With it being clear that we will move back to Denver in late March, we chose to use vacation time at Christmas to stay in Europe rather than fly back home. Kevin had always wanted to go skiing in the Alps, so we jumped on a plane down to Zurich to start off our Swiss Alps adventure. Although our main destination was deep in the Alps, we figured Zurich was worth a few nights stay. Zurich is beautifully situated on the large picturesque Lake Zurich.
Zurich was one of the most expensive cities that we visited in all of Europe. This applied to hotels, food, and even the Christmas market that was still going on while we were there. Even though it wasn’t quite as impressive as some of the markets in Germany, it did have its nice touches—including an Alps-hut themed Raclette restaurant, and a stand which sold hollowed out baguette bread filled with Fondue cheese. There was also a “singing Christmas tree”, where about 25 kids sang Christmas carols in a Christmas tree shaped area.
The coolest place we visited in Zurich was the old city observatory. Located on top of one of the downtown-area buildings, this observatory is a unique feature as observatories work better when they are further away from cities; this was purely a luxury item to make star-gazing more obtainable.
After we left Zurich, we went to Interlaken, which literally means “between two lakes”. It is an absolutely beautiful town that sits and the edge of the Alps, particularly the Jungfrag region. It is a bit more touristy, evidenced by many signs and menus being also shown in Chinese—we did indeed see groups of Asian tourists. From there we headed up to a small town called Wengen and stayed for three nights. While it is on the edge of a skiing area, we went there for the natural beauty and relaxation.
One day, we took a day trip up to Jungfraujoch, which is a train station on top of one of the Alps mountains including an astronomical observatory, the Sphinx. It sits up on a glacier and provides breathtaking 360 degrees views. We highly recommend this winter wonderland for anyone travelling in the area.
In Wengen, we also took part in a beginner’s curling lesson. Curling is an amazing sport that Kevin has been dying to try out, and it constantly reminded of it every 4 years during the Winter Olympics. We both got the hang of it pretty quick, but there were some others there who had issues—the key is, when you push off and glide down the ice, before you throw the stone, you don’t put any weight on the stone—you actually use the broom as your second point of balance. If you do use the stone as a balancing item, when you throw it, you go flying. It’s actually a bit dangerous if you’re not paying attention! We played a practice game against another couple and held on for the win, but Deanna was actually the one who scored all of our points!
From Wengen, we travelled to Zermatt to spend Christmas and the next few days after. They are both similar cities in that they are small cities in the mountains, in a skiing region, with no cars allowed. However, Zermatt is clearly a step up in terms of luxury, and as a result, price. As it was Christmas, and out last major week long vacation in Europe, we did splurge a bit on the hotel. The view out of the hotel window of the Matterhorn was stunning—we spent hours just hanging out on the balcony with our view, and Kevin spent time at night and morning getting even more shots with different lighting.
As stated earlier, the prices were so high, it was best not to thing about it—but Fondue is actually always one of the more reasonable options, so we had that several times during our stay. The cheese was always exceptional, and being the tourist hotspot, we were always able to find gluten-free bread for Deanna. We even found a crepes stand there that had gluten-free batter! Of course, we had our fair share of Swiss chocolate as well—the hotel in Zermatt had a jar of it by the front desk that we always grabbed a piece or two of on the way in or out.
On Christmas day, we went skiing on the (small) Matterhorn—directly next to the Matterhorn, so you end up seeing it from all sides. The views were absolutely amazing. Deanna hadn’t skied in a really long time, so this was a bit of a challenge for her. The slopes are different from what we are used to in the Rockies—instead of wide slopes down with many different runs as options, they have long, winding, narrow runs that go all the way down the mountain, but as a result, are much much longer. Unfortunately the snow quality wasn’t great, but that’s not why we were there. The entire gondola ride to the top was about 30 minutes—that should give you an indication of how long it could take to ski down. At the very top, you ski on a glacier. From there, you have to choose—ski back down where you came from, or go down the other side—into Italy. Maybe a quick stop on that side for lunch? Coming up the Italy side, it was clear how little snow had fallen—heading up, if you didn’t know better, you would have sworn there was no way to ski down. But it had been at least cold enough to produce enough artificial snow to keep the runs open.
About mid-afternoon, Deanna was ready to go back, but Kevin wanted to do a few more runs. So Deanna started heading down slowly, and Kevin raced up and down a few times, and as he was ready to ski down, he bumped into his loving wife, clearly distraught. Unfortunately she had had a mixup or two and ended up almost back where she had started, and Kevin arrived just in time to bring her down the mountain.
Overall Switzerland was truly a magical place, if that is what you are looking for—gorgeous landscape and scenery, fine skiing and ski towns, and ridiculous prices. That’s probably what drives Germans to go to Austria rather than Switzerland for ski vacations.
After a so-so flight with Ryanair to Italy a few years ago we have been getting emails ever since, but nothing convinced us to pull the trigger until we got a winter special to Stockholm for 9 euros per person. That's absolutely unbeatable and worth a few hours of subpar travel for the opportunity. Back when we first booked the trip, Kevin hadn't actually gotten the days off of work yet-- but we figured we would be out less than €40 if the days didn't work out. But work out they did-- in fact, our good friend Ryan Millar (airline named after him) flew out from Colorado and met us there, and our German friend Valesca flew with us from Hannover.
Since we were 4 people, an Airbnb made the most financial sense. We ended up with an awesome place looking over an ice rink in the trendy-hipster Södermalm area. At first we though, hey cool, we can go skating there or watch some hockey. But it got even better-- we got to see them play the sport called Bandy-- it is a combination of hockey and soccer-- bigger nets than hockey, 11 on 11, but the soccer offsides rules. What a treat that we stumbled upon!
We started off our Stockholm experience with a free walking tour-- it was a great introduction to the city and the history with some great tidbits. For example, the 'nobel' prize of economics is not an official Nobel prize but was added later by a Swedish national bank-- this is a well known fact. What is less well known is that there is no chance there will ever be an unofficial Nobel prize for mathematics as his girlfriend left him for a mathematician.
We also later visited the Nobel museum. Well placed smack in the middle of Gamla Stan, the old town, the museum felt more of a 'must do' than an exciting experience. This is a direct juxtaposition to undoubtedly one of the coolest museums in the world, the Vasa museum. The Vasa was a Swedish warship built in the 1600s which sank very early during its maiden journey. It laid under the sea for over 300 years before it was rediscovered and hoisted to the surface and brought onto land where a museum was built around it. It was something surreal to see, an absolutely cool experience.
We decided we hadn't had enough history and Swedish culture and signed up for another tour-- this time, a bar tour of Sweden's old town. Most notable was the mead hall, awesomely decorated with the chance to drink mead still made with a Middle Ages recipe. We also learned about attempts of rationing alcohol by the government including a booklet which had coupons that allowed you to buy alcohol-- but the amount of alcohol was based on your gender and marital status. A single woman could get less than a man, but a married woman's booklet was taken away because it was up to the man to decide! But the night was definitely enjoyable due to our Swedish host and his friends who came along-- we had a fabulous time.
All of the food was very good, but the meatballs were amazing. We tried them at a few different places, and each person had their favorite. First we tried them at a bar-restaurant which is attached to the Opera house-- the same food without the pretentious atmosphere (and prices). There the sauce was awesome! And on the last night we went to hipster version in our trendy neighborhood, where they offered meatballs made of venison, lamb, ox, and moose.
On our last night we hiked up to the highest natural point in Stockholm right near our house to take in the beauty and the sunset. It was a very relaxed, locals feeling. Since it was winter we only stayed there 30-45 minutes, but during summer it would be a great place to hang out and picnic and just watch life move slowly by.
Overall Stockholm is a quintessential European city. Lots of history, culture, and beauty-- absolutely worthy of a visit.
Also as part of our Europe farewell tour, Venice marked the third time that we visited Italy during our time in Germany. Without looking too hard at the calendar, we booked our trip to Venice in mid February—flying home on Sunday, Valentine’s day, and directly after Carnival. Carnival may be best known in Venice for the extravagant masks that are adorned – these were all over when we were there, and there was tons of confetti on the street from the parade that went through.
The city is absolutely striking and unique. Walking from the bus station to the hotel was very straightforward, as the pathways are convoluted and don’t head in one direction for too long. That’s why it made sense for us to get the Rolling Venice Card, which is a combination entrance pass and travel pass, which gave us access to the ferries that cut through the city and nearby areas—it was definitely needed in Venice! It was also a great deal as they had an “under 30” much cheaper version, which were able to take advantage of.
Of course one of the first things we had to do was take a gondola ride. It was rainy on-and-off almost the entire time we were there, so as we were talking around and the sun peeked out for a bit, we stopped by one of the many gondola stops and found an acceptable gondolier. The prices are set by the city, and the romance is reduced a bit by the endless stream of gondolas—it was common to see strings of 5 in a row. Plus, they don’t actually sing! That only happens in movies. Nevertheless, it is a once in a lifetime experience, so we donated to the local economy. We started out on a small canal near our hotel, went out the main drag and under the famous Rialto bridge, before heading back.
Before we went to Venice, many of our German friends scoffed at how expensive it is. You pay 15 Euros for a cappuccino in the main square! Well, it certainly was expensive—I didn’t see any cafes selling a 15 Euro cappuccino, but I did see 10-12. St. Mark’s Square, headlined by St. Mark’s Basilica, is lined by splendid architecture and offers endless people watching. Just around the corner you can find crowds gawking at the Bridge of Sighs—an enclosed bridge with just a small glimpse the outside beauty in Venice—which is the last view prisoners got while one their way to jail.
There was a funny occurence about the city's beauty—Kevin was dragging Deanna all over the city trying to take some nice photos. After reading a review online, we made our way up on a bridge that had a nice overlook over the city. After taking a few pictures, Kevin looked up, and instantly recognized the view—it is the exact view of a poster of Venice that Kevin had up since his first apartment! We had totally forgotten about that poster until we saw it in real life.
Venice offers many classical music concerts—we went to a Vivaldi concert in a church, since he was born and raised there. We expected a lovely evening, but were treated to a highly unique performance. This cello performer stole the show with his wildly dramatic motions, movements, and expressions. Kevin couldn’t stop watching him! It’s hard to explain just how emphatically he moved and acted, an absolute juxtaposition with the typical classical musician.
With our travel card, we were also able to take a boat to two nearby islands, Murano and Burano. Murano is just a mile or two from Venice, but became the world famous glass-making area after the glass factories were forced to move out of crowded Venice due to fear or fire. Glass factories and showrooms line the streets offering a wide variety of beautiful and expensive products. We saw a live glass blowing demonstration and ended up with a variety of products to bring back, including the horse we watched the glassmaker mold in just minutes. Similar in name, Burano is a fishing island somewhat further past Murano. It’s draw are the brightly painted houses which really pop with the canal in the foreground and beautiful reflections off of the water. Just take a look at the pictures!
Venice is a beautiful, unique, touristy, and expensive city—but is absolutely worth a visit if you are in the area. We would have regretted not making it there!
Just a quick weekend getaway as our time in Germany was starting to wind down-- and it still feels incredible to be able to call Barcelona a "quick weekend getaway".
Barcelona is located in the Catalonia area of Spain, which recently has shown the desire to break of from Spain and become an independent country. The movement is underway as shown by the majority of flags hung from windows. There are 2 versions of the Catalonian flag-- one supports independence and one does not. In the areas we were in, about 60-65% of flags flown supported independence. And everybody that you talk to has an opinion to share on the issue. A great way to interact with locals is a food tour—something that we have done in several of the cities that we have visited.
This food tour also didn’t disappoint. The pictures are about as close as you can get to actually tasting the good. Our host brought us through the Gracia neighborhood including stops at a bakery, a tapas bar where we learned to make tomato bread, a locals dive bar & neighborhood hangout where vermouth is served with anchovies, a vibrant market where we sample Iberian cheeses and meats, and olive oil store (little known fact: 45% of the world’s olive oil is originally grown in Spain), and lastly a fancier restaurant where we had an interesting dish—sausages were served with a locally grown vegetable that are kind of like leeks, which are wrapped and grilled. Usually this is a tradition where you go out into the countryside and have a big bonfire of sorts and just eat dozens of these vegetables—this was one of the only restaurants in town that serves this delicacy. One interesting note on the food culture is that tapas are actually not a tradition in Barcelona. However, so many people have moved to Barcelona from all over the country where that has always been the tradition that tapas restaurants are now omnipresent.
Barcelona is one of the most stunning and unique architectural cities we’ve visited. This is all thanks to a late 19th/ early 20th century architect named Antoni Gaudi—his unmistakable designs are found littered across the city. Colorful expressions that sometimes resemble what one expects in a painting make this real life world look like a fantasy. Two of our favorite places designed by Gaudi were Park Guell and Casa Battlo. Park Guell sits up on a hill and offers fantastic panoramic views of the city, while also providing interesting photo opportunities. Casa Battlo sits more centrally in the city but can be found easily based on the tour busses stopping for photos. The tour, while a bit expensive, is absolutely worth it—it is a self-guided tour where you get an augmented reality tablet that improves the viewing experience.
