Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is a magical place. Some may even say that with it’s hills, trolly cars, and golden gate bridge replica, it is a European San Francisco. However, as part one of our long anticipated trip to Portugal to explore Greg’s heritage, it was so much more.   The city is old, almost rundown in areas, which could have easily translated to ugly. However, mixed into the grunge are beautiful tiled walls, red terracotta roofs, and mosaic lined plazas which helps the city blossom like a flower through the weeds. Much like Barcelona, there are not necessarily main landmarks or traditional tourist-like attractions to see. Getting to know the city is best done by getting lost in it. And so we did, each day exploring a different neighborhood, from the hip to the historic. The key, was to move slowly and stop often, whether it was to take pictures, have a coffee, or just to sit and people watch. The latter was the city’s best story teller. We observed as young boys played fútbol in concrete alley ways, old shop owners chatted between store fonts, and locals embraced before before entering into a café. If our days had just consisted of sitting and watching, we would have been content. But of course, curiosity kept us moving, and our stomachs, well… they helped us explore the city in a whole different way.

The city is scattered with tabernas and marisquerias all serving the freshest local seafood. We did not discriminate — we wanted to try them all. One night we’d visit a local hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop shop, serving a limited menu of different fishes cooked in similar fashion: whole, skin on, bone in, with boiled potatoes and greens on the side. The next night we were sitting down in the dining room of a Michelin recognized chef where the ingredients were creatively concocted into unique dishes like seafood risotto or shellfish tajine.  However different the restaurants were, there seemed to be a few consistencies: Portuguese chefs love the use of salt and olive oil (perhaps too much), octopus was on every menu and should be ordered every time, and lastly, why buy a glass of wine when you can buy a bottle?  Ultimately, though, the thread linking each restaurant together was that they all left a lasting impression of memorable meals.

Just like their seafood, so too do the Portuguese love their sweets.  Though there are many different confections, one stands above the rest. The Pastel De Nata is a creamy, flaky, custard tart properly served warm, with cinnamon and powdered sugar. You can find these pastries all over Portugal at every corner bakery, coffee shop, and park snack kiosk. However, typically, the Pastéis De Nata (plural) that are sold within these places do a disservice to the tart’s reputation. There, they are baked in the morning and left to sit behind a glass case until ordered throughout the day. They are not served warm or with the proper accoutrements which we didn’t understand the importance of until we tasted the real deal. We visited the world famous pastry shop, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, known for their masterful perfection of this delicacy. In fact, the name Pastéis de Nata is often mistakenly interchanged with Pastéis de Belém. People come from all over to try their version of the pastry and, at times, the line can be out the door. On a good day, the shop can serve up to 50,000 pastéis a day. Therefore, this means there is always a fresh batch coming out of the oven. Though they do bake other things, when we sat down at a table, we were never asked what we wanted, just how many. We ordered two each and after each finishing our first, we ordered 6 more to go. They were delectable. Like the soft, battery, inside of french toast cradled in a flaky pastry nest. The only unfortunate part of the Pastel De Nata is its size. In only a few small bites, it is gone and the only remnant of it existing is the cinnamon and sugar left behind on the plate. We will all dream about those little custard delights and hope to taste them again.

To add to the excitement of the city, the UEFA Champions League fútbol final was taking place in Lisbon during our stay. Though we tried to get tickets, we were not so lucky. However, we didn’t need to be there. The streets were alive all the same. Team colors were everywhere and crowds were chanting and cheering across streets, in restaurants, and from car windows. Trying to plan ahead, I researched sports bars for us to watch the game and, after an exhaustive search of the best fútbol bars in Lisbon, everyone said the Irish pub was the place to be. Irish Pub? Call it what you will but we wanted to be amongst the locals in a happening Portuguese bar, not some Irish Pub. However, as we went in search of big screens and bigger crowds, there was one place that was second to none in our neighborhood. So, we there we were, watching the match in an Irish Pub with visitors and locals alike, and loving every crazy, loud, sweaty, minute of it.

While in Lisbon, we lived like the locals as best we could. We woke late, ate later, drank wine with lunch, and coffee with dinner. We had only allotted three days to visit the city and it was hardly enough time to scratch the surface. There is so much to see here in Europe, and our time is so limited, that even if we like a city when we first visit, a return trip is highly unlikely. However, as our time in Lisbon came to an end, we began thinking of ways we could see her again because goodbye just didn’t feel right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Berlin, Germany

Honestly, I haven’t written our post on Berlin yet, because I am not quite sure what to say. It doesn’t feel like we really did much. We walked, we ate, we rode bikes, we drank, we ate some more, we slept… rinse and repeat. Then again, with the sun shining it felt like the whole city had been called outdoors and were doing exactly what we were: nothing. Everywhere you turned, people just seemed to be lounging as if they had no agenda: on the grass, by the river, in a beer garden, even at the foot of a memorial. It didn’t matter. It was summer in Europe and it was brilliant. Though we enjoyed ourselves, it wasn’t Berlin itself that we connected with. It was a big, pretty city, with a hipster vibe. We could have been anywhere and with the weather like it was, any relaxing weekend outdoors would have been bliss.

