderplatz.

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Brandenburger Tor, Berlin

After arriving at Alexanderplatz, because it was already late in the evening, stores were already closed, and there wasn’t many people in the square – as the next day was a workday.  I didn’t linger for too long, and then decided to take the U-Bahn back to the hotel (and getting a bit lost in the process).

You’ll have to excuse the smartphone photos. I was too tired to carry my DSLR.

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Fernsehtrum on Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

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Fernsehtrum on Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

Some thoughts from a United frequent flyer.

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United Mileage Plus Card

This year has been especially busy for me, both personally and professionally, so I haven’t had time to write at all. As of today, June 30, I have flown more than 100,000 miles on United – and some more on other airlines, but not much.

While I was away earlier this month, United announced more changes to its popular Mileage Plus frequent flyer program. I have been a member since the 80s when the program first launched. I was a child back then, but was still excited at the idea of becoming a member of an airline I loved. I accrued every single mile that I had flown, and a few years ago, I hit the 1 million mark on United, and now am at just over 1.7 million lifetime United miles. I’ve been a 1K (100,000 mile) flyer for quite a few years in a row. You can say as both a leisure and business traveler, I have stayed loyal to United.

United was known for its service in the early days of “The Friendly Skies”. I remembered the smiles of flight attendants as I boarded planes, and just getting wonderful service. So even as other airlines had upped their service, had more comfortable seats, personal entertainment systems, lie-flat seats, or even newer planes – I stayed with United. One of those reasons was the frequent flyer program.

In recent years, especially after the United-Continental merger, things have begun to change. One change that affected elite flyers is the change in boarding process. All elites, with exception to Global Services, are now “lumped” into Group 1. I am finding myself in a long line of folks trying to board these days, especially on full flights. The “Premier 1K” that is on my boarding pass no longer means anything at the airport.

Over the past few years, Mileage Plus has implemented several significant changes that has affected the program, as follows:

Of course, the last draw came just earlier this month, when United announced that it will significantly reduce the number of miles you will earn when traveling on United. A 1K like me will get 11 miles per dollar spent, minus taxes – all of the elite bonuses will now go away. So a $650 ticket (minus taxes) spent for a 5,408 mile trip to Boston (obviously a pretty high fare) used to earn me 10,816 miles, now it will earn me 7,150. That is a 33.89% reduction. Supposed you paid only $300 for that same ticket, it will now earn me just 3,300 miles, which is a 69.49% reduction in miles. Don’t forget, this is the best-case scenario as I am a 1K.

This article by The Points Guy summed it all up pretty well – you’re definitely hosed. Oh yes, they did announce “new and exciting ways” to redeem your miles for free bags and Economy Plus seating (really?)… oh wait, that was a lame marketing spin. I really wouldn’t want to be in their Marketing/PR department right now.

So what does being a 1K really give you these days on United?

  • 6 Global Upgrades – but you will need to buy at a higher fare for a chance at getting the upgrades. These days the chances are pretty low.
  • No Fees for Changing Mileage Tickets – this is still a good one.
  • More Award Availability – yes, another good one.
  • Free Bags – seriously, many frequent flyers still do carry-on. not a great benefit.
  • Economy Plus Seating – okay this is a good one.

That’s really it. You no longer get better chances at scoring an “unlimited upgrade” – as there is now a complicated set of rules on fare purchased and elite status – without any transparency – so you’re basically screwed. You no longer get priority boarding, because you are now standing in a long line of 1Ks, Premier Platinums and First/Business class passengers. It used to be that Global Services and 1Ks actually boarded before first and business class.  Yes, I am biased because I earned the highest tier possible, minus the mysterious and complicated tier that is Global Services.

So what is really next for United? I really don’t know. When a program keeps changing its rules from year to year, it begins to lose passenger trust that the program will stay “as-is” for the foreseeable future. Because when we all sign-up for a program, that’s the expectation right? You wouldn’t sign up for a program that continues to devalue your benefits year after year, would you?

I did try to have a conversation on Twitter with @united.  However, they can only give me the canned response of “We’ll still have the best award availability & Premier status qualifications won’t change”.  Well, with less miles to redeem for awards, I am sure your availability will open up in the long term – then they will begin to cut availability to maintain a certain percentage as there will be less people redeeming down the road.

I am really hoping that another airline can step up and be different.  I had hoped that airline would be American, but they don’t offer many routes to Asia, so that makes things a bit difficult for me.  I am going to look at other airlines’ programs within Star Alliance and figure things out before December 31.

European Christmas Markets: Geneva

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This was the last stop for my trip, and it’s really to see a good friend of mine on my way home. Geneva to me is just a little (rich) town that’s basically stayed the same from the first time I went almost 20 years ago. The only thing I noticed is that Cornavin train station is finally getting a facelift – and those floors were slippery! The Chinese restaurant I dined at almost 20 years ago is still there. So are the many hotels, and all of the neon signage above buildings along Lake Geneva.

