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!

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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!

 

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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Throwback Thursdays: Hunting for Polish Pottery

I’m going to restart my Throwback Thursdays series to backtrack and blog about the adventures we took over the last year or so. Those who follow me on Instagram have seen glimpses of what we’ve been up to. It’s the only platform of social media that I use consistently these days.

Hubs and I like to make use of the office holidays he gets here, and this year the dates all happened to fall on a Friday or Monday – perfect for long weekend getaways. At the beginning of May 2017, we went on a road trip to Poland. Our first visit to Poland was in summer of 2015, and we went to Krakow and Auschwitz.

The itinerary this time was Boleslawiec and Wroclaw. If you recognize the name Boleslawiec, then you know it’s world renowned for its unique pottery – in this case, think of everyday dishes bowls, mugs, etc… Many military wives and expats who live within an eight hour drive have gone on weekend expeditions (yes, multiple!) to buy heaps of this stuff.  When I mean heaps, I mean American sized SUVs/mini-vans filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of the pottery. The parking lots were filled with Jeeps, Odysseys, etc. These were dead giveaways of the presence of American military wives since they usually ship their vehicles from the states during their time overseas.

I first heard about the Polish pottery when I happened upon other expat wives blogging about day and weekend trips there. It piqued my interest and I started to do the research. Boleslawiec Pottery is only made with locally sourced clay only found in that particular region of Poland. The intricacies of these hand painted and handmade pieces are just exquisite. There are many collectors and it’s super expensive to buy authentic pieces outside of Europe. Hence, the reason why people come here to buy Costco amounts of this stuff. It’s so affordable to buy it in Poland. I love the fact that it’s dishwasher, oven, microwave safe AND super sturdy. There are many categories of the pottery and usually people buy GAT (quality) 1 or 2 for the above mentioned purposes. The other categories (below 2) are usually just “for show” or decorative pieces. As you can see from the pictures, I had a bit too much fun.

 

I also should mention that it was our very first time trying homemade Pierogis. I also had this savory potato pancake-like dish with goulash stuffed inside. OH. MY. LORD, comfort food at its best! So delicious! My mouth is watering even as I type this.

Onto to Wroclaw! We spent two nights in this charming little city. It’s often mistaken for Warsaw. What was really nice is that it’s not crawling with “English speaking” tourists-yet. Most locals couldn’t speak or understand English-which was quite refreshing. Hand gestures and pointing were greatly appreciated. We loved going on a “scavenger hunt” for the famous dwarf statues of the city. Did you know that there are over 400 of them dotted throughout the town? We found 40 of them during our short stay.

Poland has really captivated us and I have a feeling we’ll be making more road-trips back to explore more of this lovely country!

Til the cows come home

The state of Tirol in Austria has been on our list since we moved here and just got around to it this week! I’m still a bit “giddy” from our trip.  The main draw for us this year was to attend an event called Almabtrieb. It’s German for “cattle drive”. In the alpine regions of Europe, farmers lead cows up to alpine pastures to feed during the summer. When autumn comes around, the cows are led back down to the valleys. This is a celebrated tradition and has become popular to tourists and locals over the years. I purposely picked a weekend where Hubs and I were able to experience three different ‘Almabtriebs’ in three small villages.  As you’ll see, I went a little overboard with pictures and videos.

I was tickled with joy when the cows paraded into town with massive bells ringing, some of which were decorated. If there weren’t accidents on the mountains, the cows would be decorated elaborately with garlands. In all the Almabtriebs we saw, there were no accidents.  When the cows were finally herded to their temporary destination after the village celebration, they are then returned to their owners to graze on grasses in the valleys. Spectators then retreat into tents for food, beer, music and awards. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Aside from the cows, we explored the beautiful landscapes of the Austrian Alps. We’ve never seen grass in such a beautiful shade of green.  The high alpine lakes are also brilliantly clear, clean, and a lovely shade of green when seen from above. It was breathtaking how you could see forever in the valleys and every turn was more gorgeous than the last.

