It’s High Time for a Hochzeit

I met Nicole at an organized meet-up for expats in December 2013. We’ve gotten together several times since and have become close friends over the years. She got engaged to a super nice Austrian guy over a year ago and said that we’d be invited for their wedding. At the time, Hubs and I weren’t sure if we’d still be in Vienna when they planned to get married,  but promised that no matter where we were in the world it wouldn’t be something we’d miss!

Over the weekend, we were privileged to be able to share Nicole & Ben’s special day.   Their wedding took place an hour outside of Vienna and in a castle no less! Hubs and I were super excited to be able to experience our first German/Austrian wedding. The ceremony took place in the church on the castle grounds. I’ve only ever been to one other Catholic wedding ceremony, which was a shock to me, because it was over two hours long (most weddings I’ve been to up to that point have been non denominational).  Hubs explained that there were different levels of a Catholic wedding ceremony depending on how deeply religious the family are (light, medium, and heavy) and the bride told me beforehand that it would be an hour long (medium). The ceremony was especially interesting because it was entirely conducted in German and the priest was the groom’s uncle.  However, the priest did give the Begrüßung (Welcome) in both English and German.  Nicole and Ben’s music selections included a few modern  “pop” selections, like “Rest of My Life” (Bruno Mars), “How Long Will I Love You” (Ellie Goulding), and, Hubs’ favorite of the ceremony, “Top of the World” (The Carpenters) – Hubs likes The Carpenters.  All the selections were sung by hired singers. At the end of the recession, all the guests and priest exited the church first and were handed little tubes with bubble mixture so that the newlyweds could be given a proper exit.

After the ceremony, it was cocktail hour in the courtyard of the castle with a traditional Austrian band playing in the background. It was really nice and the photographer even got the entire group into a picture from above the courtyard! My feet were thanking me (I have foot problems and hardly ever wear heels) when it was time to head into the Coat of Arms Hall for the reception. For dinner, it was buffet style. It was one of the most delicious wedding fare we’ve ever had. There were many choices with emphasis on locally sourced foods. They really put so much thought and effort into everything from: dual-language wedding ceremony programs, thank you favors, and having the menu on postcards of places they’ve visited or lived. I think having a photo booth with prop box is a norm these days at weddings and it’s always fun! We got to hear some really bad 80s Austrian music, which is akin to some of the awful songs that have been traditional at American weddings.  One of the songs we heard was by Falco, but not the “Rock me Amadeus” song.  Yeah, Falco is Viennese.  Mind blown!  Another difference, but cool, aspect of the wedding is that the bride and groom make speeches thanking those who have come and focused on each table about the relations they have with individuals at the wedding. I thought it was a nice personal touch instead of just the general “thank you for being here” blah blah.

Overall, I just love weddings and this was no exception. A tear or two is always shed as I find it extremely romantic seeing two people so in love and becoming family. It’s unique experiences like these that make living abroad the icing on the cake!

 

Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part Two)

Hubs and I flew into Edinburgh to start our Scottish journey and second leg of our epic road trip. We immediately headed towards Stirling, because it would make our next leg a bit shorter than if we were to leave from Edinburgh. One tip that some friends have told us when we were in the planning stages is to add in buffered time during the drive across Scotland. So, if it was going be a five hour driving day – allocate eight. Why? Because our friends predicted we would stop every few minutes to take in all that rugged beauty. They were right. Plus, there aren’t really highways in Scotland, only super scenic two lane roads.

Our first stop after our short stay in Stirling was Isle of Skye. It’s the largest island of the inner Hebrides archipelago. We stayed at the most wonderful bed and breakfast. The location, innkeepers, rooms, and breakfasts were first class. Too bad, they’ve changed it to a self-catering place recently, otherwise we would’ve gone back every chance we got. Skye is that spectacular; we’d go back in a heartbeat. The landscape is unlike anything Hubs and I have ever seen. Pictures just don’t do this place any justice – but we tried! Several movies and tv shows have shot in Skye.

After a few nights in Skye, we headed back across the Highlands to Inverness, our base for the next five days. We went to seek out Nessie one day, sadly, she didn’t make an appearance. However, we did find a gem of place for lunch – thanks to local recommendation. Hubs and I took several day trips to:  – North Sea coastlines, mountain lochs, castles, jaw-dropping scenery and lots and lots and lots of sheep.