La Sagrada Familie is one of the best known churches in the world—for good reason. Physically dominating both inside and out, the church is still under construction and will be for the foreseeable future; however, that hardly detracts from its beauty. It is unique in the sense that it is built using the structure and architecture of churches that were typically built many centuries ago, but using materials that look newer and cleaner than the typical European stone churches. Additionally, Gaudi’s influence is seen here as well, as he masterfully created a structure that is beautifully lit with natural light. An absolute must see in Barcelona.
Outside of the food tour, we also visited a couple of cool bars and restaurants. After enjoying the vermouth during the tour, we sought out a bar that makes its own vermouth. “Bar” might be overstating this place—it was really just a tiny hole in the wall where the owner/barkeeper talked at length with us. He is only open 5 hours a day and takes liberal breaks to go outside and watch the crowds go by—he embodied the relaxed lifestyle for us. Later that night, we made our way to an interesting place which is a crepes restaurant by day and lively hangout by night. Handcrafted cocktails are served by creative bartenders who create a lively atmosphere by swinging the hanging lights to add some movement to the room.
Our last stop as at the impressive Camp Nou soccer stadium which seats almost 100,000 fans. Our colder nighttime game only was about 2/3 full, which is still almost 70,000 fans. The game itself was hardly a contest, as the opposing goaltender got a red card in the 4th minute, which lead to an unrelenting Barcelona attack which produced several very Barcelona-style goals.
Romania is not a place that most think of as a top vacation destination, but with the amazing part about living over here is that we can choose to go to more "off the beaten path" locations with ease and affordability. As mentioned in the last blog, Deanna had always wanted to go to the Transylvania region for both the beauty and the "Dracula" history.
We arrived in Bucharest around 10pm after leaving Istanbul. We booked a cheap motel right next to the airport because we weren't getting our rental car until early the next morning. It was only a 10-15 minute walk from the terminal to the motel, so we decided to forego a taxi. However, on our walk we made a new "friend." We first heard barking behind bushes, and then a large, white, wild dog came out of a parking lot and began following us. After being in Istanbul, we were used to seeing stray dogs wandering around, but they always minded their own business and rarely came up to people. In Romania, however, we had read about packs of wild dogs that follow people and beg for food, and these dogs are not tagged and vaccinated like the ones in Istanbul are. He seemed harmless, but Kevin was worried and kept waiting for him to howl and have the rest of his "pack" join him and follow us. Of course, nothing happened, but he did follow us all the way to the highway (our motel was on the other side over a pedestrian bridge) and then finally went on his way. This was the first, but certainly not the last, wild dog encounter we had, and Kevin realized by the end of the trip that his fear might have been a bit exaggerated. :)
The next morning we walked back to the airport (without our wild white companion), picked up our rental car, and were finally on our way! Our first stop, Poienari Castle, otherwise known as Vlad Tepes' (aka, Vlad the Impaler's) castle. It was located in a remote area, so getting to it any way other than a car would have been a rough journey. On the way there, we stopped in a small town called Curtea de Arges for a lunch break. There was a beautiful monastery we passed by and unfortunately couldn't stop to take a photo, but later learned that it is actually quite famous, so this photo is courtesy of Wikipedia:
Vlad's castle was in an extremely remote area. Once we parked our car (and were greeted by more wild dogs looking for handouts), we began our approximately 30 minute hike up a mountain until we came to a small house in the middle of nowhere. There a man came out to collect our 10 lei (about $2) as the entrance fee to the castle ruins. Outside the entrance were dummies impaled on poles, and a few placards telling the history of Vlad. From one we learned that there was a rivalry between his and another family. While Vlad was away in battle, his father and brother were murdered, with the other family being responsible. As revenge, when he got back he invited them all to a fancy dinner/party at his castle. They arrived dressed in their best, but Vlad instead imprisoned them and made them perform manual labor until their clothes fell off!
We finished our first day by driving to Sibiu, where we stayed for the next two nights. We stayed at an awesome apartment just steps away from the city center, but for a fraction of the price of what you would spend in countries that use the Euro. Sibiu is a smaller town, but rich in history. We learned that this is one of the main cities in this area, in German called the Siebenbürgen, which part of the history includes German settlers (Saxons) invited to defend the area—in English, this area is called Transylvania. Our second day we took a break from driving and wandered through the town on foot—including afternoon coffee and cake at a café while watching school children play during recess outside the entrance to a 14th century church—something you just don’t see in America. For dinner one night, we ate in an old, beautiful cellar of a 15th century building.
Day 3 we continued our journey by car and headed towards Sighisoara. A Unesco World Heritage site and birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the town was both beautiful and intriguing. We explored the widning streets, checked out the views from towers, went up a museum in an old clock tower, and had lunch at Vlad's home. The restaurant itself thrives only on tourists going there, as the food options and service are less than desirable. However, that day it was freezing outside, so we ordered soup, which was surprisingly good, simple, and just what we needed. Up on the hill above the city lies a church and a school. To help the kids get to school safely despite harsh weather, they built the students’ tunnel--it looks interesting and has this interesting and unique functional history.
After visiting Sighisoara for a half day, we continued on to Brasov, where we spent the next two nights. When we arrived, the weather was nice—much warmer than where we just were, and the sun was shining. The next morning, however, we woke up to a complete white-out blizzard! We bundled up and headed outside to the town square, where there was supposed to be a free city tour. We were unsure if anyone would show up, but sure enough, there was a girl with a yellow umbrella and 5 other people already there! Two quickly dropped out, but the small tour was perfect for the city and the weather conditions. The city even boasts its own Hollywood-style Brasov sign on the mountain, which was just visible through the snow. The end of the tour offered a nice view over the city.
Romania’s landscape is littered with dozens of fortified churches—these are a unique combination of structures used to worship God combined with a fortified wall, sometimes including towers or turrets for defense. The idea was quite simple and practical—for a small town, the church is probably the largest and most central building. Additionally, it is the tallest and most important. The towns can then store their weaponry, food, and valuables inside in times of conflict, and only worry about defending one building rather than an entire city. It must have been quite effective, as there are many of these buildings standing intact today.
Romania is well known as being a country full of brown bears. Unfortunately, establishments such as restaurants used to cage up bears as an attraction to draw in business, but would treat them terribly and hardly feed them. A wealthy French woman saw this and created "Libearty," a bear sanctuary that would rescue all the abused bears (and a few other animals.) To get to Libearty, we had to drive on a frozen, dirt, pot-holed country back road for about 15 minutes. (Definitely not possible to get here without a car, and difficult enough for our little rental!). Once we got to the top of the road, there were some cars parked and people standing out by a closed off gate. Here we had to wait for a tour guide to come get us, before we were allowed to walk to the entrance house where we paid. Afterwards, we walked about an hour round-trip along fences where the Bears (and one wolf) were all hanging out. Some of the bears were in trees, but the majority were hanging out right next to the fence, either sleeping, eating, or just pacing back and forth. They all looked extremely happy and peaceful, and didn't mind the people taking their pictures only feet away.
Visible on top of a hill from many kilometers away, we also took at quick stop to visit Rasnov Fortress, which is the ruins of the Rasnov Citadel. This fortress was used for many centuries as a defense fortification in the area, particularly against sieges—many nearby villages could fit inside to hole up. It takes a bit of imagination as it is not entirely intact and is undergoing renovation, but the steep hills surrounding it on all sides would make for a pretty impenetrable base. The area around it is also pretty well guarded—this area is where Kevin got pulled over and got the first speeding ticket of his life. While he was driving somewhat faster than the posted limits, he hit the brakes one time as one of the stray dogs roamed across the road—apparently right in front of where some cops were doing speed trap work. After getting pulled over, the first cop didn’t speak English, and only wrote a number on a piece of paper, supposedly how fast Kevin was driving. The second cop came a few minutes later and wrote a ticket, asking for a cash payment (wink wink). As we were nearing the end of the trip, we didn’t have that much cash on us, so he told us to pay it at the airport on the way out—just ask any cop. Well, we tried to do the honest thing and do that, and it led to 4 people: a police officer, airport security guard, staff member, and military member all talking about the ticket for 10 minutes, before handing it back and calling it a nice "souvenir" to bring back with us.
Bran Castle is best known as being "Dracula's Castle," although it actually has nothing to do with him. The connection comes from Bram Stocker's description in his book (he never actually visited Romania himself), which most closely resembles that of Bran Castle. The castle itself is beautiful, but is unfortunately surrounded by touristy booths selling Dracula-related and other items. Inside the castle even has a room dedicated to all things Dracula, just to keep in line with the tourist myth. The Castle itself was built in 1377 and used as defense by the Saxons—these are again the German descendants who have a lot of history in the region.
Our last stop was in Sinaia, where we stayed at a hotel which was the former guard house for Peles Castle. The outside of Peles was spectacular, but touring the inside was absolutely astonishing. We paid the extra few Lei to be allowed to take pictures inside, which we very much felt was worth it. Peles was built in 1873 and was the residence for King Carol I, who was the first ruler as Romania became an independent but united country. It is really more of a country summer palace than a castle, and this adds to its fairytale-like charm. The pictures really speak for themself to show the decadence of this place.
Our last morning we woke up and drove straight back to the airport in Bucharest. After nine nights away we were ready to be back home, but so grateful for having the opportunity to visit these two extraordinary countries.
Our next destination was the city of Tours, which is centrally located in the middle of the Loire Valley area. Kevin’s mom and Carl rented an apartment in an ideal location at the end of a pedestrian mall, but also just a minute or two walk away from the Loire River. Shortly after our arrival, we did a city tour in a cute little train/tram which drove us around the city, pointing out various historical buildings and landmarks. The conductor informed us that our trip might be cut a bit short due to the Gay Pride parade which was being held in the city in the same day. On the tour, we saw the Town Hall building, Hotel de Ville, where several civil weddings were being performed (in France, as in Germany, you are required to have the civil, official, wedding at a state building, and then people traditionally have a church wedding as well. We also saw a magnificent cathedral, which we would return to several times as well. Afterwards, we walked through a market that we had driven by, and sat down for a coffee at an open square on the edge of Old Town. After sitting for a while, we heard the parade coming our way—suddenly, the serene area was transformed into party central as the impressively long parade danced its way through. Afterwards, we wandered around the town and ended up back at the Cathedral, where, wouldn’t you know it, the parade came through again.
On our second day, we drove to the nearby city of Amboise, where we saw a couple of châteaus—French castles. We visited the Château du Clos Lucé, which is where Da Vinci spent the last 3 years of his life. He travelled by donkey over the Alps, bringing several unfinished paintings and disciples with him. We saw the inspiration at the end of his life, learned about his thoughts of his own impending mortality, and learned a great deal about his inventions and spirit for innovation. His application of new concepts and tools to a variety of topics—travel, architecture, and even military—was fascinating. Best of all, in the gardens outside the chapel, many of his inventions were brought to life with life sized designs, some of which could be operated. Afterwards, we headed back through town and crossed the river to gain a splendid view of the main Château Amboise. The riverside café offered a perfect view of the château and the bridge—to us, the view of the outside of the châteaus is typically more interesting and creates longer lasting memories than the inside, which all start to look the same pretty soon.
As we were in a wine region, we visited many different wineries and wine tasting over our 4 days there. Visiting the winery itself was an option, but seemed less preferred rather than just visiting a nearby wine cellar, when comparing to a region like Napa or Sonoma. In France, bottles of wine traditionally didn’t state what type of grape was used, rather just the region was named and you were expected to know what type of wine was produced (for instance, in the Loire region, the red wines were typically Cab Franc). And, this was one of the few occasions where English or basic French and pointing wasn’t enough—we sat through an entire wine tasting in French, as probably described the aromas and flavors, which was totally lost on us—but he just kept on talking! The wine tastings were always free, but they come with an expectation to buy at least bottle. We brought plenty of great wine back with us to Germany (no extra baggage fees on trains!)
On the next day, we travelled about an hour away to the region around the city of Saumur. In addition to the wine region and the river, this region also was the area where massive amounts of Tufa stone were mined, creating vast caves which have been used for a variety of purposes. Over time, troglodytes lived in these areas, often with complete living areas built directly into the slabs of rock, and they are still used this way today. We visited a mushroom museum, as the caves offer a pristine climate in which to grow mushrooms, due to the cool, damp area.
Nearby, an artist used the white-stones caves as a canvas for his work—he sculpted the beautiful churches and villages from the surrounding area directly into the stone. Each sculpture presented information about how long it took to perform the work and what was particularly difficult about this piece. The pictures are beautiful—take a look for yourself! Kevin was so enthralled with these sculptures that he wanted to buy the “do it at home kit”, probably meant for kids, which included a block to stone and carving tools. Sadly, Deanna talked him out of it.
We spent our last day at a countryside cooking school. Normally, the class is held at their countryside home, however due to an unfortunate accident, they are hosting the classes at the equally rustic old post office in a nearby village. The menu to prepare was previously discussed and agreed upon: white asparagus risotto, quail brushed with roasted cumin, and a molten chocolate cake. We also made an olive tapenade, a traditional French dish of peas and braised lettuce, and an amazing tasting ice cream.
While the cooking style and instruction was not traditional snooty French, we used fresh ingredients from the local area along with concepts that Wayne & Aaron have learned in their extensive travels throughout Europe. We learned a great deal, but more importantly, had another amazing experience that we will remember for years to come. And we learned that the butchers there leave the heads on the quail to prove their freshness.