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It was Sunday and everything was closed. Well, I would say 99% of the shops and restaurants. Since I’ve been to the city many times, I’ve been to all of the touristy spots. I still walked around town quite a bit, from my hotel by Cornavin all the way into Old Town Geneva, and finally decided that I was going to take advantage of the free “Geneva Transport Card” that’s offered to all visitors – because public transport is just outrageously expensive. I decided to take line 12 all the way to Moillesulaz, on the Swiss-French border. It’s just one of the silly things I do whenever I have the opportunity. The tram only took 16 minutes from city center and I was at the end of the line at Moillesulaz. A big since that said “FRANCE” with a big arrow pointed at France, and people just walked over. After a little hesitation I did the same. There were more cafes and restaurants open, but nothing interesting. So I came back to Switzerland.

This is exactly when my friend pinged me and we ended up meeting by the lakeside and caught up.

It was sunset time so we took some great photos. It was just a beautiful day and you could see Mont-Blanc so why not?

As for Christmas markets, there’s not really much to speak of except a few stalls right by Cornavin train station. Even the lights were not that exactly exciting. But Geneva still has its lakeside charm that continues to be unique.

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European Christmas Markets: Vienna

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I have to apologize in advance for the number of photos in this post. I remember when I visited Vienna for the first time in the summer of 2001, I was so fascinated with the city’s architecture that I took about 400 photos a day with my digital camera (2MP!). This time around, I made good use of my DSLR camera with a nice wide angle lens trying to capture the beauty of this city in wintertime.

A visit to Vienna should probably start on the Ringstraße, which is a circular ring surrounding the Innere Stadt (old town). Many of Vienna’s most important buildings are all along the Ringstraße, including the famous opera house, Parliament building, city hall and more. City hall also hosts the largest Christmas market in the city center, the other is at Schönbrunn Palace, which is only a short subway ride from city center.

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Because the weather was freezing cold – and it snowed a few times with heavy winds – I had to make a stop at Cafe Landtmann to get myself something to drink and experience the Viennese coffee culture. It is said that Landtmann started the coffee culture back when it opened in 1873.

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Finally I arrived at city hall (which is really diagonally across the street from the cafe). Because it was still early, there weren’t too many people, so I had a chance to walk around a bit. There are many stands along with children’s play areas. My plan was to come back in the evening to take some photos when the lights are illuminated.

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So I took the subway out to Schönbrunn Palace, and the market there was just packed with locals and visitors alike. There was a giant Christmas tree just in front of the palace; Christmas flair was in the air. When sunset came around 4:30 in the afternoon, the lights of the palace was lit and the markets were in full swing. I actually headed to the back of the palace to get away from the crowds, and take a few more photos of the gardens in the dark with my tripod. It was still very windy and cold… but nevertheless I was happy with the results.

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I returned to city hall to find LOTS of people everywhere. People braved the cold weather (or it’s really just me as I am from California) to come and enjoy a fun night out. It was Friday night and you can’t go wrong with some Glühwein (hot wine) or Punsch (punch) – you just can’t.

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The next day was just spent wandering the city, starting with the Saturday flea market at Naschmarkt, the largest market in the city. It was still a very windy day (it wasn’t til later in the evening that I was told that Vienna in general is very windy due to the fact it’s flatland). People were selling all kinds of stuff, but mostly clothes and porcelainware.

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I then kept walking north toward Neubau, a more trendy district with design shops and more. It also includes the Mariahilfer Straße, which is a major shopping street in Vienna. There were also other smaller Christmas markets along the side streets, and they too were full of people. Very cool stuff. I definitely want to spend more time in this part of the city next time.

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Oh yes, I had to mention that I also visited the Kunst Haus Wien (or Hundertwasserhaus). I really just went to take photos of the outside as I’ve visited the building last time I was in Vienna. Just had to take some photos with my wide angle lens. Sounds silly I know, but it’s a must.

Well, it’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen. Off to the airport in about ten minutes to the final destination on this trip: Geneva.

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European Christmas Markets: Salzburg

I arrived in Salzburg wanting to experience the city during Christmastime, including its 40 year-old Christmas Market, mostly held in the Old Town area. The difference between this one and the one in Strasbourg is that the patrons are mostly tourists, which also means there are more people in Salzburg than in Strasbourg.

So the market itself may feel more touristy, the Christmas feeling is very much in the air with outdoor concerts and other events around town. Of course there are the illumination and seasonal decorations around town.

While in town I also got to experience Krampusnacht, where Saint Nicholas and his evil counterpart Krampus roams around town to reward good children with candy (Krampus is supposed to take kids away but of course they won’t do that). It’s apparently a Habsburg tradition that was passed down.

The best thing about the city though is the view of the Old Town and the Salzach River that runs through it, especially at sunset. Just that is worth the trip. Enjoy the photos!

