Paris is always a good idea

Ahhh, Paris! When mentioning the ‘City of Light’, people tend to think romance, art, Eiffel Tower, and all the other stereotypes that they associate with this city. This visit was more special than the first time I was there. Hubs had never been to Paris (or France) and I would be experiencing it differently this time around.  My first visit was on a mother/daughter trip some years ago, as part of a whirlwind European tour. Fall is my favorite season, because of the crisp weather and beautiful colors of the trees. Add Paris into the mix, and I would say it’s close to an extraordinary combination.

We opted to stay in the 11th arrondissement and had easy access to two metro lines to easily transit to the rest of the city.  Hubs is a huge fan of public transit in any city we visit.  You should see the glee on his face when we’re able to get from point A to point B without the use of a taxi (he loathes them). The Paris metro and bus options are dense and effective. I prefer it over the London Underground.

During my first visit I did all the touristy things like going to the Louvre, Versailles, etc. So Hubs and I planned this visit a little differently. We explored numerous neighborhoods, ate lots of amazing food, and saw all the typical touristy sights. In my opinion, getting lost in the different neighborhoods in Paris is the best way to see it.

Food and tasting tours have become sort of “our thing” now.  We’ve done one on most of our trips. And in Paris, a food or wine tour is an absolute must! We went with a food one. Our guide taught us a lot about how and where Parisians shop. It was cool to learn how to read the label on the products to know what to look for. For example, we learned a thing or two about chickens.  Chickens are all labeled with details to inform the consumer with exactly what they’re getting.  The labels would indicate where the chicken came from, the farm it was raised on, whether the chicken had been raised on one farm for its whole life, and what it was fed.  A whole lot of information, one which Americans might associate with a Portlandia scene about a chicken named ‘Colin’.  The chickens, based on their quality, can range in price all the way up to 20€ per kg.  Which is about 10$/lb.  Supposedly you do get what you pay for, so the top quality chickens do taste the best.  Also, it is customary to leave the neck and heads on the chickens when you buy them, so the consumer can know for sure the breed of chicken. After the walking part of the tour, we were whisked away to a secret spot with our small group and tried all the little items our guide had picked up and described along the way.  My new favorite cheese:  goat cheese with truffles. It was so creamy and had the consistency of American cream cheese. Incredibly delicious. On the flip side, I know I don’t like pâté – of any type (and I’ve tried plenty).  It’s an acquired taste from I’ve been told.  I choose not to believe it.  

I would say that I have quite an obsession with macaroons. I’m not a fan of the brand Ladurée . It’s too commercialized and not handmade anymore. They have locations everywhere including New York and even Taiwan. Pierre Hermé is another huge brand, but his macaroons have different and unique flavor combinations. He went to Japan and some of his flavors are inspired from there. We tried about five different brands and out of all of them my favorites were Pierre Hermé and Un Dimanche à Paris. The latter brand is still a small boutique specializing in chocolate and macaroons; all their items are still handmade.

Our 6th year wedding anniversary was in September, so I decided to secretly arrange for a professional photographer to snap pictures of us during one afternoon in Paris as a gift. I thought it was one of the best things we did in Paris. Hubs loved the idea of having those pictures as souvenirs. It’ll be a few weeks before we see the results, but it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.  Our photographer was an American and her husband is a French national.  It’s really neat talking to other expats we come across and hear how they’ve adapted to life in a different world.

While in Paris, you must shop! And that I did. During our travels, I usually bring back a piece of jewelry or art from a local artist. In Paris, I coordinated with a local a few weeks before we arrived to take me to boutiques that specialized in small Parisian designers.  I wanted to find a few pieces of jewelry to spice up my existing wardrobe. It was such a unique and successful experience.  There were no tourists along our three hour journey in the little boutique shops, so I really felt like a local. Hubs went and did his own thing during this time, hehe.

In the end, I have fallen even more in love with Paris (if that is even possible!). Hubs and I can’t wait to do another long weekend in the City of Light!

 

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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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Captivating Kraków

Ever since our spontaneous weekend of renting a car and driving to Venice to meet a friend, it encouraged us to take more weekend trips that are drivable from Vienna. Krakow was always on my list of must-see places and it was only about a five hour drive. We took advantage of Hubs’ “summer hours” at work and got on the road around 4PM on Friday. We made good time, despite the traffic and road work we encountered in the Czech Republic. To put it in perspective, it was about the same driving time from Baltimore to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Krakow is undeniably beautiful. It’s so rich in history.  Again, I think it’s one of those cities that people tend to overlook when planning their European holiday. We chose to stay in the Jewish quarter, which is about a 15-20 minute walk to all the sights the city has to offer. Since we only had one full day and a morning in Krakow, we packed in as much as we could without feeling overwhelmed and grumpy. Rynek Główny (the main market square) was gorgeous and impressive. It’s the biggest medieval square in Europe. We got suckered into taking one of the carriage rides, which I read was a “must”. It was nice and gave us a nice overview of old town, but like Vienna, it was pricey. On the order of $40 for a 20 minute, non-narrated, carriage ride. If that’s your sorta thing, make sure you start early, before 10am. It’s cool in the summer mornings and there aren’t too many people, yet. Later in the day, the market square was jam packed.

I became enamored by the traditional Polish pottery/dishes I kept seeing around the market square. The items were hand-made, hand-painted, and were of excellent quality. Hubs thought the items very unique as well, but frowned at the seemingly high center-of-town-prices. I did my research a little later and found a small locally run place over in the Jewish quarter. The sales lady there was fantastic. She carried the same items from downtown, but the prices were at least 25% cheaper. Plus, she only carried items which she researched to be reliable pieces. She mentioned she would occasionally make trips to the factory to see items being made first hand, so she would be knowledgeable about what she was selling in her store.  I may have went a little overboard, based on looks from Hubs, but I don’t know if we’ll ever have the opportunity again. I am definitely looking forward to putting our new pieces to use and replacing some of our older items.