On our last night, we took one more stroll through Tours, and visited a few local landmarks. A beautiful fountain memorializes the loss of life in WWI and WWII, and just down the road, a US-placed sculpture commemorates the work of American soldiers during WWI. Then we strolled down the river, where we had been several times before, one last time through the hip river-side café and concert venue, where many students gather late into the night to spend time in this wonderful city.
This post marks the first of our post-Europe blog entries. We had so much fun and adventure that we never got around to finalizing and finishing all of our posts. As a special note on this post, we visited Paris long before the terrorist attack. Je suis Charlie.
We stayed at a central location in Paris; the plus side was it was quick to get to everything; the downside is that our neighborhood didn’t have its own feel and vibe to it. If we ever make it back to Paris, I would choose a well-known neighborhood to stay in-- probably Latin Quarter or Montmartre. We walked a good amount, but still were pretty reliant on the Metro just for the sake of time and heat.
After a quick 1 hour morning flight from Hannover (€45 per person, with a checked bag and a chocolate croissant served on board), we dropped off our bags at the hotel and quickly made our way over towards Notre Dame. The building from the outside is stunning; it actually sits on an island in the middle of the Seine, which cuts its way through Paris. From the front, it hardly resembles a traditional cathedral; it looks more like a towering castle. From the side or across the river, it takes on a more classic structure and beckons your attention anytime you are near it. The inside is equally stunning, one of the top 5 churches we have seen, and well worth the visit.
Our hotel let us check in a few minutes early so we had time to drop off our bags before heading up to the area of town named Montmartre. It is commonly translated as mont = mountain/hill, and martre = martyr, the story goes that St. Denis was persecuted, beheaded, however his headless corpse picked up his recently lopped off head and trekked 6 kilometers north. Regardless of the truth of the story, it is a lovely neighborhood with a beautiful church up on top of the hill (Sacre Coeur). Instead of heading straight up, we wound our way along the back, visiting the lesser known areas, including a chocolatier, a macaron store, a butcher that specializes in prepared foods, a cheese seller, a bakery, and finally, we got some wine. On our way we saw a redeveloped area that featured a park with “I Love You” written in some 3,000 languages, had two of our tour members stay behind as the heat and walking uphill didn’t seem to resonate with their expectations of a food tour, and had 2 of our food tour members balk at the wine selection—our French guide didn’t pick up on the clues based on their clean, neat style of dress and haircut along with being from Utah…
Our favorite part of the food tour, and the desserts in general, were the macarons. Commonly spelt macaroon in English, I hesitate to translate it because there are two different desserts that are nothing alike that share this English word. If you are thinking about coconut right now, you’ve got the wrong macarons—these are colorful, small cookies/cakes, cut in half, with a delicious filling in between. They are like biting into a cloud! A crisp layer outside surrounds the fluffy cakey interior, which leads your tastes buds into the smoothing, luxurious filling that awaits you in the middle. There was just one problem. Deanna was sick just before the trip, and her main side effect was the inability to taste anything for the first two days of our trip. Therefore, we made sure to repeat all the highlights during the rest of the trip. However, she gained the ability to really appreciate the textures of what she was eating!
We made a stop at the Louvre which was worthwhile, but as neither of us are huge art lovers, we circled a few things on the map and made our way in and out. Of interest: you can enter through the well-known pyramid, but this has the longest line: skip the line and head in through the shopping mall which leads you to the same area. Also, it is open at night twice a week in Summer, when there are considerably less crowds. As everyone else is taking off for their dinner reservations, you can enjoy the more popular pieces like the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo without elbowing your way past thousands of others. While the highlights were enjoyable, it was really more of a box-ticking activity, so that we could say we saw it—actually our favorite part was goofing off in other empty areas on the way between the main highlights—strolling through the sculpture garden, marveling the 4-foot tall Chinese pagoda-style flower vase, or Deanna taking a selfie with the infamous selfie sculpture.
We decided to do one nicer sit down reserved dinner as part of a “dinner and a show” night. Based on a Tripadvisor tip, we made reservations for Oka, a cozy restaurant with seating for about 16 people. There are only 2 seating times, and everyone is served the same set 5-course meal; there is no menu, just a list of ingredients written on the wall in French which the chef uses to create his masterpieces. Fancy and elegant, yet still attainable for people like us who are interested in good food, but are hardly foodies. The downside is that we don’t know the name of anything we ate there, but needless to say, the food was all 5-star quality served with exquisite presentation—would definitely recommend this place.
Afterwards we headed over to a small theater for a cabaret show. Just down the street from the Moulin Rouge, this theater offers a better show at cheaper prices—and we just walked over to take a photo of the Moulin Rouge. The cabaret show itself was a good time, featuring some can-can and other dancing along with some juggling and other random acts mixed in. Part of the run was that a very large portion of the audience was made up of what appeared to be a group of college students on study abroad from England, Australia, Canada, and the US. Their reactions, drunken comments, and time up on stage as part of a dance contest was an enjoyable addition to the show.
On our final full day, the weather forecast was HOT! For early-June, we had weather of 90-95 degrees, which makes for a hot day of walking around and sightseeing. We planned in two activities which are a bit less popular, out of the city center, and perfect on a hot day: a trip to Cimetière du Père Lachaise, and then down to the Catacombs. Slightly morbid for a trip to such a romantic city, and it may sound strange, but the cemetery is actually one of the most beautiful places in the city. Beautiful headstones and grave markings line the hilly city cemetery, which houses many famous French historical figures as well as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Additionally, we stumbled across very vivid sculptures and memorials relating to WWII and the death of French nationals in concentration camps. But strolling through the winding paths leads to a great deal to ponder, contemplate, and discuss—definitely one of the most interesting parts of our visit.
As the weather continued to heat up, we made our way over to the catacombs—these are former mining tunnels underneath the city with a unique characteristic—a large section of them are lined with thousands and thousands of human bones, bones which were taken from overfull city cemeteries which were contaminating the drinking water. The catacombs are about 60 degrees, a perfect way to beat the heat—which is exactly what everyone else figured as well. This led to our first line in Paris of over 5-10 minutes, and we ending up waiting over an hour—but it was worth it. When you think about human boned lined tunnels, at first you think it would be very creepy and disorderly—but instead the bones were carefully stacked, and it almost feels like walking through a movie set rather than through disturbed and reorganized human remains. But take a look at the pictures to get a feel for the catacombs—words cannot do it justice.
What trip would be complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower? Originally planned to be a temporary exhibit before hosting the world fair, it has easily become the most recognizable piece of the skyline—because it is just about the only structure that rises up that high. That begs the questions, why does everyone want to go up in there? We instead took an elevator to the top of Montparnasee tower and were rewarded with sweeping views of the city with an exceptional view of the Eiffel Tower. And the Eiffel Tower we visited up close on our last night, so that our lasting impression of the city would the Eiffel Tower at night—at least that was the plan! We brought a picnic complete with some of the best-renowned macarons in the city, since Deanna could finally taste again, and set up shop with a view of the giant projection screen showing the French Open in the background. However, all of a sudden our stifling heat gave way to a storm passing through, which both interrupted the tennis match being played just miles away, as well as leaving us scrambling for cover under nearby trees! As the rain passed, Kevin went out and bought a poncho that could be used as a picnic blanket, as the ground was now wet everywhere. We used the setting sun as an opportunity to takes some pictures as we walked under the tower, crossed the street, and headed up to the Trocadero fountain, which offers superb views of the Eiffel Tower as it is up on a hill. There we took in the sights and sounds, including a proposal, wedding photos, a group of girls shrieking at a rat (must have been Ratatouille). We enjoyed our food and drank our wine until the Eiffel Tower lit up and periodically sparkles, ending a lovely trip to the city of love.
While many thought it odd, Deanna had wanted to go to Romania for quite some time. The Transylvania region, Carpathian Mountains, and of course... Dracula! Who wouldn't want to go? Looking into the trip, it would be easy to stay over a week just to have enough time to travel to each city and landmark, but since we want to carefully manage vacation days, 6 nights was the minimum. Since we were going to be traveling so far east, Kevin had said he really wanted to check out Istanbul, Turkey. So we decided to make it a just over a week-long trip between two weekends, traveling direct to Istanbul, staying 3 nights, flying to Bucharest, renting a car and driving all over for 6 nights, before finally flying back to Hannover.
We actually got a really good deal with the airlines. Flying direct to Istanbul, then one-way to Bucharest, then back to Hannover (with a layover in Istanbul) with Turkish Airlines only cost $270 per person! The best part was actually the “old school” service on the flights that can only be read about in history books in the US… First we were greeted not only by the flight attendants when boarding, but also a chef! They passed out Turkish delight appetizers as soon as we got in the air, then came around with 3-course menus so you knew what to choose from when the food cart came, then with the food came the drink cart, where you could choose from freshly squeezed orange juice or lemonade, soda, or alcohol -- all for free! This is all despite the fact that most Turkish people don’t drink alcohol, due to religion. For us, this was an excellent start to our trip.
As the largest city in the Middle East with over 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul has over 3,000 mosques. While only a few are popular tourist sites, it is amazing to be able to look in any direction and see such beautiful, historical structures, with so many of them dating back to the 15th century.
The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are directly across from each other and are the main focal points connecting a large, beautiful square. While the Hagia Sophia is well known by name, the view from the outside is nowhere near as impressive as the other mosques, especially in comparison to the stunning Blue Mosque. However, once inside, the Hagia Sophia is gorgeous, whereas the Blue Mosque is interesting, but wouldn’t be worth the wait (we went 10 minutes before it closed to the public and got right in, but heard of people waiting in line for over an hour to see it!) The Hagia Sophia was also extremely interesting, because it was initially built as an Orthdox Church, and over the many centuries and re-constructions due to fires and wars, was converted into a mosque. Now it is just a museum, but it’s so interesting to see scripture from the Koran in one area, then pictures or carvings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in another.
The one thing that can (literally) not be missed is the call to prayer. Five times a day the ezan is bellowed through loud speakers from the towers of different mosques. While it will easily be heard while roaming the streets, the call from the Blue Mosque is the most entrancing. One day we sat on a bench in the square between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, and the surround-sound of the approximately 10-minute call was both beautiful and surreal.
The most well-known thing to do when visiting Istanbul is going to their bazaars. The Spice Bazaar is amazing, and not a place to go if you are hungry. The aroma from all the spices and teas are overwhelming (in a good way), and the constant presentation of Turkish Delight and baklava makes your mouth water. It is very easy to walk in just to look around, but walk out with bags of goodies and needing another trip to the ATM… The Grand Bazaar certainly lives up to its name. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world, and with over 3,000 shops easily attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors per day. Navigating the Bazaar is near impossible for new visitors, as it’s easy to get lost among the endless rows of stands. After a few twists and turns, we needed to use GPS just to figure out which direction we were headed so that we could exit!
While shopping through the Bazaars is certainly a big plus of Istanbul, the biggest negative is the constant harassment of the workers for you to come into their shop and buy something. While the people were all extremely nice, constantly hearing “Money for your honey?” or “Can I help you spend your money?” while funny at first, quickly became an annoyance and we found ourselves speeding past some areas that we might have actually had interest in purchasing something.
While digging though travel forums and blogs and reddit posts on things to do in Istanbul, Kevin came across an interesting find. A person had written about a place near the Grand Bazaar, where you walk through a side entryway that just leads to a parking lot. However, if you go up a set of stairs before the lot, you end up walking around and old, run-down building that is a mix of apartment entrances, back-entrances into restaurants, and abandoned buildings. Walking for a bit (and being unsure if we were in the right place or not), we came across an old man standing in front of a big locked door. He looked at us and said something, to which we just pointed up and the old man nodded his head. He unlocked the door and we gave him 5 Turkish Lira (about 2 dollars) and we walked up to the roof. There we were able to walk around and get stunning views of Istanbul, and some great pictures! Luckily, it is not a well-known tourist spot, because it felt quite crowded with the 5-10 other people there taking in the views (almost all of which had DSLR cameras and tripods).
We spent about a half a day at Topkapi Palace, which served as residence and seat of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years. While not as visually stunning as other parts of the city, the history and artifacts stored here are not to be missed. There were huge crowds to see the exhibits, which contain some possessions of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. Istanbul is commonly seen as a juxtaposition; with a bridge crossing from Europe to Asia, the overlapping of the Christian and Muslim faiths, and the varied rulers over time. However, we feel that this picture (taken at Topkapi) accurately sums up the city today as a westernized version of Islamic society.
Below the city lies the ancient Basilica Cistern, which is essentially a water storage area built underneath the city. It is absolutely impressive due to its size once one considers the time that it was built. Unfortunately, that was based on slave power and resulted in the death of many of the workers. The Basilica has been commonly used in media references, most recently in Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno. In the far corner of the Basilica are two columns with a Medusa head as the base: one upside down, one on the side. While the exact reason is not known, it is rumored they were sculpted to help ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
One of our last trips to a souvenir shop proved to be a bit more somber than we had expected. We ended up chatting with one of the employees there for about 30 minutes as we were deciding on certain items. He moved to Istanbul about 2 years ago from Syria. All of the fighting, and why people want to kill each other, especially in the name of religion, he just can’t understand. He was studying at a university there, and will never forget the day he decided to leave: when one of his best friends dropped dead next to him, hit by a sniper shot to the head, with more bullets whizzing past him. Hearing stories such as this is part of the reason that we are here, to truly learn and experience the world around us, outside the bubble that we lived in in the US. However, this salesman was quite in contrast to another we spoke to in the spice bazaar, who’s goal is to save up enough money to get out of Istanbul, the place where he grew up, and go travel around Norway with his bike.