On our way back to Edinburgh, we made a pit stop at Balmoral. Balmoral is one of the royal family’s holiday homes – the Queen spends her summer holidays there. Hubs and I explored the grounds, took our pictures and continued onto Edinburgh. If you’re a Harry Potter fan like us, it’s amazing to see all the street names and places that JK Rowling got inspiration from for her novels.  There’s a graveyard in Edinburgh where she supposedly got the name Tom Riddle for her books.  We sought it out and found it.  Edinburgh was a very easy city to get around, we walked a lot and took advantage of the double-decker bus system.  Hubs and I also walked the Royal Mile at least twice and took in their scenic public park on more than one occasion.  We gave in and did the touristy ferris wheel as well, but it did let us get some nice photos.

Scotland was hands down my favorite of both countries we explored over three weeks and perfect conclusion to our epic road trip. We still need to hit Northern Ireland and the unseen parts of Scotland-maybe another trip is in order for 2018?

Throwback Thursdays: An Epic Road Trip (Part One)

Three weeks, two countries, and many lasting memories sums up our road trip through Ireland and Scotland.

Hubs and I flew into Dublin and picked up our adventure wagon for the next ten days in Ireland. Since we arrived a bit later in the day, we opted to spend the night in Dublin (but not really seeing it…yet). It was a good thing, because it gave time for Hubs to get acclimated to driving on the left side of the road. After a full Irish breakfast, we headed toward our next pit stop; Avoca Mills in Kilkenny. It’s Ireland’s oldest working mill and still remains an Irish run business. Obviously, I had to pick up some beautiful handwoven wool scarves which come in handy for our harsh Vienna winters.

We arrived in the coastal town of Kinsale, next, where we spent one night. It’s such a cute little colorful town. We had one of our best meals there – fresh scallops and mussels. Hubs and I then proceeded to Dingle. We stayed on the Peninsula there, because it’s still under the radar compared to the tourist-heavy Ring of Kerry and it was great jumping off point to Killarney National Park. I also wanted to stay at a particular bed and breakfast. It was a relaxing driving through the park, Wild Atlantic way and exploring the peninsula for the next five days.

I’ve always wanted to stay in a real castle…who wouldn’t?!  So, we made a special overnight stop at the famous Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland. The grounds were beautifully manicured and positioned right on a lake.  Ashford Castle also featured a falconry school, the oldest one in the country.  We definitely took advantage and registered for a private session with one of the falcon handlers.  Our falcon’s name was Lima and supposedly one their best falcons (so he said). It was such a cool experience being able to hold and feed a falcon perched on my arm. They’re quite majestic little, heavy, creatures.

Our last stop was Dublin for two nights to explore. It’s like a miniature London, but with a bit more grit.  I would say the highlight was our visit to Trinity College Old Library where the Book of Kells is on display.  The book contains the four gospels of the new testament, and estimated to be written around 800AD!  After having an amazing meal, two nights in a row, at a little whole in the wall type place (Klaw),  we left the next morning for the Dublin airport to start the second half of our journey from Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

Throwback Thursdays: Girls’ Getaway in Amsterdam

Emily is one of my favorite people and we travel well together. She’s a mom of two amazing boys, but sometimes mommies need a break too! So, now it has become an annual thing that we take a girls’ weekend away. We pick somewhere and just go! This trip was especially special because she was also celebrating a milestone birthday. Amsterdam, here we come!

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As an added bonus I found a really cool houseboat that we rented out for the weekend. What’s more quintessential than staying in a houseboat in Amsterdam?!

When you think of the Holland, tulips have to be the first thing you think of – unless you were thinking of windmills. It’s been on both of our must-do lists to see the tulip fields in Holland. We picked the perfect weekend in April 2016 for it! I couldn’t believe all the vibrant colors we saw. It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The last time I was in Amsterdam it was with Hubs and we never made it to the Rijks Museum. Well, Emily and I made it a mission to go. To be able to appreciate the Night Watch and other famous paintings in real life was a dream come true. We also made sure to eat our way through the city. Another awesome girls’ getaway weekend in the books!

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Three)

When in Italy, you must eat! And that we did. We were gluttons and could not turn down all that homemade pasta, gelato, pastries, fresh lake fish and other seafood we gorged on. We’re paying dearly for it now that we’re back.

Real Italian food is simple and usually has no more than five ingredients in their dishes. Anything more than that makes it questionable if it’s truly authentic.  Things like Fettuccini Alfredo and “Italian” dressing are examples of American inventions. I honestly didn’t know any differently until I visited Europe for the first time in 2008. My taste palette has certainly changed since then!

The food at our B&B was fantastic; the breakfasts were so so good.  One evening they offered a home-cooked four course meal and it turned out to be the best meal during this trip to Italy. We were spoiled. Our typical breakfast spread had omelettes, fresh vegetables and fruits from their garden, homemade olive oil harvested from their olive groves, homemade pastries and jams, cheeses, Italian cured meats, and yogurt made fresh every morning. It was a feast that filled our happy tummies until it was time to eat again.

