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Searching out snow

February 16, 2016

Since Dresden hasn’t gotten much (read: any) snow this year, we decided to try our luck in a small town called “Altenburg” near the Czech border.  It was only a 1-hour train trip and a relatively small altitude change, but in terms of snow, it made a world of difference.  Altenburg looked like a winter wonderland compared with Dresden.  We rented cross country skis near the train station and then walked a few blocks to the beginning of the trails.  The trails criss-cross the forest in every direction, which can be a bit treacherous if you aren’t paying attention to directions!  We kept the route simple by trudging directly uphill for the first hour.  At the top of the hill, we found a cozy little restaurant for food and drinks – because this is Europe! – and then we skied back down the hill in about 15 minutes to get back to town.

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Christmas in London

February 11, 2016

Where are the Alex’s for Christmas?  Germany? Back in the States? Nope! Jolly old England!  Confused? Yeah, so are we.  But first, some important business back in Dresden!

We really couldn’t stand to have an empty corner in our apartment in the Christmas season, so even though we weren’t even going to be in Dresden for Christmas, I went out and procured a tree and all the requisite trimmings to make it festive.  Of course, I didn’t want to bother buying a stand, so I made it a truly German Christmas tree by sticking it in my trusty beer carrier!  Turns out I had picked the perfect size trunk just the same size as a beer bottle, what luck!

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So with that taken care of, we flew off to England!  Why?  Well, everyone we knew in Dresden was going to be busy with family and we didn’t want to be all alone with nobody to enjoy the holiday with.  After a bit of thinking, we settled on England, hoping that the pubs would be warm, friendly and filled with happy brits for us to fall in with.  As it turns out we made quite the right decision!

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We landed in London and took a day and a half to see the sights in some rather British weather.  The first day, we wandered around the museum area where we saw an amazing gem and mineral collections at the Natural History Museum and  a great exhibit on Shackleton’s voyage at the Royal Geographic Society Museum.

Our next stop was the famous Harrod’s department store.

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Inside was a bit of a mad house as everyone was getting ready for christmas parties and doing last minute christmas shopping.  But soon we located the food stands and were amazed.  This place makes Whole Foods look like a Soviet grocery store in the dead of winter.   There were meat displays of beef costing hundreds of dollars a pound, an entire counter just for caviar, chocolates and sweets had their own room!  Cheeses, meats, baked goods, exotic fresh fruit that looked as if it must have been (and probably was) air freighted overnight from southeast Asia.  It was quite the sight to behold.

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We stocked up on snacks and headed to our room for a well-deserved hot bath.

The next morning we stopped by to say hello to the Queen, but for some reason they wouldn’t let us in!  A bit rude really.

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So on we went to Big Ben!

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Unfortunately it really started to rain and it was at this moment that my umbrella decided it didn’t like being an umbrella anymore.

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We soldiered on anyway and found ourselves, after a short tube ride, at the Tower Bridge.

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There would have been more exploring and pictures… but with no umbrella and quite a bit of rain we decided to head for our hotel where we had an extremely luxurious – and very British – afternoon tea.

Dessert came wrapped up like a Christmas present and with glasses of champagne that had me ready for bed, rather than ready to head out.

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But head out of the city we must, for we had to get to the small town of Goring on Thames that night.  It was Christmas Eve and time to sit in a pub and make new friends!

Amazingly, we made it to Goring (thanks to Alexandra’s great driving) with only a few instances of driving on the wrong side of the road.  But, when we arrived, we were greeted by a most unusual sight.

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What was happening? Well, in the small town of Goring on Christmas eve, there is a wonderful and very special event.  At about 7pm, five thousand or so people congregate for a torchlight procession through the town and across the River Thames to a small park.  There, they sing carols for about an hour.  It is a really beautiful sight that is sadly impossible to capture on camera.

Afterwards everyone heads to the pubs and enjoys some well deserved pints!  Within a few minutes of showing up at the pub, we were chatting happily with a young couple, who invited us along to the next pub on their schedule, where we spent the rest of the evening drinking and chatting and shouting about every imaginable topic.

Christmas day was a quiet one for us.  We made a small feast in our hotel room of fancy cheeses, crackers, chocolates, and scones, we had a lovely drive through the countryside until the rain drove us back into our hotel room, and we spent some time chatting with our families on the phone.

The day after Christmas, we were invited by our friends (who now live in the L.A. area, but were visiting family near London for Christmas) to their family’s Boxing Day celebration.  Even though we only knew a few of the other guests, it felt like being with family for the day.  And the best part: we got to learn first hand what all those funny-sounding British dishes are; for example, Christmas pudding, plum pudding, bubble and squeak…  Yum!

 

 

Christmas Markets

January 6, 2016

Lets get serious here for a second.  The biggest problem in the U.S. today isn’t gun control, or foreign wars, or terrorists, or Russia’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric, or any of that stuff.  No, the biggest problem is that we can’t have drink in public.

Now, you are probably saying to yourself “Alex, I thought this post was about Christmas Markets” well I’m getting there.  See, going into this, I expected christmas markets to be filled with handicrafts and trinkets and baubles and toys.  In my mind I saw sellers of christmas trees, christmas lights, all manner of ornaments and christmas time wares.  While all that was at the various christmas markets they were a rather small part of what was there and an even smaller part of why everyone goes to the christmas markets.  People go to christmas markets to hang out with friends eat some form of pig meat and drink.

