The Hidden Streets of Barcelona

In Barcelona, I ate paella! I have long been wanting to make paella at home, but the challenge seems too difficult to overcome just yet. And I’m sure eating it in Spain is so much better. My husband and I became huge fans of Spanish food and tapas were a great way to try everything. We sipped sangria and fell in love with the croquettes. We never had a hard time finding good food in Barcelona and the atmosphere made eating it even better.

Barcelona is confidently one of Europe’s coolest city’s. It’s always on the cutting edge of art, design, architecture and food. The big city vibe combined with old Spanish charm make it easy to fall in love with. No wonder people decide to study abroad here! The dark, tiny streets are hidden like secrets which make them so magical and romantic. The people are so full of life and the air must have something in it that makes everybody happy. Barcelona air has endorphins. It must.

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I felt useless with the two years of High School Spanish under my belt. Not only because I forgot almost everything other than, “hola” and “gracias”, but also because Barcelona natives speak Catalan. Sure, they speak Spanish as well, and many of them speak English too, but Catalan is their dominant language. I never quite understood the story behind Catalonia and Spain, but I got a taste while I was there. Catalonia (Barcelona) is actually struggling to become their own government. They have no Spanish pride and would like to eventually become their own country. In fact, in just a few months they will be meeting with the new King of Spain (residing in Madrid) to discuss the possibilities of this happening sooner rather than later. It will be interesting to see what happens. It’s funny to me because I never removed Barcelona from Spain, I always thought it to be proudly part of the beautiful country, but I was wrong. We learned much of this while watching the Spain vs. Netherlands World Cup game at a crowded outdoor bar. Mike and I were excited to be there to watch the Spain fans go wild at the television screen, however, the crowd went wild in happiness when The Netherlands scored a goal. They were actually rooting against their own country! All in all, Catalonia (Barcelona) does not want to be a part Spain, they would ideally like to be their own country.

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We arrived by plane early Wednesday afternoon. It was our first flight of the trip and all went smoothly! We did not take advantage of the super cheap flights on Ryanair as they were unavailable, but we did find good rates on another airline. The reason we flew was because the travel time from the South of France to Spain would have taken an entire day. And we didn’t want to waste any time. Like France, Spain’s main means of transportation were on strike. Meaning no trains and no taxi-cabs were running. So we had to take the city bus from the airport to the hotel, not the most comfortable option, but I am quickly becoming less snobby about public transportation, so it didn’t bother me. We stayed at a really gorgeous boutique hotel called Hotel 1898  that sat right along the La Rambla, which is Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. Our room was rather noisy as the windows looked right out onto the vibrant streets (Barcelona is one big non stop party, so it never quieted down), but the overall location, beautiful rooms and atmosphere made it perfect for us. Another perk being the rooftop pool and bar which offered stunning views of the city and made our stay even more enjoyable!

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We had so much fun strolling through the La Rambla boulevard, stopping at flower vendors and unique shops that lined the car-less row all the way down to the water where it ended. On either side of the boulevard were the small, dark, tiny streets  that I found so magically romantic. These were the most fun to explore. We must have walked a hundred streets while we were there and it never got old. We’d look for tiny restaurants, cafés and bars to grab food and drinks in, and we happened to stumble upon some really cute places!

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Our first day consisted of exploring the tiny streets followed by a rather unimpressive dinner. Our hotel concierge recommended a restaurant close to the hotel called Restaurant En Ville, and since we were both so tired from traveling, we decided to trust him. Important note: Whenever the hotel concierge pulls out a business card of the restaurant he/she is recommending, never go. This is not a good sign. It’s unfortunate because we knew better, but again, we were so tired that we decided to trust him. Terrible decision. Anyways, we ate really bad seafood, a mediocre bottle of wine and then bolted to a colorful bar down the road where we enjoyed tapas accompanied by a pitcher of sangria! It wasn’t the worst way to end a bad dinner and tiring day!

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Thursday morning we set out to explore even more of the city, making a pit stop at Gaudi’s famous designed building, Casa Batllo. I fell in love with all things Gaudi while I was in Barcelona. Sure, I’ve learned about him, read about him and knew how significant his innovative designs and architecture was, but I never truly appreciated the genius that he was. Blown away by the building’s movement and curvature, I was so excited to see the La Segrada Familia, which we had purchased tickets in advance for (very smart thing to do) on Friday.

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After hours of walking, we decided to eat lunch at the big local market right along the La Rambla. I love local markets more than anything, so I was really excited to spend some time there! The extremely colorful Mercat de la Boqueria had an extremely inviting entrance and an even more intriguing inside. With tons of fresh stands and a number of bars and cafés to choose from in and around the establishment, our options were endless. We ate some really good seafood and delicious tapas, had some local wine, and then ended our afternoon with fresh fruit juices!

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That night we dined at a well known restaurant called Ciudad Condal. Famous for fresh tapas and delicious sangria, the place is always packed. With a strict no reservation policy, the wait can usually be very long, but we got lucky with a table by the bar. We shared way too many plates and sipped some really good sangria. The fun atmosphere was absolutely better than the food, the portions were very large and the dishes were just okay. We had so much fun dining there though that it was worth it! After dinner we stopped at a sports bar to watch one of the World Cup games. It was the first night of the World Cup, so if you can imagine, the bar was packed with people in great spirits! Which made it really fun!

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We had purchased tickets in advance to go see Gaudi’s La Segrada Familia for Friday at noon. I was so excited. I’ve heard such amazing things about the masterpiece, but seeing it in person blew me away. The line to get inside the temple wrapped around for blocks, but with our passes we had purchased online we didn’t have to wait at all! As soon as we stepped up to the entrance, our jaws went limp. We were speechless and awestruck with many different feelings. It was a moment of wow. Hands down the coolest architecture and design I have ever seen, words can’t even begin describe its beauty. Barcelona’s most famous attraction and for good reason began its construction in 1882. Still not complete, they are hoping for it to be finished by year 2026. At which time I would love to go back and see it completely finished! Cranes and scaffolding obscured many of our views, but so much of it was visible and what I could see I loved. We took an elevator up to the top of one of the towers which lead to the most stunning views of the city. We also walked through the small museum explaining much of Gaudi’s progress in the works of the temple and his life. It was just the coolest church ever.

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We were in such good spirits after having such an eventful morning at the church, we had a really fun lunch filled with tapas and beers at a cute spot called Set de Gotic followed by a relaxing afternoon at our hotel’s rooftop pool. We drank sangria over a competitive card game and soaked up some vitamin D. For dinner that night we ate at a fun restaurant in a tiny plaza right below our hotel called Bar Lobo. The tapas were amazing and the atmosphere was great! We loved it there! Just outside the plaza was an outdoor bar with a huge flat screen TV. We grabbed seats and beers and watched Spain play The Netherlands in the World Cup game. This was the night my husband and I got a true taste of the Barcelona sports fan. The crowd screamed negativity toward Spain and cheered on The Netherlands. It was so bizarre. Still really fun though!

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Saturday was our final night in Barcelona. We started the day by taking a walk by the water, exploring the coast and gazing at the hundreds of sail boats.

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We then proceeded to walk to the coolest restaurant ever, Cal Pep. The restaurant seats roughly 20 people and is open weekdays and on Saturdays from 1:15pm-3:45pm and there are no reservations. A line of prospective customers stands outside the door typically an hour before opening… that’s how desirable this place is. It’s a spot where locals go to gossip and eat spectacular food. How did we hear about it you might ask? My mother-in-law and sister-in-law dined here during their trip to Barcelona a few years back and still swear it is one of the best meals they have ever had. So Mike and I got to the restaurant around 12:45 and waited in line. As soon as the doors opened, a nice man sat each diner along the bar where you get to watch the chefs cook. Mike and I were the last two people who made it in the restaurant, being seated at the very end of the bar. We were all smiles and high-fives as we had just made the cut to eat at the coolest place ever!! The people behind us who didn’t make the cut just stood outside and waited. Brutal. No menus were provided, the chef just started bringing us food, it was amazing. We ate the best fried octopus I’ve ever had, delicious mussels, potato omelets (also known as a tortilla here in Spain) and so much more. We shared a bottle of wine and had a rather expensive, but perfect lunch. Cal Pep was one of my favorite experiences of Barcelona and one of the best meals I have ever had. I am so excited because each customer receives a recipe card for the potato omelet! I am going to attempt to make it for my husband as soon as we get back from our trip 🙂

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That afternoon we visited the Picasso Museum, home to over 3,000 Picasso pieces. We love museums and we love art, but we were actually rather disappointed by this museum. Sure, it was cool seeing doodles Picasso drew when he was just 14 years old, these doodles were amazing, don’t get me wrong, but the museum did not house any of his well known masterpieces. It was kind of just a hodgepodge of works that they stumbled upon from his childhood one day. My favorite series of work in the museum were that of his Pigeon paintings. I despise pigeons more than anyone in the world, they are useless creatures who are literally good for nothing, but he portrayed the pieces really beautifully, actually!

Barcelona’s Gothic Cathedral was next on our list of things to see. It was built in the 11th century and was so dark and bold. The chandeliers were my favorite. This church was a lot more dramatically gothic than any other church I have seen and I really loved it. I was happy we made the trip to see it.

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Before dinner that night, my husband and I took a walk down to the Plaza Espanya metro stop to see the fountain show, which happens every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night starting at 5pm until 10pm. My friend Abbé studied abroad in Barcelona and is in love with the city! She had some great suggestions of things to do and this was one of them! After our romantic water escapade, we dined over paella at a very authentic Catalan restaurant. I’m not the biggest fan of cutting open and de-shelling my own prawns, but it was worth it.

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I learned so much during my time in Barcelona and I have a list of tapas to add to my cooking to-do list! I’m so excited to take what I have captured here back home with me and infuse it into my everyday life. No, my paella will never taste as good as that from a traditional Catalan restaurant, but I sure as heck can try! And my prawns will be de-shelled, so there. 🙂 Sunday morning we board the fast train to Sevilla! Stay tuned for authentic tales on old Spanish charm. Until then, adios!

Feeling Fancy in The French Riviera

In the French Riviera, I ate crepes! We didn’t get a chance to eat them while we were in Paris, so I took full advantage of the fact that we were still in France and the crepe situation was still abundant. Who doesn’t love a good crepe?!

We bounced around the South of France for six nights and it was glorious. Stopping in Nice for one night, Monaco for two and Cannes for three. I was under the impression that all three cities would be very similar as they all sit right along the coast of the Riviera, I was wrong. Each city had a completely different vibe and the way that we planned our visits couldn’t have been more perfect.

