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2016 European Christmas Vacation: The Summary

It’s been a while since I’ve wrote in here, and mostly because work (and going back to school!) has meant that I really have no interest in typing or staring at a computer screen in my free time. However, I feel that my recent vacation is a great way to ease back into blogging, especially since I want to write about it while it’s fresh in my mind.

I have this terrible fear that I’ll never be able to travel, or do anything fun really, once I get older. While that’s probably a mix of true and false, it really made me want to go back to Europe again before our lives get crazier. So, we decided to go during the holidays since I would be off school. For our honeymoon, we went to a few cities in Germany and Austria, and we decided to go back and add Amsterdam into the mix. One of the best things we did was pay a little extra to allow data on our phones while we were over there — this allowed me to download and use the TripAdvisor app, which turned out to be amazing! Walking around and being able to look up things to do and places to eat on my phone, as well as read reviews, really helped guide us to some good places. The best part about the app was the timeline option: it allowed me to track everything I did every day.

So, without further ado, here’s a timeline of where we went and what we did. If I ever go back, I’m hoping I’ll be able to refer to this post.

December 22 – 23: Nuremberg, Germany

The one thing I was most excited about in Nuremberg was seeing their Christmas markets (and, sadly, there was a lot of fear going on about even visiting these markets since the attack in Berlin happened a few days prior). Nuremberg is a really old town, and it’s definitely not car-friendly, so luckily Jon and I are used to walking everywhere. Since we arrived on our first day in the afternoon, it was the perfect time to visit the Christmas market once it got dark. There were SO many vendors, and so many places to get Gluhwein (a hot, spiced wine) and just people watch. I bought two HUGE frosted gingerbread cookies, and they were amazing! They had frosting on top, and the bottom was this thin kind of wafer. Whatever they were, they were good. I also want to add that Germans don’t let anything ruin their fun — the crowds were huge for this, and the police were walking around and blocking off any road entrances. I definitely felt safe and didn’t worry much about a second attack.

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Just me enjoying some Gluhwein (or three) at the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt!

The second day, our goal was to check out the beautiful castle located in the city: Kaiserburg Nurnberg. Like pretty much every castle we’ve visited before, this one had a VERY steep incline to walk up! I was actually really impressed that some people got up there with strollers and small children, especially with the ground wet from rain. The castle was a great spot to learn more about the city, as well as (unfortunately) how much was ruined and rebuilt during WWII. Being so high up also gave us some great picture opportunities of the city.

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View of Nuremberg, Germany

For dinner, we found an awesome small restaurant called Goldenes Posthorn. I had my favorite Nurnberger-style bratwurst with some kraut, and the apple strudel was amazing and covered in cream! In addition to seeing the castle, we also visited the large churches in the area.

December 24 – 26: Vienna, Austria

I think we were both surprised at how we thought Vienna would look in our minds compared to what it actually was: a HUGE city with an endless amount of grand structures, beautiful architecture and lots and lots and LOTS of Mozart. Vienna was home to Mozart, and the gorgeous St. Stephen’s cathedral is where he was married as well as where his funeral service was. Every ten steps you walked, there was at least one store selling something with Mozart on it, or someone trying to get you to come to a Mozart concert. They love their Wolfgang there.

We stayed at the Hotel Wandl, which is located right in the heart of the city center. Hotel Wandl had such nice people working there — they gave us great recommendations for dinner, and the one guy was a huge fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James, which was hilarious! He bounced between the front desk and manning the small hotel bar, and we enjoyed talking to him. Unfortunately, this is also where I got probably the worst sleep of the trip… Hotel Wandl is one of the older hotels in Vienna, and they didn’t have any A/C in the rooms. On top of it, our room’s “window” was just a window opening into the atrium inside the hotel, so we didn’t have any fresh air. The room was really humid and just too hot to get good sleep in. German and Austrian hotels use two thick, almost duvet-style sheets with absolutely nothing else underneath, so if you get hot, you pretty much have to unzip the duvet cover and try sleeping with that instead. For anyone considering this hotel, my advice would be to not do it in the summer months.