I am not saying that christmas markets are some sort of sub-zero Oktoberfest.  No, at the markets things are much more restrained and adult.  First, you cannot go alone.  Ok, I mean you physically are able to, but no self respecting European ever would.  You go with friends or family and you walk through enjoying the sights and sounds have a few drinks and a bit to eat and then you go to a bar or you go home.  This isn’t the place to get sloshed.  Second, you don’t necessarily plan on going to the market, but if you are out shopping or walking there is a very good chance you will walk through one.  It seems to me most people find that is good enough an excuse to stop and enjoy a break from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Now, this may all seem a bit confusing but let me try to lay this out for you.  In Dresden there were probably ten or more markets just around the downtown area.  There was one along the main pedestrian shopping mall, one just around the corner from there, another in the main town square, another in front of the Frauenkirche, one in a courtyard of the palace, another along the Elbe, one in front of the opera house, one across the Elbe in Neustadt, another in Outer Neustadt all of that is in a single line walking from the main train station north for only about a mile and a half. Just continuous christmas markets.  They are unavoidable.

Which brings us to the next point.  At least in Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe it is totally acceptable during the holiday season to have a drink or two or three pretty much any time after the markets open… which is 10am.

So, now the good question is what is everyone drinking.  The most common drink is probably Glühwein, literally “glow wine”.   This is a sweet red wine mixed with spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and dried citrus and apple.  The cheaper stuff has loads of sugar but there are also some amazing vintners that set up stalls and sell some very nice mugs of wine.  Another common drink is Eierpunsch or “egg punch”.  A bit like Eggnog this concoction is made from Eierlikör a kind of liquor made with egg somehow(?) and some white wine and orange juice all heated up and then beaten until frothy and topped with cinnamon.  This was Alexandra’s favorite she says it is like a hot boozy Orange Julius.  There are loads of other drinks but those are the big two.  As for food, the choices are truly ridiculous and also oh-so German.  Sausages of any kind of course, a stall that wheels in an entire Ox every day that they have been slowly roasting all night the previous night and then proceed to slowly dismantle and make melt-in-your-mouth tender and amazing tasting pulled Ox sandwiches from.  There’s schnitzel and smoked fish and roast pig and grilled pig.  There’s a sort of narrow-sighted variety that the German culinary scene seems to truly excel at.  It really amuses me right up until I have a serious hankering for something spicy.

On the sweet side of things the markets are loaded with stalls selling hot roasted almonds coated in various sugary spice mixes, giant gingerbread cookies, chocolates, and candies.  Then there is the famous Dresdner Christstollen.  This confection is truly a thing to be reckoned with.  A bit like fruit cake but at once somehow denser and moister and yet more delicate.  Dresdner’s are incredibly proud and opinionated about stollen and well spend hours debating the various stalls wares.

Wow! That was a lot of background information that you probably didn’t want to read but too late now! Haha!

So what about us?  Well, Alexandra’s sister visited us just in time for Thanksgiving which just so happened to coincide with the opening of the christmas markets! So after a delicious Thanksgiving which I forgot to take pictures of (sorry!) we went out to see what this was all about!

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This year Dresden claimed to have constructed the worlds largest Pyramide that they had turned into a two story bar.

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But maybe you think there weren’t that many people there.  Well it was the first night.  Over the next few weeks things got busier and busier until soon the entire downtown looked like this:

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The markets were absolutely crammed every evening after about 4pm.  It made for a very fun atmosphere with everyone talking and laughing and having a great time.  This was all over Dresden!  Simply crazy!  I didn’t even know there were that many people in this city.  Here is the market by the Frauenkirche.

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Finally we made it up one beautiful evening to the terrace overlooking the river and managed to get this great sight looking down the street towards the church.

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All too soon though Christmas itself was upon us and as if they had been nothing more than a mirage the markets disappeared from the streets and we were left with cold, quiet Dresden in winter.  But, we will always have some amazing memories and I think we can both say that if you have the opportunity to go to Germany or really most anywhere in Europe for the christmas markets it is absolutely worth it!

So, I’ll leave you with Alexandra and her favorite treat, a roasted apple filled with sugar, and cinnamon and topped with whipped cream.

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Merry Christmas everyone.

-The Alexs

Summer (and fall) of 2015 Super Post

October 26, 2015

First off, we are terribly sorry we haven’t updated the blog in so long.  It has been an absolutely crazy busy and wonderful summer in Germany with tons of visitors and all sorts of things to do that weren’t sitting at home on a computer.  So, this is a kind of mega-post of what we got up to all summer.

Mid-summer we celebrated our seventh anniversary at the most hipster restaurant in Dresden.  They serve everything in little glass ramekins… and that’s it.  That is the limit of edginess and interesting food in eastern Germany.  But it was tasty if not exactly groundbreaking cuisine!

In the first week of August we went home to Michigan for a quick week to see family and enjoy the ridiculously awesome and beautiful summer weather.  We dragged my sister and her family up to Alexandra’s family place in Northport and had a great week of very nice weather as you can see from the pictures below.