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With glittering seas and ideal beaches, the French Riviera is the perfect tropical getaway. It’s the Caribbean of the European jet set, and oh how I would love to make it my annual spring break destination. There is nowhere more glamorous than Monte Carlo or Cannes and I never wanted to leave!!

Nice

We arrived in Nice by train from Geneva early Thursday afternoon. Nice was my least favorite of the three cities we visited on the coast, so I was happy with our decision to only stay for one night. We last minute booked a room at a small boutique hotel called Hotel Excelsior. It was really cute and only blocks away from the sea, which was a huge perk! Once we walked to the beach, the views of the sea were beautiful. Deep blue waters with accents of teal sparkled along a rocky beach while a picturesque hill crowded with tiny square homes made for a screensaver setting. It was charmingly European, but the city itself was quite dirty.

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Walking along the Promenade des Anglais, which is Nice’s beautiful palm-lined seafront, was the first thing we did when we arrived. Not as romantic as I had imagined it would be as rocks kept getting stuck in my shoes causing my mood to alter. So we decided to take a stroll into the old town where rocks were less likely to make me crabby. Nice is known for good living and rich history. It is filled with young French people who live there to take in the exceptional art scene, Mediterranean food and lower prices (lower than any of the other cities along the coast on the Riviera).

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Old town was sweet. A large square surrounded by Palm trees sat in the center with a huge fountain where tourists took pictures and locals ate gelato. Scattered throughout the square were these long funny looking poles with what looked to be figurines of humans meditating illuminated by neon lights. It was rather bizarre, but made for something intriguing to observe! Just beyond the square, tiny cobbled streets dispersed filled with hundreds of Mediterranean restaurants. We ended up having dinner outside under the stars at a tiny spot where we ate local fare. We were serenaded by who seemed to be a 17 year old boy genuinely singing old school Destiny’s Child songs accompanied by his acoustic guitar. It was quite an interesting event, but I would never complain over a Destiny’s Child song lineup being played in the background of my dinner, of course!

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Monaco

Friday morning we eagerly woke up to catch the slow regional train to Monte Carlo, Monaco – the world’s second smallest country (Vatican city being the smallest!). Lifestyles of the rich and famous perfectly describe this luxurious yacht town. Being a top destination for high rolling gamblers, celebrities and the super wealthy, it has been on my bucket list for years to see exactly what it’s all about. Known for its sparkling harbor, outrageous yachts, high-end shopping, fancy streets and ritzy casinos, there is no doubt that the prices might make your stomach sink. Being as unreachably expensive as it is, many people take day trips from Nice as it is only an hour train ride away. We stayed two nights on the beach at the Le Meridian Hotel – which had an amazing pool, private beach, and was only a minutes walk from the main part of the city.

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The hotel thought it was our honeymoon (ah the perks of being young newly weds on vacation!), so we got upgraded to a huge room on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the Sea. We had been debating whether or not we wanted to stay right in town at the infamous Hotel de Paris or stay on the beach… and this upgrade confirmed that we indeed did make the right decision! This European adventure has been amazing, but exhausting at times. We are always on the go, running from museums to sights to restaurants to attractions…. so we were extremely looking forward to doing basically nothing but cocktail by the water during our stay.

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We wanted to get exploring the town out of the way so that we could spend the rest of our time relaxing. So that was the first thing we did! Walking through the fancy streets, shopping the extremely high-end retail and eating lunch near the famous casino. The town is funny… Other than the casino and harbor where ginormous yachts crowd the water, there is not much else to Monte Carlo! The restaurant situation is far and few and the shops are scattered and not easily accessibly located. It was still fun to see the main square, harbor, park, and shop through the streets, but there wasn’t much going on. In a strange way, it kind of reminded me of the ritzy part of Beverly Hills.

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Our first night, we ate dinner on the beach at a small restaurant we stumbled upon while walking along the water. We ate seafood and watched the sunset, it was nothing fancy, but so beautiful!

Our entire Saturday was spent by the water, alternating from beach to pool. The pool at our hotel was really nice and the beach bar was even better. Tropical cocktails flowed over competitive card games (I’m better than my husband at gin, but he’s too embarrassed to admit that!). Other than soaking up the sun and staring at a sparkly hombrė teal to navy Sea, there’s not much else to say! It was perfect. We ate lunch at one of the outdoor bistros at the hotel and then dined at the other outdoor restaurant for dinner that night. We literally did not leave the hotel for one minute and it was heaven!

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A firework show ended our evening 🙂 Monte Carlo was great.

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Cannes

Sunday morning we boarded the slow regional train to Cannes – home of the Cannes Film Festival and celebrity sightings. Cannes was my favorite of the three stops we made in the French Riviera, and no… I didn’t even run into any movie stars! Lush palm trees, beautiful people, sexy beaches and a seafront town to die for make up this ritzy region.

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We stayed at the most beautiful Design Hotel called Five Sea Hotels. With a rooftop pool, exceptional spa, patisserie/cafe and wonderful food, we couldn’t go wrong. The restaurant scene was amazing and the shopping was perfect! With hardly any cars driving on the narrow side streets, we walked a ton and found some really cool spots.

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One of my favorite dinners of our whole trip was eaten our first night there at a place called Restaurant La Brouette De Grand Mere. It was a French brasserie with no menus and a set price. Here’s how it worked: we sat down and they just started bringing food accompanied by a glass of cava (champagne) to our table. Starters included fois gras, salad, cheese and meats galore! They then asked us, “white, red or rosė” – these were the wine options. Once we were set up at a table filled with delicious starters and a bottle of French wine, they greeted us yet again with five different entree choices. I’m not done yet. Before our entree came out, they gave us the freshest salmon carpaccio accompanied by an ice cold shot of vodka. Which my husband and I found quite humorous. And then after the entree came desert! And our bellies were filled with all things wonderful. I love dining experiences like that. It was such a fun night!

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Much of Monday was spent roaming the streets if Cannes, which are so cute. High-end designers neighbor small boutiques while fancy restaurants neighbor burger joints. It’s the perfect mix of everything! We walked along the harbor, staring at all the sail boats anchored on top of one another and found an old street that lead up a steep hill where a beautiful castle sits.

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Later that afternoon, we reserved two lounge chairs on the beach through our hotel. We had the option of laying on chairs in the sand directly in front of the water or laying in chairs up on a pier. Sand is not my husbands favorite thing, so we laid in the sun on the pier overlooking the ocean, boat drinks in hand 🙂

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We had our hotel make us dinner reservations at this swanky French restaurant called L’Affable. It was more upscale than our meal the night before, so I dressed myself up with some coral lipstick and one (one of the two) of the dresses I brought. A great wine list and huge window from the kitchen into the dining room so that guests can watch the chefs cook called for a really fun night.

We spent our entire Tuesday lounging by the rooftop pool at our hotel. It was so nice. The infinity pool looked out over the whole city with a sliver view of the ocean. So if you can imagine, it was a fabulous day. We ate lunch by the pool, fought off aggressive seagulls and just relaxed. We ended the afternoon with a couples massage at the spa followed by a bottle of wine, burgers and a Mad Men marathon. Now that is my kind of day!

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Early Wednesday morning we ran (like chickens) to the train station where we were planning on boarding the regional line from Cannes to the Nice airport to catch our flight to Barcelona. Little did we know, all the trains were on strike. So literally nothing was running. We hated the thought, but figured we had to bite the bullet and take a very expensive cab ride to the Nice airport. Again, little did we know all the cab drivers were on strike too! In a serious panic, we contemplated renting a car… just to get us to the Nice airport (a little over an hours drive from Cannes). We ran back to the hotel (like chickens) and our very kind concierge informed us that there was a bus leaving in four minutes heading to the Nice airport. So for the third time that brisk Wednesday morning, we ran (like chickens) to the bus stop a couple blocks away and paid €40 for a ride to the airport.

A series of unfortunate events lead to a smooth plane ride from the South of France and into the heat of Barcelona (where, just our luck, there was another strike). Tales on tapas, sangria and Spanish rice coming soon! Until then, safe travels!

Paris is Always a Good Idea

In Paris, I ate escargot. And a ton of macaroons… My favorite! The food was heavy and the pastries were perfect. The French wine was amazing and the creme brûlée to die for. Needless to say, we loved Paris! Everything about it.

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The city of lights never ceases to amaze me. My husband and I spent a few nights in Paris five years ago and have been dying to go back (a few nights in Paris is never enough). We had a list of things we were unable to do the last time we were there due to timing (and jet lag) that we were really looking forward to doing this time around. There were also things that we did the last time that we felt unnecessary to do again. For example: The Louvre. You have to go to the Louvre when you’re in Paris – you can’t leave the city without seeing the Mona Lisa, of course! But we spent countless hours at the Louvre a few years ago, so we didn’t feel it necessary to wait in line and do it again. Another example being Versailles. Amazing, but, been there done that. We did, however, check a few things off our “Paris Bucket-list” that have been some of my favorite memories thus far!

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We arrived by a super fast train from Brussels early Tuesday afternoon. We didn’t have the best of luck booking our hotel room last minute as we were completely unaware that the French Open (a huge tennis tournament) was taking place the same weekend we were there. Five years ago we stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel called Hotel Lancaster that we were planning on booking again. However, due to the masses of people visiting for the Open, the hotel had no availability. We searched and searched and ended up staying at The Westin right next to the Tuileries Garden. It was beautiful, but very large and corporate, which isn’t my favorite. We did have stunning views of the Garden and the Eiffel Tower though! And got to build up some of our SPG points, which is always nice! There’s nothing more romantic than the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night.

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Thursday afternoon my husband took me on a walking tour that lasted entirely too long. He loves taking me on walking tours and I do like it! I figure, the more walking, the better shape I will be in when I return home. And the less my sisters will make fun of me for gaining so much pasta weight 🙂 Mike and I both forgot just how large the city of Paris actually was. When we were there five years ago, it didn’t seem so big. Maybe it was from all the excitement of being on our first European vacation together, or maybe it was the extreme jet lag and multiple bottles of wine we drank, but we didn’t remember walking this much! Regardless, we had a great day waltzing the city together. Getting lost on side streets and in tiny neighborhoods never gets old to me. I think the best way to get to know a city and its culture is to try and walk as much of it as you can! Which is why comfortable shoes are very, very important.

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That afternoon, my husband got a professional shave at a local barber down the street from our hotel. It was not easy finding a place with availability, we must have called 20 different barber shops. It must be a really popular thing.. to get professional shaves in Paris! I had to mention this because most of you (friends and family) have been concerned about the length of Mike’s beard. It was concerning to me as well. And after I refused to kiss him until he did something about it, he bit the bullet and cleaned up.