Of course, sunshine and rainbows can’t mask Berlin’s dark past. Although we are surrounded by cities filled with history, never before has it felt so palpable than in Berlin. With the Cold War only just ending in the early 90’s it was a bit surreal to now be touristing around a city that had been divided by conflict not long before. Therefore, it was only right that we spent time educating ourselves about the war and it’s most notable relic, the Berlin Wall. Even when standing in its shadow it was sad to think something like the wall ever existed.

Though the sun shines bright on the vibrant streets of Berlin, it is far from a storybook city. If you were to read from it’s pages you would find that it is filled with wartime stories that can still be told first hand from the people that lived them.

 

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Tulips!

Well, it is official. We have fallen in love — with Holland. It is a crazy can’t eat, can’t sleep, want to move there and have dutch babies kind of love. Did I just say that? I mean… moving on… But in all seriousness, it is such a sweet, gorgeous, wonderful place and when the weather is mild, the sun is shining, and the tulips are popping, it is hard not to melt.

If you recall, last year was an unseasonably long and cold winter which delayed the growth schedule for Dutch flower farming. Though we traveled at the recommended time of year, we were still greeted with fields of green buds a couple weeks away from full blossom. We were still fortunate enough to see some of the hyacinths and daffodils in bloom but they were really just an amuse bouche before the main course. We had to wait a year, but we were finally able to return and satisfy our appetite for tulips.

It has to be one of the more difficult trips to plan simply because you are on Mother Nature’s schedule. Last year was colder than normal, this year was warmer than normal, the tulips “normally” bloom at the end of April, but then again, what is normal? There are entire blogs and online message boards dedicated to Tulip status yet nobody can guarantee anything. Luckily, we have our own car and live only 4 hours away, which allowed us to be more sporadic with our travel dates versus other travelers who must plan far in advance in order to secure airline tickets and hotel stays. This provides little room for error when it comes to timing your visit to coincide with the tulip season.

To make matters more difficult there is very little information provided online with regard to driving routes and suggested itineraries. Though the tulip fields in Holland are world famous, most of the tourist information provides details about visiting the manicured gardens rather than the bulb fields. Since we had been to the gardens last year, our goal was simply to wind through the various farms in the hopes of seeing what we had missed out on last year due to a late blossom. Though we had scoured online forums and stopped in at a visitors center along the way, the information we had was limited to a few town names and a map with vague circles around where we could expect to see flowers. Even then, we had no street names to drive along and our map did not extend as far north as we had planned to go.

However, as we neared the Tulip zones, bright strips of color appeared along the horizon and we could finally feel at ease. What we saw over the next day and a half felt unreal. We had found the rainbow and the pot of gold. Ruby red, Amethyst purple, Opal white, Amber Orange, and Yellow Diamond. Some fields were side by side, and others we had to drive in search of. It was a fun game for us, like a scavenger hunt for buried treasure. And oh boy did we strike it rich.

The tulips were the icing on the cake; the colorful frosting covering the Dutch countryside. However, what was underneath, the base layer, Holland itself, was pretty sweet too. The neighborhoods were small and charming. At times we would get stuck behind a girl walking her horse or an elderly couple out for a weekend bike ride. However, we didn’t mind. It was the best kind of traffic jam. There were canals and swans and  little stands of tulips and potted plants for sale. At one point we passed by a house with children playing soccer in the yard. Their goal posts were old wooden clogs and I just about died. It was so quintessential and perfect. I swear Holland in the springtime is like a fairytale where bunnies and birds dance in circles around happy singing families.

Though the tulip rainbows and storybook villages sounds magical, planning the trip was not without its challenges. But if you can travel without a plan, then this drive is a must. When we think about moving back to the states, it will be weekend getaways like this that we will miss the most. We may not be here for the next tulip season, but in my heart I hope we can travel through the rabbit hole again and return to the wonderland that is Holland in the springtime.