Just a few weeks after we came back to Germany… we left again! This time for Vienna.  Alexandra had a conference there and I had decided it would be a perfect opportunity to take a relaxing vacation from… my year long vacation (ok, that’s not true, I am doing research at the University here now).   So we took the train to Vienna during one of the hottest weeks of the year! Oops.  Thankfully you can buy beer at every grocery store and corner store so I made the executive decision to drink one while walking to our hotel.  That’s not our hotel in the picture but was on the way to it because that is just kind of Vienna.  Palaces everywhere.

The beautiful garden grounds aren’t quite as awesome when you are dragging your rolly-bag through them.

Before Alexandra started her conference we made a few tourist stops.  First, was the royal library which was very very impressive and beautiful if a bit hard to find.  Well, the library itself is easy to find, but finding the door to go in is another story.

   

For Alexandra’s birthday my Parent’s got her a very cool gift.  Two seats in the Royal Box at the Spanish Riding School.  This is a show demonstration put on at the riding school where they train Lippizaner horses.  The original idea was the training of military horses but nowadays it is just pretty.  Sadly, no pictures allowed during the show, but the riding arena alone is worth a picture:
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Shortly after we got home from the conference in Vienna, our friend Nate from Boston came to visit.  Unfortunately he was only able to stay for a few short days but we tried to make the most of it!  We went and visited a nearby castle (Kriebstein) built high on a hill.

We visited the German/Polish border town of Görlitz (a very much favorite of ours) and enjoyed the beautiful view from Poland looking back towards Germany across the river sitting at our favorite restaurant.

We also visited a very cool nature center where they had a falconer who showed off an amazing collection of beautiful birds of prey including this bald eagle that I was sure was going to eat my face.  Turns out the falconer was holding his arm right behind my head!  One of his falcons “ran away” during the demonstration, and we watched as he spent 20 minutes calling and walking around to try to temp the bird back.

We went for a beautiful walk in the Saxon Switzerland area and enjoyed some very nice late summer weather and some epic views.

 

 

 

 

And finally, we went with Nate to Leipzig to visit our mutual friend, Liv.
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After Nate went home, we had a short lull in our busy schedule and enjoyed Dresden for a bit by ourselves for the next few weeks.  A hot air balloon decided to get a very close look at the river front.

And I captured a double-rainbow at sunset!

Finally, we knew fall was on the way when the fall market started up and I got my first taste of delicious Oktoberfest beer!

Which meant it was time to head down to Munich to meet up with our neighbors from Pasadena who were on their honeymoon.  We had a ton of fun and only caused a small amount of trouble…  I made lederhosen and dirndl t-shirts for everyone using bleach-dyeing which is a very fun and cool technique to make some neat shirts.

After some initial chaos following the revelation that our backpack was not allowed in the tent, and the locker booth wouldn’t open for another hour, we finally made it into the Paulaner tent for the opening ceremony of the festival!  It was also great luck in that our friends of friends got up at 7am to nab one of the best tables in the entire tent.  Very cool!

Things kicked off with a band marching in and some speeches then traditional German drinking songs and everyone was soon having a great time!  

To give you an idea of scale, this is less then a quarter of the “tent”.  With an official capacity of almost 6,000 this place was absolutely crazy.

The next morning we decided to take things a bit easier and went for a walk in the English Gardens a giant city park with many beautiful ponds and streams criss-crossing it.   Also, the large grassy area in the very middle is strangely enough a “clothing optional” area where there were quite a few unclothed old men wandering around.  But I won’t torture you with a picture of that, here’s Alexandra taunting a goose instead.

After we got back from Oktoberfest weekend we had another short break then Alexandra had to go to a conference on the far side of Germany.  Luckily for me, my friend Marcel was coming to visit!  He flew into Munich so back I went to Munich!  We had an awesome trip together taking in the old beer halls of Munich (all of them :).  I even found the most appropriate table to sit at in the famous Höfbrauhaus!

We had an awesome time together and drove to Prague and Dresden together and I showed him how much fun eastern Europe can be.  Sadly he had to leave after only a couple short days to go on to more great adventures but I am hoping he will be convinced to come back soon!

That brings us to a few weeks ago, when Alexandra and I found ourselves a new hobby.  It was German Re-unification day, their version of the 4th of July, but a bit more somber.  So, we decided to do what most germans do on unification day.  Go for a walk in the woods and try to find Porcini mushrooms!  Well, we had a lot of fun, but didn’t find any Porcini’s.  Instead, we found an astounding variety of other mushrooms and discovered a mutual interest in hunting and identifying these interesting and often delicious forest goodies.

One of the best things we found were these very intimidating looking mushrooms.

Here in Germany they are called fall trumpets, but in english they are called black trumpets or even death’s trumpets.  Turns out the name comes from the color, not the after-effect – Black trumpets are actually an amazingly delicious relative to the Chanterelle!  We spent a couple full days collecting mushrooms and ended up with quite the little bounty of forest deliciousness.

Eventually our luck turned and we started being able to recognize Porcini mushrooms, like this giant here.  It looks a little scary, but once it was cleaned, sliced, and dried, it filled our apartment with mouth-watering porcini-purfume.

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We also found some other very interesting and beautiful (though often not worth eating) mushrooms like these beautiful coral mushrooms.

We even lucked into some delicious Oyster Mushrooms!

Some more great photos, of puffballs, black trumpets, and poisonous Royal Fly Agarics.
  
  

It turns out mushroom hunting is a really fun activity that makes you slow down and enjoy the woods and really see it.