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That night, we ate dinner at a tiny French bistro our hotel had recommended. The concierges at The Westin hotel were not the greatest, we had a hard time comprehending some of their suggestions, but we were so exhausted from traveling that morning and walking all day, we wanted to stay close… so we took their suggestion and ran with it. The restaurant was called L’ Ardoise and it offered a three course tasting menu. It was actually really good! But it didn’t have the authentic Parisian vibe we were looking for and was pretty ordinary. The next three nights we did our own research and planned our own dinners which were much better!

Friday morning we started our day by visiting Notre Dame – the well known cathedral that sits at the true heart of Paris. This was our second time there, but we had to see it again as it’s just so beautiful! The square in front of the French Gothic masterpiece actually marks the center of the city. There is a symbol in the middle of the square (image below) that shows exactly where it is. Norte Dame is the most visited site in all of Paris, so there were a ton of people crowding around and a very long line to get inside. Typically, the line is only long to walk the 422 spiraling steps up to the top of the tower, but both the tower line and the line to get inside the cathedral were massive. So we skipped going inside as we did it a few years back. If you have never been to Paris though, I’d suggest going late in the afternoon before it closes as that’s usually when the lines die down. You can’t miss the stunning stained glass rose windows and towers. Unfortunately, there is no real hunchback of Notre Dame. But if you walk the hundreds of steps, you can see the huge ‘Emmanuel’ bell and the amazing Panoramic views of the city.

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Side note: the best views of the outside of Notre Dame are down along the river where you’ll spot some restaurants on boats. Don’t eat at these restaurants, but walk down the steps to get the best views!

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After visiting Notre Dame, we stopped by the Deportation Memorial – which was directly behind the cathedral and was really cool. It was an entire memorial dedicated to the 200,000 French victims of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. If you’re already in the area after visiting Notre Dame, I highly suggest going here. There is no line and it is really cool to see.

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Important note: the locks that are clustered on the bridge behind Notre Dame and next to the Deportation Memorial are not the infamous “love locks”. These are locks dedicated to remembering loved ones who have past away. The “love locks” bridge is closer to the Louvre entrance. This is important to know as you don’t want to be caught smooching your boo and locking a master lock with hearts drawn in permanent marker on the wrong bridge. That would be both disrespectful and embarrassing. 🙂

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After visiting the Deportation Memorial, we crossed the bridge to the residential island known as Ile St-Louis. This is a great place to stop and have lunch! It’s a ritzy little neighborhood (that is very expensive and exclusive to live in) that houses just enough boutiques, restaurants and amazing ice cream shops to lure you in!

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With food in our bellies and rested feet, we headed to the most beautiful chapel I have ever seen. It’s called Ste-Chapelle and the hour long wait was so worth it. Never have I seen stained glass so intricate and beautiful before. This was on our “Paris Bucket-list” that we didn’t have time for the last time we visited. It is Paris’ most exquisite Gothic monument and is literally tucked away within the Law Courts. Which is what causes the long lines as you have to go through security to enter. Buying tickets in advance won’t get you inside any quicker either. We went late in the afternoon and waiting an hour wasn’t nearly as bad as going earlier in the midst of school groups and masses of tourists. The chapel was constructed in the 1200’s making its history and beauty jaw dropping. Make sure you go on a sunny day, it makes the colors illuminate even more beautifully in the room!

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We then walked around the Left Bank and had fun stopping at all the tiny painter’s tents and shops that line the waters. The Left Bank is so beautiful and gives you the real “Paris” feel. This is where we bought our lock to secure on the “love locks” bridge! We walked along the water of the Left Bank toward the Right Bank to the bridge that brings you to the entrance of the Louvre. This is where the true “love locks” live. And this is where you can write your love note in permanent marker on a lock to secure on the bridge, if so inclined to do so. We made sure we wrote our names, plus our dog, Calvin’s name on the lock, secured it, took some photos, and moved on.

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We hung out in the fashionable Luxembourg and Tuileries Gardens, people-watched, took some photos in front of the Louvre and strolled along the tree-lined paths. If it is beautiful out, this is the perfect place to people-watch. There are a ton of chairs to sit back and lounge on in front of the beautiful fountain and florals from the garden. Tired from our jam packed day, we headed back to the hotel where we could relax a bit and get ready for dinner.

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That night, we dined at a not-so-fancy French bistro – Brasserie Relais Madeleine. The reason behind going there was that it was the first place we dined at in Paris five years ago. Other than its sentimental value to the two of us, there’s really nothing special about it. But it is actually a really fun place with a true Parisian vibe and reasonably priced casual French food. If you don’t feel like spending a ton of money or dressing up, it’s the perfect place to wear jeans, read the menu written on the mirrors and feel like a local.

Saturday was one of my all time favorite days. We woke up extra early and took the regional train to a town on the countryside of Paris called Giverny. From the small train station there, we hopped a shuttle bus to the most beautiful place I have ever been – Monet’s Garden. Stepping foot onto the property where Claude Monet lived for the last 43 years of his life was a dream. My favorite painter’s pastel pink house and famous gardens are heaven for any impressionism lover. The lily pond and Japanese bridges where so many of Monet’s masterpieces were painted was absolutely exquisite, I never wanted to leave. The beauty is so hard to explain through a blog post, you have to go there to experience it. It’s surreal. The best way for me to describe it is… I think this is what heaven looks like. It seems like it would be such a task trying to get there, but any hotel concierge or guide book can tell you how. It’s really not that hard and is so worth it! My husband went as a child, so it was his second time experiencing it. His family hired a private driver to take them to the garden from Paris, so that is always an option too if you don’t feel like dealing with the hustle and bustle of public transportation!

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We took the shuttle and the train back to the city of Paris, where we ventured to the 16th arrondissement to the Musee Marmottan, where a Monet exhibit was taking place. We bought tickets in advance while we were at the Garden that morning and were so thankful. The line was wrapped so long it would have taken us hours to get in if we hadn’t purchased our tickets in advance. Having our tickets in hand got us in right away. The exhibit was exceptional. It was like a full day of Monet and I loved it!

After our beautiful morning and afternoon of Monet, we ventured to a part of Paris we had never been to before – Montmartre. Montmartre is an artsy/bohemian neighborhood that attracts a ton of local writers and artists – it is actually where Picasso lived during the early 1900’s! It was a really cool and vibrant neighborhood. Tents filled with painter’s and caricaturists lined the main square while whimsical colorful restaurants clustered every inch of every street and corner. We had made dinner reservations in advance at one of the coolest little spots called Coq Rico. Specializing in rotisserie chickens. I highly, highly recommended taking a walk through the Montmartre neighborhood and then dining here. But if you do not like chicken, don’t go. Order the whole rotisserie chicken with french fries and steamed vegetables paired with a nice French wine and you are in for a delicious dinner for 2 (or 3 or 4 as the whole chicken is so big!)!

Before we sat down for dinner, we spent some time on the steps of the Basilica De Sacre’ Coeur – which is a beaming white domed church that sits right at the top of the hill in the Montmartre area. It’s a beautiful old church that opened in the early 1800’s and since then 800,000 people have been buried there. Very well known people such as Chopin, Proust, Pissarro, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. The neo-Gothic tombstones are really cool and the church is gorgeous. In front of the church are steps that offer phenomenal panoramic views of the city. Amongst these steps lay people hanging out, drinking beer and listening to live entertainment from local musicians. So Mike and I, trying to be one with the locals, grabbed a beer, sat on the steps, and listened to music before rushing to our dinner reservation. It was really fun!

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After dinner, we took a walk a few blocks south of Montmartre to the very lively Pigalle area. Also known as the neon-lit Red Light district. But also home to the infamous Moulin Rouge. I had to see the Moulin Rouge in person (it is one of my favorite movies!), so we strolled the streets, took some photos and cabbed it back to our hotel.

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The next morning we set out for a Sunday stroll through the Rue Cler market where we stopped at a few local tents and grabbed necessities for a picnic! We decided we wanted to spend the day at the Eiffel Tower. We walked all along the Champs Élysées, stopped in a few fabulous stores, strolled through the Arc de Triomphe and made our way to the market. We got sandwiches from a local fromagerie shop (cheese shop), pastries from a patisserie, macaroons from a bakery and a bottle of wine from a tiny wine store. We then headed towards the Eiffel Tower – which always seems closer than it actually is – found a lovely spot in the grass right of front of the beautiful sight and enjoyed a bottle of wine and lunch with a stunning view. It was a very romantic afternoon.

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We were planning on going to the Museum d’ Orsay, which houses a number of important paintings and more impressionist masterpieces later on that afternoon, but were having such a good time enjoying our picnic, it got too late to see the museum. We weren’t super disappointed as this wasn’t a museum that was particularly on our list of things to do, it was a last minute maybe.

As I have mentioned before, dining on Sundays has been difficult in Europe. Every restaurant we wanted to make a reservation at was closed. So we decided to just wing it and walk around the city stopping at the first nice brasserie we come across. We ended up stumbling upon a really cute one where we ate escargot and other French fare. It was the perfect ending to our time in Paris.

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Monday morning we were sad to leave, but excited for our next adventure. We would be boarding three separate trains throughout the day that would take us into Interlaken, Switzerland. Home of fondue, Swiss cheese, delicious chocolate (like the Toblarone) and of course, the Swiss Alps. Stay tuned for mountain tales on Interlaken. Until then, bon voyage!

Happily Ever After Copenhagen

In Copenhagen, I ate herring. They catch it fresh from the sea every day and it is a staple dish on just about every menu. I’m not a huge herring fan, but the way they prepared it was delicious! Those Copenhagen folk sure do know their herring. Being a canal city situated close to the sea, the seafood was amazing!

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The city of Copenhagen was unreal. It was love at first sight for both my husband and me. At times, I had to pinch myself for reassurance that I wasn’t in the midst of some perfect movie set. There were moments where my husband and I would converse about our future in Copenhagen… How we would FedEx our dog Calvin there, and how we would spend endless hours at the local farmers market… It was all a fun joke to me, but not to my husband. I had to propose threats and drag him by his insanely long beard (he is so confidentially proud of) just to get him on the train to Amsterdam. Needless to say, Copenhagen was a wonderland filled with pirate ships and fairy tale architecture. It dazzled with pure beauty and has become one of our all time favorite cities (other than Milwaukee and Philadelphia – being our favorites!).

