Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Amsterdam: Where a Coffee Shop isn't for a Cup o' Joe

      We decided to leave early from Bruges so that we would arrive in Amsterdam before noon. As fate, and the unreliable nature of the Belgian/Dutch railways, would have it, we ended up getting to Amsterdam 10 minutes after our goal time. Highlights of our trip are: unloading after being told our train was malfunctioning only to realize we had to reboard meanwhile losing our seats and having to sit in the "purgatory" between train cars, getting off our malfunctioning train and going back and forth between train platforms because the ticket supplement system is stupid, and being confused by the Dutch language. On the actual upside, one member of our party was the first to pull out some Belgian beer which prompted the group of young women headed to Amsterdam with music festival gear to pull wine out of various hidden locations in their luggage. We proceeded to have a small, but intimate Purgatory Party at 10:30 am.
     After finally arriving in Amsterdam, we made our way through the tourist filled streets past shops featuring cannabis leaves filled with glass objects of various shapes and sizes, and coffee shops reeking of musky pine occupied by patrons with sleepy red eyes. We made it to our hotel, which also served as a bicycle rental shop, where our host gave us a map of the city and a brief rundown of popular attractions including some restaurant and coffee shop recommendations.
      Dr Husband and I were staying at the grandmother's house which was nearby. We were not expecting what came after we opened the door. I should take this moment to explain that Dutch architecture is famous for being somewhat tall (4-5 stores) and very narrow. In fact, most buildings feature a hook situated on the top of the home so that furniture can be lifted from the outside and placed directly into the living quarters. So when Dr Husband and I opened the door we were very surprised to see just how narrow the stairs were just to get to the first landing and second, interior door.



       "These are not very friendly for someone in an altered state. Let's hope we don't die here, on these stairs." I said, as Dr Husband rang the bell so that we could get our keys. We were given instructions from the grandmother herself, which was mostly pantomime and pointing as neither of us spoke the other's language. Despite the fact our guide had to be north of 80, she climbed the stairs with an enviable ease as Dr Husband and myself struggled with our luggage and fears of falling to our deaths. It turned out that our room was on the very top floor, which allowed us to really experience just how narrow the stairs in Amsterdam could get. The "stairs" grew steeper and narrower until we reached the topmost floor, where they were a glorified ladder. The room itself was very spacious and comfortable, in stark contrast to the deathcase just outside our door. We didn't stay in our hotel too long as we only had a day and a half to explore all Amsterdam had to offer... and by "all Amsterdam had to offer" I pretty much mean food. The food Amsterdam had to offer.
       Our first meal in Amsterdam was at a Vietnamese restaurant where we were able to get Pho, a favorite of Dr Husband and myself and hard to get in Innsbruck, Austria. It's interesting to note that while Belgian restaurants typically have a large selection of beers available, in Amsterdam the options were pretty much Heineken or Hoegaarden. The next morning, we set out for some of the museums in Amsterdam, the Rijks and Van Gogh. Unfortunately, we had not ordered tickets ahead of time and the dreary weather coupled with the steep (to us) prices of ~18€/adult were enough to dissuade us from exploring either. We did walk around the grounds and the flower market, which is also an attraction of Amsterdam, if a somewhat unexciting one.
     The highlight of our only full day in Amsterdam was definitely going to the Indonesian restaurant (which are not very common), Kantjil. Indonesian food is typically served as a variety of small plates (like tapas) and white rice. On your plate, you should place the white rice in the middle then surround your rice with portions of the small plates. This restaurant was so delicious; I still have dreams about the chicken with the peanut sauce.




 Unfortunately for us, the weather was not very cooperative so we did not get as many pictures as I would have liked, but Amsterdam is a really unique and beautiful city with lots of museums and family friendly attractions. It is worth noting that in Amsterdam one must be very vigilant of one's surroundings as the somewhat narrow sidewalks typically become bicycle parking which results in having to walk in the street. This wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the high number of cars, other people, and bicycles which are also on the street. Walking in high tourist locations (which is a lot of the city) can be especially hazardous as many tourists rent bicycles with the intent to sight-see while on them, coupled with the fact that it seemed like most tourists had never driven a bicycle before, created an especially dangerous walking situation. Despite this somewhat minor annoyance, Amsterdam's high on my list of places to visit again.




Thursday, May 5, 2016

Brussels: Peeing Statues, Waffles, and More!