Just a week ago, Alexandra’s mom and sister showed up and had an awesome visit with them!  We went all over Austria and had a really fun time.  Alexandra promised to write up the trip really soon so here are a couple preview pictures to show you just a bit of how great the trip was!

 

The Epic Road Trip

June 15, 2015

My parents came to visit us for about three weeks from the middle of May to the beginning of June.  There was a very large conference happening in Dubrovnik at the end of May and I was interested in going down to meet some people in my industry.  It seemed a shame to simply fly down to Dubrovnik and back since, if you look on a map there are a lot of interesting places to see on the way there.  So, a plan was hatched to drive from Dresden down to Dubrovnik, hop on a ferry to Italy, then drive north back to Dresden.  3,500 kilometers (2150 miles), seven countries, twelve cities, all in ten days.  It was ambitious, to say the least.

But first we had to go get my parents from Berlin!  So, we took the bus up to Berlin and met up with them after their long flight.  We had all been to Berlin before, so we didn’t do a ton of touristy stuff.  We did go to the Tor, and the Holocaust memorial, and then Alexandra and I insisted on getting something we had been missing desperately: authentic Sichuan food.  It was incredibly delicious.  After a pleasant day in Berlin we hopped on the train to Dresden.

The next morning was my birthday!  So we had a nice brunch and then went for a walk around town to see the sights of Dresden.  In the evening we went to my favorite brewery where there is a great view of the Elbe River and on Sundays the serve Maß, which is beer by the liter.

For the next week, while Alexandra went back to work, I toured the areas around Dresden with my parents: the highlight was the town of Meißen, famous for their porcelain and the beautiful church on a tall hill overlooking the Elbe.

On Friday we set out for Prague, the first stop on our epic road trip.  For me, there was really only one important thing to do in Prague.  Go to the best butcher in town.  This butcher is special because you can not only buy meat to bring home, you can select a steak and have them cook it up for you right then and there for an extra $3!  They also have a great house wine and a wall tap for beer, where you pay for a glass and can refill it to your hearts content.  I think I could live in this butcher’s shop!  After that epic lunch checked off my list we made a quick sightseeing tour of Prague.  In the afternoon we hopped back in the car and headed south to the city of Brno, where we stayed at an old palace for the night and enjoyed an amazing Czech dinner involving an absolutely comical amount of food and drinks.  I really recommend getting smoked ribs in the Czech Republic, both times I’ve had them they have been excellent!

Saturday we had a short drive to Vienna.  Unfortunately it was a drizzly day, however, Vienna is such a beautiful and impressive place none of us minded too terribly.  The contrast between Prague and Vienna is pretty amazing.  Prague is a city of narrow streets, surprising beauty, and teeming with life.  Vienna is a city that has clearly been planned.  You approach the buildings and can take them in along wide avenues.

After a day of museums, pastries, and of course, Viennese schnitzel, we headed on to Graz where we all were so sufficiently tired that we did nothing but fall asleep.

We had planned to tour Graz a bit, initially, but these plans were changed as we started reading about Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.  So, with the last-minute decision made, we hopped in the car bright and early and left Austria behind, blew through Slovenia without really stopping and made a bee-line for Plitvice Lakes.  What we found was well worth the trip.  The park is centered around a series of cascading lakes with waterfalls in between.  The water flows through massive limestone formations where it becomes saturated with calcium, which is then deposited and forms lips at the edges of each lakes, causing wide, astonishing waterfalls to form.  We took a bus up to the very top lake and started walking down the 5 km trail back.  The trails weren’t really trails, but an endless series of wooden walkways sometimes inches above the water.  The sights were like something out of a fairy tale – it was hard to believe what you were seeing.

And then it started raining.

Some places, rain would really ruin the experience, but Plitvice is not one of these places. There, when it starts pouring rain, you can almost forget that anything exists outside of this endless world of wooden walkways and crystal clear pools strung together by beautiful waterfalls.

Water started running down the hillsides, creating more waterfalls, the water levels rose even higher and soon some of the walkways were basically submerged.  We all got thoroughly soaked inside and out (despite umbrellas) but we had an unforgettable day.

After our watery hike, we drove another hour down to the coast to our hotel in a tiny sea-side village near Split.  The GPS wasn’t sure how to get there, so that Alexandra got us flawlessly to within about 200 meters of the hotel when we were suddenly faced with a choice between a one-way road, a car coming down a tiny road to our right and a tiny alleyway off to one side.  Choosing the tiny alleyway (it was so narrow we had to pull the mirrors in), we made it about 100 yards before being stopped by another car was coming the other way.  Some extremely patient and friendly locals helped us back down the tiny alley and the mayor of the village hopped in his car and showed us the way to the hotel right on the water.  Alexandra snapped some photos as the sun set and we checked in to some very interesting/thematic rooms.  We enjoyed a dinner at the hotel, then went to sleep after a long but interesting day.

Next morning, we drove into Split where we saw Diocletian’s Palace and the church built out of his mausoleum.  Then, back on the road!  We drove down the coast toward Dubrovnik stopping for some delicious fruit and fermented fruit liquors along the way. We also had to drive through a 10 km piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which splits Croatia in two.  But, we couldn’t stop to buy tourist junk, as that would have required a visa, which we definitely did not possess.