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The stunning St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria

We arrived in Vienna around 4pm, and since it was Christmas Eve we were hoping to attend mass in the cathedral, so we headed over to St. Stephen’s. There was already a huge line outside, so we entered and took our seats. What we ended up seeing wasn’t an evening mass, but actually something just as beautiful: violins, trumpets, a bassoon, a choir and organist playing Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore, composed in 1780 and intended for liturgical use. The songs were in Latin and in between songs psalms were read and a homily was given by the bishop. Hearing the choir and instruments played in such a beautiful space was breathtaking, and I felt like we really got to experience a truly authentic tradition in Vienna as well as listen to locals perform their beloved Mozart. On another day, we went back to the cathedral and took an elevator all the way up to the very top where the bell tower was. It was a great way to view the whole city from high up!

Vienna was and still is a place of money – you can tell by the elaborate buildings, palaces and churches, and the incredible amount of detail on every corner and surface. This makes the city quite different from other smaller towns and cities in Austria — you can’t see the mountains, there isn’t a rustic feel to the area, and things are a little less humble. I think Jon and I both enjoy the scenery in smaller Austrian towns best, as well as exploring castles, so Vienna almost didn’t feel like it was part of Austria.

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You think this is fancy? Almost every building looked like this!

When we planned our trip, we knew that attractions may be limited during Christmas Day, and we were correct. Luckily, the art museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum, was open, and I was extremely happy about that having read some of the reviews. This museum was, hands down, the most beautiful museum I’ve ever been in. It was built for Franz Joseph I, and every ceiling of this beautiful building has murals and details that you could stare at for hours. The museum itself is quite large — it took us about three hours to walk through, and that was at a pretty fast pace. It houses a great collection of artists, including some Rembrandts and a Vermeer (which I proudly spotted before reading the plaque – my humanities and art history classes came in handy!).

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Inside the Kunsthistoriches Museum. Do you see what I mean? It’s gorgeous.

Other places we visited during our time in Vienna included the city center, Votivkirche (another church), the parliament building and the royal crypt (I have a thing for cemeteries and crypts. The one thing I want to do if I’m ever back in Vienna is go to the large cemetery outside of town that is the burial spot for many classical musicians. There wasn’t an easy way to get there, so we didn’t go.). As far as restaurants went, we were definitely limited to where we could eat due to Christmas, but we got some of the best Italian food I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Da Capo – it had exposed brick and a really long menu to choose from. The food was delicious! Traveling in Germany and Austria is always hard for someone who doesn’t enjoy eating a lot of meat, and there’s only so many times I can have bratwurst. So, Italian food was a good way to have a bit of a break.

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I loved this creepy skull on top of one of the coffins in the crypt.

December 27 – 28th: Salzburg, Austria

I’m not going to lie: Salzburg was probably the city I was most excited about seeing when we first planned our trip. Why? It’s where The Sound of Music was filmed! When I learned that it was filmed in Austria as a kid, I knew that I wanted to go there one day, and I did for the first time during our honeymoon, but we never made it to Salzburg… the closest we got was visiting Hohenwerfen, which you can see in the background in this scene. Hohenwerfen is one of my favorite castles — I really want to go back there one day!

Anyway, back to what’s important: Fraulein Maria. Salzburg must get pretty bad during the winter, because so many things weren’t open for the season, including a really cool Sound of Music bicycle tour that I wanted to do, as well as Hellbrunn Palace. It didn’t stop us from braving the cold, rainy weather to visit the sites that we could, including Mirabell Gardens (“Do Re Mi” was filmed there), the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gazebo located in the gardens of Hellbrunn Palace, Nonnberg Convent where “Maria” and some other scenes from the abbey were filmed, and St. Peter’s Monastery and Catacombs which the Nazi flee scene was based on (they recreated it back in Hollywood). I plan on watching the film sometime soon so I can really see where they were compared to where we walked around, but I feel like I’ll just start crying if I watch it! Really, Sound of Music is so near and dear to my heart and I never thought I would be fortunate enough to actually see where it was filmed. Ugh, my heart is full! By the way — most people in Austria haven’t even seen Sound of Music. I think they’re missing out.