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We arrived by fast train Tuesday afternoon with unknown expectations. Getting there was actually quite a fun adventure! It wasn’t your typical train ride, I can assure you. When boarding the train from Hamburg that morning, we realized we would have to ride over quite a large body of water. Not knowing how this would happen, we were soon swept away by a ferry and a conductor’s voice advising us passengers to leave our train car and head into the main floors of the boat. Our train literally rode on a track that into the bottom of a ferry. It was so cool! We left our bags in our train car and headed to the main floors. Where we were pleasantly surprised by what seemed to be a really bizarre cruise line. Laughing at our current situation, we were surrounded by numerous bars, restaurants, cafés, cosmetic shops, grocery stores, currency exchange windows and so much more. It felt like we had just entered the twilight zone. And we were extremely amused. Only 45 minutes were spent on the ferry, which majority of that 45 minutes my husband and I spent outside on the deck getting some fresh air and enjoying the water. Back inside the train, riding outside on normal train tracks, my husband and I watched the movie, American Hustle, and before we knew it… Arrived in Copenhagen! For some odd reason or another, my husband had a strong feeling he would love it there. His assumption was correct.

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We stayed at a Design Hotel called Skt. Petri – perfect location and even more perfect room. We were on the top floor with a wrap around balcony overlooking the charming city with views of the red-topped buildings and stunning copper spires. We dropped our bags off and went out to explore the 1000-year-old harbor town that has managed to retain all of its historic charm. With old fashioned store fronts, vintage looking cafés and cobbled squares, the pastel colored town houses weren’t the only awe-inspiring feature to this perfect city. We got some cocktails, stopped in some shops, and walked along the water until it was just about time for dinner. We read that Copenhagen is known for superb restaurants and fantastic dining, so we were excited to eat! In fact, Copenhagen is home to the #1 restaurant in the world – Noma – which surprisingly (cough cough) was fully booked for almost a half a year out. A few months ago my husband put our name on the waiting list to dine there in the rare occasion that there were cancellations, following up almost every day since. Unfortunately, there were no cancellations during our time there, and nobody responded to my husband’s hundred follow-up emails, so we never got the chance to go.

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Our first night in Copenhagen, we dined at a well known sushi restaurant called Damindra. They too, only offered a tasting menu, which was far too much food, but very tasty! We drank an assortment of sake – the house hot sake, followed by a carafe of special cold sake, followed by a sweet desert sake! I love sake, I’ve never sake tasted such a variety before though! We even ordered the restaurant’s signature cocktail to start off our night, which was cold sake combined with cucumber and ginger! Served in a really cool oversized glass with humongous ice cubes. It was a wonderful sushi date night!

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Wednesday morning we woke up early to catch the infamous Copenhagen Torvehallerne Market that was only blocks away from our hotel. Let me tell you – this was the coolest, most magnificent market I have ever been to! If there wasn’t so much to see and do in Copenhagen, we would have spent all day, everyday there. The market was half indoor, half outdoor – with the outdoor section sandwiched between the two rectangular indoor establishments. We explored all vendors, trying to narrow down what we were going to eat for breakfast. With a large assortment of bakeries, butcher shops, sandwich stands, coffee shops, cafés, wine bars, tapas places, cheese bars, bread stands, fresh picked fruit and vegetable stands, fish and seafood places, beer bars, chocolate shops, liquor and bottling services, the list goes on…. It was amazing! It was so clean, well organized and had such an organic vibe. I never wanted to leave!! We ended up getting some baked goods from a bakery in the market that we had read about in our April issue of Travel & Leisure Magazine (in the issue titled, “How To Eat Like a Local”), called Laura’s Bakery. Known for their homemade cinnamon buns that are filled with chocolate and extra spicy cinnamon! And of course, their famous homemade “pop tarts” that are extra thick, sticky and sweet (I need to challenge myself to learn how to make these at home because they were seriously SO GOOD). We got one of each and split them. We also got delicious coffees from a local coffee shop vendor, sat outside at a picnic table in the middle of the market, and enjoyed the morning sun!

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After too much sugar and just enough coffee, we bolted toward the city center, which is where city hall stands and is also where the city is least charming, quite crowded, and a bit dirty. The reason for heading there being, we were going to be spending the first half of our day at the Tivoli Gardens. My husband and I are not the biggest theme park fans… me being too uptight to enjoy stressful environments that involve roller coaster rides and cotton candy stands…. and my husband being the type who would just rather be cooped up at some fancy bar drinking an expensive scotch or hitting a golf ball on a quiet course. But we forced ourselves to put carousel smiles on our faces, buy tickets, and waltz in. After all, we did read that the historic park is the number one attraction in all of Copenhagen, and we didn’t want to miss out! Our reactions were not what we were expecting them to be at all…. It was actually quite beautiful inside the park. At first, it reminded me a lot of a glitzy Disneyland, and I was wondering what the whole fuss was about. But the further we walked in, I caught glimpse of the lush gardens, beautiful birds and their baby duckies, large ponds with oversized fountains, some very nice restaurants, clean shops, charming old-fashioned food pavilions and vintage carnival games…. it was really something to marvel about. There were rides here and there, none of which my husband and I participated. And all of the children and families were so nice. It just felt like a really neat community with a bunch of rides gardens bundled into one theme park. Let’s just say, it was no Six Flags.

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After being kids for a couple of hours, we decided to take a stroll to a part of the city that actually has its own government – Christiania. Christiania is a neighborhood of hippies who run their own government and regulations. It’s a Woodstock community of people who live an alternative lifestyle and sell a lot of illegal substances. We wanted to walk through this part of the city to get a glimpse and a feel as to what it was all about. It was really quite interesting and rather informative to see the lifestyle of these humans. Almost unreal to me in a way. The whole area was in shams. A dirt road just a few blocks off the canal, about a forty-five minute walk from the area we were staying in, lead us into a tie-dye graffiti awning that then led us into the neighborhood of Christiania. Old, broken-down town homes, some with missing doors and no windows, hugged the “market” of old stands, plastic tables and self-made shops (self-made meaning: shops that are literally divided by black bed sheets, clothes pins and wooden poles). In this area, there were illegal substances being sold, places to buy beer and drinks, little shops with hand made beaded bracelets and woven hats, and people just hanging out and conversing over blasting Phish music from an old boom box. {My parents are probably freaking out while reading this – Mom and Dad I swear it is a safe place to visit… Just a little outside my comfort zone!!} No photographs are ever allowed to be taken within the Christiania walls, for obvious reasons, and I was too nervous to even snap a secret shot, so unfortunately we have no photos from this part of our day. I always find it really fascinating to see the different ways that people live their lives. I love learning about foreign neighborhoods and cultures. Everyone looked pretty happy and that’s all that matters!

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After our thrilling adventure, we walked back towards the beautiful area we were staying in and ate lunch outside right along the canal while listening to live music (provided by a funny band that reminded me a lot of the Steve Miller Band) and watching the pirate ships float by. It was 80 degrees and sunny, so we shared some herring appetizers over a bottle of white wine and soaked in the sun. It was perfect!

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The day flew by and before we knew it, it was time to go back to our hotel and make dinner plans. Snagging a bottle of wine at a wine shop on our way back to drink on our balcony while watching the sun set. Later that evening, we ate dinner at a really cool spot located on the cute cobbled shopping streets of the city, just blocks from our hotel. It was a place called Tight and we had heard nothing but great things about it! Offering modern Scandinavian fare and a take on trendy bar food, you can’t go wrong!

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Thursday morning we made our way to the market, again. Only this time, we went to a bagel stand and got fresh bagels for breakfast! Accompanied by iced coffees from a local coffee shop. Iced coffee is a funny thing here in Europe. It’s not quite a thing yet, actually. There are literally no cafés that offer iced coffee, and the one we finally found that did, blended the coffee with the ice… Making it have the same consistency of a Starbucks frappacino. It’s all very interesting! Anyways, we walked the premises of the market some more and fell even more in love with it there. After bagels, “iced” coffee and loitering, we made our way through a beautiful park to one of Copenhagen’s greatest landmarks – The Rosenborg Slot – a Dutch Renaissance fairytale castle that sits in lush gardens surrounded by deep ponds. Ponds lavished with beautiful swans and exotic fish. Inside the castle, we were surrounded by glorious marbled floors, painted ceilings, and the world’s largest sterling silver furniture collection. Coming from a fine Jewelry background given my former career at QVC, I was astonished by the sterling silver aspect of the castle. It must be worth a fortune!

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The castle basement is home to the Royal Treasury. This is where the Danish Crown Jewels live. It was amazing seeing all of the huge rocks of ruby, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. There was an amethyst displayed that was the size of my fist (I have strangely small hands, so this isn’t exceptionally large, but it’s still big for a gemstone!)! It was fun being amongst such treasures!

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By the end of our castle escapade, we were starving… So naturally, we headed back to the market. Where we spent the remainder of our day market stand hopping from one spectacular tapas place to the next. Our first stand having a variety of bruschetta style tapas and local beers, our second stand having fish and champagne, and our third and final stand having incredible seasoned steak sandwiches and wine. All three stands being outside, we got to soak in the sun, listen to awesome live music, and hang out with the locals partying at the market on a Thursday afternoon. My husband and I often wondered whether or not people worked in Copenhagen, because we saw an unusual amount of weekday afternoon partying. And we loved it!

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After a much needed nap from day drinking and drowning ourselves in tapas, we had a very nice dinner at a modern upscale Dutch restaurant called Geist. The food was very interesting ranging from lobster carpaccio to roasted pig with crunchy artichokes. Everything was delicious! It was the perfect meal to end our time in Denmark.

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Friday morning was sad because we had to leave Copenhagen, which we never wanted to do. I had to drag my husband to the train station where we’d be boarding another cool train/ferry to Amsterdam. But before Amsterdam, we’d be making a one night pit stop in Hannover, Germany… to break up the long travel time (11 hours total from Copenhagen to Amsterdam). Stay tuned for tales of Amsterdam! Until then, bon voyage!

Hamburger Happy in Hamburg

In Hamburg, I ate the most delicious hamburger, because Hamburg is the amazing city where the hamburger was invented! And in the case you don’t know me at all, hamburgers (cheeseburgers to be exact) are my favorite food category in the entire world. It’s actually shocking to most that I have gone almost two months without a burger. So clearly, I was giddy excited for Hamburg like a kid on Christmas morning! We stayed in the second largest city in Germany for one night only, the reason being that the train ride from Berlin to Copenhagen, Denmark was excruciatingly long. So we wanted to break up the tiring train ride (7 hours total) by making a pit stop in an interesting city between the two. Hamburg being our destination of choice. Hamburgers being a big part of that decision. Aside from the delicious burgers, Hamburg was a really lovely city! Being situated on a lake and combining the vibe of small town meets big city made it a really pleasant place to spend the night!

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We arrived by fast train from Berlin early Monday afternoon. Our hotel was located on a quaint street filled with local restaurants, shops and markets. It reminded me of a small, yet vibrant town street in Wisconsin… Almost like a Door County vibe, if you’re lucky enough to know what that means 🙂 The Design Hotel we stayed at, The George, overlooked the water and was hugged by adorable boutiques and cafés. We walked from the train station to the hotel, dropped off our bags, and set out to find the best burger.