On Monday afternoon, we finally arrived in Dubrovnik, where we had rented an apartment and were greeted by our wonderful landlady, who was more than welcoming.  She was great to us and if anyone is in Dubrovnik again let us know!  We spent the next couple days exploring Dubrovnik and the surrounding areas, including a boat ride to a tiny island off the coast, and a car trip to Ston, a small city to the north famous for their ancient wall and delicious mussels.  Finally, Wednesday night we got on a car ferry to take us to Italy….

Alexandra was very amused by the process of driving a car on a boat, and we all had a fun time in our little cabin.  It helped that the ladies took some anti-seasickness meds that made then a little loopy.      The next morning I took a shower on a boat for the first time, which it turns out is just like a shower on land when you are a bit hungover.  Basically, you have to hold on to things and stuff keeps falling down even though you swear you put it on a level surface.  After a quick breakfast snack, we were back in the car and driving off the boat.  So, without much excitement, we suddenly found ourselves in Italy!

We took our time (relatively speaking) driving up the coast of Italy, enjoying a few towns along the way and having some amazing food.  Our destination for the evening was in the hills above Ortona where a very charming and pretty little hotel greeted us (after the owner got back from her siesta and let us in the gates, that is).  After taking our own afternoon siesta, we drove into the wine country to a local place run by an Italian mother and son.  There was no menu, just recommendations for antipasti, primi, and secondi.  We basically ordered the whole menu plus a couple of bottles of wine and enjoyed another delicious meal.  The bill was the most stunning part, at around 45 euros.

The next day we drove through the Marche region of Italy, to the walled city of Urbino.  After a quick tour and another awesome, cheap, lunch,  we headed on to Padua, which is just outside of Venice.

On a stroll through Padua in the evening we found Alexandra’s idea of heaven, a bakery with gigantic, football sized, 1 lb, meringues.

In the morning, we hopped on a train to Venice.  I have to admit, I was skeptical of Venice.  But, having been there, I can definitely see its allure and wouldn’t disagree to going back for a longer visit, as long as it’s not during the peak tourist season.  It really is a maze of tiny alleys and canals that boggles the mind.  I have no clue how you are supposed to navigate this place without a smartphone, it is crazy.  But, really really beautiful and fun.  We had just enough time to hit the highlights (from the outside only), and to grab a a stunningly delicious lunch at a locals’ place on the glass blowing island of Murano, which by Venetian standards was basically free.  We also managed brief but impressive private tour of the Seguso family glass factory (all of this after my mom somehow struck up a conversation with an Italian lady who then invited us to coffee, even though she didn’t speak english and none of us spoke Italian.  Still not sure how that happened).

On the island of Murano, we visited one very special cathedral that’s well off the tourist track.  The entire floor was covered in colorful tile patterns.  Each block of tiles was completely unique.  We took photos of a series of them, which kind of gives you an idea.

After a very fun (and delicious) few days it was time to say goodbye to Italy.  From Padua, we drove north across the Alps to Innsbruck for lunch.  We found a great biergarten right in town, and then did a short tour of the city before heading north into Germany to Munich.

Why, you may wonder, were we in such a hurry to get to Munich?  Well, my old boss had told us about the Deutches Museum – which she said is the  coolest science and industry museum in the world.

And she way right: the museum was amazing!  The multi-story basement is an enormous, nearly km long, mockup of mining throughout time, starting with some of the oldest technologies and moving to the latest in long-wall mining.  Above ground there were full-size ships and submarines, models of dozens of different boats over three floors, an aviation and aerospace area with an impressive array of vehicles including helicopters, gliders, experimental aircraft, cross-sections of various engines and even a V-2 rocket.  There were massive displays on things from glass-making to weaving to printing and even brick making.  This place is an engineer’s paradise 🙂

The Deutsches Museum was a very cool end to a very epic trip. A blog post even this long only really covers about a tenth of it!  What can I say, it was awesome.

 

Summer-Life in Dresden

June 7, 2015

After living in Pasadena for 6 years, a place where the different seasons hardly even register, the night and day difference between “Winter Dresden” and “Summer Dresden” has been a huge surprise for us.  Compared with the quiet, often dreary winter weekends, the summer ones are packed with people (tourists and locals) eating icecream, drinking beer, playing with children.  Suddenly it’s hot and green (and a bit humid).  Some things here are reminiscent of Michigan summers, and other are not at all… for example:

  • There are no laws against drinking in public.  Somehow, whenever we remember (we still forget sometimes) that it’s okay to enjoy a cold beer or a cuba libre while strolling down the sidewalk, riding the train, or touring the city, the world seems like a slightly better place.
  • The Germans really seem to love hot days, and they prove it with a near-instantaneous change of wardrobe from long dark pants into shorts, skirts, and skirt/pant hybrids that remind me strongly of Aladdin.   The best part though, is that everyone’s legs are so white!  Bright, blindingly white!  I love it, because I can show my blinding white legs too, without feeling self conscious.
  • On hot days, the public fountains do double duty as swimming pools for the kids, and cooling foot baths for everyone else.   Combined with a stein of beer and some ice cream from the snack stand 20 feet away, and suddenly the heat doesn’t seem so bad.