Now, let me get to our best and favorite meal of our stay. The innkeepers offered a four course meal for all of their guests for a nominal fee, which is normal for an agriturismo in Italy. The lake fish caught fresh that morning to the homemade lasagna made with fresh noodles and herbs from the garden were so incredibly delicious. And even after our return, we’re still dreaming about it. Do yourself a favor and eat your way through Italy- you won’t regret it!

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part Two)

Two weeks before our trip , Hubs searched for the best train routes in Europe and “BAM!”, there it was. The Bernina Express, only a 90 minute drive from Lake Como.  The complete line runs from Tirano, Italy to Chur, Switzerland.  To get it in as a day trip we could only do one third of the line – Tirano to St. Moritz, Switzerland.  The ride in one direction was 2.5 hours.  We started our journey from our B&B around 7:30am for Tirano, got there with plenty of time to buy our bottles of water and boarded the train for St. Moritz.  

Tirano is nestled in a valley, near the border of Switzerland, at 429m(1407ft) above sea level.  At the apex of the ride, the train would climb to 2253m(7392ft).  The Bernina Express features large panoramic windows to enable great views all around.  The only downside on that day was the light rain, which made it a little more difficult to see things and take pictures, but only at the beginning of the ride.  Towards the middle the skies cleared and it was partly sunny for the remainder of the journey.  During the climb into the Alps, the announcement (in Italian, German, and English) stated the train would climb 70m for every 1km of track (7% grade), pretty steep!  We jaw-dropped at beautiful greenish-white lakes, alpine valleys, and near the top there were glaciers!  Hubs was most excited about the Kreisviadukt Brusio, a circular part of track used to gently ascend or descend elevation. At the highest part of the ride was the station Ospizio Bernina in the Bernina Pass.  There was a glacier lake reservoir there called Lago Bianco.  It was breathtaking and the pictures surely don’t do it justice.  The runoff from this lake on one side runs to the Adriatic Sea, the other side ends up in the Black Sea – which we found interesting.   

After the Bernina Pass the train started descending for about another 45 minutes until we arrived in St. Moritz, Switzerland at 1775m (5823ft) elevation. St. Moritz is a posh ski town and is alive in the Winter.  In the summer time…not so much.  It seemed like a ghost town, but a perfectly clean, not one speck of dust, symmetrical, perpendicular, everything in its place type of ghost town.  The city is perched on a hill overlooking a gorgeous alpine lake with the snow capped Alps far in the background.  You could sit there for hours and just gaze.  But, since we were there for lunch we had to put our gaze on hold and look for food.  The other thing I know about Switzerland is that it’s crazy expensive. We found a nice little place in the middle of town, we each had a normal size entree and shared a 1.5L bottle of water.  €50 later we headed out for more gazing.  Of that €50, €10 was for the water – which Hubs saw them fill from what looked like a draught nozzle; Switzerland’s finest mountain tap water.  From there we went to a local hotel, an old castle or palace.  It had a perfect balcony and seating area for a coffee and a tea to relaxingly gaze at the beauty.  Perhaps that’s how Switzerland makes you forget that you just drank a €9 coffee and €14 tea.

The gazing had to end and we made our way back to the train station, not before picking up a box of delicious Swiss chocolate to enjoy on our ride back to Tirano.  On the way back, we saw the same sights again, but this time we could just gaze at them (are you sensing a theme?), without the rush to take as many photos as possible.  It was a much more relaxing ride back.  After arriving in Tirano, the gazing ended and prices went back to normal.  We jumped in the car and headed back to our B&B.

If we ever do the Bernina Express again, it will be in the winter.  Supposedly, riding the line when everything is snow covered is another sight to behold.  Plus, it’s also been suggested to ride the Bernina Express outbound and then use the regular commuter train for inbound.  Commuter trains are cheaper, and you can lower the windows for all the unobstructed pictures your camera can handle.  There are other famous train routes in Europe we hope to get to sometime, but definitely put this one on your list!

 

Leisurely Retreat on Lake Como (Part One)

I absolutely love Italy. I’ve been several times and have explored many areas of this beautiful country. Hubs and I just got back from eight nights on Lake Como. We flew into Milan Malpensa Airport, rented our adventure wagon and headed towards our destination – only about 60-90 minutes North. We stayed at the most incredible B&B, which happens to be in the same town that Mussolini and his mistress were executed when they tried to escape to Switzerland. We talked more with the innkeepers, and found out there are several unofficial stories of that fateful night. Apparently, Mussolini and his mistress were staying overnight at the same house where our inn is today, and were shot where we had breakfast every morning on the terrace.  The Italian partisans (resistance group) then moved their bodies down the street, to Villa Belmonte, and were shot again (by the right people this time…). Such a fascinating piece of WWII history!