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A few of the famous burger joints were closed until late at night and weren’t centrally located to where we were staying, but we did stumble upon one that we had read about. Jim Block – supposedly known for having one of the most amazing burgers. The overall experience reminded me a lot of a quick custard place where you order your food, sit, and then wait for your number to be called. Almost like a fast food chain but not as casual as McDonalds (reference: Kopps or Shake Shack for comparisons). It’s funny because Europeans eat their burgers using a knife and fork. If you pick up the burger with your own two hands, the way us Americans do, you get a lot of funny looks (and not the good kind of funny). So Mike and I politely sat at our little booth, sipped our colas, and properly ate our burgers with a full set of utensils. It didn’t feel natural in the least, and I was a little annoyed because this was the type of burger that looked perfect to pick up and eat. Nevertheless, it was fantastic. If I challenged myself hard enough and was OK with feeling uncomfortably full with a not-so-attractive belly for the rest of the day, I could have easily eaten two!

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On our walk back towards the hotel down the cute street with all the local restaurants and businesses, we happened upon a stationary/gift shop that displayed a few bottles of wine in the window. Curious as to what this was all about and eager to find a bottle of wine to bring back to our hotel room to drink together and relax, we walked in. For those who don’t know me, I love stationary and all things paper related. If I see an establishment filled with greeting cards, I run towards it. In fact, when I was little, it was a dream of mine to create my own greeting card line for Hallmark (still a secret dream, but maybe not for Hallmark, for something more independent!). With a sore eye for local paper stores, I was excited to browse this hidden treasure. Little did we know, the back of the shop was not filled with anything paper related. It was filled with glass gallons upon gallons of local liquors! See image below. My husband and I stood there in amazement. Jaws dropped. The sweet old lady who owned the gift shop offered us a taste! We ended up hanging out in the back of the shop for a bit longer than expected – tasting all different kinds of schnapps, desert wines and even balsamic vinaigrettes! It was so much fun! We each picked our favorite liquor out (my husband choosing a strong schnapps and me choosing a sweet desert wine) and filled up a small glass jar to take with us. We bought a bottle of wine and went back to the hotel with happy hearts.

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It is so nice to go somewhere for a night and just relax. With no agenda of museums or sights to see, it is really refreshing to be able to just sit around in our pajamas and enjoy each other’s company over a bottle of wine and TV. We don’t get too many days like this, our only other time actually doing this was in Innsbruck. So it was really nice. Taking in the peace and quiet, we decided to just dine at the hotel that night and not make a fuss about dinner reservations or getting ready. It was a beautiful evening!

Tuesday morning we boarded the fast train/ferry to Copenhagen. Where we might never return… Because Copenhagen is the best place ever and we are contemplating over-nighting our dog, Calvin, and starting a healthy Danish life together there. Stay tuned to find out whether or not we leave the perfect (literally perfect) city! Until then, Bon voyage!

Berlin The Beautiful

In Berlin, I ate more sausages… Because when in Germany, right?! Really though, aside from the sausage, I ate like I would have on a typical weekend in Philadelphia! It was quite refreshing. As I mentioned in my latest blog post about Prague… I had no idea what to expect of Berlin as I have heard so many mixed reviews. So I was excited to form my own opinion! Drum roll, please………… I LOVED BERLIN. I thought it was the coolest city! I was so captivated by its history and eeriness, and found such beauty in the mix-matched architecture. So much of Berlin being destroyed and bombed in the war, it’s hard to believe that we are now currently in year 2014 and the city is still rebuilding. I found it extremely fascinating to see the contrast between old and new. For example: there were brand new modern buildings next to super old semi-distressed buildings with bullet holes embedded in their facades next to crumbled down buildings that are still untouched… but will eventually be restored. It was a feeling I had never felt before. One you can’t feel learning about what happened in text books. You have to be there to feel the goosebumps.

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We arrived by fast train late Friday afternoon from Prague – Berlin being my mother-in-laws final destination with us until she departed back to the midwest on Monday morning. We hopped off the train into the incredibly modern station and found a cab to escort us to our hotel. We stayed in a beautiful Rocco Forte hotel located in a gorgeous historic building – Hotel De Rome. Everything about it was perfect. The location, the rooms, the luxury and the history couldn’t have been better. Located right across from the opera house, a gorgeous cathedral, and the square at the University where the Nazi’s burned thousands of books during that era. We dropped off our bags and headed out the front doors to explore the city. My husband lead us on a two hour walking tour he had read about of all things interesting – passing the Jewish Cemetery, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall… Just to get to know the city and all its different areas. We ended our tour at the hotel bar with some fun summer cocktails in hand, as the weather was beautiful! That night we dined at a trendy Thai restaurant our hotel concierge recommended (Goodtime) and loved it! It was nice to infuse some Thai cuisine into our diets as we haven’t had it since we’ve been in Europe. And we love Thai food!

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On Saturday morning we made our way to the National History Museum of Germany (similar to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, but instead of American history, it was all German history!). On our walk there, we happened upon a really neat outdoor art fair that we spent some time at. The fair featured all local artists which was really fun to see! The museum was huge, it took us a good three hours to walk through the entire thing, my favorite part being the World War II exhibit located on the entire bottom floor of the building. It was really intriguing being able to see actual photographs, letters, uniforms, newspaper clippings, and other artifacts from the war. This was the moment it hit me that I was in the center of the Nazi’s capital from a terrible war that happened not too long ago. It was a super eerie feeling that made me completely speechless. After embedding so much information from German history into our brains, we sat outside and enjoyed the weather over a big lunch. It was quite a busy Saturday in Berlin – there was some kind of big bicycle race going on, and on top of that, there was a huge soccer game happening there that night – Munich vs. Dortmund. Causing the city to be packed with lots of cyclists, family’s, soccer fans and team supporters…. Munchers, to be exact (Munchers: extremely happy Munich locals who drink an obscene amount of beer, sing a lot of loud songs, and act ridiculously jolly all the time). It was indeed an eventful day in Berlin!

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The one thing I was so excited to see while in Berlin was the Berlin Wall, so after lunch we headed over in that direction. We stopped at Checkpoint Charlie first, of course, and then spent a good amount of time at the Wall. It was cool. And a lot lower in height than I was expecting! I had all these expectations of it being a lot taller than it actually was, but clearly I was wrong. In front of the Wall was a timeline outlining its significance and vital facts about the War, which was really interesting. It was also interesting to read all the graffiti that has been sprayed on the wall over the years. There was even a birthday shoutout form 1970… Pretty awesome! I learned that not all of the graffiti was still in tact though, a lot of it was removed due to inappropriate graphics from the war and language that wasn’t necessary for the public to see. Art (in this case, street art) can teach you so much about time periods and happenings, and I have really enjoyed gazing at all the graffiti I’ve been lucky enough to encounter these past couple of weeks.

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In case you were unaware, a lot of European cities have a habit of shutting down on Sundays. Shops, groceries stores, some restaurants (not all)…. Leaving Sundays perfect for parks, sight seeing and museums. Since Sunday was going to be our last full day in Berlin, we thought it might be smart to graze the local shops on Saturday late afternoon before dinner. Our concierge told us about a really cool area in Berlin that is known for neighborhood boutiques and local designers, which is right up my ally. So we ventured in that direction and shopped local on a cute street that reminded me a lot of South Street in Philadelphia, but a little hipper and more upscale. There was a Berlin designer by the name of LaLa that had the most beautiful assortment of colorful scarves and a selection of really cute and quirky t-shirts! Needless to say, we had a lot of fun there! That night we dined at a very nice Italian restaurant by the name of Malatesta. We sipped on negroni’s and limoncello while indulging in giant plates of pasta. It was spectacular. After spending three straight weeks in Italy the first half of April, eating pasta and pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner got old real fast…. but now that we have more of a variety of food groups mixed back into our diets, a big plate of pasta every once in a while is perfection! 🙂

Sunday morning was cold and gloomy with some pretty serious rain showers. And I wasn’t feeling well. Straight traveling for a month and a half now, hopping from train to train, hotel to hotel, museum to museum, finally caught up with me and I needed a day of rest. I felt a bug fast approaching and I didn’t want to get seriously sick while in an unfamiliar European city. So I stayed in bed all morning while my husband and his mom spent some quality time together at the Pergamon Museum – located on Berlin’s Museum Island, which is a well known section of the city filled with monumental museums. They both said the museum was amazing, which made me feel really left out. Not knowing just how popular this museum actually was, my husband bought tickets online the night before just to make things a bit easier the next morning. Thank goodness he did this!Because the line for tickets had over a three hour wait! Moral of the story — whenever you can, reserve tickets in advance, because you never know just how long these ticket lines are going to be… And you don’t want to be standing in the rain for three hours. My husband and mother-in-law rolled right in and had a great time looking at impressive ancient alters and artifacts. While I laid in bed and felt sorry for myself.

After their wonderful time at the museum, my husband came to check on me. Feeing so miserably left out, I decided to throw some mascara on, rally, and go to the beer hall with him and Mama K. Both of them ordering large German beers while I sipped on sparkling water and tea. A little sad I couldn’t partake in the beer drinking, I was just so happy to be in their company again! That night we made dinner reservations at a traditional yet modern German restaurant that sat in the same neighborhood as all the cool local shops – Alpenstueck. But before heading to dinner, we had tickets to tour the Reichstag building – Which is the glass-domed building you can’t miss just west of the Brandenburg Gate. This is where Hitler gained power and also where the Soviet’s raised their flag to signal Nazi Germany’s defeat. Some pretty important history took place here and in 1999 it was refurbished by adding the glass dome that attracts tons of tourists (I read close to 10,000 visitors a day!!). The dome was made for walking along the internal spiral walkway, also known as the beehive, offering million dollar views of the city and a glimpse at what Berlin used to be and what it has turned into today. After spiraling the beehive, we walked through Berlin’s gorgeous park, similar to New York City’s Central Park, and then went to dinner. As it was one of my final nights in Germany, I ordered traditional German schnitzel and sipped on a German desert wine after dinner.

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That night was a bit sad as Mike and I had to say goodbye to my mother-in-law. She had an early flight out of Berlin to Chicago Monday morning and we weren’t going to see her until we returned to the States in July. It was a real treat having her join us for 12 days and we were really going to miss her company! While she had a flight to catch, Mike and I had an early train to catch. We were Hamburg bound for some real, traditional hamburgers! As Hamburg, Germany, was where the hamburger was invented 🙂

Berlin’s diversity and culture made it a city I will never forget. And the thing that I liked most about the German capital, was the way it has reinvented itself from its numbing history. Clearly the world is catching on to this too. I am glad we have another night in Germany, I really love it here! Stay tuned for tales on hamburgers and the city that sits on the lake.