After the pottery adventure, we aimlessly explored the Jewish quarter.  We walked along the picturesque river and crossed on the fancy pedestrian bridges. The Jewish quarter is sort of like the “hipster” part of town.  Lots of unique little shops, cafes, and cute little restaurants. We found a neat little ice cream place. They had some very odd flavors, but were done well( beer, gorgonzola, and rose). Just after the ice cream we happened upon St. Joseph’s church, the one which looks like it could be a castle. The architecture was amazing.  We wanted to take a peek inside, because that’s what you do when you see old churches. As we got closer we heard singing and people talking inside the church, on a Saturday. We stepped inside and realized there was a wedding going on. Since we were uninvited guests we stood at the back and watched for a few minutes, trying to understand what was going on. It seemed like a traditional wedding ceremony. It was a cool experience being there, watching, and listening. After we left there we made our way back into town, feeling uplifted by the joyous occasion.

 

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A Moment of Spontaneity

When an old high school friend contacted me via Facebook on Thursday saying that she and her husband were in Europe, the conversation went on about their itinerary and so on. When I mentioned it to Hubs around 7PM the next day, he asked where they would be this weekend, “Venice”, I said. Since Hubs has never been to Venice and my friend was this close, we quickly contacted our dog’s sitter to see if she would take him in last minute. Then, we scrambled to book a car and hotel room.  All within an hour on a Friday night. I told my friend that we would be making the roadtrip to see her! It turned out that I booked us at the same hotel as they were staying! How crazy was that?

We jumped into the car in the early hours of Saturday morning, dropped off our dog, and were on our merry way to Venice. It took us seven hours, but it was worth it to reconnect with an old friend and meet her other half. We had a wonderful time with them. The following morning, we got an early start to take in all the typical sights of Venice for Hubs, some shopping for me, had lunch, gelato and headed back home from Venice around 2pm in the afternoon, for another 7 hour drive.

Yes, it was a whirlwind trip over the weekend, but it was so much fun! Hubs and I have never done anything this spontaneous before. We are big planners and this was something completely new and exciting for us. Maybe it should become a habit?

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Spectacular Santorini (Part Two)

It’s not a trip recap without food pictures! Santorini is the perfect island getaway. Everything is within walking distance and the food was “out of this world” delicious.  Hubs, not usually a seafood person, couldn’t get enough of the Greek mussels.  Neither could I.  We mostly ordered from the starter menus while we were there, so we could taste as many things as possible.  Hopefully our pictures do the cuisine justice:

 

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Spectacular Santorini (Part One)

Santorini is a beautiful island in the Aegean Sea. It’s a caldera that is shaped into what it is today because of a volcanic eruption that happened in the 16th century. There are no words to describe the beauty of Santorini. Just imagine white washed buildings, not a cloud in the sky, friendly Greeks and the bluest of blue waters and it sounds like heaven doesn’t it?

Another perk of living in Vienna? Direct flights (during high season) into Greek islands that otherwise would have needed a stop in Athens. All it took was a two hour flight to get to paradise. Amazing! There was quite a hiccup on our flight there, but we got to spend the next few days in a beautiful place. It was so relaxing, our five days felt like double that.

We stayed in the capital of Fira. The iconic blue domes can be found in the town of Oia (pronounced e-ya). Hubs and I explored both extensively. There were buses you could take from one town to the other, which was quite convenient (and cheap!). We also spent a morning exploring one of the many beaches on the island.  Santorini is not really known for its beaches. If you’re looking for white sandy beaches, you’ll be disappointed. The beaches are pebbled with volcanic rocks and coarse sands.  Getting in and out of the water can be a challenge if you don’t have water shoes. Plus, the bottom drops off very quickly, but you can see the bottom up to 10 feet or so.  Hubs ended up wearing his flip-flops in the water to protect his feet from the rocks.

The sunsets every night were magical and left us in a silent awe. The food was amazing. The hospitality of the Greek people was a nice change from Vienna. All in all, it was a great vacation and hopefully we can return again in the future.

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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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Brussels & Bruges

When my mom and I went on a European tour back in 2010, I became extremely ill in Belgium. The hospital staff were unsympathetic, rude, and refused to help us. Thankfully, our guide made a few calls and had a doctor visit us in our hotel room. She then accompanied us to find an open pharmacy. After all that, I swore up and down I was never going to set foot in Belgium ever again! I know, a little dramatic, but when you are that vulnerable and in desperate need in medical help to no avail, that would leave a bad taste in your mouth as well.

Fast forward to 2015.  We’ve been living in Europe for 2.5 years and Brussels has been a location on Hub’s radar. I “poo-pooed” it long enough and finally relented. We spent four nights in Brussels and included a day trip to Bruges, while eating our way through these two cities. Both cities are beautiful and have their own character.  Bruges is a predominantly Dutch speaking city, while Brussels main language is French. Bruges was quite a charming sight .  This little city reminded me of a miniature version of Amsterdam with its canals and architecture. Back in Brussels, Hubs did a beer tasting tour and I went on a chocolate tour (more on both later).  It was a relaxing long weekend away. Would we go back? It’s hard to say, even with the more positive experience this time around.

 

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No trip to Brussels without visiting all three pis (pronounced like “piss”)

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All the following pictures were taken during our day trip to Bruges. It was only about an hour away by train from Brussels. We had our best meal of the whole trip here, too.

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