In our eight days, we explored the famous towns of Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio, Como and some little known ones such as Lenno, Tremezzo, Laglio and Mezzegra. Hubs and I had time to squeeze in two day trips – one on the Bernina Express from Tirano, Italy to St Moritz, Switzerland and a driving trip to Lugano, Switzerland. We also drove by George Clooney’s villa to see if we could visit the twins, but sadly, they weren’t home. Even with so much ground to cover, it was a very relaxing and low-key trip.

Bellagio was as charming as everyone has described it. The hotel in Las Vegas is based on the town. It’s definitely very touristy, but a must when visiting Lake Como. Como, the city, is known for its silk, so if you want a nice souvenir head over to the shop called Azalea (there’s two locations on the same street). It’s a family owned business that has an amazing collection of handmade and handprinted scarves and ties – all at reasonable prices. After all that silk shopping, hop on next door and have lunch at Bilacus or walk five minutes in the other direction for Barchetta. Beware of all the awful restaurants on the water. They’re tourist traps and the only thing you’ll remember is the view. 

Another popular lake town is Varenna. It’s not as popular as Bellagio, but I found that I loved it much more. Hubs and I loved getting lost in all the nooks and crannies. Our innkeepers told us to go to a restaurant called Al Prato and it didn’t disappoint! It was nice that it seemed there were more locals than tourists. There’s no waterview, but the service and food make up for it. While in Varenna, you must make a visit to Villa Monastero. Even if you’re not interested in the interior, just purchase the tickets for the garden. There’s an incredible amount of flora to walk through. Most importantly, the views across the lake are unsurpassed.

Moving further south, in the village of Lenno, there’s the well known Villa Balbianello. Built by Cardinal Angelo Durini in 1787, it was used for a while by Allied commanders toward the end of WWII. The villa has also been made famous as a filming location for Star Wars and James Bond – Casino Royale. Its dramatic landscape makes for, in my opinion, the best views of the lake – even better than Villa Monastero. It’s definitely a must and my favorite villa during our visit.  Here’s a tip – you can get to Villa Balbianello by taking a 10-20 minute walk over a hill, or use the water taxi from Lido di Lenno.  We took the water taxi there (€7/rt or €5/oneway), and walked back.  Arriving by boat makes it feel like a more “grand” entrance, plus the walk back has more downhills – easier on a hot day.

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Throwback Thursdays: Healing in Hong Kong

A few weeks after Hershey crossed the rainbow bridge, I told Hubs that there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near Vienna when the one year anniversary mark hit. We looked around for a new place to visit and decided on Hong Kong. It was far away and didn’t resemble anything “European”. We left on Christmas day and flew with Turkish Airlines. This was before Austrian Airlines announced their new nonstop route from Vienna. I really didn’t care for Turkish Airlines and probably won’t fly them again.

Once in Hong Kong, it was like the breath of fresh air we desperately needed. We mainly went there to eat, take in the sights and heal. Hong Kong is very hilly and has lots of stairs. Thank goodness for the mid-level escalators in the center of the city.

The Hong Kong tram system is the only one left in the world that operates double decker trams exclusively. It was so charming and cool. We rode them every chance we got! Hubs and I also stood in line for Victoria Peak not knowing we already had the right tickets to jump to the front of the line. So when a family of four cut in front of us-I used some, ummm, choice words, loudly. Needless to say, they thought I was the crazy one. It was well worth it once we got to the top. The iconic views of  the Hong Kong skyline were amazing. Although extremely touristy, it’s a must-do.  If you decide to go to Victoria Peak, here’s a tip – use the bus instead of the tram to go up AND down the mountain.  Plus, the wait is much shorter both ways with the bus – and cheaper!

We also took advantage of going to a modern and “real” movie theater.  The American cinema company AMC exists there and paying the extra costs to be in the VIP room was well worth it. Like in most Asian cities, they jack up the air conditioning so high that you’re a popsicle by the time you leave. There were reclining leather seats with call buttons for an attendant to fetch you anything you wanted during the movie.

I didn’t find out until a day or two before the trip that there was a coffee shop named Hazel & Hershey in Hong Kong.  It was fate… I couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate Hershey’s life than this for the one year mark. They had really good matcha lattes and coffee; we went back a few days later for a second helping.