Brussels is famous for many things: it's the capital of Belgium, NATO and EU headquarters, french fries, and Jean Claud van Damme's muscles. It is also home to one of Europe's most beautiful squares. One of the most famous attractions, if not the most famous, is a statue that pees, aptly named Manneken Pis. Foreign leaders and dignitaries bring offerings of costumes for the statue, so it wears something different everyday. Unfortunately for us, we visited Brussels on a day that was barely above freezing and rainy. We saw the Manneken Pis, which was understandably a little underwhelming considering how small it is. We then got waffles and headed toward the Grand Place square which was voted the most beautiful European square in 2010. While the beauty was certainly grand it was difficult for us to appreciate it given how wet and cold we were. We ended up going to the museum on the Grand Place, the Brussels City Museum, in an attempt to get out of the disagreeable weather conditions. Inside the museum was some art, Brussels city histories, and a lot of Manneken Pis costumes from all over the world and different time periods.


After that we hiked up to the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and the Royal Palace. On our way back to the city center we made it into a bizarre alley-way filled with restaurants and over-zealous Maitre d's. It had a very creepy and touristy-trappy vibe to it. We made it out and found a place to get some beers and hang out until dinner time. We met one of Dr. Husband's college friends for dinner at a nice restaurant (La Paon Royal) where I had some lovely beef tartar and red wine. After dinner we grabbed a drink or two and saw St. Catherines Church before our train to Bruges.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Bruges: The Fairytale City of Belgium


Previous to our trip to Bruges, Belgium, the only thing I really knew about the city was that it was the setting for the 2008 "dark comedy" film In Bruges starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, and Flour Delacour which I made the mistake of suggesting when Dr Husband and I wanted to watch something "light and funny." Good movie, but about as far away from being "light" as they come. What made this trip especially... erm.. special is that we would meet up with my beautiful, smart, world-traveling sister, the author of this blog, and do some traveling with her.



We took an early bus from Innsbruck to Munich, and then we took the S train to the Munich Airport which is about 40 minutes away from the main portion of the city. This is very important to keep in mind for travels! After arriving in the Brussels airport, we met up with my sister and made our way to the main train station. Once there we waited for the train to Bruges only for the platform to change 3 minutes before departure! While this would be the first time we ran through a crowded train station with all of our luggage, unfortunately it would not be the last (although the other times happened while we were in the Netherlands).  Luckily, we made the train. Unluckily we had to stand for the first hour (with our heavy luggage), until most of the passengers disembarked in Antwerp.



It was quite late and very dark by the time we arrived in Bruges, but nevertheless the bus ride from the train station to the square close to our Bed & Breakfast was filled with beautiful architecture and excitement over getting to stay in such a lovely town for a few days. We were welcomed into the B&B by Lut, the owner who's family had owned the beautiful townhouse for generations. We were situated on the top floor, and told that there would be breakfast right outside our door the next morning. We went to Delaney's Irish Pub for dinner that night, which was excellent not only for its good prices but also the quality of the food and beer. We tiredly crawled into our extremely comfortable beds and went to sleep, excited to see what the next day would bring.




After breakfast the next morning, we did some sightseeing around Bruges. It is a really beautiful city that looks like it comes out of a fairytale. The highlight of this day was finding a bar, Cafe Vlissinghe, which had been opened for 500 years. We were lucky enough to be there during their 500th anniversary year. The room was warmed by an old stove, possibly original to the building. We enjoyed a few excellent beers and snacks and continued our sightseeing. Later that night we found ourselves at a bar called Le Trappiste where we shared a flight of Belgian beers. Like most Belgian beers, there were very tasty and very high in ABV. Le Trappiste was in the basement of a building and it gave you the impression that you were drinking in the dungeon of a castle. It definitely seemed like a cool and hip place to spend the evening. Since we would only be in that part of Europe for a relatively short time we decided to spend the next day in Brussels, Belgium's capital and location of the EU and NATO.



 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Krampus: Keepin the Kiddies in Line Since Ancient(ish) Times

Ever since Christoph Waltz (the gem of Austria) did an entertaining and extremely funny interview with Jimmy Fallon (seen here), and now that a Krampus movie is about to hit theaters in the States (and elsewhere), a lot of friends and family have some questions about this mythical figure. My first year in Austria, I asked people about Krampus after I started seeing hilarious (in a dark-humor sort of way) chocolates and various other sweets with a "devil" on them. Instead of learning the backstory about this dark figure I learned that it is common for young men to dress like Krampus and beat people on a scale from bruises\welts to brain damage. Since people are not fond of themselves or loved ones becoming irrevocably brain damaged due to intoxicated and anonymous individuals playing dress-up, in most villages people have to register so that they can be reported for too much violence. There are, however, still some smaller villages that have a more "it's traditional to maybe die or become permanently maimed" attitude towards the whole affair so maybe you should ask some locals before strolling around after dark on 12/5.