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The Irish Countryside

It was nearly a year ago that we first visited Dublin, Ireland and fell in love with the wonderful people, lively streets, plethora of places to eat, and shops to explore. Though Ireland had always been on our list of places to see, it was really friends visiting the country that helped us pull the trigger and plan that initial trip. This second visit was no different, as one of our closest friends, Annie, told us that she and her mother would be making a trip out to see the Irish countryside. Though we enjoyed Dublin and would have been happy to spend a few days in the city again, we relished the opportunity to see a new side of Ireland. Perhaps movies and TV had put a stereotyped image in our heads, but we had a clear expectation of the scenery: rolling green hills, rocky cliffs, turbulent seascapes, and sheep… lots of sheep.

Our plan was to drive clear across the country from Dublin to Louisburgh (see map), stopping at a few historic sites and vista points along the way. It wasn’t about the destination but rather the journey getting there, as Louisburgh is really a one horse town in the middle of nowhere. Our morning began early with blue skies and sunshine, perfect for a scenic drive.  Our first stop? Can you guess? A whiskey distillery, naturally. Beer, liquor, or food. Take your pick, all are usually good guesses for us 🙂 While the ladies gabbed over coffee and scones, Greg took a tour of the Kilbeggan factory next door. Being that it was a weekday morning in the middle of a small, remote country town it is not hard to believe Greg was the only tourist passing through. In fact, he said it felt almost strange to be there as it was business as usual for all the workers. He took a few wrong turns along the way and, as he describes it, could have thrown a shoe into a whiskey tank and ruined the whole batch.

Back on the road, it was not long before the weather caught up to us and gray clouds and an intermittent drizzle reminded us that we were in Ireland after all. Our second stop was to the ruins of the old Clonmacnoise monastery along the River Shannon. Though only a foundation of rubble still stands remnant of the 6th century building, the real sight was the large ornate crosses. High crosses, used as meeting points for religious ceremonies or boundary markers, are said to be Ireland’s biggest contribution to Western European art from the Middle Ages. Though the two fully intact stone crosses from Clonmacnois have been removed and protected in a small museum on site, replicas have been made to take their place outside. Seeing the crosses intermixed with weathered gravestones against a lush green backdrop certainly made for some beautiful pictures, however, after what we have seen in Rome, the ruins were nothing noteworthy in our minds. Weather it was our lack of appreciation for what we were seeing or the frigid air creeping between our warm layers, the stop was short lived and we happily retreated back to the car.

After a quick stop in Galway for lunch we thankfully had the sense to buy groceries for the night. Honestly, if we hadn’t we very well might have gone to bed hungry. As we crept closer to our final destination, the roads became more remote and the thought of seeing a neighbor, let alone a restaurant, seemed improbable. What perplexed us the most, however, was the speed limit which at times got up to 100 km/h. We literally felt unsafe going this fast as we were having to meticulously calculate the winding road ahead which at times was not much wider than our car. Perhaps the tedious road conditions would have been more tolerable if the scenery had been more engaging.  What we thought were going to be rolling green hills and pastures of sheep were golden, wiry grass fields laden with rock and mud. Though the sheep were indeed in abundance, our expectations were quite dissonant with reality. In the end, we all agreed that there was still beauty in what we saw, but for the challenge it was to get there, this wasn’t a trek we would readily repeat.

Perhaps because we knew what to expect, the drive the next day seemed more enjoyable. The route we chose to take home was slightly less rural and we passed through one small farming town after another, each no different than the last: one general store, a couple restaurants, a hair salon, clothing store, and always a handful of pubs. It seemed like life along these roads was fairly predictable. Sheep, sleep, and beer. Perhaps the more hip towns would have a Chinese restaurant. Each town was connected by a string of sheep pastures outlined by crumbling stone walls. I imagine if you looked at the countryside from above it would look like a sheet of perforated stamps, the stone walls dotting the boarders of the picture.

Overall, the trip was a success. When we travel from one big city to the next sometimes we get a skewed view of what a country is truly like. Though we still only have seen a snapshot of Irish life, we feel we have a better understanding and appreciation of Ireland beyond the big city of Dublin.

 

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Ciao, Roma

I am not sure why they call Paris the “City of Love.” Because for us, it’s Italy. Italy, with its flamboyant, animated, and gracious people. Italy, with its delicious food, smooth wine, and creamy gelato. Italy, with cobble stone streets narrowly flanked by colorful buildings and bright flowers. Oh, Italy.

Oh Italy and oh my God Rome. Rome is an incredible city that we feel everyone should get the opportunity to see in their lifetime. If we look at all the trips we have been on and the different cities we have explored, there may be ones that stand out more than Rome because of the whole packaged experience: the people we were traveling with, the restaurants we ate in, and the perfect weather that welcomed us.  But Rome, has a history unsurpassed by any other. The Colosseum, the Roman ruins, the Vatican. If someone asked us which city we would recommend they visit of all that we have seen thus far, it would be Rome.