After the Almabtriebs ended we headed to our next destination, Innsbruck.  It was our jumping off point for a few activities, and Hubs had never been to the city.  I visited it a few years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother.  I didn’t remember it too well, so it was nice to refresh my memory.  We only had one sunny day there and made the most of it.  One of my best friends has raved about rodelbahns (think of a bobsled track with roller coaster rails) that she and her family go to every year. That gave me the idea to find one near Innsbruck, in Tirol. Hubs and I had the opportunity to ride one in a nearby ski village called Zillertal. It was so fun! But, I was a bit bummed that they hadn’t yet completed the installation of the camera thingy catching you enjoying the ride.  Maybe next time.  We also had a fantastic Tyrolean lunch perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the valleys.  Did you know that Swarovski Headquarters are in Innsbruck?  I sure did.  Hubs did not.  He was kind enough to put up with the tour and had coffee in their cafe while I “looked around”.

We took our time driving back and in each small village we passed through we would look for cows, slow down, roll down the windows and listen for the distinctive “clang, cling, clong” sounds of the cows in the field.  It was a memorable road trip and if we get the chance to go back to Tirol, we’ll be sure to be there with bells on.

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A Long Weekend in Lisbon

One by one we’re checking places off our European bucket list, with Lisbon being our latest adventure. It’s a coastal city which has elements of Mediterranean cities we’ve visited. It’s also commonly likened to its sister city, San Francisco. Having visited both, I can see the similarities of the hills, cable cars, and even having the same architect that built the famous Golden Gate bridge with a similar one of their own.  It is also considered one of the oldest cities in the world, predating other modern European capitals such as London and Rome by centuries.

Hubs and I left on Wednesday night and came back Sunday afternoon. We did a lot of sightseeing and eating, but felt like we’ve only scratched the surface. We even took a day trip to the suburbs of Lisbon – a UNESCO town of Sintra, strolled the streets of Cascais and saw the most western point of the European continent.  Does it merit another visit in the future? Maybe. But for now, I’ll let the pictures speak for how beautiful and tasty Lisbon was/is.

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Brussels for Beer

This post was written by Hubs

Belgium.  The land of beer, chocolate, waffles, and french fries.   Elaine and I managed to hit 3 of the 4 in that list.  Sadly, no frites were to be had.  To make up for it, I had waffles whenever possible, and Elaine explored the chocolate shops – and even took a chocolate tour, as described in a previous blog post.  While she was enjoying her chocolate tour, I went on a beer tasting tour in Brussels.

The tasting tour was four hours and our group would try eight different Belgian beers.  Our first stop was at a quaint little bar in the old city center.  Don’t ask me the name, because I can’t remember.  What I do remember is how delightful the first beer was.  We started with a Trappist beer.  What is a Trappist beer? They are beers brewed in monasteries – there are only 11 in the world which brew beer: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy and United States.  Our guide explained to us that the monasteries in Belgium sell their products to sustain themselves and also provide funds for charity. Belgians will argue it’s their civic duty to drink Trappist beers “for the good of the nation”.

A vast majority of Belgian beers are sweet in flavor, and low in bitterness.  They don’t typically brew IPA style beers. There are thousands of Belgian beers, but they don’t consider the vast selection microbrews.  It’s just the regular breweries producing tons of products.  Each beer has its own matching glass, not for marketing purposes, but to produce the taste the brewer intends.  I kind of call BS on this, but, what do I know?   All of the beers we tried were between 8-10% alcohol by volume.  What I found really interesting was the expiration dates for the beers.  They’re typically good for 4-5 years!  They supposedly get better over time, like wine, but who wants to wait that long for deliciousness?