 

Prague – Sweeter Than Eye Candy

In Prague, I ate traditional Svickova – which is pretty much the Czech version of Thanksgiving dinner. Recommended by a friend who lives in Prague, it definitely made me feel more at home. Instead of turkey and mashed potatoes though, it was beef tenderloin in a gravy served with bread dumplings and cranberry sauce. Becherovka was just as prominent in Prague as it was in Karlovy Vary, too. So lots of herbal (38 herbs to be exact) after dinner drinks were happening and I wasn’t mad about it 🙂 Aside from eating like a local Czech citizen, I instantly fell head over heels for the city of Prague. Confidently calling it the most magical city I have ever visited, and my new favorite spot in Europe. The Golden City sparkles with such character, charm, color and life. Keeping its authenticity from the luck of not being bombed in the war, Prague is a true testament of old European beauty.

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Prague lured me in the moment we stepped off the train and hopped into a cab. We arrived Tuesday afternoon and headed straight towards the Mala Strana neighborhood (Mala Strana meaning, Lesser Town or Little Quarter…but don’t let the name fool you, there is nothing less interesting or less beautiful about this part of town), where we would be staying at a beautiful ornate Preferred Boutique HotelThe Alchymist – which was located right next to the US Embassy, so security was quite impressive in our cul de sac of cobblestones. The hotel held such gorgeous features and was pure luxury. My husband, mother-in-law and I dropped our bags off, I sat and stared at the beautiful Bohemian crystal chandelier in our room, and then we immediately set out to explore the neighborhood and grab lunch. We stopped at a corner cafe, had a couple of beers, stopped in a couple really cool markets and got to know the area a bit better. After doing a lot of research on Prague food and dining, we realized that our hotel had a fabulous restaurant! So we decided that after a long day of traveling, and with a rain storm coming through that night, fine dining at the hotel sounded wonderful! After dinner we got a Becherovka at the tiny bar, where I was hypnotized by the amazing interiors (and maybe a little by the Becherovka pour!).

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Prague fit the perfect irony of luring me in by the past and keeping my full attention of combining the present and future all in one. The artistic architecture and pure grace of the candy colored buildings, which were all in excellent shape by the way, combined with the cobble stoned streets captivated me for a full 72 hours. Known as the city of gold, the shiny color was present at every angle. And the richness of the city was magic. Unexplainable by words of blogging, really. All I can tell you is… if you have a bucket list of places to go, cities to see, Prague should absolutely be at the top of your list!

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Wednesday was my favorite day. Thursday was too, actually. Every day and every single thing about Prague was just my favorite! We walked over the infamous Charles Bridge – which provides the most gorgeous views of the city from all angles and also graces the path with 30 intricate statues dating from the 18th century. Narrow and crowded cobbled lanes lead us east into Old Town Square. Where I fell I love. The Square was dominated by Gothic steeples of churches and the Old Town Hall clock tower where the intricate astronomical clock amazes the crowd. At the center of the square lives a dominant green monument called the Jan Haus Monument, where locals would sit on the steps, chat, and snack under the sun. Also near the Square is the popular art nouveau Municipal House, decorated by the most talented of Czech artists and architects of the early 20th century. We marveled in amazement at the charm of the Square… and that was the moment I knew this city was really special.

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As I have mentioned, I love churches… and lucky for me, so do my side kicks (my hubby and Mama K)! So we peeked into the two most well known churches in Old Town Square – Tyn Church and St. Nicholas Church. Both beautiful and very different, making learning about their history and glancing up at their ceilings all the more interesting. Something I have noticed in some of these Western European cities is the significance of the crown. A lot of designs, art and decoration were inspired by crowns. And many of the churches chandeliers were designed in the shape of a crown, which is kind of awesome and very intriguing.

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My mother-in-law read about this DIY (do it yourself) walking tour around Prague that showcases the significance of the most prominent buildings and their history. So we did that, with my husband being our lead tour guide, and it was really fun! We ended our tour at the area which was once the Jewish Quarter. Before I studied up on Prague, I had no idea the importance of the once large Jewish community Prague had. At the start of World War II, Prague had a healthy 118,000 Jewish residents living in the city. By the end of the war only 10,000 had survived to call Prague their home. History like this stirs a lot of spinning in my head, and I was just so compelled by the Jewish Museum, Old-New Synagogue, and Old Jewish Cemetery. The part that hit me the hardest though, was seeing artwork that had been preserved by young Jewish children that were being held captive in concentration camps. Seeing their struggles and feelings through crayon construction papered stick figures was extremely hard for me. It made me so sad.

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Famished by our excessive walking and DIY touring of the city, we happened upon the fanciest of streets! Nicknamed “Paris Street” for all it’s lavish high-end shops and jewelers. We found a restaurant on the street where we sat amongst cigarette smoking Bottega Veneta bags and Prada shoes. I would have felt really insecure given my frumpy outfit choice of the day if I hadn’t just left the Jewish Quarters and realized how lucky I am to be living such a beautiful life. We walked through the entire city, enjoying its wonders, and headed back to our hotel – where I stepped into the spa for my first manicure/pedicure of the trip. A two hour affair where I relaxed in the joys of pink toe nails and cubical-free fingers 🙂

That night, we walked back over the Charles Bridge, where we noticed sunset views over the water and city which made it sparkle more than ever. We dined along the river at a trendy restaurant that felt the tiniest bit familiar to me. For all of my Philadelphia friends, it had the same feel of a new and modern Stephen Starr restaurant. It was a really cool and hip place called Mlynec – and our hotel concierge had to fight for a reservation for us, so I knew it was going to be good! All three of us ordered the signature dish – veal filet mignon schnitzel. Yes, you heard me. We got thick veal filet’s that were breaded and deep fried, schnitzel style. And we devoured every last bite, that’s how good it was! We ended the fantastic dinner with a Becherovka, of course, and cobble hopped back over the Charles Bridge, where pitch black skies made the city lights on the water sparkle even more!!

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Thursday was a day to remember. We walked up steep cobblestone lanes to the famous Prague Castle that sits overlooking the city. It is Prague’s number one attraction and is a must see! We timed our visit perfectly so that we were present during the Changing of the Guard – happening every hour with the most spectacular change with flag fare and a flag ceremony happening at noon. This was quite a popular thing to do for tour groups and locals, so we were lucky to arrive early enough to catch front row views. It was so cool! See photos below.

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We walked about the castle courtyards and explored all areas of the property – all really breathtaking and beautiful. We toured the spectacular Vladislav Hall which was located in the Old Royal Palace and saw some really neat rooms (personally, Hofburg Palace in Vienna was far more impressive to me). We then stepped into hands down the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen (and I have seen many cathedrals in my day), St. Vitus Cathedral. It was covered head to toe in dark wood carvings and details with colorful stain glass masterpieces draped throughout. It absolutely blew me away. We then made our way to the Basilica of St. George, which is Prague’s finest Romanesque church. It was amazing. We made sure we saw St. Wenceslas Chapel, which was really old and eerie, but super cool at the same time. And then ended our three hour escapade in the Treasury where we were swooned with jewel-studded crowns, crosses and relics (relics are small, decorative boxes or capsules that were given as gifts back in the day – they were once believed to create miracles). We couldn’t leave though without strolling through a secluded neighborhood hidden in the courtyards of the castle. Tiny row houses of rainbow colors with tiny dwarf-like doors and home replicas of what living spaces used to look like way back in the day were displayed for people to tour. It was so cute and so much fun!!

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After our castle adventures, we walked even further up steep cobblestone lanes to a Prague brewery my friend living in Prague told us about – St. Norbert’s Brewery. It is her favorite place to go, so obviously we had to try it!! We had some local beers, beef goulash soup in bread bowls and beer cheese. It was so much fun being amongst happy Prague folk and indulging in local fare. Speaking of my friend, after we walked back to our hotel, she met us there to catch up and chat about all things Prague, all things travel and just all things life! Her name is Sarah and her and I went to High School in Wisconsin together. She is a year younger than me and has been living in the Czech Republic for two and a half years now! Living with family (her Aunt, Uncle and little cousins) in a small town an hour outside of Prague for a while and just recently (last November) moving to the big city of Prague. She is so well traveled and has such interesting views on life, we had the best time with her! She took us to a tiny wine bar in a cold basement that looked to have once been a wine cellar. It was awesome. We had been desperately wanting to find a good wine bar, but when they are hidden underground like that, only the locals can find them… So we got lucky having her with us! She gave Mike and I some good advice and suggestions for our future European travels and we filled her in on what’s happening in the States 🙂

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We hugged Sarah goodbye and thanked her a million times for meeting us and then headed straight to dinner. We dined that night at a true Czech restaurant located in the Mala Strana neighborhood, only minutes from our hotel – Konirna. And that is where I ordered Svickova – Sarah actually being the one who told us about it! It was our last night in the Czech Republic, so I had to order a genuine Czech dish. And it was delicious! On our way to dinner, we stopped at the infamous John Lennon Wall – which was heavenly. On this trip, I have developed a new obsession and appreciation for graffiti and this wall was just amazing!! We took some photos and just soaked in how awesome it was. It made me love Prague even more than I already did, which I never even thought was possible!

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The next morning, we boarded a very early fast train to Berlin. Going from big city to big city, but with two completely different vibes. I’ve heard mixed reviews on Berlin, some people love it, some people not so much…. So I was excited to form my own opinion.

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Until tales of Berlin’s eerie history, wiedersehen!

Karlovy Vary – The Spa Town

In Karlovy Vary, I drank a lot of natural hot spring water straight from the ground. It wasn’t as delicious as it may sound. With distinctive mineral flavors and strange salty after tastes, the water was not one I would chug in the middle of a hot thirsty day. The town is famous for their many hot springs that are publicly scattered throughout and encouraged to the people. The water is said to have positive effects on the health of ones body. Ranging from temperatures of luke warm to extremely hot, it was fascinating walking around the town, placing my porcelain cup underneath the spouts of the springs, and trying all of the different kinds. I’m secretly hoping the water had some kind of fountain of youth effect on me (something similar to Tuck Everlasting)…. but I think the only thing it did was leave a metal taste lingering in my mouth.

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As I mentioned, Karlovy Vary is known for their health and spa treatments and gets its fame from the natural hot springs – it is literally considered a spa town. In the mid 1300’s, the small town was rumored to be accidentally discovered by Emperor Charles IV when one of his hunting dogs fell into the waters. Do I believe this? Maybe. My dog falls into water all the time. We’ve never discovered anything cool from little Calvin, but there is still hope! Today, the well off from Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Russia and other European countries resort to this spa town for treatments such as hydrocolontherapy and lymphatic drainage. I just got a massage, nothing fancy to brag about. The tradition is to sip the mineral-laden waters from a sweet little porcelain cup, which they sell everywhere in town, and rid your body of any toxins. I had a great time pretending to be a celebrity spa patient sampling the various hot springs the town had to offer!