On the day we arrived, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight for the Colosseum. Go big or go home right? We knew it was going to be massive, but you don’t realize just how impressive a structure it is until you are standing in its shadow. What is truly phenomenal is knowing that it only took 8 years to build without any modern technology. Just sheer brute…and thousands of slaves.  From the Colosseum to the Roman Forum the grandeur didn’t cease to impress just as it must have centuries ago. The Forum is what was once the marketplace and the center of Roman public life. The expanse of the Forum is scattered with architectural fragments: building foundations, columns, and detailed cornice.  Seeing all this is a bit surreal. But it really sunk in when we passed by a green door still hanging on its original hinges and learned that it was 17 centuries old. 17 centuries! That’s 1700 years! Julius Caesar walked past the same steps that led to that door and it is an astounding reality.

Not far from the Forum is the Largo di Torre Argentina, a square that houses the remains of four Republican Roman temples and parts of the Pompey Theater, upon whose steps Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed. After the site was excavated, Rome’s feral cats moved in and claimed it as their own. Local gattare, or cat ladies, started feeding them and the square is now home to approximately 250 cats. Known as the cat sanctuary, volunteers care for sick and wounded cats as well as coordinating an extensive city-wide spay and neuter program to help keep the feral population in check. Standing at street level looking down on the ruins it is like a game of Where’s Waldo. Look! There’s one sunbathing. Look! There’s one in the grass. Look! Look! White, black, orange, brown, four legs, three legs, crooked tails, and scrappy fur. We loved it. Maybe not the most historic attraction in Rome, but it was one of our favorite. Every day we would walk by Largo Argentina just to say hello to the Gatti di Roma.

Of course, Rome is known for more than its ancient ruins. Nestled within is one of the holiest catholic sites, Vatican City: residence of the Pope, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the historic Sistine Chapel. We wandered though the Vatican museums admittedly fast. There was much to see but we knew what awaited us at the end and it made us impatient.  The Sistine Chapel is the venue where the College of Cardinals gather for the election of each successive pope. However, it is more famously known for the frescos that decorate its interior, mainly the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Though it was humbling to stand beneath the very spot where Michelangelo depicted God reaching out and giving life to man in the Creation of Adam, the overall experience of the chapel was somewhat distasteful. It is asked that visitors respect the sanctity of the space and quietly observe without talking. Apparently, people believe whispering is classified as silence. While a whisper may be hushed, a hundred whispers becomes thunderous. I am not sure which bothered us more though, the unapologetic whispering, or the chapel guard who would come over a loud speaker every so often and ask people to be quiet… in about 3 languages. Other times he would settle for a prolonged SHHH into the microphone. Either way, the throngs of people and the contradictory scoldings tainted the Chapel’s serene beauty.

From there, we slipped out a side door and headed straight for the Basilica. St. Peter’s is recognized as the largest church in the world and is where most Papal ceremonies take place. The interior of the church was certainly beautiful, but our favorite part was climbing the Basilica’s dome which is one of the notable visions of the Rome skyline.  Looking down on St. Peter’s square and across the expanse of Rome beyond the walls of Vatican city was perhaps more stunning than the interior of the church itself. The Basilica is only 1 of about 900 churches in Rome and though we hardly put a dent in that number, we did manage to see a few.  While St. Peter’s is impressive, and clearly has historical significance, there were some others that left us more awe inspired. We felt the frescos were equally beautiful, the decor lavish, and details similarly ornate. Perhaps it was their smaller size or lack of tourist swarms but there was a sense of peace and intimacy that left you feeling closer to a divine presence.

All in all, Greg and I managed to walk 40 miles in 3 days. 4-0!! That is a marathon and a half! We were exhausted at the end but it was worth every step.  It felt like we were constantly on our feet only stopping to refuel before hitting our next destination. However, it was at one of these stops that we had a moment to pause and reflect. At a quaint café, we sat on old mismatched chairs at a weathered wooden table. The faint playings of an accordion in the distance was a sweet lullaby. The sun blanketed our shoulders and almost invited us to close our eyes and stay forever. With pasta in our bellies and wine glasses in our hands, I opened my eyes and looked at Greg, “I’m happy.” “Good,” he said, because so was he. Because… Italy.

 

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¡Viva Barcelona!