On our last day in Istanbul, we signed up for a food tour with a local company. The tour lasted about 6 hours, and took us to about 10 different restaurants, shops and markets to experience a full day of authentic Turkish food like a local would eat. We started off at a little hole in the wall tea shop. The tea in Istanbul works like this: everyone has a “tea guy,” who knows exactly how you like your tea and how often you want it. In advance, you purchase 50 or so cups of tea, each cup represented by a small plastic token. He brings the tea by to you, and when you’re finished you leave the cup with one plastic token and he comes by later and picks it all up. When out of tokens, you go back and purchase more; simple and efficient. Next up was a full Turkish breakfast. The majority of the food was nothing like American breakfast foods: vegetables, salads, olives, cheeses, meats, breads—there was one item with egg in it. But our favorite item there was a sort of cream cheese that comes from water buffalo, which are raised by the owner’s family. You drizzle honey on top of it and dip into it with simit, which is like a pretzel covered with sesame seeds—that was heavenly. The theme of our specific food tour was “two continents,” so we took the ferry over to the Asian side and walked through a market there, trying some interesting things: fried sardine like fish that you eat whole (head, tail and all!) with lemon and arugula, some sort of green leafy seaweed, and fried stuffed mussels. Our next stop introduced us to tripe soup, which is based from cow’s stomach—it was quite creamy, but tasted almost fatty. Then we had a kebap wrap with incredible sauces, however served on the side was homemade Ayran, which is a sort of yogurt based drink, with some hint of sourness—Deanna liked it better the second time we had it, but Kevin wouldn’t even try it a second time! The day finished off with some sweets (Turkish delight, baklava, something that looked like a churro), and learning how to drink a Turkish coffee (including turning it upside down at the end and “reading” the plate like a fortune). What a unique experience!
Walking around Istanbul, you are bound to run into the many stray cats and dogs. Noticeable are the tags on the animals, which indicates they have already been picked up by the city and vaccinated. We never saw any animals that looked sick, undernourished, or aggressive towards humans—by the time we left, they seemed to fit in and are just a part of the city’s culture. This was essentially a warm-up to all the roaming animals we were about to see on the next part of our trip.
Part 2, Romania -- Up Next!
After deciding to stay in Europe for New Year’s Eve, the next decision was where. Often we choose by simply looking at Google Maps, zooming out, and picking out a city—let’s go to Salzburg! We then research the best way to get there from Hannover, and 9 times out of 10 the answer is: take the train. Six hours on the train is now much more preferable to us than a shorter plane ride; no checking in, no security line, no baggage limits, no boarding process—just a stress free journey. About 2 hours into our journey, the landscape changed. The closer we got to Austria, the more snow that blanketed the landscape outside of our train window.
We arrived in early afternoon to not just a blanket of snow, but more snow continuing to fall—for us this was a huge positive, as it reminded us of home. We made our way to our rented apartment—some sort of combination between a hotel and an airbnb room. But considering how late, relatively, we planned this trip, it was a steal to find a place to stay with availability on NYE.
Towering over the city of Salzburg is the Festung Hohensalzburg (Hohensalzburg Castle). This castle sits atop Mönchsberg, and at the bottom of the hill lies the city, which straddles the Salzach river. On the other side of the river is a larger hill, Kapunizerberg. This was our first destination on NYE; a quick climb up the hill brought us to these views, and our top choice of where to return shortly before midnight.
At 4pm, from the hills surrounding the city, traditional city guards shoot off black powder guns to help ring in the new year. This gun salute was an exhilarating preview of what would come later. However, it is difficult to simultaneously plug your ears and take photos! Earplugs would be recommended.
The weather forecast for the 31st was variable up until the time we left, leaving us unsure as to whether we should count down to midnight in a fancy ballroom or out in the elements. Instead, we did a bit of both. We took a break from the elements by visiting a local performance of the Nutcracker before heading to the Domplatz (Cathedral Square), which hosted an open-air concert with food and drink stands lining the square to keep revelers well fed and lubricated to withstand the brisk temperature. The audience was a mix of Germans, Austrians, Italians, and Brits/American—they played some music for everyone, but it was still overwhelmingly American music.
At around 11pm, we began the journey across the bridge and up the hill to stake our place before midnight. It was a bit more crowded than earlier, but we secured a safe spot, and promptly stuck our bottle of sparkling wine in a snow bank to cool it quicker before midnight. The concept of fireworks celebrations is much different in continental Europe than what we are used to in the US. Rather than the “official” fireworks being the main attraction and smaller, “self made” celebrations being minor festivities, here it is quite the opposite. Beginning 1-2 hours before midnight, the night sky was constantly lit up with impressive fireworks being shot off in every direction in all sorts of shapes and forms. It is somewhere between impressive, overwhelming, and dangerous—it quickly becomes apparent that either not everyone knows what they are doing, have had a few too many drinks, or purchased their fireworks from some neighboring country that doesn’t have the highest production standards. It absolutely adds to the thrill and excitement of the moment, but you definitely need to watch out for your own safety.
Exactly at midnight, the official fireworks started—shot off from the hill near the castle, it paints a beautiful night sky with fireworks exploding over the castle—which has stood for nearly 1,000 years without ever being attacked. We popped the sparkling wine, and took in the moment—and that is how we celebrated our way into 2015.
As a side expedition on one day, we took a single-car gondola up a nearby mountain, Untersberg. After a daunting 10-minute journey with drop-offs never before seen on traditional ski gondolas, we arrived safely at the top to find blistering winds. We went on a short hike to the close by peak and took some photos, and decided we were up for a 500m trek up to the main peak. Rewarded with stunning views and another photo op, we trekked back down and had a lovely lunch at the cute little mountain lodge. All in all it was a great break from the city/culture experience and let us have some time to play in snow up on top of a mountain—something that definitely reminded us of Colorado.
The coming days were a mix of relaxation and sightseeing, with a bit of fun of playing in the snow. The city was still buzzing with the increased tourism from the holiday, but still subdued enough to enjoy a fine weekend. The crowds have gotten increasingly bad during the summer due to the two main draws to the city, outside of its beauty: it is the birthplace of Mozart, and the location for The Sound of Music.
The city itself is visually most interesting due to the castle up on the hill. As an easier path than hiking up there, there is a cable car that gets up to the top in about a minute. Up top offers beautiful views in all directions. The castle now holds a museum with topics spanning from the history of Salzburg, the reasons for building the castle, and some random topics, including the history of marionette theater. The castle also hosts dinners and concerts, but we chose to attend a concert elsewhere. Back down the hill we also stopped by the Panorama museum. Back in the 1800s a gigantic panorama painting was commissioned, and later restored into impeccable form today.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 as the seventh child in his family. Museums exist now at his birthplace and the residence where his family later lived. His brilliance as a young child is highlighted as you walked through the room where he composed his first songs and the instruments he played. We learned about his European travels, which his father saw as a means to both show off the skills of Mozart and his sister, and as a means of continuing education – an interesting concept when compared to long hours of schooling we go through. Also noted was that Mozart was quite short and while no photos of him exist, it is clearly noted, he was not the most attractive man. Can’t have everything!
To take in his music, we booked a dinner concert at St. Peter Stiftskeller. Part of a monastery, this restaurant has existed since 803 AD, making it the oldest restaurant in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Now, on the 2nd floor, there is a nightly Mozart Dinner Concert. Half dinner, half concert, the attitude is more relaxed than a concert and is presented in a more intimate setting. They play the hits, including music from his famous Operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. It was at this time that we learned, or re-remembered, that Mozart composed Die Zauberflöte with German text. So, we sought out this Opera, and the only show available was the Marionette version of it! We decided to go for it—it proved to be a very entertaining show.
Salzburg is also famous in the English-speaking world for its role in The Sound of Music, both as the actual shooting backdrop in famous scenes and the storyline taking place in Salzburg and surrounding area. As the movie was never translated to German (a difficulty for Musicals), it never really caught on here. However, the town is full of tourists who want to see the famous scenes from the movies. There is a hop-on hop-off bus ride that only goes to Sound of Music locations! We did watch the movie in the run-up to our trip but we didn’t become big enough fans such that we needed to see all the sights. But we did see some of the famous sights including the gazebo featured in the “sixteen going on seventeen” dance.
Some last things to remember and reminisce: Enjoying a hearty meal at an authentic restaurant, only to learn that it is cash only, resulting in a quick (and wet!) ATM trip for Kevin… Visiting a modern art museum up on the hill, seeing some weird art (dressed mannequins, self-exposures), and finding out at the end that someone stole our umbrella… and best of all, a horse carriage ride through a romantic town.
Since 2005, for 10 nights in October, Berlin turns into a city full of light art. The Festival of Lights artfully displays the landmarks, monuments, buildings, streets and squares in Berlin, and is one of the best known light art festivals in the world. National as well as international artists transform the city into a huge stage with light projections, illuminations, video art, and light art installations.
The city is illuminated each night from 7pm until midnight. Luckily, the weekend we went had clear and perfect weather, which made the time fly by each night as we strolled around the city. Unfortunately, this also meant a lot more people were out enjoying themselves as well, so we had to work extra-hard to try and get some good pictures!
Here are just some of the highlights. To see more of the pictures we took go to the Our Pics! section of the website.
On October 3, 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany once again became a single unified republic. Therefore, German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) is annually celebrated to mark the anniversary of the nation's unification. Most similar to the 4th of July in the US, October 3rd is a national holiday and celebrations are held all across Germany.
Each year, the capital city of one of the 16 German States is host to the national celebrations, and this year it was in Hannover. Since the separation of the East and the West was extremely politically charged, coming together under the “Treaty of Unification” was a political milestone, therefore the celebrations are quite politically centered.
Since Hannover was the host, a large area of the festival was focused only on the state of Lower Saxony (mainly known as Niedersachsen), and was known as the Niedersachsenmeile (Niedersachsen Mile). Over 70 booths / tents contained information about the people and life in Niedersachsen, with topics such as politics, children activities / schools, travelers information, environmental innovations, and everything in between. Niedersachsen is the second largest state in Germany (in area, next to Bavaria), so there is definitely a lot of information to cover.
The main stretch of the Maschsee (and the highlight of the festival) was the Ländermeile (Land Mile), which held a large tent for each of the 16 German states. Inside the tents were information about each state, trip planning information for visitors, and local entertainment in some. Outside each tent was a food area where people could get a taste of the local food and/or drink that was famous to that area. We tried a delicious rabbit stew, as well as an (interesting sounding but actually quite tasty) onion cake.
It was definitely a fun and interesting experience to be able to take part in this celebration, and we learned a lot about Germany as a whole. Usually when learning about Germany, everything is so focused on the world wars and the cold war; there isn’t much focus on anything else. Instead, this celebration focused on life as it is today, so it was a refreshing break to see the positive aspects of each area, and what living there would be like. We also got some great information and ideas for upcoming trips! :-)
Ever since we moved to Germany, Deanna has wanted to go to Croatia. While not the typical vacation destination, this area is increasing in popularity and rightfully so. Croatia is best described as a mix between California and Italy. This led us to choose Croatia as our longest trip of the year, mixing in a road trip down the coast with a relaxing week at a resort.
Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was a quick flight from Hannover. 2 hours and 15 minutes in the air with a layover in Stuttgart is a bargain to change cultures, language, and scenery in what feels like the blink of an eye. Upon arrival, we went to the local rental agency to pick up the automatic car we had reserved (automatics in Europe are scarce and much more expensive to rent). Unfortunately, it wasn’t there. We had the option of taking a manual car, or waiting around until the automatic was available. After some discussion, we talked to the Hertz counter, which was directly next-door. By chance, they had an automatic car that would fit our one-way itinerary. In fact, it was a brand new Toyota Hybrid, which they needed in our destination city the next week, so we got a huge discount—our bad luck turned into good luck!
We set off south on the A1 from Zagreb to our first destination, Plitvice Lakes National Park. After checking into our hotel and dropping our bags off, we headed into the national park. Plitvice is a set of 16 cascading lakes with waterfalls inter-joining them. The pictures can only begin to hint at its beauty, which is impressive both for several highlights as well as 360 degrees of beautiful sights seen while hiking through the park.
Plitvice also has a dark stain in its history; it was the sight of the first casualty in the Croatian War of Independence, part of the Breakup of Yugoslavia in the early to mid 1990s. This war is complicated due to the history of the region and the intermingling of ethnic groups and religions. The current split of the region has 6 countries holding 8 different ethnic groups. The war itself was brutal, with allegations of ethnic cleansing being performed by multiple sides. The people that we talked to seemed to miss the years of "Tito’s Yugoslavia." They were against the war and what happened, but seem content with how things are now, with notable exceptions.