Fun fact: Two of the greatest movies ever were filmed in Karlovy Vary! One of my husband’s favorites, James Bond 007 Casino Royale (yes – I was walking the same streets as once Daniel Craig). And one of my all time favorites, The Last Holiday (yes – I love Queen Latifah and I am not ashamed).

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Early Sunday, Mother’s Day morning, we boarded three slow trains and one bus from Munich to the tiny spa town in the Czech Republic. My mother-in-law was still traveling with us and was such a sport. Used to the luxuries in life, she was rather excited to experience her first European railway. Because Karlovy Vary is so small and has a reputation of being hard to get to, my husband and I were fully aware of the travel situations we were going to be faced with that day. Taking one “nice” train from Munich to our first stop in the Czech Republic, my poor mother-in-law got a true glimpse of what we would be dealing with the rest of the day. The town in the Czech where we had our first transfer went a little like this – remember the movie, The Night Before Christmas? All the characters were really scary and the whole setting was just dark and rather depressing it almost felt frightening in a way? Well that’s what this town was like. And we had an hour and a half layover before boarding our bus. We tried to walk around the town for a bit, but got scared, so we sat on benches cringing until our departure. The bus brought us to another train station where we boarded a slow train in the middle of nowhere. That train then dropped us off in the middle of a field…. where we had to run in the long grass carrying our bags to the next train, which was thankfully our final train. Finally reaching Karlovy Vary was a huge sigh of relief. I have never been that happy to arrive anywhere in my entire life!!

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Because of the rough travel day for my mother-in-law on Mothers Day, my husband was so sweet and arranged for her the night before to get a massage at the spa upon our arrival. She was thrilled! The spa had open availability right after her massage, so I decided to get one too. It was so relaxing after such a stressful day. We were staying at a beautiful hotel right along the river and in the heart of town called Quisisana Palace. It was so luxurious and our whole experience there was really beautiful.

That night we took Mama K to one of the most fun dinners we have had this far! We went to a traditional Czech restaurant that was recommended by our hotel for fine Czech cuisine. It was a really special night. We started celebrating by drinking a bottle of German white wine we had bought at the market in Munich. We then proceeded to walk two minutes down he road to the restaurant – Hotel Embassy – where we were seated at a lovely table with a chair at the end that just so happened to look like a Queens throne! So of course, Queen Mama K, on Mother’s Day, got to sit on the fabulous throne and feel like royalty all night.

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We were also treated like royalty that night! The Czech waiters who were taking care of us were so inviting and eager to please. It was wonderful! We ordered a bottle of red wine from the Chianti region where Mike and I had wine tasted in Tuscany, to show my mother-in-law just how tasty it was! We all ordered fantastic traditional Czech meals – for example, Mama K got the goose, Mike got a full duck, and I ate piglet… all because of peer pressure (I would like to formally apologize to one of my best friends Danielle, who I share a teacup piglet calendar with, I promise the pig that I ate was not as cute as our calendar piggy’s!!). For desert we got hot strawberries with green peppers – strange combination but was really delicious and looked extremely easy to make!! A good, fresh summer desert I’ll be able to whip up at home! We also sipped on a traditional Karlovy Vary herbal liquor that is very special to their region. Two Czech men sit and make two batches a week in the town of Karlovy Vary. The recipe is so secretive, they are the only two humans in the world who are said to know it. It tasted almost like a strong cinnamon liquor with a dash of nutmeg and had the consistency of a syrupy port wine. It was called Becherovka and if it is sold in the States, you must go out and buy a bottle now. Because it is the best after dinner drink ever!

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The next day we set voyage for hot spring tasting! But before we did that, we took a challenging hike, or mud slide, up a steep hill that had no path. The hike was leading us to a point at the top where a tall tower sat with gorgeous views of the town – it was called Diane’s Tower and it has been a famous tourist attraction for 100 years. There was a tram that ran every ten minutes from town to the top of the hill, which is how normal people get there, but given our food and alcohol intake the night before, we decided to hike. On this hike I got very muddy, climbed a tree, shimmied in between and over fallen branches, made friends with a cute baby mouse who happened to look as helpless as I did, and climbed rocks just to reach the tower. Talk about a good exercise. My mother-in-law is in such good shape, but her and I were partners in crime in the struggle to reach the top. And if for some reason you are blind and haven’t noticed, my husband has turned into a wilderness man, also known as a wildabeast, where one might confuse him with a wolf. So he was fine.

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We took some amazing photos from Diane’s Tower, bought some huge water bottles, and for the sake of our safety, took the tram back down into town. On just about every corner of the town were porcelain cup stands where you could pick out your own unique cup to drink hot spring water out of. I picked out the cutest gold owl and my husband picked out what looked to have been a miniature porcelain beer mug. We went from spout to spout all over town sipping the different waters and trying to identify what the special tastes and qualities of each were. I personally liked the extremely hot water spouts the best. The warmer the temperature, the more shielded the strange tastes would be.. in my humble opinion.

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We ate a late lunch at a confusingly expensive restaurant called Pizzeria Capri. It was a restaurant right in the middle of town that took pride in their celebrity status with names like Daniel Craig, Morgan Freeman and George Clooney dining there in the past. Which is the only reason we could think of as to why it was so expensive. The food was ok, but I wouldn’t suggest going if ever randomly visiting the small spa town. We walked around and explored the shops a bit – heading into a lot of Bohemian Crystal shops to learn more about its significance in the culture. For those of you who don’t know, Czech Republic used to be a part of Bohemia when it was once a country. Causing the town’s beautiful architecture and whole vibe to be very Bohemian. When I think of boho-chic fashion, it is nothing like Bohemia or Bohemian culture. So I am quite confused as to where it got its name and inspiration from for “boho-chic”. I was thinking maybe from the gypsy”s? But I am not quite sure, I just found it all to be very interesting.

That night we had another amazing dinner at a place called Hotel Promenada. The restaurant is said to be the towns best and nicest restaurant. It felt so cozy inside and had the feel of a home living room with nice decorations, white table cloths and long-stemmed candles lighting the ambiance of the room. The food was spectacular – my mother-in-law and I both ordering the rabbit and my husband ordering a steak. The desert was so special too! The chef came out and made it right in front of us at our table. He started by melting sugar in a pan on high flames and adding orange juice and fresh squeezed oranges. From there he cooked thin crepes with nuts inside. All displayed on personal plates with a whop of whipped cream and ice cream. It was my favorite part of the meal!! And at the end of dinner, the week waiters graced Mama K and I with pink roses. It was so nice!

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After desert, we sipped on some Becherovka, obviously, and headed straight to the casino at The Grand Hotel Pupp – also known as the casino James Bond hung out at in Casino Royale. We each lost a good chunk of money, but the overall experience of getting to play black jack at the same tables as James Bond made it every bit worth it. We chatted with a man who was doing some serious gambling from Kuwait and sipped cocktails feeling pretty fabulous. Unfortunately, there is a strict rule that you cannot take photos inside casinos, so I don’t have any action shots of us high rolling. But I did snap a secret shot of my husband’s and mine his/hers cocktails!

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The next morning we boarded the fast train to Prague. Where we had to do an unexpected transfer in yet again, the middle of a field. How Czech people find this normal is beyond me – but running through an untamed field only to get on the next train with grass and burs stuck on my leggings and a few mosquito bites on my ankles is not my idea of normal traveling.

Until tales from Prague, and maybe some more field running, Bon Voyage!

 

 

 

A Night Well Spent in Innsbruck

In Innsbruck I ate vegetarian. And it was amazing. The sweet little town of Innsbruck was so much more than I had ever imagined. It was small, but full of life and true sense of community. It had that old world European charm combined with a scenic background that was to die for. Once home to the Winter Olympics, the mountain range and overall outdoor surroundings that layered the town center were unbelievable.

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We arrived by train from Salzburg early Tuesday morning. Squeezed into our jam packed travel schedule to break up busy cities and long days of exploring, we looked to Innsbruck as a day of rest. Some place to go where we didn’t feel the pressures to stack our day with museum after museum or sight after sight. We were simply visiting to enjoy and relax for a much needed 24 hours of nothing but breathing in the fresh air of what I would call, one of the worlds most beautiful areas. We stayed at a gorgeous new hotel called Hotel Adlers. Just a few blocks from the train station and steps away from the center of the town. The hotel takes pride in promising a prominent view from every hotel room, so we were looking forward to seeing what it had to offer. With top story luck and floor to ceiling windows, we got a million dollar view of the mountain range and sights overlooking the town. It was exactly what we were wishing for and was absolutely stunning.

Having the urge to just relax in our hotel room all day and stare out the insanely large windows at the mountainous ski jumps and snow capped points, we forced ourselves to walk around the city a bit. We did a little research only to find that one of the best restaurants in all of Innsbruck was a vegetarian restaurant. A bit skeptical, we thought, a day of veggies was probably a very good idea! The restaurant was called Chez Nico. It was buried within a side street of a square amongst cobblestone roads and cracked cement fountains. It offered a set lunch menu paired with regional wine. Austria, much like Germany, is known for a lot of beer… but they do have a spectacular white wine scene. After drowning ourselves in red wine while we were in Italy, beer and white wine have been a nice change of pace! The owner of the restaurant, Nico, is French.. So he infuses his French background to create one of a kind vegetarian dishes using all local/organic ingredients from his very own garden. Talk about fresh!! Also, it is white asparagus season here in Europe, and the Europeans take that very seriously. Every corner you pass, every market you cross, white asparagus is literally the center of attention. It’s actually quite refreshing to see just how seasonally their eating habits are in this region. Unlike how a lot of Americans shop in the States, Europeans eat strawberry’s when it is strawberry season, and a whole lot of white asparagus when it is white asparagus season. This is something that struck me as a really cool way of life. Needless to say, our three course vegetarian lunch infused a healthy amount of asparagus. And every last bite was delicious!

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After our bellies were filled with nothing but fresh veggies and a small dose of crisp white wine, we strolled through the town to see it’s history and what it was all about. The town center reminded me a lot of Salzburg, but on a much smaller scale. With old buildings holding their authenticity and pastel colored structures correlating along the river, it was marveling. Not to mention the mountains hugging the entire town! We stumbled upon an indoor market that reminded us a lot of Reading Terminal Market. Reading Terminal Market is the most amazing place in the world – located in Philadelphia, it’s a whole establishment dedicated to local vendors who sell their home grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and so much more… Including an array of different meal choices. With local food carts and cheese stands that overlap with homemade donut stands… It’s easily the best place ever. My husband and I would spend our entire weekends there when we lived just a few blocks away. At the market in Innsbruck, we roamed around reminiscing about all it’s similarities that we are used to. We went from stand to stand trying different fruits and vegetables while also looking at homemade souvenirs. We picked up a carton of the most amazingly delicious strawberries. So big and juicy and beautifully red! We then made our way to the local wine vendor and gracefully worked with the owner to pick out a perfect Austrian white wine. We took our treats from the market back to our hotel room where we relaxed over some vino and watched the sun set over the mountains…. Finally getting our much needed relaxation time with quite a view.