Tapas, red wine, and sunshine? Say no more, we are there… or were there two weekends ago. Literally, this is why we were excited to go to Barcelona. When people asked us what we were planning on doing while there, we said, “eating…then drinking…then eating some more.” And this is what we did. About every two hours we stopped somewhere for traditional pinxtos (pronounced “pinchos”), a glass of wine, churros and chocolate, coffee, and some more tapas. It felt like the sights we went to see were really just stopovers before our next meal. Thank goodness we walked nearly 7 miles every day, otherwise our jeans may not have fit by the end of the trip. One food experience which we tried for the first time was a service called EatWith. EatWith is a website which provides people a forum to invite interested guests into their homes for an authentically cooked meal, cooking class, market tour, etc. The service is relatively new, but can be found in various cities around the world. Feeling adventurous? You don’t need to travel to a new city to try it! San Francisco has listings and maybe you can explore great local chefs for a fun night out. We were lucky to find a listing to eat with Xabi, an ex-Michelin star chef who left the restaurant scene to open his own private business. He has converted the living room of his moderately sized one bedroom apartment into a cozy café of sorts. 3 tables only. For 40€ per person, we were fed a 5 course tasting menu with wine. If this sounds expensive, trust me, it is not — standard European prices for a gourmet meal. The food was creatively prepared and artfully plated. Unquestionably one of the best meals we had in Barcelona across the trip. I can’t wait to do it again in one of our next upcoming cities. Italy anyone?

As mentioned before, we did actually spend time exploring the city outside the four walls of an eating establishment. Barcelona is known for the quirky, uniquely beautiful architecture of Catelonian designer, Antoni Gaudí. Therefore, in one day, we made the necessary rounds to his various works. First stop, the Sagrada Família.  This basilica first broke ground in 1882 and two years later Gaudí assumed responsibility for the project as the Architect Director. Its pace of construction has actually been one of its most notable aspects. Gaudí claimed his client was “not in a hurry”, hence the basilica was only 15-25% complete by the time Gaudi died in 1926. After a delay in construction during the Spanish civil war in the 30s, approximately 7 different architects have carried on the project with a projected completion of 2026! Having seen the Sagrada Família 10 years ago, I had thought construction would have been complete upon this return visit. Little did I know. The basilica is undeniably stunning and really unlike any other church we have seen. However, the construction interrupts much of it’s exterior. We chose not to go inside which was perhaps a mistake as we have heard great things; however, we had not planned ahead and purchased entrance tickets online. With the line over an hour long, we stood outside, admired what we could, and moved on.

Next stop, Park Güell. This municipal park contains what was once the home of Gaudí himself. Though the home was not his own creation, he has clearly left his mark amongst its surroundings. The focal point of the park is the main terrace, surrounded by a long flowing bench inspired by the snake like form of a sea serpent. The winding curves of the bench form a number of enclaves, creating a more social atmosphere. Like most all Gaudí’s work, the bench and much of the park is adorned with tiled mosaics. Though the tiles are all mismatched, with no seeming pattern, they compliment the playful architecture, giving it pops of color and visual intrigue. Park Güell remains one of my favorite Gaudí attractions. Its bright colors and curving pathways made it feel like we had momentarily stepped into a game of Candyland.

From a sweet retreat to the buzzing metropolitan city center of Barcelona, we visited one last Gaudí masterpiece: Casa Batlló. If Park Güell is Candyland then this home, sandwiched among concrete apartments and storefronts, would be an ornately decorated ginger bread castle. The façade was a mosaic of gumdrops and rainbow sprinkles. Arriving just as dusk was settling, spot lights illuminated the subtle curves of the architecture creating new dimension of flavorful shadows. From the outside in, they say that Gaudí, inspired by the ocean, tried to avoid any straight lines in his design. This made every room, from the entry way to the rooftop as whimsical as the last.

The bright colors and eccentric designs of Gaudí seem to embody the spirit of Barcelona. The city has a sleepy vibrancy that is captivating and we were only too happy to take a page from the Catelonian way of life. We woke late, enjoyed siesta, and never scheduled a dinner reservation before 10 PM. Yet when awake, against a backdrop of Spanish guitar, the stomp of flamenco dancing, and wine induced laughter, the city has a mesmerizing energy that reverberates through the streets. If for nothing else, we hope to get back to Barcelona just to enjoy the food, wine, and lifestyle.

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Greg’s Swiss Birthday in Davos Platz

When asked what he would like to do for his birthday, there was only one thing that Greg wanted most: to snowboard in the Alps. If the Alps is what he wanted then the Alps is what he was getting 🙂 Our British friend, Ian, had simultaneously been organizing a trip to Switzerland with a few of his friends so the timing was perfect and we were only too glad to tag onto their agenda. This year, we headed to the eastern side of the country to Davos, which is just south of the Austrian boarder. For a fun flashback of our first Swiss adventure in Zermatt and Greg’s 30th in click here.