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European Christmas Markets: Strasbourg

Strasbourg started its first Christmas markets in 1570 in front of its Cathedral, and is home to one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe with nearly 300 stalls all over town. I remember reading an article about the Strasbourg Christmas markets (called “Christkindelsmärik” also “Marché de Noël” in French) I had the silly idea of doing a grand tour of the “best of” in Europe, with Strasbourg as the official first stop as it is self-named the “Capital of Christmas”.

Getting here was an interesting challenge. There are high-speed trains from Paris to Strasbourg, making the trip under three hours. In addition Strasbourg also has an airport, so flying there is also a possibility – but flights are not as frequent. Luckily I was able to buy a plane ticket that took me to Strasbourg, making the cost minimal – and with a stopover in Brussels (if you haven’t read the previous post that is).

My first impression was that the city center is very small; you could walk all over city center without the need for public transportation. Many pedestrian zones around city center also make walking very easy. For Christmas, there main markets are around Place Kléber, Place Broglie and then the Cathedral. There is also a huge fir tree at Place Kléber that draws crowds. Many of the city streets and buildings are also illuminated during Christmastime, bringing Christmas magic to its visitors.

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European Christmas Markets: Transit in Belgium

Visiting Christmas markets has been on my travel checklist for a while, but I never had the time to make that a reality. A month ago I saw a great fare too good to pass up, and I bought the ticket without much thinking. I needed a real break – alone – and this was going to be it.

My main destination was going to be Strasbourg, France – where the largest Christmas market in Europe started since 1570. I then added Salzburg and Vienna to the equation and my general itinerary was complete.

In getting to Strasbourg, the airline gave me a bizarre routing which required me to stay in Brussels for 21 hours. Since I had a friend in the city, I was very happy to take the option (and it was a cheaper way to get to Strasbourg for that matter). I was told that there’s also a Christmas market in Brussels, so it would be a nice addition to my trip.

After arriving, my friend said that it would be better if we visited Ghent, which is the third-largest city in Belgium. So here are some photos from Ghent. Since it’s in Flanders, Dutch influences are the norm in the architecture.

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After a nice dinner in Ghent, we were back in Brussels, but this time to check out the Christmas decorations at the Grand Palace and walk the local Christmas market. Unfortunately for me the markets were already closed by the time we got there – but we were still able to find a stand which offered the hot wine called Glühwein as a part of the Belgian holiday celebration.

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In a few hours, I’m off to Strasbourg!

10 Days in Europe: Eating and Shopping Around Milan

After two days in London came the main event: the Salone del Mobile (Milan Furniture Fair) in Milan. This is something that I’ve been doing nearly every April for the last 7 years. For one week, over 300,000 people descend upon the city of Milan for one thing: design. These people include designers, architects, buyers, sellers and students. The whole city turns into one big exhibition of design in all aspects; it’s impossible to see everything, but I still try.

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I got here a day before the press preview just to give myself a little break and get settled. It also happened to be the day of the Milan Marathon, so the area around the Duomo was closed to traffic.

Upon checking in to the hotel, one of the first things I did was to buy some gelato at GROM, which was just down the street. So the eating begins…

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Then it’s the Gucci Cafe nearby at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Didn’t really know what to order, but didn’t just want order something plain like an espresso, so I asked about this thing called the “espresso shakerato” and they said it was good. So I ordered it, and it turned out to be cold coffee drink in a champagne glass. And it was YUM. The two pieces of Gucci chocolate was also a nice touch, along with the people watching of course.

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Of course, you can’t say you’ve been to Milan if you didn’t shop (or window shop), so I headed for 10 Corso Como, one of the coolest shops in town. It’s a “curated” shop of fashion, music, books and food all located inside rooms inside a courtyard. Oh yes, there’s even a hotel called 3 Rooms – because it really has only 3 rooms/suites.

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In addition to the main shop on Corso Como, there is also an outlet not too far away by Garibaldi Station, located at the end of a bizarre street. If you look hard enough you may find some bargains, sometime at 40% off retail. For me, the outlets around Milan are much better. That’s coming in the next post.

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After all of the walking, it was finally time for dinner. I had made reservations at a restaurant called Erba Brusca, which is headed by chef Alice Delcourt, who was born in France to a British mother and a French father, but has been in Italy for some time. The restaurant is actually located at the southern edge of the city, but you can still get to it via the metro (MM2 Abbiategrasso), and then with a 15-20 minute walk to the Naviglio Pavese, and you’ll see the restaurant.

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The food. What can I say about the food? It was delicious. Alice came out to explain the Italian menu in English – nearly item by item. We had come across a vegetable called “agretti” and had absolutely no clue what it was, so she brought some out for some sampling :) They actually do grow their own herbs and some vegetables right behind the restaurant.

Okay, enough of the talking, so here are some photos of the wonderful food.

Agretti Saltati
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Pizzoccheri
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Risotto con Foie Gras
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Pollo di Moncucco
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Tarte Tatin
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The walk back to the train station was a great way to get some after-dinner exercise before bed, ready for tomorrow’s trek to the outlet.

Here’s the Piazza del Duomo at night, along with the near-empty interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

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