Getting back to the beers…

We only had half bottles of these during the tour.  I apologize for the pictures, the camera on my phone is kind of broken, and I had been drinking 🙂

Here’s what we tried:

  1.     Orval – Trappist
  2.     St. Bernardus abt 12 – my favorite of the day
  3.     Hopus
  4.     Bourgogne des Flandres
  5.     Hoegaarden – Grand Cru (not the white ale)
  6.     Gouden Carolus – tripel
  7.     Trappistes Rochefort
  8.     Westvleteren 12 – Trappist

The last one on that list is quite famous.  It’s widely considered the best beer in the world, and only available to the public in limited quantities.  The Belgian government actually buys some to stockpile. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough new monks joining the monastery to keep it going.  When the current monks pass on, it is feared the recipe and the beer, as it is now, will be lost.  The Belgian government considers this beer to be an extremely important part of their heritage.  I felt really lucky to have the opportunity to try it and learn the backstory.

All in all the tour was worth it.  I got to try some great beers in some really special bars/pubs.  One of the most notable ones was the Delirium bar – opened by the actual brewing company.  They have 1000s beers available.  The beer menu was a magazine about 3/4 of an inch thick.  There were 9 people on our tour and we all had a great time.  I would definitely recommend it, and do it again in a heartbeat.

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Chocoholics Rejoice!

Belgium is mostly famous for two things: chocolate and beer. I don’t drink, but Hubs is a huge beer connoisseur. With that in mind, I had arranged for us to spend a Sunday afternoon, apart, tasting our favorite things.

When I first arrived in Brussels I was overwhelmed with all the chocolate shops. Every other store was a chocolate shop. You had your mainstream ones such as Godiva, Neuhaus and Leonidas and the smaller chocolatiers that are only available in Belgium. Even with all my research, it was hard to tell which ones were special and which ones would be generic enough to find at a grocery store. I signed myself up for a chocolate tasting tour that explored shops, which took us from the low to high end of the scale. Honestly, I had no expectations going in, but I was surprised how much I learned about chocolate and how to use your palette to taste. It’s akin to differentiating between wine brands.

For instance, the longer the expiration date, the lower quality chocolate brand. Usually, an extended expiration date would indicate the products include preservatives and fillers. For the really good stuff, there’s none of that crap.  Fresh chocolates with all natural products have to be eaten in less than two weeks. You know the famous brand Godiva? You will never find a Belgian wandering in those stores in Belgium or anywhere abroad for that matter. According to our guide, it has the worst value for the money. Surprising.

When I think of good chocolate I expect handmade, preservative-free quality goodness. And this tour went beyond my expectations. We even tasted a chocolate that goes through a 25 step process to be made! It was well worth the €25 for a box of nine pieces I came home with. You only live once, right?

Overall, it was a fun and informative experience and I got to see parts of the city I hadn’t yet explored. The downside to this, is, that I can never look at chocolate the same way again. I am now officially a chocolate snob!

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It took a lot of restraint not to bring home more than what I bought. We’ve already gone through the box to the far left and right.

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Baltic/Scandinavian Adventure: Stockholm

After much deliberation, Hubs and I figured the best way (and most economical) to experience some of the northern European cities was via a cruise. We had found an amazing itinerary that had THREE overnights. That’s not very common for cruises. We also added a few pre and post cruise nights in Stockholm and Copenhagen. The whole experience was incredible and I’m extremely grateful for the memories that Hubs and I continue to make with our travels.

Now, onto our first stop: Stockholm. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous city but I didn’t exactly fall in love with it. It’s probably because we were there during record high temperatures. After dealing with an extremely hot and uncomfortable summer last year, we wanted to go up north to escape the heat this year.  There were also two other factors that left a bad taste in my mouth, but I won’t get into that. I’m so glad that we got to see all the touristy sights that Stockholm had to offer and more. Did you know that Stockholm has one of the prettiest subway systems? The art we found in some of the stations we explored was really cool and a nice reprieve from the heat. We also found an absolutely amazing sushi place and visited it twice!

 

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