The first day was sunny and warm for winter in the mountains which was great for me down in the village, but not so great for Greg up top. With the sun melting the icy snow it becomes crunchy and hard over time. This, as you can imagine, is not as fun to board on than fresh powder. Greg disembarked the mountain early, disappointed. He spent his afternoon working from his “home office” but it was clear where he really wanted to be.

As we prepared to celebrate his birthday the next day everyone kept asking him… what do you want for your birthday? I think the answer they were looking for was what bar to go to for après-ski or what type of food he wanted to eat for dinner. Instead, Greg was much more literal. He wanted snow… and more snow. And the alpine gods were listening, because snow it did. It started snowing his birthday afternoon and didn’t stop til morning. In fact, it snowed so hard and long that the visibility on the mountain was near blind. Greg got even less boarding in than the day before but this time, his disappointment visibly less. Just looking outside, you knew that an epic day on the mountain was in his future. When I met him for lunch the next afternoon, he was literally shaking. It was a mix of adrenaline from a great morning and excitement to get back up there.

When not on the mountain, we spent our evenings sharing cocktails and enjoying amazing Swiss food with friends. Like we first experienced in Zermatt, the food did not disappoint. We started the weekend with a delicious fondue feast following it up with Greg’s now birthday tradition of a gourmet Lamb dinner. We ate sausage, goulash, venison, and more. Over any other place we have visited Switzerland consistently has served up the best food we have eaten here in Europe. Sweden being a close second.

Switzerland has also delivered us some unique entertainment. Last year, it was the 9 pin bowling game, Kegel (yes, it is really called that). This year, it was something far more … rustic? hick? dangerous? awesome?! I have trouble accurately tagging it with the right adjective. The “game” was simple.  A bar would set up a wide wooden stump so it was about waist level. Then, they gave you a small bucket of nails and a hammer. I shake my head even describing this to all of you. The US would NEVER allow such a thing. Especially in a BAR where people are DRINKING. Everyone stands in a circle around the wood and hammers a nail in far enough to stand on its own. We used a cross pein hammer which has two ends. One is what you would typically imagine when you think of a hammer head. The other side doesn’t have prongs like on a standard hammer, but comes to point with a small flat head, maybe a centimeter wide. To play the game, you press the hammer against the side of the stump and in one swoop you lift and try to hit your nail on the head using the small side of the hammer. Then you pass the hammer to the next player in the circle and the first to get their nail all the way into the wood wins! A seasoned pro can get the nail in on one or two hits once contact is made. Even when I made contact, my nail only went down small distances. Needless to say, I always lost. Greg was quite good ,however. He could probably give some Swiss mountain men a run for their money.

Though the snow conditions were a mixed bag, the company was in good form. We met new friends and created some lasting memories. We love Switzerland in the winter and are eager to visit again in the summer to experience some of the warm weather activities the country has to offer. Overall, Greg’s 31st was great fun and that last day of snowboarding was the icing on the birthday cake… or in this case, the mountains.

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Budapest, Hungary

Part three of our Eastern European weekend!

From Bratislava we boarded a train for our primary destination, Budapest. Here, we planned two days and three nights to spend with friend Sacha from San Francisco. We were most excited about this leg of our trip because we had good friends that raved about their Budapest adventures: cheap food, inexpensive shopping, and a hip and vibrant culture.

That first night we arrived we were still weighed down by our Slovakian feast. Therefore, we casually strolled through the neighborhood in which we were staying, grabbed a light snack for dinner, and were in bed early. And you know what they say, early to bed… late to rise? Haha – That Goose confit lingered a little longer than expected! Unfortunately, as much as we loved it, we couldn’t look at it on the menu for the entirety of the trip. In fact, all the Hungarian food is similarly heavy and we found ourselves craving salads night after night. It was rather unfortunate. We did have a few amazing meals, however, for what seemed like pennies compared to what we are used to paying in Luxembourg. In fact, we met our friends Sacha and Ally at a Michelin star restaurant for lunch one afternoon and it was by far one of the fanciest places we had ever eaten — and we have splurged at top restaurants in San Francisco. All the food came out on plates with silver domed covers. Four waiters each stood behind us and synchronously set down our plates and lifted the covers like some grand unveiling. It was so stuffy. They wouldn’t even let me pour my own water for crying out loud! Yet with all the ritz came a shockingly low price tag.  Greg kept remarking that he would recommend Budapest to anyone because it is so cheap. However, after further discussion we determined that the prices aren’t reason enough to visit. However, it is that PLUS you can get incredible world class meals for a steal.