We hiked that first afternoon and the next morning and then took off further south to the city of Split. One of the after-effects of the war which ended just 20 years ago is that some rebuilding work still exists, and there is still some catch-up being done for the years that were lost. Thus, the existence of “white roads” is somewhat common -- the upgrading of roads by stripping off the current road and building a new road in its place. However, this led to a stretch lasting several miles where our Toyota was essentially off-roading. That would have been a stressful drive for us in a manual car!
Split is a wonderful coastal city that is the launching point to several of Croatia’s best-known islands. The main walkway is a lovely promenade on the seaside, which separates the water from the remains of the Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian. Finished in 305 AD as the retirement home for Diocletian, the remaining portions are now integrated into the city’s current architecture. We spent the day exploring the city, the church, and the ruins – where you can go underground and see the layout exactly as originally built, since the city required a supporting layer underneath. At night, we enjoyed dinner on the promenade and wandered again through the city, watching street performers and enjoying some ice cream, taking advantage of the perfect night-time weather.
The next morning we took off further south down the coast to Dubrovnik. The coastline is absolutely stunning. Towering mountains collide with the stunning blue Adriatic Sea, which is littered with islands. Small coastal towns only add to the scenery, and we took a stop in the town of Makarska and walked along the beach and rocks. The biggest negative of Croatia is the lack of sandy beaches, along with an overly liberal use of the word beach. Most beaches are pebbly or rocky, and some “beaches” are nothing more than a concrete slab next to water. Near the end of our journey was a quick border trip through Bosnia & Herzegovina, which maintains water access and therefore splits Croatia into two parts.
We arrived in the city of Dubrovnik and drove straight to our hotel, the Dubrovnik Palace. At the end of the Lapad peninsula, the hotel is designed like a cruise ship to ensure aesthetical appeal. Each room overlooks the beautiful Adriatic Sea scattered with islands. Our days at the hotel were spent at the pool and “beach,” enjoying some precious relaxation time together. The weather was fantastic, sunny and hot every day we were there. By far the best part was the balcony and the view, where you would lose yourself in the beauty and simplicity of the sea moving with ships traveling along. Although, the “pirate” ships which offers dinner and festive music did add a little something different to the ambiance.
Interspersed into the seven days at the hotel were three different day trips. The first of these day trips was a small group wine trip into Bosnia & Herzegovina. Paired with 6 Norwegians (one of which got his masters in English and wrote his dissertation about east coast rap), our tour leader was a middle-aged Croatian who fled the region right before the war. He ended up with friends in the UK, where he attended sommelier school. After working for many years in the industry, he now spends his summers back in Croatia where he is setting up the first sommelier school in the country. During this trip, we visited several local wineries in the southern region of B&H, while also visiting the ancient city of Mostar. The wine itself was very good, and the tastings also included locally produced olive oil, along with bread and cheese. While driving around in these regions, you could easily believe you were in California. We ended up taking several bottles of wine back with us, which we drank on our balcony watching the sunsets.
The other advantage of this personalized tour was the ability to ask a variety of questions to a local, and having someone with that spoke the local language. The border crossing to B&H was very easy with him there, and would have been more daunting without him (especially with us having US passports). We learned about the southern area of B&H, which is very poor, and we saw several Croatian flags hanging—although in some areas these have been burnt in retaliation. Additionally, in this area, road signs are written both in the Latin alphabet and in the Cyrillic alphabet (think Russian). In certain areas, the signs are vandalized to cross out one of the two alphabets, essentially marking the territory of which group is dominant. We also passed a graffiti sign in Croatia that translates to “kill Serbs”—our guide expressed surprise that this had been there for several months without being removed.
Montenegro was the destination of our second day trip, and is only an hour drive from Dubrovnik. This trip was with a large coach bus rather than a smaller van like the trip before. Crossing the border was surprisingly smooth for having so many people. The main destination was the Bay of Kotor. The central piece is the walled city of Kotor, which is beautiful. The highlight of this trip was the switchback climb up the mountain to an absolutely stunning view from the top. Equally as impressive was the driving—the coach bus going up the seemingly 1-lane switchback road, making 180 degree turns—we were glad not to be driving ourselves.
Out last day trip was to the island of Korčula. A bus drove us to the end of the Pelješac peninsula, where we took a ferry to the small walled city of Korčula. The tour was offered in English, French, and German. The woman who gave the English and German section spoke much better German than English, and gave more details in German, so we listened to that most of the time. Korčula was more leisurely and less touristy than other cities. We enjoyed a nice tour of the city followed by lunch on a restaurant balcony directly overlooking the sea. On the way back, we stopped at a winery on the peninsula. A rustic looking tasting room and 500 years of history seemed great, although the wine was not our favorite. We did have some nice company from some German tourists, and a Frenchman who also spoke German. Out last stop was in the city of Ston. Once its own republic, it was very wealthy due to its salt mine. It was so lucrative that they built a wall around both the city and the salt mine.
Our “home” city of Dubrovnik was definitely our favorite, but always the most crowded. We even avoided it during the day when cruise ships dropped off five to ten thousand people. One of the fun things to do is the city wall walk, where you get on top of the city wall and encounter gorgeous views of the city and surrounding areas. For our last dinner in town, we went up to the top of the nearby mountain by gondola and had a fantastic dinner, taking in the natural beauty combined with the enchanting city. That night was also the first game of the World Cup, which happened to be Croatia v. Brazil. After we came down from the gondola, we went to a beach club where we watched the game with a mix of locals and other tourists. The place was hopping after Croatia led 1-0, and although disappointed with the final score, they were nonetheless happy to see their team play.
All in all, this was our favorite trip so far. The beauty of Plitvice lakes, the coastline, and the ancient cities, combined with the interesting history, recent conflict, and accommodating people, make this truly a unique place. Before our trip to Croatia, everything that we had visited was starting to blur together due to their similarities, but Croatia will always be something unique and different for us to look back on.
German holidays revolve around the Christian calendar. The Easter weekend here means: Good Friday, public holiday, all businesses and shops closed. Easter Sunday, public holiday, all business and shops closed. Easter Monday, public holiday, all businesses and shops closed. Which of course also means that the shops are packed on Holy Saturday, and you don't want to be there. The weekend here is typically spent with family: due to our lack of family in the region, we decided to take the opportunity to travel somewhere else where the entire city doesn't shut down. Our choice was Prague. The train ride from Hannover to Prague is 6 hours, so we chose to break it up into 2 days and stay overnight in Dresden.
Dresden is best known to Americans due to the fire bombing that occurred at the end of WWII. In the period of a few days in February 1945, the majority of the inner city was reduced to rubble. However, the city has a long and distinguished history independent of the war. After spending time in the city we ended up the distinct impression that the city of Dresden was the most impacted by the war, as they were still showing the negative emotions caused by the war. Due to its destruction, Dresden lost a material amount of significance in its standing as one of the great and powerful European cities. Through its reconstruction, including the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche which took until 2005, Dresden is regaining that position.
We spent the day exploring Dresden using our trusted Rick Steves' Germany guide. The Old Town, or Altstadt, was very nice to visit, and certainly had some highlights. The vast Zwinger palace complex has had many uses throughout history, and is today home to several interesting museums. Of particular interest for Kevin was the Mathematics & Physics Salon, which exhibits historical pieces used in map-making, seafaring, calculation methodologies, astronomy, and clocks. The Parade of Nobles is a mural painted on 24,000 tiles of porcelain. Depicting seven centuries of rulers and created in 1907, they were originally fired three times at 2400 degrees, and then one more time at 1800 degrees during the fire bombing.
However, the highlight of our short visit was heading across the bridge as our day was winding down and exploring the up and coming New Town, or Neustadt. We worked our way through the inner gardens of a courtyard to find a secluded area of low-key shops and street art on the houses. We passed by the Lebowski Bar, which plays the movie on a non-stop loop, but didn't stop in for a White Russian. Instead, we went over to the Chocolate Bar, and indulged in the decadence that you can find below.
Despite already seeing so much, it was time to move on to the main part of our journey, and on Friday morning we hopped back on the train to finish the trek to Prague.
In Prague, Deanna booked a cute little bed and breakfast style hotel for us. Best of all, it was very central to downtown, which made walking everywhere a breeze. And boy did we walk.
After settling in to the hotel on Friday, we headed over to a local wine and tapas bar for a light dinner. Pairing local wines with Czech specialties, we had a lovely little meal. Perhaps the most charming part of the place was the fun wine related artwork on the walls. After dinner, we headed to a surprise event book by Kevin. He had organized tickets to the Czech National Ballot Symphony! Quite unexpected. The venue was spectacular, the music was great, the show itself left us a bit confused, despite not using any spoken language. But the theater is certainly a bargain, with balcony tickets available for under $10 and standing room only tickets for under $3.
The walking truly began on the second day. After a lovely breakfast spread, we walked over to old town square, where the Easter Market was being held. The backdrop of the gorgeous historical buildings was perfect for the colorful decorations and cute stands. Deanna certainly did her fair share of shopping at those stands in the coming days! Food stands galore, craft stands with hand painted Easter eggs, doilies, Prague souvenirs, it went on and on...
The jewel of old town square is the old astronomical clock. These have popped up a few times before for us in Europe, but this one is truly spectacular. Huge crowds gather every hour during the day to hear the bells ring on the hour. Our tour guide said that one of his favorite tips is to go to the clock at night the first hour that it doesn't ring, and wait around for the Russians to realize it wasn't going to go off and mumble 'stupid Czechs, damn thing doesn't even work.'
After visiting the Easter Market, we started off with a free walking tour. These have popped up all over Europe, so we decided to give this a try as we didn't have a guide book with us. It lasted about 3 hours, and the tour guide was truly terrific. We learned big chunks of history and got a nice taste of the city and a lay of the land. The hook is that they ask for tips at the end of the tour, and you are free to give what you want, although it is a bit awkward to come upon an amount-- at that point you almost just wish you had paid a full "fair" price up front.
We enjoyed the tour so much that we came back for a second tour in the afternoon. This was a castle tour, where take the tram up to the top of the hill and wander your way back down to the bottom while hearing interesting stories along the way. It is the residence of the president, has been the backdrop to several movies, and is the largest ancient castle in the world. Because it took so long to build and had some many additions and replacements throughout the centuries, there are many different architectural designs that one can see.
The Czech Republic has an interesting history with Russia and communism. While the country seems to associate more with Eastern Europe than Central Europe, freedom from the shackles of communism is more openly celebrated here than in Eastern Germany. We visited the Museum of Communism, which depicts life under communist rule after WWII, and the museum did not paint a happy picture. Although perhaps the most interesting part of the visit was the Russian family in front of us who were oblivious to that fact, and used the museum as a shrine to communism instead. They took pictures with the Stalin and Lenin busts with fun poses, were loud and obnoxious, and breezed through the entire museum without reading any of the clearly negative opinion.
On Easter Sunday, we started off a bit different than normal. By chance, there was a temporary exhibit housing Tim Burton's drawings and inspirations. As a one of Deanna's favorite writer/directors, we decided to take a look. It was fantastic. So many behind the scenes drawings, notes to actors about lines, seeing his development as a teenager, the letter he wrote in to Disney trying to get his work promoted (and the personalized feedback that he received)-- it was pretty cool.
We followed that up with a culinary event. Deanna booked an Easter Brunch at the Hilton hotel. It was out of this world. Endless amount of 5 star quality food, everything you could imagine: carving station with American quality meat (hard to get over here), the freshest seafood, delicious salads and breads, wine and beer included, and of course a spectacular dessert bar. We got there at 12:30, knowing that it lasted until 3:30, thought they would be turning over the table once... nope, we stayed all 3 hours, like almost every guest in there. Oh, and they had a live band, where a classy Japanese guy sang absolutely lovely cover songs.
All in all we had an amazing trip, and left with the distinct feeling that we would come back again for a long weekend to explore everything that we didn't get a chance to see. Definitely near the top of our favorite cities in Europe.
Amsterdam is a city that needs no introduction. Easily accessible by high-speed rail direct from Hannover, this city has been near the top of our destination list for an entire year. Finally the opportunity arrived for us to take a long weekend away to spend 4 days in Amsterdam, which was barely enough time to scratch the surface of this multi-layered city.
From arrival, the most evident and relevant fact learned about this city is the omnipresent nature of the canals. Bordered by a river on the north side, concentric rings of canals circumnavigate the city center, which provides the city true beauty and fascinating layers that one must pass through to get to the center. In the past, these layers helped keep a buffer between the wealthy residents and working class. Today, these canals provide character and an appealing foreground in photographs to the delight of tourists from throughout the world.
Amsterdam has played its fair share in world history and culture. Vincent Van Gogh was born and spent the first 16 years of his life in the Netherlands, and his works are home to one of the most popular museums in Amsterdam. Rembrandt also hails from the Netherlands, and in addition to his work being proudly displayed at the Rijksmuseum (National Museum), you can visit the house where he lived and worked (before it was repossessed due to not paying the mortgage). There is also a popular square named after him with a 3D rendition of his famous Night Watchmen painting. The other famous historical figure, who stayed for too short a period of time, is Anne Frank. The jam factory with a secret annex where her and her family hid in for years is situated on a picturesque street near a famous church. These church bells are the only contact that Anne had with the outside world.