Here are some real Krampus customes from a town in Tirol. (picture from www.meinbezirk.at)



From what I have gathered about Krampus, he is simply the dark-side to Santa's kindness. Good children get toys, bad children get beaten with a chain/whip and possibly taken away from their homes forever. Very ying and yang and also terrifying. Here is the wiki about him if you are still curious. In recent years Krampus has become much less traditional according to locals that grew up with him, but for a foreigner it certainly highlights some of the differences in our cultures. On a side note, the lyrics to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" take on a sinister tone once you realize Santa Claus'll be bringing his dark buddy with him.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Törggelen! A food and wine fall feast!


 A brief history and background:

Törggelen (pronouced turckle-in) is an autumn tradition in Südtirol (South Tirol, Italy), but also a tradition in (North) Tirol in Austria as well. South Tirol was in Austria until 1919 , this province is 2/3 German speaking but everything is usually bilingual in German and Italian, as such South Tirol and North Tirol share many similar traditions. Törggelen begins in early October and lasting until late November or early December Apparently, after the new wines were 'turned' the winegrowers would walk to the next winegrower to have him taste the young wine (which is why this is more popular in Südtirol as there are hundreds of wineries there, it's slightly warmer and sunnier than on the Northern side of the Alps in Innsbruck). Now, typically small restaurants, huts, guest houses, or farms host groups for the feast traditionally served with red wine, sausage, sauerkraut, and roasted chestnuts.

While our Törggelen experience took place in 2015 the roots of this tradition were still be apparent. Eight of us traveled to Klausen, Südtirol, Italy, a small town of 5,000 in order to have a better and more authentic Törggelen experience, than what would be available in Innsbruck (which would be great, I'm sure, but a little more touristy and expensive I think). The extra travel (about 80 minute drive) proved to be worth while as our experience was one we'll always remember. Additionally, the drive through to Alps to Italy was filled with spectacular vistas.

Our restaurant (Hienghof) was step atop a hill with a vineyard, which can only be reached by a narrow and windy road, featured a homey and comfortable aesthetic and familial atmosphere.  As soon as we were seated and comfortable we were offered red wine, water (still or sparkling), and apple juice. Our table took the lot and soon after our beverages arrived we were brought home-made bread. We were then asked about appetizers and had a choice of three, two soups (Gerstlesuppe and
Sauersuppe) and a pasta (Schlutzkrapfen).

 I took the Schlutzkrapfen and Dr Husband took the Gerstlesuppe. Both were good but I preferred my pasta. We drank wine from blue mugs (Krüge) and before we knew it our main course arrived. The main course consisted of sauerkraut, pork ribs, pork sausage, and blood sausage. It was served in a large iron tray. We stuffed ourselves with food and wine and Kahlua helped clean up anything which fell to the floor. After the meal (and seconds) we were given options of schnapps to try to go along with the Marillenkrapfen (it was a long fried dough filled with apricot jam, the other version is very much like a donut). I had a dark-nut schnapps and another with an orange color while Dr Husband took the blackberry schnapps. The schnapps are considered a digestive to help with heavy meals. I am not sure if that is how it works, but you certainly feel better after one or two ;)

Overall it was a very special experience and we are looking forward to trying it again. Especially because we were too early for roasted chestnuts!


Fuji Sushi in Innsbruck is Awesome!




I try not to get cravings for things not from here because it will ultimately end in at least a little disappointment (even our burri-feaux are just "pretty good"). This weekend I was feeling indulgent and a little sad Halloween isn't really celebrated here despite there being a growing number of trick or treaters and Halloween decor in stores. I wanted something I hadn't had in a very long time, something foreign, like me living in this Halloween-less land... I wanted sushi.

I'd been met with "ok" sushi in Innsbruck and Vienna before, so I kept my expectations in check when Dr Husband found a restaurant by Googling "am besten sushi in Innsbruck." We walked over a mile to a very small and modest restaurant situated in the same complex as a police station. The sign out front was partially erased and listed an "all you can eat" menu as well as some sushi specials. With some skepticism, we walked inside.

The first thing I noticed was the conveyor belt full of different foods in the center of the small room. There were a fair number of patrons, always a good sign, but the different conversations and constantly moving food were definitely overwhelming.  We were seated in front of the belt and asked what we wanted to drink. Dr Husband asked for a menu, which was very helpful as it bought us some time to get our bearings. It turned out that the conveyor belt of food was all you can eat, for a very reasonable price. We decided to go for it, and ordered teas to drink.