One thing we felt was unique to Budapest was the presence of what are called “ruin bars” located in practically condemned buildings. Literally: paint chipping, dry wall showing, rust and dust galore. Sounds awesome right?! But in all seriousness, they are quite eclectic. The interiors are decorated with various junk and vintage looking items: old televisions, bicycles, fish tanks, disco balls, you name it. Some have been converted into works of funky art and some have not seen any attention since the day they were retired. Each room ends up taking on a different theme and you never tire of finding something interesting to look at.

Mostly, we spent our time walking the city streets til our feet hurt and our bellies grumbled. Though we enjoyed ourselves, I wouldn’t say we were overly enamored with Budapest. There was nothing wrong with it by any means. However, I think at this point we have done our fair share of large metropolitan cities and, after a while, the trips start to feel the same – with subtle differences here and there of course. I think that we are ready to head outside the city walls for more rural destinations. A remote beach vacation and exotic safari are high on our list. But alas, we have Barcelona and Berlin next on the calendar… it is a tough life we live!

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Bratislava, Slovakia

Stop two: Bratislava

From Vienna, we boarded a train for Bratislava. I know what you may be thinking. What the heck is in Bratislava? Though it is not necessarily poor or crime heavy, it’s past as a Communist country gives it a dark and uninviting reputation. Even after reading about the country’s history and where it is today, I was feeling a bit negative about spending an afternoon there. We could have skipped it as far as I was concerned and spent more time in our next destination city of Budapest. I had made up my mind that it was going to be a dingy city looking something like this:

But for once, I am glad to admit… I was wrong. And yes, while those rundown areas of the city do exist, I took the pictures with the purpose of using them to show the dramatic shift in what my mind had conjured and the beauty which we unexpectedly discovered.

As we are quickly learning, weather can positively or negatively impact your first impressions of any city. Luckily for us, the sun was shining and the sky clear, making sight seeing more picturesque. We walked the length of the city and then some, stopping to watch the changing of the guards at the palace, take pictures of communist era memorials, marvel at beautiful tiled roofs, and explore a never-before-seen church.

With our feet beginning to throb, we wandered into a restaurant hidden down the back nooks of an alleyway. As we perused the menu, we fell in love. Not because of the food, but the price. We were reminded of a comedy film we had seen some time back of four recent college grads backpacking through Europe. After a hitchhiking misunderstanding they ended up in Bratislava with nothing more than a dollar and some change. As they looked at each other questioning what they could do for so little money, the scene cuts to them relaxing in a five star hotel being pampered head to toe with back massages, manicures, and food rubs. After a waiter sets down a platter of exquisite looking food one of the kids flips him a nickle. The man exclaims in a thick accent, “look! A nickel! I quit!” Now of course, the sketch is a bit far fetched, but this is how we felt looking at the menu. Our first encounter with the Eastern European exchange rate. Under our breaths we kept whispering, “A nickel!”

Having little idea of what traditional Slovakian food entails, we asked our kind waiter for his recommendations: Small potato gnocci with sheep’s milk and goose leg confit with roasted red cabbage and potato pancakes. I wish we had been able to take a picture of the food pre-consumption but the lack of a picture just goes to show it was that good. We dove in and only came up for air to wash it all down with some inexpensive local wine. I wish I could say we stopped there, but the gluttonous beasts we are ordered not one, but two desserts. We just couldn’t make up our minds and they were so cheap! Unfortunately, once all down the hatch, a nauseated food coma settled over both of us. For a while, we just sat there contemplating a next move that wouldn’t, in fact, require much movement. However, our white table cloth taunted us with stained reminders of our overindulgence and we knew we we couldn’t stay any longer.

Back in the fresh air we once again began our walking tour of the city. Uphill to the “castle” we trudged with food in our bellies and what felt like lead in our backpacks. The last two hours of our day seemed to slow to a crawl. A nap was certainly in our future on the beckoning train — if only we could make it there.

Bratislava surprised us for the better. While I wouldn’t necessarily rank it amongst the top cities we have visited, we found hidden gems that made the journey worth while. As we pulled away from the station and were lulled to sleep by the steady chugging of the train, I think I heard Greg sleepily mumble, “…a nickle…”

Categories: Slovakia | 1 Comment

Vienna, Austria

Since our latest trip contained 3 countries in 4 days (because that is just how we roll), I have decided to split it into three different posts.

First stop: Vienna!