Deanna, the planner for all of our trips, discovered that it was restaurant week during the time we would be in Amsterdam. On our first night, we took a heavily discounted dinner cruise through the canals. The tour boat operator pointed out sights and told stories while the wait staff prepared and served a restaurant quality dinner. One of the highlights was stopping at a point where you can see seven lighted canal bridges in another. On our second night, we ate at the traditional Dutch restaurant D'Vijff Vlieghen (the five flies). Dutch food is not particularly well known on an international scale, however this elegant restaurant certainly did not disappoint with a succulent beef dish as the main course in a style that represents a blend of nearby German and French cuisine.
Outside of Amsterdam, the Netherlands is well known for windmills and tulips. Unfortunately, neither of these two characteristic traits are well represented in the city. While tulips originate primarily in central Asia, they were brought into the Netherlands over 500 years ago and became immensely popular with the residents. They were also extremely expensive; the value of one single tulip bulb was the same as an apartment! Of course, the tulip bulb bubble burst not too long afterwards. Windmills are also something that is associated with the country, but there isn't much room in the city for them. The only real windmill we saw, outside of those in all the souvenir shops, was situated next to the Brouwerij 't IJ beer pub, where the craft beer scene is alive and hoppin'.
Kevin recently came into possession of a DSLR camera, and during the research before this trip, we stumbled upon a photography tour of Amsterdam. Aimed at people who were upsold to a fancy camera but only know how to use it in Auto mode, we were taken on a three-hour tour of the city while simultaneously learning about the basics of photography. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and basics of photo composition are now topics we are familiar with, and hopefully that will begin showing up in our pictures. One thing that you will definitely notice within many of our Amsterdam photos are the bicycles. Like Münster, Amsterdam is an extremely bike friendly town, which offers fantastic opportunities to spice up photos.
No visit to or discussion of Amsterdam would be complete without the Red Light District and the coffeehouses. The RLD is a relatively large section of town where prostitution is legal, and the method of advertising is the girls posing and dancing suggestively in a full body window. A red light glows out from these windows, giving the area's name another meaning. Walking through during the day, the area seems dirty, out of place, and in all meanings of the word, undesirable. At night, the area transforms into a buzzing hotspot. The streets are packed with onlookers, partygoers, and customers. Walking through the area for about 30 minutes, it becomes apparent how it works. The men show interest, and the sex worker opens the window like a glass door to negotiate the price. When agreed, the man enters, and the curtain is drawn.
The coffeehouses are present throughout the city. These shops are where marijuana is legally sold and smoked. With the coffeehouses come large groups of 18 year old British kids. There were rumors a few years ago that the Netherlands would no longer sell to tourists, but that does not apply to Amsterdam. Looking for a real coffee without the buzz? Try a cafe. Overall, they didn't seem to have a negative effect for the city itself. Except for coming across the distinctive stench here and there, the only downside of these shops comes with the types of tourists that it attracts. The mere distance of Denver from other cities and states makes this type of tourism less likely in our minds, but only time will tell if Denver becomes the Amsterdam of the US.
One thing we are going to blog about a bit more this year is day to day life and oddities about living in Germany. Starting off this series, in an example of the European perspective which is to value the well being of the worker rather than solely the profits of the company, the public transport firm in Hannover is taking place in a current round of public sector strikes. The strikes revolve around a current pay raise, but more importantly, a raise in the retirement age to 67. That means, for 3 days over the last 2 weeks, no buses or subways ran in the entire city. For Kevin, this is a 3 mile commute! Unfortunately, we still haven't gotten around to picking up bicycles as an alternative transportation method, therefore, going by foot it is.
One of the oddities about the German language is the lack of descriptive verbs for walking and running. There is one verb, laufen, that can mean either based on context. Otherwise, you have to say something explicit, like strolling, or going by foot, to make it clear you were merely walking somewhere. This became even more difficult for Kevin to explain to coworkers that he walked to work, but ran home. Hopefully for the sake of this confusion, the strike ends soon.
To check off another German city visited, we traveled for a weekend to the beautiful city of Münster. With being just shy of a two-hour train ride from Hannover, this popular University city was one we thoroughly enjoyed visiting. Although the city was over 90% destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt to look like it had originally, which allows visitors to enjoy the beauty of old German architecture and feel like you're in the old world. Another unique thing about Münster is that a vast majority of the city center is pedestrian only, therefore everyone uses a bicycle to get around. They even call themselves Germany’s bicycle capital. It is very easy and popular for tourists to rent a bike and tour the city that way, but we chose the walking/running method instead. Regardless, this made it extremely convenient to walk around and enjoy the sights without a worry that a car was going to come barreling around the corner.
The "Promenade" is a path around the city where the former city wall used to stand. Today it is a quaint pathway lined with trees on both sides, making it an ideal place for people to stroll, jog, or commute via bicycle.
While walking along the Promenade, we came across a small tower known as the Zwinger. This somewhat boring looking structure actually has quite a history, dating all the way back to its construction in 1528. Initially, it was built as a stronghold for the defense of the city. Around 1534 it was occupied by Bishop Franz von Waldeck’s troops and transformed into a stronghold for control of the city (a bit of a turnaround). In the 1600 and 1700’s it was used as a defense tower, horse mill, and powder storehouse, and then in 1732 was reconstructed into a detention center. Fast forward to 1911, it was acquired by the city of Münster as an unused historical monument. From 1919-1935, it was the home and studio of painter Friedrich Wilhelm Liel. Changing directions completely, from 1938-1943 it became a cultural center for the Hitler Youth, and then in 1944 turned into an incarceration, torture, and execution site of the Gestapo. At the end of 1944 it was partially destroyed in the air raids, and is now a memorial belonging to the city museum which houses artwork as part of the city’s sculpture project.
The historic event that Münster is most notably known for is that it is the city of the Peace of Westphalia. On October 24, 1648, negotiations were finalized that had finally put an end to the Thirty Years’ War. It was in the Hall of Peace within the city’s Town Hall where this event took place.
Münster lies along the river Aa, so the Aasee (in German, the word for lake is "see," and thus the name) is a large lake attached to one side of the city. This beautiful lake was amazing to take a jog around, allowing us to pass by a zoo, an open-air museum, and quite a few different mini-monuments and sculpture art.
As mentioned earlier, within the city is the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität Münster. It is a very popular University, therefore the city center is comprised primarily of students. There is also a beautiful palace, which was the residence of the prince-bishop and constructed from 1767 to 1787. However, only the stunning exterior of the palace was reconstructed after the war, and the inside has been turned into an admin annex for the University.
The Cathedral Square in Münster is directly in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the city’s main church. As typical in Germany, the plaza of the square holds a large market a few times a week, selling primarily locally grown and fresh produce. We of course had to take a break at one of the many food stands, which was selling delicious German fried potatoes – the enchanting smell was enough to trap anyone passing by. We ventured into St. Paul’s Cathedral, and were amazed by the overall beauty and stunning architecture and works of art within it. The most fascinating thing was the astronomical clock. We didn’t know how cool and unique this clock was until we read a Wikipedia article about it, which states the following: Unlike modern clocks, the Münster clock is divided into 24 hours, runs counterclockwise, and indicates hours and minutes simultaneously. Since the clock faces south, the hands thus follow the actual course of the sun. The main hand, decorated with a silver sun and a rainbow, indicates the time. Each red and white line within the circle of Roman numerals represents four minutes. Five minor hands indicate the position of the planets Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and Mercury, while a silver ball (half painted black) represents the moon in its phases.
Carnival, or Fasching, is a big celebration in the west and south-west parts of Germany. In these parts, Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) is a holiday where all the people get the day off of work and school and celebrate in the streets while dressed up in costumes and watching the big parade. Even though we left the Sunday before (this is unfortunately not largely celebrated in Hannover / the north, therefore not a holiday), we still got to enjoy seeing quite a bit of people dressed up and partying the weekend away. Basically, the costumes young people wore we're almost identical to what you'd see out during Halloween (minus any scary ghost and ghouls costumes) but some older people wore traditional costimes which resembled colonial soldiers. The parade and celebration itself is actually a mockery of all things political. We'll cover more about this next year when we travel to Cologne to participate in the festivities!
Shortly after the only brief period of snow we had in Germany this unseasonably warm winter, we took the short train ride to a small town named Goslar. Over 1,000 years old, Goslar was untouched during the war and the city center and surrounding area is a UNESCO world heritage site. The UNESCO designation was not something we had heard much about in the US, but here it is truly seen as a mark of quality and an honor to have. The city lies on the north edge of the Harz mountain range, which is the large green area directly south of the red marker on the map above. We'll be back in the summer for hiking.
Due to the extremely long period of time that Goslar has been around, there are naturally many layers of history that it has been through. Houses are still standing from the early 1500s, and the Kaiserpfalz, or Imperial Palace, displays works of art depicting hundreds of years of history. The palace was built between 1040-1050 and renovated in the late 19th century.
Our hotel, Alte Münze, is exactly what it sounds like if you know German-- and old mint where coins were produced back in the 1500s. It was quite typical from what we have come to expect out of German hotels. Rather than newly constructed buildings with hundreds of rooms with the same layout, there are 15-20 rooms with different layouts and furnishings based on the structure of the room, giving each its own character. Then of course breakfast is served in the morning-- not just one indifferent worker mindlessly restocking a continental breakfast, but instead several dedicated workers bringing drinks and making sure all is to your satisfaction. It feels like a bed and breakfast where the owner is there to take care of you rather than just a place to sleep.
One of nice parts about visiting Goslar was the chance to relax and get away from the routine of everyday life and take some time to just wander and explore. Each street was just as beautiful as the one before it as we strolled through this picturesque place that some lucky people get to call home. We walked through a park where dogs and kids would play when it is summer, but now is a frozen wonderland.
Just around the corner from our hotel was the Marktkirche, or Market Church. Beautiful old churches such as these are wonderful to visit for a few reasons. They are conveniently placed in the middle of town, and usually have been rebuilt after damage from fires and wars in the past. They are almost always free to enter and are usually ornately decorated with artwork, sculptures, and stained glass. It really gives you a feel for how much power these churches had over the cities, especially financially. Finally, there is usually a bell tower that you can go up in and get a nice overview of the city.
In the making of the recent movie Monuments Men, several scenes were shot in Goslar, although later cut. We leave you with more reasons of why George Clooney made the wrong choice!
The best part of the long flight overseas (9-10 hours from Denver to Frankfurt), besides the free drinks, is being able to watch a bunch of movies at your own pace. Back in February when we were flying to Hannover for our orientation week, the movie “In Bruges” was playing. It’s a really good and entertaining comedy/crime/drama movie, and after seeing it we knew we had to go there. It is such a beautiful and relaxing place, with canals intertwining through the whole city. It is referred to as “The Venice of the North” because of this, but the medieval architecture alone is enough to get lost wandering the cobblestone streets for hours. Due to its location, all of the service workers speak at least 3-4 languages: Dutch (and the regional variant, Flemish), English, French, and German.
We went for a long weekend at the end of November for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was at the top of our travel list and we just wanted to go, the second was that there would be less tourists (the small, quaint, romantic city is so well known now that the summer months make it impossible to visit anywhere without a barrage of people), and third is that it was during all the winter festivities!
Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival
Each year Bruges hosts a “Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival” just outside the main train station, which is hosted inside three large tents kept at a chilly 21°F. This year the theme was (fittingly) the new Disney movie “Frozen.” There were sculptures of all the original / most famous Disney characters, with other rooms containing fully detailed stills from Frozen. The coolest part (literally and figuratively) was at the end, where they had an ice bar and slide! We went down the slide first, which if done correctly would cause you to fly down at high speeds, had some glühwein at the bar, and then went down the slide again! After that we were cold enough, having spent an hour in there, and went on our way to enjoy the rest this beautiful city had to offer.
As mentioned, there are canals that wind all throughout the city, which makes travelling by boat the best way to get a tour of Bruges. This was definitely our favorite part of the trip. It was 35 minutes of relaxing sightseeing, and was such a cool experience with some great pictures to come out of it. The boat operator narrated throughout the trip-- based on a survey at the beginning, he spoke English, French, and Dutch. He mixed in history with architecture, and pointed out some other sites worth seeing. At the beginning, we went right by our hotel room, before winding through the city and seeing many areas best viewed from the water
Market Square / Belfry Tower
The market square at the city center was stunning. Since the Christmas markets were set up, there were food, drink, and gift booths around the whole square, along with a skating rink right in the middle. We of course strapped on some skates and had a blast racing and spinning (and not falling!) before walking around the market. The Belfry tower in the background also made the skating experience a beautiful and unique one. The Belfry tower is a medieval bell tower and the most prominent site in Bruges. The walk to the top is by a narrow, 366-step staircase, and has rooms to stop in on the way up that tells the history of each section of the tower.
In the south part of Bruges is Minnewaterpark. There you can find a bridge crossing over a rectangular lake called “Minnewater” or Lake of Love. There is a local legend based off of the tragic romance between Minna and her warrior love Stromberg, that you will experience eternal love if you walk over the lake bridge with your significant other. So naturally, we decided to take a stroll over it.
Probably the most famous spot to take a picture is called Rozenhoedkaai. It’s a perfect blend of beautiful buildings, water, and nature. We were super lucky as our hotel room can be seen from this picture, so we got to enjoy this beautiful view constantly. The view from our hotel room was quite stunning as well, as we were literally right on the water.