During our trip we also celebrated Hubs’ birthday. I surprised him with a buffet brunch at the Ritz Carlton on the 102th floor near the harbor on the Kowloon side. We had a special window table and the views were unsurpassed. The food was delicious, too. It was our last day in Hong Kong.

In many ways, this trip was healing for us. It doesn’t erase Hershey or the days leading up to his death, but it took away a lot of the pain associated with the time of year it happens to fall near. I know that Christmas and New Years will forever be bittersweet in our hearts.

Throwback Thursdays: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

In October 2015, my friend Emily asked if I would be interested in tickets to the upcoming Harry Potter play in London. Of course I was! She proceeded to wait in a “virtual line” for six hours. She originally wanted to obtain tickets for Summer 2016, but by the time it was her turn she was offered tickets for late October 2016. A whole year away! Nevertheless, I was thrilled, it was no question, we took them!

Finally, a year passed, we collected our tickets and found our seats. At that moment, it finally hit me that we were in f*ing London to see the new Harry Potter play! I felt like we won the lottery.  It was totally a “pinch me” moment. The play was in two parts, over two nights – the first part was on the 20th and second on the 21st. I made sure not to read anything about the production or the book so I wouldn’t be disappointed if it turned out “just okay”. Everything from the cast, costumes, set and special effects were fantastic. Going into it without knowing the details of the story made the play even more magical. And, did I mention we had awesome seats? It was such an incredible experience that our Christmas card for 2016 had a picture of us in front of the theater. It wasn’t the best picture, but it was a moment in 2016 that captured pure joy.

Speaking of amazing plays, and fun stuff happening in the West End….the critically acclaimed Hamilton play is making its way to this side of the pond in Fall 2017. This time around it was my turn to wait in virtual line to get tickets as soon as they went on sale in late January 2017.   By the time it was my turn, I snagged tickets for January 2018. A full year away…again! So excited and can’t wait to share our experiences of it early next year!

We did other London things too.  Hubs and I took the time to have high tea at Claridges, which was really nice and relaxing. After trying many afternoon tea places over the years, my favorite is still at the Connaught Hotel. Other than the play and high tea, we didn’t really have anything else planned except to eat! We went back to some of our favorite eateries and found a few new places to try.

 

Darling Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has been on our bucket list even before our move to Europe. Hubs and I have heard nothing but great things about Dubrovnik. After four and a half years, we finally made our way “next door”. Austrian Airlines flies non-stop from Vienna to Dubrovnik, seasonally. It’s definitely not the cheapest option, but most convenient – a ten hour drive vs. a 75 minute flight.  We’ll take the flight, thanks.

We landed and quickly started our journey to the city. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of Dubrovnik, it literally took our breath away. Our driver was kind enough to stop for us to capture that moment from the road along the cliffs overlooking the city.

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As soon as we got settled into our AirBnB, we set out to explore the city. We didn’t want to do too much as we had a Game of Thrones tour the next day.

Hubs and I became Game of Thrones fans during our first few months living in Vienna. We binged watched the first two seasons before the start of the third. A lot of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, Spain, and Croatia. Dubrovnik is the primary backdrop for Kings Landing. The locations tour was fascinating and we had to use a lot of our imagination due to the CGI add-ons. The Red Keep is completely digitalized, but you can see the foundation they used. We got to see the famous sights for some of the iconic scenes from the show, such as, Cersei’s walk of shame, the Purple wedding, Myrcella leaving for Dorne, etc. It was great to get a feel of how much work goes into filming just one scene. At the end of the tour, we had the option to visit a very touristy shop that had a replica of the Iron throne. As cheesy as it might seem, I had to take my turn and try it out!

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The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent climbing A LOT of stairs. Steep and sometimes cumbersome- anyone with leg/knee problems would have a really tough time. I felt like my legs were going to give way a few times, especially in the heat.

We also did a day trip to the island of Lokrum. It’s the closest island to Dubrovnik, only a 15 minute boat ride from the old harbor. An old monastery on Lokrum is the set for Qarth. The island’s native inhabitants are peacocks and rabbits. People mainly go there to swim, sunbathe, kayak and hike. We only stayed for a couple hours, but could’ve easily spent the whole day there if we had more time.

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Overall, I’d say Dubrovnik is a great long weekend getaway- but if you want to take your time and see other places nearby (Bosnia, Montenegro and other islands), it could easily become a one or two week holiday. I’d also recommend going during shoulder season. We were there just as the cruising and high season started and seeing people being herded like sheep with their paddle-holding guide leading a large group of (loud, rude, shouting) tourists can be overwhelming, especially in such high concentrations.

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