The food was awesome and surprisingly varied. I had different types of maki and nigiri sushi, fried chicken, fried rice, stir-fried chicken and veggies in sauce, and a ginger-based salad. Additionally, I tried Dr Husband's stir-fried beef and veggies in a sauce. He also had a friend corn dumpling which he said was good, but I did not try. We were so pleasantly surprised by the food and value that we were already talking about how we couldn't wait to go back again. The staff was all very nice, and the value to food quality made us very happy overall.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Padua - Land of Old Cathedrals





The morning after our Opera experience was late and leisurely since we did not get home until after 12:30. The hotel we were staying in (Hotel Verona) is much more luxurious than our usual accommodations. It had a separate kitchen / small living room area in addition to the bedroom and bathroom. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed to procure some sustenance, we stopped by Pizzeria Doga, a small pizza stand for lunch. We both got Panzerotti, a small calzone-like creation, while definitely not healthy, was delicious and restorative. I had the spinach and Dr Husband the pepperoni it was exactly what we needed to fuel our trip to Padua.

Luckily we had assigned seats on the train as it was quite full. We arrived in Padua an hour later excited to see what the "oldest" city in Northern Italy looks like. Turns out the area next to the train station is quite modern and not very remarkable. Boldly we purchased tickets for the streetcar and attempted to navigate the new town to find out hotel. This didn't go quite as smoothly as planned, partly because we got off the streetcar two stops too early, and partially because our hotel is not close to a main street. Nevertheless, we were able to find it and get checked in.


Unfortunately for us, and Hundie, our new hotel room was maybe half the size of the one we stayed in the night before. It was difficult to walk around the room because the bed took up most if it, and it was not even a queen size bed. With us, the dog, and the suitcase, it definitely felt pretty cramped. Nevertheless, the we were determined to explore Padua, home to the second-oldest University. That first day / evening there we explored the two main piazzas in the city center, one of which is boarded by the Palazzo della Ragione, 800 years old!


We were able to get cheap drinks at various locations which helped to lucubrate our exploration. Time got away from us however, and we soon realized most restaurants were either full or they were closing. Luckily, there was a very nice restaurant (Trattoria Al Prato) that was still seating people and we were fortunate enough to get a a delicious meal there. We got two antipastas (beef tartar and prosuito) and two prime piattas (tagalioni and ravoli) and split a bottle of Merlot (it's okay, even the Italians drink French wine). It felt relaxing and romantic and Dr Husband got the benefit of the view of the Prato della Vella. We were happy to be on their covered patio as it had begun to rain. There was no English menu and our server didn't speak any English but as would learn pointing is a very effective means of communication.  After dinner we returned to our shoebox so that we might rest for our trip to Venice the next day.



The next day we journeyed to Venice (see here) but returned by the evening where we turned in early because exploring Venice is exhausting. The next morning we slept in and decided we'd rather spend a day leisurely sightseeing in Padua than returning to Venice. We got two croissants and cappuccinos at a nearby cafe where we took bar service so that we didn't have to pay a table fee. I would describe ordering breakfast at an Italian cafe for bar service as orderly chaos. There must have been some sort of system in place but I could not understand it. Luckily, Dr. Husband was not a novice to the cafe ordering system so he seemed to know what to do. Then we took turns going into the Abbey of Saint Giustina since dogs and "scantily" clad women were not allowed. Dr. Husband claims he saw a women get yelled at because you could see her shoulders. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but I wouldn't be surprised. This abbey is massive. If the goal was to intimidate and force the perspective that you were small then the goal was achieved. Additionally, there is a small basilica attached on the side with lovely paint and stonework.





While the abbey was colossal and awe inspiring, the grandeur of the Basilica of Saint Anthony cannot be understated. There was a long line of catholic pilgrims there to pay homage to Saint Anthony whose remains?? are in the attached Chapel of Saint Anthony. There is a saying - if you've seen one cathedral in Europe you've seen them all, This is absolutely not true for the Basilica of Saint Anthony. The Byzantine/Islamic style of the interior domes which were painted dark blue with gold stars was so captivating for me that I stood there looking up for an indeterminate amount of time.





After exiting Dr Husband, Hundie, and I went to a nearby cafe to have second cappuccinos and a famous canoli (not technically a desert from Veneto, but I digress). Feeling better with more sugar and caffeine we went again to the city center. There we walked around while I delved deeper into my new found admiration of campari spritz and Dr. Husband tried some of the Italian craft beer. When it was time another meal we headed to the fish market street stand a few feet away where Dr. Husband picked out some seafood similar to the cicchetti we had in Venice with the exception of the the two people speaking zero English. The fresh fried calamari and scrimp scampi were delicious.




Next we went to the Padua Cathedral. As Dr. Husband would say it was the least inspiring but still impressive of the three cathedrals located in Padua. A block away was a more college-aged bar where the weekend of campari spritz continued, but this time with a side of sandwiches. Earlier we had stopped by a local craft beer store which came in handy for enjoying the Prato della Vella in the twilight - a common and traditional practice for students and others in Padua.

Overall it was a delightful and pleasant day in northern Italy's oldest city. It was the cherry on the cake of a lovely vacation in the Veneto province.