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  • The Elbe river, which winds its way through Dresden and the surrounding countryside, runs from Prague in the east, all the way to Hamburg on in the Northwest of Germany.   In the Dresden area, between 50 and 100 yards of greenway is left un-developed on either side of the river, in case of floods (which occur every few years).  This ribbon of grass served Dresdners as a near-infinitely long park and beach (no sand though).  People bike, run, and walk along it.  They play ball with kids and dogs.  They fly kites.  And most importantly, they grill out and drink late into the night.   Because you can drink in public here 🙂

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  • As soon as the spring time change arrives, a sudden transformation marks the beginning of spring: all of the cafes and restaurants double or triple their floor area by filling the courtyards and plazas and lawns with cafe tables and giant umbrellas.  When it’s still early in the year, blankets are provided to keep you warm.  Drinking hot tea in the rain, outside under an umbrella and snuggled in a blanket, is one of my favorite German experiences.  When it gets hotter, you really don’t have any choice but to sit outside – because the restaurants are rarely air-conditioned.
  • Speaking of which, the street trams aren’t air conditioned either.  What was, just one week ago, a comfortable way to reach every corner of Dresden within 30 minutes or so, suddenly became a frustrating and unnecessary form of torture.  It was 90 degrees outside yesterday.  However, after spending less than 10 minutes in a baking tram, stepping back out into the sun was like stepping into a cooler.  I guess we will be riding bikes on hot days from now on.
  • The hipster area of Dresden, called “Neustadt”, experiences the most dramatic winter-summer transformation.  From nearly empty streets in the winter, the neighborhood turns into essentially a continuous outdoor party.  The streets are lined with young people, sitting on benches, window sills, curbs, couches that get dragged out onto the sidewalk, and all of them are just hanging out, usually drinking beer or listening to music.

With Friends in Salzburg

May 14, 2015

Last weekend we had quite the gathering of old friends in Salzburg, Austria.  We met up from all corners of the globe for various reasons but somehow it all worked out timing-wise and we had an amazing weekend.

Steve came to Europe from Pasadena to buy himself a brand new BMW, drive it around and enjoy the autobahn, and then import it to the US as a “used car” to save on the taxes.  BG flew in from San Fran to join Steve on his road trip, and so he could run a marathon in Salzuburg.  Jen drove from France (but lives near Frankfurt), so she could both hang out with  BG.  Aron took the train from Leipzig (near us) to meet up with Steve and BG and to run in the marathon.  Adam flew from San Francisco because… he really loves traveling?  And finally, we drove 5 hours from Dresden so we could spend two evenings hanging out with these crazy awesome friends.

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Salzburg was a surprisingly tiny and simultaneously tourist-packed city.  It was a bit of a grey, drizzly weekend, but, thanks to our combined motivation, we packed a lot into a short trip.    Cliffs loom over city on either side of the river, and the Hohensalzburg fortress at the top, the Salzburg’s defining landmark, can be seen from anywhere in the city.    On our first day, we met up with everyone at Steve’s hotel (impressive given that only two of the group had working cell phones) and started wandering around town.  After finding some snacks for lunch at a local wine festival, we strolled through a lovely garden, crossed the river, made a short stop to sip tea and coffee, and then headed straight up towards the castle.  The views of the surrounding city and being able to explore inside the fortress itself were more than worth the climb and the entrance fee.

As it started to get dark, we made our way to a famous beer hall and brewery called Augustinerbrau, where we had quite a few liters of beer.  I can’t remember anymore whether we made it to a second bar after that…. I have a feeling that we did indeed.

The next day, while BG and Aron ran a marathon in the rain, the rest of us took a scenic drive in Steve’s bright orange new BMW to the German border town where Hitler’s vacation home, Eagle’s Nest, is still located.   Since the road up to the Eagle’s Nest was still closed until the snow melted, we toured the bunkers built into the base of the mountain.   We drove back to Salzburg just as the guys finished their race, and had a celebratory Doner kebab.  After a lazy afternoon of strolling and drinking beer, we finally ended up back in a hotel room for a long lazy evening of playing an epic game of Cards Against Humanity.

On our last morning we all went to the “Hellbrun” water palace , which was built by an archbishop/prince as a pleasure palace to entertain guests during the early 1600’s.  The palace was built around a clearwater spring and features gardens with novelty and trick fountains all over, which the prince used to surprise his guests.

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Istanbul, not Constantinople

May 7, 2015

I really can’t explain often enough how amazing it is to live in a place where we can take a weekend vacation to a place like Istanbul.  The other weekend we had the chance to meet our friend Umut in Istanbul, where was home visiting his family for the month.  We of course jumped at the chance.

So, after a quick two hour train ride to Leipzig, followed by a three hour flight with free alchohol and dinner, we were in Istanbul! Unfortunately it would take another two hours to get to our Umut’s house, since we had to drive from the airport on the european side of Istanbul, to Umut’s family’s house on the asian side.  And that was in light traffic.  Istanbul traffic makes traffic in any city in the U.S. I have been to seem like a minor problem.  It doesn’t help at all that Istanbul is cut in half by the Bosphorus Strait, so that all traffic is funneled into just two bridges.

When we got up the next morning Umut’s mom had prepared an amazing Turkish breakfast for us with all sorts of delicious things to eat:  Three different types of bread, olives, various cheeses, jams, honey, cream, olives, vegetables, and eggs with a spicy type of meat called Soujouk.   The spread of food looked better than you could find at a restaurant.