Chocolate and Waffles
As Bruges is in Belgium, we naturally had to take part in what this country is most famous for – Chocolate and Waffles! Their solid chocolate is out of this world, although they are most famous for their pralines, as they are the ones who created and perfected the nutty-crème-filled chocolates. We went to the “Choco Story” museum, which told the complete history of the cocoa bean, and how chocolate played a large role through much of history. It was quite fascinating, and ended with a demonstration (and tasting) of how they make pralines.
The beer list available at the restaurants and bars are unbelievable. We went to a famous bar that had a list of over 300 different beers to try! It was really cool seeing posters of Colorado’s “New Belgium” beer around too. One famous spot right next to our hotel is the beer wall, and contains a bottle of every beer that has been brewed in Belgium. Walking into the beer store right next to it was overwhelming as it was two stories of wall to wall beer – it was almost impossible to decide which one to try!
Overall Bruges was purely amazing and a place we highly recommend to anyone wanting to visit Belgium. It was the perfect relaxing mini-vacation, and incredible with how much stuff there is to do and see for such a small city. We can’t wait for our next adventure, but will always remember this beautiful city and have it at the top of our favorite and most memorable trips!
With that, we wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a big thank you for following along in our adventures. We love hearing people say that they are checking our blog from time to time! See you next year.
Please visit Our Pics! to see more pictures from Oktoberfest, as well as our Berlin and Dublin picture from previous trips
Shortly after we finalized our plans to come to Germany, our good friend Ryan Biegen immediately claimed our guest bedroom for a trip in October. We told him that he might actually consider coming in September, as Oktoberfest actually begins in mid-September and ends in early-October. Soon after, his trip was booked.
On our way to Munich, we stopped in a mid-sized city named Würzburg. It is best known for its Residence Palace, which was the home of the famed Prince-Bishops. It also features a fortress up on a hill, and a picturesque bridge linking it to the city center. We all agreed that drinking a glass of wine on the bridge from the nearby restaurant and taking in the scenery was the highlight of the city.
Hotels, and the whole city in general, are very expensive during Oktoberfest. Places to stay are usually 5-6 times more expensive as 6 million tourists descend upon the city for the event. Deanna spent a night in Munich visiting her sister & brother-in-law earlier this year, and stayed at a nice hostel near the train station, so we booked the same place for this trip. When she stayed in the spring, it was just 15 euros per person per night, but during Oktoberfest it rose to 65 euros per person per night. It also has to be booked many months in advance, and sells out very quickly once reservations are made available.
Before we headed over to Oktoberfest, we did some sightseeing in Munich. The renowned Glockenspiel is a “reenactment” of a joust and a wedding ceremony. This playful song and dance takes place on the side of the Town Hall building which faces the main city square, Marienplatz. The highlight of this event, which is unfortunately somewhat boring, is to hear the gasp from the audience as the “joust” finally occurs. Other highlights included the Jewish museum, and eating Kosher at the nearby restaurant, Einstein. This is a play on words, in German Ein Stein means “one Stone”, and the museum and restaurant are constructed from Jerusalem stone. The food was quite good, and the waiter gave us valuable advice on which tents to enter and avoid during the Oktoberfest. We also walked up the tower of a nearby church to get a great view of the city-- some 300 or so steps. Our final excursion was out to the site of the 1972 Olympic games, now called Olympic Park. The architecture is still stunning to this day. We also walked around Olympic Village and found the building that housed the Israeli athletes who were killed in that tragic event.
After sightseeing was over, it was finally time to visit the reason we were there… Oktoberfest! The first night, we took the opportunity to visit as many of the tents as we could, and scope out where we wanted to go the next day. After about 3pm, it becomes very difficult to find a seat -- and that is for weekdays! On a Saturday, you have to show up around 7am to secure an unreserved table. Oktoberfest has about 16 tents, which hold around 5,000 people in each tent. "Tent" is really a misleading term, as these structures are much larger than most buildings, and take 2 months to construct and another month to tear down. The tents close when there are too many people inside, and only re-open when enough people have left. We were there on a Monday, and still several of the tents were closed to walk into.
After exploring the beer tents, and taking a quick refreshment stop in the Augustiner Beer Garden, we visited the other half of Oktoberfest -- the carnival. We first went up in the Ferris Wheel, which gave this spectacular view of Oktoberfest at night:
Then we walked around the fair. First, Kevin bought Deanna a heart shaped cookie, actually Lebkuchen, which sports the phrase Ich liebe dich (I love you, in German). Then, we saw the roller coaster themed after the Olympics, with the Olympic rings. Next, we stumbled upon a fun house, which had a group of people standing and watching. Curious, we stood as well, and found out the reason. The operator has a button which blows a strong burst of air from the ground, and with all of the girls wearing their dirndls (the traditional Bavarian dress), well, imagine the famous Marilyn Monroe picture. After some laughs from that, we continued walking and came across a haunted house. The guy standing on the roof had a giant spider attached to a fishing pole, and he could throw it some 50 meters and have it dangle in front of unsuspecting pedestrians, getting quite a few good scares for some more free entertainment. The other interesting part of the fair was the Teufelsrad (devil’s wheel). This “ride” dates back to the early 1900s, and from the outside, it is unclear what is going on. The building is constructed in a way that you can see the audience intently watching and cheering, but can’t see what is happening in the middle. Naturally, we went in (for a nominal entrance fee). Inside was a rotating wheel, a curved platform. The goal of the game is to stay on the platform as long as possible, but as time goes on, the speed increases which send people flying off the wheel. Later, obstacles are introduced to up the entertainment value.
Tuesday was the day planned for Oktoberfest drinking. As mentioned earlier, the tents fill up pretty quick. We first stopped for a beer inside the Hippodrom, a festive tent filled with bright colors. The real fun of Oktoberfest is the atmosphere and getting to know new people at your table. Germans can sometimes come off cold and distant, but that is definitely not the case during Oktoberfest. At the Hippodrom, we sat next to some nice ladies from Switzerland, with whom we could practice our German skills, and Ryan could show off his French. Of course, they also spoke English, and if that wasn’t enough, also Italian.
At about 1:30pm, we left that tent, took a quick stroll through Kafer, the VIP tent, and settled at our final resting place, the Shutzenfestzelt. We found a place to sit, even though it was already quite crowded, next to some nice gentleman from the Netherlands. The younger of the two had an ambitious goal: 10 liters of beer on that day. At 2pm, he had already made his way through 5, although the effects were clearly showing their signs. A 6th beer was ordered, and on one of his bathroom breaks, he simply never came back.
At around 6pm, the place really starts rocking as the band gets louder and everyone climbs up on the benches and begins to sing and dance to all of the songs. The songs are a good mix of German classics and well-known American songs. Our friendly table was more than willing to help us learn the German tunes. Deanna drank a whole liter of beer (called a maß) by herself before switching over to Radlers, which are a combination of beer and sprite -- pretty popular here. Kevin and Ryan can’t specifically calculate how much beer they drank, but let’s just say it was enough. It is also very important to soak it all up with plenty of food. We indulged in the most popular food at the event, a half roasted chicken. It really is quite something to see the waitresses walk down crowded corridors with a tray of 10 chickens, or carrying 10 or more beers while deftly pushing drunken people out of the way.
The next morning, we took a sobering trip to Dachau. There lies the concentration camp memorial. It is best known as it was the very first concentration camp, and the entrance gate has the chilling phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom). We followed a self guided audio tour which led us through the entire grounds and the recently constructed religious memorials. While we are all familiar with the history and the stories, it really is quite powerful to see it all first hand.
We spent the final night of our trip in the small romantic town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Still enclosed in the city walls, each street in this town deserves to have a painting made of it. Like most cities in Germany, Rotherburg did encounter heavy damage in WWII. Only due to the actions of a US general was the city spared further damage. An agreement was made to surrender the city without a fight so that the city could be saved. The highlight of this city is the Night Watchman's tour, which leads a group through the city and enlightens the group on some of the town’s history.
All in all, Ryan’s visit was a fantastic experience, we had a blast, and we had the opportunity to visit these cities, and Oktoberfest, that we might not have otherwise done. We look forward to those who would like to follow in his footsteps!
Due to some unfortunate computer photo issues, further picture galleries for these places will come in a further update
Long overdue blog post, and you will soon see why. Ever since Italy we have done nothing but traveling, sightseeing, meeting new people and making new friends -- all while enjoying the fantastic weather we have had! For a period of time it as actually a little too nice; both at home for Deanna and at work for Kevin, there is no air conditioning. Why would you need if for just a few weeks per year? is the common retort to our astounded questions about the lack of such a basic human need. But, 85-90 degree days, combined with a distinctly European desire of some men to not wear deodorant leads to some not so fun train rides.
After Italy we spent 4 days in Berlin. This is an amazing city with so much history from the past and intriguing culture taking over the present. Of course there was a healthy dose of Nazi and Holocaust history, which is appropriately presented now. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews is powerful reminder of the hopelessness felt by those who were victims of Nazi atrocities. The Berlin Wall Memorial was extremely educational for us, as I feel not all of the Cold War was properly captured in textbooks by the time we went through school. But there is also so much new culture, including street art, Ampelmann, and a modern Theatre performance that we stumbled upon. Museum Island also holds treasures from around the world, and an entire day could easily be spent exploring these museums.
Our first visitor!
Kevin's cousin Anna attended a music camp in Northern Italy and came to visit us for a few days afterwards. We took a day trip to Hamburg and had a great time exploring the city. The Harbor area is beautiful, and the almost completed Philharmonic looks to be spectacular. One surprisingly cool place to visit in Hamburg is the Miniatur Wunderland museum. It's more than 68,000 sq ft and has a miniature representation of most of the world. Sadly, the US representation was less than stellar. Of all tour country's culture and historical events they could have chosen from, we had the desert filled Wild West, Mount Rushmore, the Las Vegas strip, and Cape Canaveral complete with swampland and alligators... We hear similar complaints from Germans: Lederhosen, Beer, Oktoberfest, Sausages, and Bavaria is the first thing that comes to mind for most Americans when we think of Germany. We'll get a chance to experience some of that for ourselves at the end of the month when our friend visits and we head to Oktoberfest!
Before we moved over here we decided to run a half marathon. Deanna had never run longer than a 10K and Kevin ran one a couple years ago. Deanna researched and found that Dublin was hosting its first ever Rock 'n Roll series half marathon, so we decided why not! We want to travel to as many places as we can while over here, and accomplishing something as cool and difficult as a half marathon while seeing
beautiful Ireland just seemed like a fun idea. The day before the race, we took a guided day trip to Blarney and saw the Blarney Castle (of course we kissed the stone!), Cork , and the Rock of Cashel. The day of the race we had perfect weather, cool with cloud cover, and no rain! Deanna did AMAZING with a time of 2:04, very impressive for her first (of many) half marathons! Kevin did great with a time of 1:48, his personal best. We're thinking of doing a few more while over here, and again using it as an excuse to see someplace new and cool! In the days after the race, we walked around the city of Dublin and saw St. Patrick's Cathedral, Kilmainham Gaol, and of course toured the Guinness factory! We also took a half day trip to Howth, which is on the coast of Ireland, and hiked along the cliffs for some great views.
As we've mentioned before, the Maschsee is a giant man made lake in Hannover's Südstadt. For about two or three weeks each year they have a festival called "Maschseefest" where there are non-stop bars, restaurants, treat stands, and music stages all around it. It's a great time and people can go there every day if they wanted to. A famous drink the have is called the Lüttje Lage where you hold in one hand a small glass of beer (or Fanta, liquid equivalent to 2 or 3 shots) and a second mini glass of schnapps (about 1 shot). As you go to drink the beer, you tilt the schnapps glass behind it, which then pours the schnapps into the beer as you drink, creating a waterfall effect. It is quite good, if you do it correctly.... As Kevin found found out (multiple times) if you don't hold the glasses correctly or go at the right pace, you end up with the drink on your face, shirt, and/or ground... Haha.
The food we miss the most living over here is Mexican. Deanna has tried many different "margaritas" over here and has been sorely disappointed each time. They make all of them with lemon and not lime (or a combination of the two), and they don't have margarita salt, so
instead either don't rim the glass or rim it with table salt... So gross! Mexican food simply does not exist over here. People try to tell you otherwise, but don't believe them. It is all a very cruel trick. We went to one restaurant that has "Mexico" on the side of the building and is named "Enchiladas," but again, just a cruel trick. Kevin ordered a combination plate which came with, among other things, one single BBQ chicken wing -- what? Deanna ordered the enchilada combo plate, which was actually three mini flour tortilla filled things and no where close to a normal enchilada. One was shredded chicken, which actually tasted okay, the second had BBQ beef inside, and the third was veggie that tasted like a Chinese spring roll! On top of all of this, the "sauce" they gave us was not your normal enchilada or red/green chili, but instead a small squirt of sour cream and a teaspoon of salsa... All stores carry "salsa" and "guacamole", but it barely resembles the real thing, where you question whether the base ingredient of the guac is really avocados, or if the salsa is really just tomato sauce with some spices. This was the last straw. Our place was finally furnished and set up enough to allow people to see it, so we threw a housewarming Margarita Party!!! Our Margaritaville margarita maker made the trip with us, so we had 20 people over to drink real margaritas, Corona, eat homemade salsa and guacamole, and quesadillas. Everything was fantastic, and the Germans ate up the real stuff.