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That night, we went to a “famous” restaurant/bar where Innsbruck folk like to hang out, watch games and converse – The place was called Rox and it had a really cool vibe. It almost had the feel of a Philadelphia sports bar combined with slightly older character (just being European gives it naturally old character). We drank big dark beers and ordered bar food that was so so good!! After our Austrian bar scene experience, we made our way up to the hotel rooftop bar where we had cocktails and enjoyed the views of the picturesque mountain range.

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The next morning we sprinted to the train station to catch our train to Munich. You know in the movies sometimes there is that really awkward character sprinting to the train station, knocking everyone over, making fellow walking pedestrians feel really uncomfortable? Well that’s Mike and me. And we’re usually a little (or really) stressed out, in which case causes me to drop my bags on occasion, making everything ten times worse. Ah the joys of traveling by train for three months!

Until tales of our liter beers and castle tours from the region of Bavaria, bon voyage!

 

Once Upon a Time in Salzburg

In Salzburg, I ate Ox. It wasn’t my favorite of meats, tasting almost like a thick cut of dry roast beef, but I am happy I tried it! Salzburg is also home to amazing homemade dumplings that I could have eaten for days and this delicious desert called Salzburger Nockerl… Which I also could have eaten in excessive amounts. Salzburg was the most charming, baroque, tranquil little town I have ever visited and there was not one part about it that I didn’t fall in love with.

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The town of Salzburg is buried below steep hills and snow-capped mountainous layers. It was the birthplace of Mozart over 250 years ago, and the Old Town really hasn’t changed much since! Which is where it gets it’s serious charm from. All of the buildings, street signs, store signs, restaurants, bars and cafés have this vintage look that cause you to forget that you are currently living in 2014. It almost felt as though I was living as a fictional character in an old Charles Dickens book. And I never wanted to leave. But not only was the town so overwhelmingly entrancing, the countryside was every bit as charming and breathtaking. I think I had somewhat of a scary permanent smile on my face the entire three days we were there.

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After hopping from city to city for a month, my husband and I were craving a little peace and quiet. We have always dreamt of the mountainous countryside of Austria. So instead of staying in the town of Salzburg, we thought it would be fun to nest up in the quiet hills at Hotel Schloss Leopold – also known as the estate/castle where The Sound of Music was filmed. Call us nerds, but it couldn’t have been more enchanting. Hotel Schloss Leopold recently renovated their stables to accommodate roughly 55 brand new hotel rooms this past February, so the rooms were beautifully new with that old, historic charm. And you couldn’t beat the views! With the estate sitting on a beautiful lake and overlooking the gorgeous mountains, it felt as though I was in a dream. Growing up, I was a huge Sound of Music fan, and I can’t deny that I diligently counted down the days and watched the Carrie Underwood special over the holidays (I loved it!!!), so I recognized all corners of the property. And I was one happy girl 🙂

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When we arrived on Saturday afternoon, we toured the property and then took a walk in the rain into town. The walk into town was not the easiest of walks. It was actually quite challenging, especially in the rain! There was a beautiful path that took us through gorgeous rows of deep green trees and then lead us to a steep hill… Where we paused and stared at each other for a minute. When we finally came to the realization that we were going to have to climb up this steep hill, we took a deep breath and silently began. Literally wheezing at the top of the hill, we high-fived each other and continued on the path that brought us right into the cobblestone streets of town. We walked around town for a bit until the rain picked up, then we began our voyage to find a cool Austrian dive to get a drink. We read about these secret beer caves that we desperately wanted to try, so we took out Google Maps and began our search for the caves. When finally reaching the most accessible cave, the one that was easiest the find, we creeped open the door only to get denied by one of the waiters… In his angry German voice… Which was really scary… I almost started crying. Believe it or not, at a lot of these tiny secret beer caves that are known to serve the best Austrian bar food, require you to make a reservation… even if you are just planning on drinking there. God forbid you walk in without a reservation, I am warning you now, you will get yelled at. And it is so much worse getting denied in a German accent than in an American one.

Completely discouraged and a little depressed, I followed my husband to his next great idea…that took forever to find. Thank goodness for our hotel umbrellas, otherwise we may have been in another, slightly less dramatic, Vienna downpour situation. We walked up a steep, dark, tiny cobblestone hill and opened what appeared to have been someone’s front door. A little skeptical, we walked up the staircase and followed the music. After getting a few doors wrong (walking into a couple closets and a bathroom) we found the correct door that lead us into the coolest little bar – St. Paul’s Stub’n. There were no seats available as we didn’t have reservations, but the staff was a lot nicer than the former place we stepped into, and they allowed us to sit on the windowsill, drink beers and order food. And the food was delicious. The Austrian bartender even took a shot of his favorite local liquor with us! It was Saturday night, so we thought, why not!! We were beaming with happiness. {You are probably wondering if we walked all the way back to our countryside hotel that night after far too many dumplings and beer – the answer is no. We took a cab.}

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Sunday was a bit chilly and semi-gloomy, but that didn’t stop us from doing what we had planned. That morning we had breakfast in the ballroom of the hotel, it was beautiful. Afterwards, we started our journey to hike up to Castle Hohensalzburg – this overwhelmingly large and historic castle that sat at the top of a very steep hill. There is a shuttle that takes people from town up to the top of the castle, but Mike and I wanted to hike it. Completely unaware of just how steep it really was, we started to regret our decision when we were only half way, but there was no turning back. My thighs will be thanking me later, I kept telling myself. Finally reaching the top, we both almost collapsed into each other’s arms, but the stunning views and the perplexity of being in front of this gigantic castle blew us away. It was really spectacular. We toured the ancient rooms and took a lot of photos of the town from above. Being that high up and feeling one with the mountains was truly remarkable.

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We later on headed down the hill and straight into town, where the Salzburg Marathon had just taken place. Resulting in the town being rather chaotic, but in a cool way that didn’t necessarily annoy us. There was loud Austrian music blasting and everyone was in good spirits. We ate a late lunch at an outdoor bar and people watched as the happy runners walked by with their families.

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We started to hike back to our hotel where we decided to venture down a hidden path we had never seen before. We had all day (and Google Maps if worse came to worse) so we didn’t mind getting lost in the countryside together. It turned out to be the most memorable of walks we have ever taken. It felt as though we were lost in a story where we happened upon a magical land. Making friends with giant pigs the size of small horses, chatting with cows and their baby calves as they grazed the fields, chasing after gobbling turkey’s to watch them go wild, and stumbling upon the most alluring pond filled with a party of beautiful flamingos fighting chickens and crows for food. Captivated by everything going on, we were so taken aback and mesmerized we didn’t even realize how late it was getting. So we had to wave goodbye to our animal friends and head back to the real world.

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Sunday nights in Europe have been tough. We’ve realized that a lot of restaurants are closed and our dining options are always limited. So we decided to take a stroll to the one place that was open, the local Austrian brewery – Stiegl Brewery located in the countryside just minutes from our hotel. Not knowing about the huge beer festival going on that day, we caught ourselves amongst extremely happy drunk Austrians dressed head to toe in traditional attire, dancing and cheering rants in German we didn’t understand. It was amazing. The only thing disappointing was that the restaurant at the brewery was only serving a choice of two dishes.. Chicken or Ox. So we ordered one of each and split them both. And this is when I tried Ox. My husband, being the sweetest man alive, let me eat the whole chicken while he suffered with the rest of the tough, chewy Ox after I decided I didn’t like it. The food options may have been limited, but the beer options were out of this world! They had just about every flavor beer on tap you could ever imagine. In fact, believe it or not, I was drinking grapefruit beer all night long that tasted just like Fresca! Remember the soda Fresca?? It was like candy in a cup! And for the first time ever, I was keeping up with my husband. Feeling pretty good about myself that night 🙂

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Really, the only major thing I wanted to do in Salzburg right when I got there was run in a filed, spin around, and sing, “The Hills Are Alive” from The Sound of Music. And on Monday – my dream came true! It was such a special day. Our hotel offered the cutest white bicycles with hand woven baskets attached to the front of each. So we went on a bike ride adventure through the villages of Salzburg. Biking just about every single neighborhood from morning to late afternoon. This was the day that I gave my husband a personalized DIY (do it yourself) Sound of Music Tour. Taking him to sites like the field Frau Maria sang, “The Hills are Alive” and the gazebo where “16 going on 17” was sung! He had to listen to me chant “My Favorite Things” and hear sporadic lines from “Do Re Mi”. It was one of my favorite days… and one of my husbands most feared. However, he stuck by my side and acted interested for the sole purpose of making me happy (and making a slight dream of mine come true)! And I made sure he got a giant beer right afterwards. We ate lunch on the lake and walked in a number of beautiful gardens. It was so nice!

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After the tour I gave Mike, we hiked into the town where we got to walk through Mozart’s birth place and see his very first violin he received when he was just 6 years old! For those of you who don’t know, I’m a violin player, so this was really cool to me. We toured the home and saw some sweet love notes he had written to his wife as well as locks of his hair (kind of weird). It was awesome.

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That night, we had dinner at a Michelin Star Restaurant right in town, called Carpe Diem. The restaurant was so cute! The downstairs being more casual, serving only cocktails and the most adorable appetizers all in ice cream cones! Apps like beef tartar, tuna tartar, cheeseburger and fries (in a cone!!), brie cheese and raspberries, just about anything you can imagine! The upstairs being more formal, where the Michelin Star restaurant is located. We ate upstairs, but still got a complimentary beef tartar cone before our starters! I had lobster to start followed by Guinea fowl and Mike had an egg and caviar starter followed by veal cheek. For desert we got the infamous Salzburger Nockerl. It is my new favorite desert! It was a delicious meal.

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The next day we boarded the fast train to Innsbruck – home of the Winter Olympics years and years ago! While sitting on the train we eavesdropped on the funniest little American family of four… Their deep discussion revolving around their rebellious teenage son refusing to learn how to ride a bike while also reading travel guides out loud. As uninteresting as this might sound to you, we rarely ever hear Americans, and this family kept us quite entertained… Making the hour and a half train ride quite interesting!

Until takes from our night in the mountains of Innsbruck, Prost!!