After breakfast we headed to the tourist district (the golden horn) by subway, followed by a ferry ride across the Bosphorus strait.

What followed was an epic tourist sight-seeing trip:  we saw the spice bazaar, bought a bunch of turkish delight, tried some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, and then toured the grand bazaar and the Hagia Sofia, all before lunch. The size and history of this city is very imposing and a reminder of how complex a place Istanbul is and was, with its more-than-2500 year history.

After that we met up with Umut’s friend, Ahmed.  We went to one of the oldest places that makes Kofte (delicious meatball-type things, served with spicy pickled chiles) in Istanbul.  We tried Ayran for the first time too – an unsweetened, sour-tasting yogurt drink – and surprised our friends by actually enjoying it and drinking it all, in contrast to most western foreigners, apparently.

The next stop for us was the Blue Mosque.  Alexandra had to don a bright pink headscarf, which amused all of us while we waited in the entrance queue for nearly half an hour.  Neither of us had ever been inside of a mosque before, so it was an interesting and also somewhat awe-inspiring experience.

Next we walked up the “hill” to the old imperial palace, called Topkapi.  By this time, we were too foot-sore to do the palace real justice, so we just made a pre-cursory tour of the easy-to-access courtyards and chambers, and skipped the popular areas with long queues to get inside. The best part for Alexandra seemed to be the fat and friendly stray dogs, and beautiful gardens in and around the palace.

We tried to catch a tram to rest a bit on our way to our next destination – a cafe renowned for its baklava – but instead, we ended up walked along side the packed tram, and made much better time.  On our way, we got to try a fish sandwich, which seems to be an Istanbul-classic.  Relaxing and munching on baklava in the rain was pretty amazing (once we won a place to sit!), and because we needed some more relaxation after we were done relaxing, we found a charming coffee cafe, and enjoyed some Turkish coffee.  When the rain let up and our feet were restored to working order, we found a bar and had a few (very expensive) beers.  It was quite the crazy day.  Finally, tired and extremely full we went back to Umut’s for the night.

The next morning, after sleeping in a bit, we drove (because there is supposed to be less traffic on Sundays) up the European side of the Bosphorus to a small wealthy suburb for brunch.  Turkish breakfast is an amazing meal and is not to be missed, and it tastes even better after you are stuck in unexpected traffic for 2 hours, and it’s already almost lunch time.  We ate a lot (again) and then took a lovely sunny walk along the strait.

Later, we drove up into the hills to the nearby, and nearly brand new, Koc University where both Umut and Ahmed.  After a quick tour, we continued north to a very pleasantly unexpected site, right on the shore of the Black Sea.  Here were the ruins of a 400 year old fortress, with no entrance fee, no gates, and no railings.   We clambered around the ruins of this incredible ancient site, but we didn’t go as high as the more daring tourists, who seemed to enjoy risking their necks.

Finally, we then headed back into the city to visit Taksim, which is the biggest shopping street in Istanbul, and is really the heart of downtown. The street is absolutely packed with people even on a quiet Sunday and there are shops selling literally everything you can imagine.  Alexandra found a few small souvenirs and I got to try a real Turkish Durum (picture a Turkish burrito).  We have Durum in Germany also, but in Turkey they are completely different, and way way more delicious.  After a bit more shopping and walking we found a  place to try Meze for dinner, which is a bit like Spanish tapas.  Meze is meant to be eaten as a late snack and with plenty of beer or wine.  Afterwards we went up to the roof of a skyscraper where we could look down on the city and have a quiet drink.  It was the perfect end to a whirlwind trip.

The next morning after another incredible breakfast and a quick flight we were home!   It all happened so fast!  But I think of all the cities we have seen in Europe so far Istanbul made the biggest impression.  It is so foreign and exotic for us – similar to visiting China for the first time.  So busy and loud and full of sights and smells.  Istanbul is a city of 15 million people.  It is enormous in all ways possible.  It is an amazing place with amazing food and you could spend a lifetime there and find something new every day.

If you can go, it is worth braving the crowds of tourist and people to see and taste as much as you possibly can.

Switzerland!

April 9, 2015

Easter weekend in Europe is a much bigger deal than in the U.S.  For starters, Friday and Monday are holidays so no work (yay!).  We decided this gave us the perfect opportunity to go somewhere.  Where though?  Well, we decided without too much thought on Switzerland because plane tickets were really cheap and hey! Switzerland! Chocolate and cheese what could possibly go wrong?  Well, as we quickly found out after doing some research an obnoxiously strong Swiss Franc is what.  Turns out the Franc is an incredibly stable and strong currency currently trading essentially on parity with the U.S. Dollar.  This would be fine, except for reasons I do not fully understand everything in Switzerland costs about twice as much as it should.  So, a simple meal of meat and potatoes and a beer out at a beerhall can easily run you above $30 a person.  A personal sized pizza at most places will cost over $20.  McDonalds meals run between $13 and $17.  Entrance to most museums is around $30.  All this made us think up some very creative ways to spend our time and small budget while we were in Switzerland.