Visit from Mom and Dad!
Lastly this past week Deanna's parents came to visit. They came at the right time and had the advantage that we were able to sort through all of our different experiences so far and distill just the best into just four days. We visited Herrenhausen Garten, with magnificent weather, took a day trip to Berlin (gone 18 hours round trip, what a "day"!), toured Hannover's Red Thread, spent a relaxing day at a Biergarten near the Maschsee, walked through the Eilenriede, and spent a relaxing evening out on our balcony with an assortment of meats, cheeses, wines, and of course, great company.
With a generous 6 weeks of vacation per year, we decided that it was time to take our first vacation! See more pictures on our photos page. We settled on a 1 week trip to Italy. The flight is under 2 hours, and we used Europe's favorite low cost carrier-- Ryan Air. Unfortunately, Ryan Air doesn't fly from Hannover, but from nearby Bremen (1 hour by regional train). So we decided to spend a quick night in our neighboring city on the way out, and we were quite impressed by the Altstadt area-- very quaint and well kept. Feels very old-German!
The deal we got on Ryan Air was quite fantastic. We spent $250 round trip for 2 people to go to Italy, plus about $60 in checked bag fees. Ryan Air is set up as, you only get the seat, and one small bag with you (no large carry-ons like the USA, and exactly one bag, even small things like purses count!). And we found a super discount train between Rome and Pisa-- only $10! So, we were pretty excited about our travel costs and time to Italy.
We arrived in Rome on Saturday, took a bus to the city center, and walked about a kilometer to our hotel. We originally had chosen a hotel that was cheaper, but decided to cancel that one and splurge on one that was in the city center-- that was a great choice. Our hotel was just a few minutes walk from all the famous landmarks. Rome had many many positives, and a few negatives. All of the sights are just amazing, and it is cool how they are integrated with the modern city. And the food was very very good. At first we were just stopping to eat anywhere, with mixed results. But then we started using the TripAdvisor app, and had only fantastic meals from then on out!
There are so many American tourists! Kevin didn't notice that when her was there 10 years ago coming from America, but coming there from Germany, wow what a difference. One of our favorite spots was Campo de' Fiori, a plaza with a monument to Bruno. Bruno was actually executed in this square for Heresy against the church. Now the square has a daily market, where Deanna bought a dress, Kevin bought some Pasta, and together we bought an oil/vinegar container than we have been searching for forever!
We pretty much hit all of the touristy spots-- Vatican, Trevi Fountain to Spanish Steps, Coliseum, Forum. But we did a few other not so touristy things too. Behind the Circus Maximus (where the chariot races used to be), we walked up the hill to a spot where you look through the keyhole of a green door, and you are presented with a perfect view of St. Peter's Basilica. Also, we went running twice down by the Tiber river, and then returned at night once we saw there is a street fair down there every night.
We departed Rome on Wednesday for Pisa. From Pisa, we were able to visit the nearby cities of Lucca and Siena. Each of the 3 cities has its own unique qualities. Lucca is the smallest, but it has an entirely intact city wall surrounding the city, which you can walk around in an hour or so. It of course has gorgeous churches and architecture, and it is not so crowded.
Siena is somewhat bigger, and is a very well preserved medieval city-- absolutely gorgeous. You can walk all day through the city streets and beautiful churches, and imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago. In the main plaza, they hold a semiannual horse race called the Palio. Each of the sections of the city, Contrade, have a horse in the race. People get very tribal during the race. The race itself is interesting, and dangerous. It is held in a very small area for a horse race, and the jockeys can use their whips on the other horses and riders!
Pisa is larger, and has the tower and the field of miracles, but that's the main attraction. It was pretty cool to see in person, and walking up it was very cool. There are steps that encircle the tower, and not many windows, so your body gets pretty confused about which way the tilt is going as you are climbing/descending. Fun fact about the tower-- there is actually a slight bend about half way up. That is because 5 years into the project, it was already leaning, so they fired the architect. When they eventually continued building, the new architect tried to slightly bend it back- but the whole building kept leaning more anyways.
And that's all, until our next travels! Stay tuned!
One of Kevin's favorite hobbies is a sport called Ultimate Frisbee. He has played this since high school, on school teams, in leagues, pick up games in Wash Park, and now, for a frisbee club here in Hannover, the Funaten.
He has been training with them for 2 months, picking things up in German, and has played in tournaments with his team the last 2 weekends. The first was a massive European tournament called the Windmill Windup in Amsterdam. First trip to Amsterdam, without Deanna, and he saw the city for all of about 1 hour, as the tournament was played at an athletics park about 30 minutes by bus out of the city.
Amsterdam is very easy to get to from Hannover-- about 4 hours by ICE train (fast train), with no connections. The ticket was about $70 round trip. After the quick bus ride, it was time to set up the tent. That's right, 1400 people camp out on a sports complex with 20 soccer fields, a giant carnival tent, and a giant blow up elephant. And at that time, Kevin learned the strangest German word yet, herring, not just the fish, also a tent stake.
This tournament was huge, massive, and fun. Our team went 4-4 as the tournament was using a Swiss Draw format-- essentially, you play appropriately matched teams. We were very happy with the result, as it was a practice tournament for us before the next weekend. The winners of the tournament were a team from the USA. Each night at the party after the games, they wore the most ridiculous USA apparel you can find-- flags as clothing, sunglasses, bandanas, shorts, shoes-- the works. Went around singing American songs, did "eye of the tiger" for Karaoke-- they were some sort of mix between fun, arrogant, and as a German put it, "self ironic". That was an interesting time to step back and look at our country from the outside.
The next weekend was an important tournament for our team-- the qualifier for northern Germany for the 2013 German championships. Our team was eligible for the 2nd or 3rd league, if we finished in the top 3 spots. There were 10 teams from all over Northern Germany-- Berlin, Bremen, Hannover... And luckily, this year, we were the host city. This meant we didn't have to endure a second straight weekend of camping, but we could sleep in our own beds (and were also responsible for organization).
The first day, we went 4-0 in our group and made it directly to the semifinals! This meant that if we won our first game on Sunday morning, we were guaranteed to move through to the Deutsch Meisterschaft. We were prepared, and were able to cruise to victory. Directly after, at 11am Sunday morning, the team celebrated with a round of beers. Another German word, a frühschoppen (a morning pint, früh means point, schoppen means bottle, also a baby bottle...). Needless to say, we were terribly unprepared for the final, and lost to a team that we had beaten the day before. Hours later, we secured second place-- a great result for us! DM is in September.
One last exciting piece of news-- for those of you who knew Mirko from 2010 or met him at my FSA party-- he got engaged this week!! We are so happy for him and Janine.
So we have fully moved into our new apartment, the outside picture was in the last blog post (inside pictures once it is 100% done!). As you can see, we are still on the pedestrian area, Lister Meile, and this weekend was Lister Meile Fest-- an outdoor street festival with 4 stages , dozens of food and drink stands, street performers, and lots of good people watching.
The first band that we saw on Saturday is an old time German tradition called "Shandy Chor". This is a group of 20 old German men from the North Coast of Germany. They are all dressed up as sailors, singing tradition sailing songs, with a woman playing the accordion. Check out the video below to see (and hear) for yourself! We found it interesting, in an endearing sort of way.
Given the wide variety of people here in Germany, and the fact that it is all so different than what we know, People Watching is a great past time for us. One of Kevin's favorite things is to find US T-shirts that make no sense. It is a popular fashion trend here to wear US clothing-- a lot of it sports related. Straight brimmed sports hats are common, even though the people couldn't name one athlete on the team. We have seen 3 separate Washington Redskins hats, but no Denver Broncos hats yet! But some of the T-Shirts just don't make any sense. Sports and cities that don't match up, or hobbies and states that don't match up. But the fashion trend that drive us crazy over here is colored pants. Jeans are common, but not ubiquitous. Because everybody-- guys and girls-- are wearing these colored pants. We were first watching just two girls standing there with brightly colored plants-- and then two more joined them!
Today, we took advantage of some decent weather to explore our own city like we are tourists, using the Hannover Red Thread tour. This is a red line which is painted on the sidewalk around the entire city, with circled numbers which indicates when to stop and read your guide book about important things to see. We have placed some of the best pictures below, but check out our photo gallery for the entire album. There are some cant miss places for anyone who comes to visit-- including the top of the Rathaus, most comparable to a state capital building. After going up a few flights of stairs, you take a curved elevator to the top (up the side of the green dome), with 360 degree views of the city and the surroundings.
Today in Germany is Labor Day (Tag der Arbeit). It is May 1st every year-- if that happens to fall on a weekend, they just get one less holiday. Luckily, it fell on a Wednesday this year, so we slept in, went to the Eilenriede and played Fußball, went out for lunch, met some friends at a Biergarten, and took a trip down to the Maschee. Quite a fun and relaxing day!
We can't believe that it's already been a month here. Between getting used to our surroundings, establishing new routines, and getting everything set up, it has gone so fast! Kevin has been working hard, and eating a lot of cake-- every occasion calls for one to bring in cake to share with your co-workers. On your own birthday, you bring in enough cakes and goodies to share with almost 50 people. When you get a promotion, you bring in cake. Married? Bring a cake or two. Lost a soccer bet? You got it, cake. Luckily, the lifestyle here is much more active, so the Germans can eat cake all day and still manage to keep a healthy waistline.
Deanna has been busy focusing on all of the introductory necessities to living in a new country. We have our permanent residency cards, a bank account, Haftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance, but seen as a necessity for everyone here), transit cards, BahnCard25 (25% off of all train travel for our European expeditions!), and best of all, a new permanent apartment! It is just down the street from our current place, still on the pedestrian mall, Lister Meile. And most impressively, 95% of this has been accomplished speaking only German.
The Eilenriede is an awesome place, and is just a minute away from our home. It is the one of the largest city forests in Europe-- so literally, a large forest in the middle of Hannover, twice the size of Central Park. There are many paths intersecting throughout the forest, so you can jog a different route every day and explore something new. So far we have found: miniature golf, a ropes course, small soccer fields, playgrounds (one with an outdoor ping pong table), dog parks, and other open areas. Today we took advantage of the nice weather and walked to one of the soccer pitches. There, Kevin got some much needed practice, since he recently joined the Hannover Re soccer team. This is difficult because the rest of the players have grown up their entire life around soccer, and Kevin only played back when he was a kid. But he is re-learning!
Running through the Eilenriede (check out Kevin's path below) has also been great practice for our first race in Europe-- we are both participating in a 10K this weekend as part of the Hannover Marathon! The twisting, winding paths are somewhat confusing and one can be quickly disoriented as to the direction they are going. But this just leads to extra practice! The Hannover Marathon also includes an option for another "sport" which remains popular here-- inline skating. That's right, still popular, and they race the same path as the runners.
There has been so much to do and see in just these short few weeks that we can't wait to discover what's next. We promise to start posting more frequently once we are completely settled in and things slow down -- which will be very soon!!!
Bis dann -- tschüss!
Hi Family and Friends!
We arrived safe and sound on Wednesday morning around 10:30am and have been pretty much non-stop since then. First, Deanna's cell phone wasn't getting service after landing, so we had to figure out how to use the T-Mobile phone booth that was in the airport to call the realtor so we could be met at our place and given the keys. Getting to our place was interesting, as our taxi driver didn't speak any English, but on the plus side we got to practice our German! We managed to converse quite well (at least we think) as he got us to the closest spot that he could to our place. Currently, we live on a pedestrian mall (similar to Pearl St. in Boulder) so cars are not allowed on the street.
Luckily, our place is close to a main driving road, so we didn't have to walk far. The unfortunate side, however, is that we each had two massive check-in bags, a back-pack, and a carry-on bag. We most definitely looked like crazy tourists that didn't know how to pack light. The trip up the stairs was the worst-- we live on "floor 5", which is actually the 6th floor, as Europe considers the ground floor to be 0. Combine that with no elevator and all of Deanna's clothes, that was one tough job!
Since then, we have gotten all of the important stuff taken care of. Kevin has his work Visa, so he will be ready to start work on Tuesday (holiday on Easter Monday). We have a Bank account at Deutsche Bank, which is very important due to the limited use of credit cards here. We have prepaid internet through O2, and Deanna has a new cell contract through O2. Check out our new Contact page for all of the new numbers!
Thursday on Lister Meile, we have something like a farmer's market where vendors come to sell their fresh meat, vegetables, fish, flowers, and prepared food. We picked up a key ingredient for our Mexican cooking (when we are missing home a little too much)-- cilantro!! Apparantly, the rest of the world calls it Coriander-- we call it Cilantro as that is the Spanish name for it.
Today, Deanna made us a fantastic Easter duck, with sides of vegetables, and deviled eggs. Definitely made us feel at home! Quite a feat for a tiny kitchen and tiny oven. After dinner, we went out to a German rendition of "Alice im Wunderland"; a ballet, mind you, which turned out to be a good thing, as there was no talking, so nothing to misinterpret! All in all a fantastic start to a wonderful adventure!