Over the holidays Luxair was offering a promotion each Friday for 99€ round trip to select cities (so get ready for a steady flow of new blog posts!). I would not necessarily say that Vienna was high on our bucket list of places to visit. For no particular reason really, we just hadn’t heard much about it in our travel conversations with others. However, it is close to a few of our other ‘must see’ destinations and with flight the price being so right, we decided to add it to our calendar. We arrived mid afternoon on a Thursday and after checking into our hotel and eating a late lunch dusk was already upon us. In most cities, Luxembourg included, this may be seen as a disadvantage because museums are closing, streets are getting dark, and the city quiets. However, I feel like seeing Vienna against the setting sun was a blessing in disguise. Would I have chosen to first see the city in the approaching darkness? Certainly not. Am I glad it was our first introduction? Most definitely.

Much like Sweden, Vienna is a very clean city with beautiful historical buildings juxtaposed along modern, average city buildings. When lit up at night the historical landmarks became even more grand looking. Who needs to go into a museum when the streets transform into a walkable museum of their own? We did some research on a few of the sights we stumbled upon, but mostly we didn’t know that it was parliament we were seeing, the national history museum, or St. so-and-so’s cathedral. We didn’t need to use a guidebook to tell us what was beautiful — we just absorbed what was in front of us and it was all that much more magical.

After wandering the city of a few hours we followed a tip from a friend and made our way to the Opera. Fact: The Vienna State Opera house is one of the busiest opera houses in the world producing 50 to 60 operas per year. It is quite common to find a different opera being produced each day of the week. A lesser known fact: the day-of a big performance, up to 600 standing room-only tickets are made available to the general public for the whopping cost of 3€. An entire Opera for about the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac. I don’t care if Opera is your thing or not. When you can experience a world famous Opera (Nozze di Figaro), by a world famous composer (Mozart) in the world famous Vienna Opera house, you go. For 3€ you can leave after the first intermission (which we did) and you will have still gotten your money’s worth. People looking to get a prime spot on the first floor, smack dab in the center behind someone else who could have paid upwards of 150€ for their seat may start queuing for a ticket 5 hours(!) or more before curtains open. Seeing as how we were just arriving in Vienna 5 hours before showtime, that was not an option… nor is it our style anyway. We did, however, arrive a lengthy (by our standards) 2 hours before the 7pm start — which frankly was more a reprieve from the cold than it was a desire to get the best seats. Places in the standing-room sections are not numbered, therefore you have to mark your spot with a scarf or something similar by making a knot on the lower rail in front of you. The ushers and regular opera goers are all very respectful of this tradition and can get rather harsh when they see someone sneaking a place he/she didn’t mark. Therefore, with our places secured, we felt comfortable to explore the extravagant interior of the opera house. It was stunningly beautiful — in a gaudy, over-the-top kind of way. After enjoying the Vienna Opera House and loving the Paris Opera House, I would recommend to any tourist to perhaps take one of the churches off their list and add the local opera house instead. Being so ornate and lavishly decorated, walking through them you feel, even for the briefest of moments, like you have been transplanted into the upper echelons of society. Though the opera itself was not our cup of tea, we loved the experience none-the-less. We left at intermission and decided to continue our posh evening with an aperitif of champagne and intimate Italian dinner.

We parted from Vienna the next day to visit Bratislava and Budapest, which you can read about in a later post. However, only having spent half a day in Vienna, we were torn away with the desire for more. Luckily, we knew we’d be back as our departing flight on Monday gave us purpose to return. Having a good taste for the center of the city we decided to head to the outskirts to one of the most famous sites in Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace. Passing hands of ownership many times over, this summer residence for the royals became the the Palace of Versailles rival it is today under the reign of Empress Maria Theresia: mother of French Queen, Marie Antoinette. Once again, we arrived back into Vienna in the late afternoon, so we were in a race against the sun if we wanted to see the vast gardens surrounding the palace. It being winter, we figured we were not missing as much as we would if it were in bloom. Therefore, we opted out of seeing the gardens and voted to take a longer self-guided tour of the palace interior.  If you don’t know what the Rococo (late-Baroque) style of design looks like, you can learn about it here. However, what you really need to know is the more gold, the more ornate the molding and architectural elements, and the bigger the chandelier, the better. Though this style is on the opposite end of the spectrum from my classic, simple and chic design aesthetic it is hard not to appreciate it’s grandeur. Every one of the rooms we walked through was slightly different than the first: all grotesquely lavish, yet fantastically stunning. One fact we couldn’t get past was the shear number of candles needed to light each room. From candle chandeliers, to candle wall sconces, to candelabras strewn about the table tops, it is mind boggling as to the number of candles they must have gone through in a day, let alone the staff required to maintain them. And to think I have trouble keeping all my tea-lights replenished!

Ultimately, not knowing what to expect from Vienna, we loved what we saw and know there are still hidden gems waiting to be explored. We would certainly recommend the city to friends and would willingly visit again.

Categories: Austria | 1 Comment

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