We flew into Zurich late on Thursday night and bought a Zurich Pass which lets you ride all the public transit, including boats and lets you in to some museums for free.  As it turned out we didn’t even make it to any museums as the day was absolutely beautiful.  Since it was a holiday though almost every shop was closed so we spent the day not in town but in the parks around the lake.  We took a boat out to a park then walked around enjoying the wonderful weather and quiet.  For food we stopped at the main train station where there is a grocery store that is open on holidays and got bread and delicious cheese (one of the only really good deals in Switzerland).  Combined with some dried fruit and nuts we had a nice little meal.  This was a typical meal for us the entire trip

After a very nice morning we went back into town and checked out to the university and the view from the grounds.  Then a bit on a spur-of-the-moment decision we hopped on a train to Uetliberg the “Mountain” overlooking Zurich.  This train ran to the top of the mountain where you could then walk up to the top of a tower to see all over Zurich spread below.  It was a wonderful day with perfect weather.

Early Saturday we hopped on a train to Lucerne.  We had found that you could get train tickets on the internet if you booked in advance so this wasn’t very expensive at all.  Unfortunately the good weather didn’t stay with us and all Saturday it rained pretty hard.  We braved the weather to see Lucerne.  The famous wooden bridge over the river, swans everywhere, and a shockingly busy farmers market considering the weather.  We decided to have our one meal out of the trip at a recommended restaurant for raclette.  We ordered an asparagus salad, raclette, and a bottle of water.  This was plenty of food for us both, but not a ridiculous amount and cost about $70.  With the weather continuing to be so lousy we decided to wrap things up early and head to our room for a nice hot bath.

Easter Sunday came with a very overcast but not wet morning and so we made a nice breakfast of eggs, easter bread, tea, and yoghurt.  After breakfast we went into town stopping to stare at the delicious confections on the way.

At the tourist information office we asked about hiking partway up the nearby mountain then taking a gondola.  The kindly lady manning the desk assured us that despite not being able to see the mountains because of the clouds they were very much covered in snow and ice and that unless we had crampons, ice axes and snowshoes hidden under our casual city clothes it probably wasn’t the best day to go hiking up any mountains.  Instead she very nicely gave us a route map for a walk up through the some alpine meadows that were snow free.

This turned out to be absolutely perfect and the walk just got nicer and nicer as the clouds slowly lifted revealing the mountains across the water.

We made it back into town and continued our stroll through town enjoying the sun and beautiful sights.

After a quick rest of our feet we headed back out to see the city wall as the sun was starting to set.

By this point I was getting a bit desperate for some meat so Alexandra suggested we go get a burger at Burger King.  I mean, they used Swiss beef (said so right in the advertisements).  It was bound to be pretty good!  Well, we ordered a double cheeseburger with drink and fries.  It cost $15 and was I swear smaller than one in the U.S. and the fries were like a kids meal portion.  To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.  I am still craving a proper burger after that farce.

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After the burger fail we went back to our hotel and started to think about Monday.  Our flight left at 6pm and the train ride from Lucerne to Zurich only took about 45 minutes.  On a whim we decided to spend about a $100 on train tickets that would let us go to Interlaken and then Bern before returning to Zurich.  Turning our 45 minute trip into nearly 5 hours.  But boy were those 5 hours worth it.  The train between Lucerne and Interlaken was amazingly beautiful with stunning mountain views and blue lakes around every bend.

In Interlaken we took a short walk taking us to the lake and having a quick lunch on a park bench.

From Interlaken the train ran down to Bern where again, being a holiday, everything was closed.  But, the town itself is a wonderful place filled with impressive architecture and a stunning river running through town.

After a few hours it was time to head to Zurich and then home.  All in all we really enjoyed our time in Switzerland though I think it would be much more interesting if you had an unbelievable amount of money to spend on things like $100.  As we did it, mostly enjoying picnic lunches and dinners it was very fun and the generally beautiful spring weather made our many hikes and walks all the more enjoyable.  I’m not sure I will be going back to Switzerland but if you are prepared for the eye-watering prices the stunning scenery is probably worth it.

Bautzen and Görlitz

April 5, 2015

Happy Easter everyone!

We decided to spend the Easter holiday (a 4 day weekend in Germany) in Switzerland.  That post, and those pictures, will come later however.   This post is about last weekend, when we decided to explore our home state of Saxony a little bit more.

I was really craving something Easter-themed.  In my dream world, I was hoping to find a market full of hand made Easter candy and chocolates.  Instead, we found a website online advertising a Sorbian (ethnicity related to Serbian) hand painted easter egg market in the nearby town of Bautzen.  That sounded pretty Easter-y and unique, so we decided to go check it out.

Well, after a 90 minute train ride (punctuated by a bus detour), we arrived in Bautzen to find out (after a long time searching) that the Easter egg market was already over  – it happened a month ago.   Apparently we are not as good as we thought we were at reading dates written european style (i.e., day-month-year).

Anyway, it turns out Bautzen is a lovely little town, and we still had a nice morning walking around, checking out ruins of cathedrals and the old town walls, much of which dates to the 1500’s.    When our feet were too sore to keep walking, we caught a train to the next big town – Görlitz.  Görlitz has the honor of being the eastern-most town in Germany.  After WWII, Poland’s borders shifted westward, eating up part of former eastern Germany.  In the process, Görlitz was split in two along the river, so that half of the city now resides in Poland.  Like Bautzen, Görlitz has a lot of gorgeous old buildings, and we spent the entire afternoon exploring on foot, and resting at cafe’s when we were too tired.