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I love when I find something completely unexpected while exploring. For me, that moment came when we went to St. Peter’s Monastery and Catacombs. I thought there would be a few tombstones, but I honestly couldn’t remember the Nazi flee scene from the film, so I didn’t know what to expect.

This place was probably one of the most beautiful cemeteries I had EVER seen. My pictures don’t do it justice at all, so I’ll include one from the internet. We visited this as the sun was setting, and it made the red votives on the plots twinkle, the flowers to appear more vibrant, and overall there was just a beautiful sense of peace. Jon was creeped out (and yes, I can see how most would be), but I really could have stayed there and just read a book on one of the benches! Does that make me weird? Probably.

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Really – this doesn’t do it justice. It’s gorgeous!
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You know I scouted for the creepiest statue I could find there.

If a city has a castle or fortress, Jon and I always want to go! We decided to visit the Salzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg) and ended up not only getting a nice history lesson on the city, but also a beautiful view. The museum inside the fortress wasn’t as impressive as others, especially without a guided tour, but it did allow us to take a little break from my Sound of Music spree. The top of the fortress was cold and windy, but the heavy clouds made for some pretty photos. Salzburg really is a beautiful place — I definitely want to go back during the spring or summer in the future!

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I think this was the only picture we took together! We were more focused on the scenery.
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Help! I’m trapped in a fortress! haha

On our last full day in Salzburg, we had to take our car (which is weird since we usually are used to getting everywhere on foot) to Hellbrunn Castle, which was a few miles away but home to the very important “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gazebo. The castle itself is supposed to have a beautiful garden, a “trick” fountain, and you can tour inside the castle. Unfortunately, the grounds were completely closed and it looked like they had just wrapped up a Christmas market. Luckily, we were still able to at least go to the garden and find the gazebo.

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The gazebo is locked now, so you can’t go inside. This was a shame because I really wanted to hop from bench to bench like Liesl did!

We had read about a place a few miles away from Salzburg called Untersberg where you can take a cable car all the way up to the alps. Since we really had seen everything we could see in the city, we decided that the cold and dreary day would be perfect for checking out the top of a mountain.

The cable car ride up to the top was pretty exciting, although it went VERY slow, so I would feel bad for anyone with a terrible fear of heights! As we kept climbing up and up, we got to a point near the mountain that seemed like we had finally reached the top, but the car didn’t slow down. Instead, it went UP a little and took us directly over a large rock that we thought we were going to hit, only to take us up even FURTHER to the top. There definitely were a few gasps from fellow riders! We knew we had reached the very top when we stopped seeing what was beneath us and instead were surrounded by thick clouds. Not being able to see what was underneath us actually made it scarier for me.

When we exited the cable car, we realized that perhaps it hadn’t been a good day to go: the wind was so strong that the glass doors leading outside were completely white from the windblown snow, and we knew that we weren’t going to be able to see much. We were already up there, so we decided to head out.

I am not sure if I just couldn’t see this because it was so heavy with snow and wind, or if they really just didn’t care, but I saw absolutely no railings to protect anyone at the top! The path was steep and slippery and it was hard to see a few feet ahead of us. We walked about a quarter of a mile before we decided to turn around — it just didn’t feel safe to be walking without any visibility.

And this, unfortunately, was the last day of me feeling well. I blame the snow, wind, lack of consistent sleep, and too much wine.

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View from the cable car!
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The side of the restaurant on top of the mountain looked like we were in the middle of Winterfell
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Do I look warm? I’m not.

December 29th: Heidelberg, Germany

Our next stop was back to our very first stop on our honeymoon – Heidelberg! I have to pause, however, to talk about the hilarious Burger King experience we had while grabbing lunch on the road. Although I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s, they seem to be the only reliable form of fast food in Germany or Austria. They even had self-serve kiosks available in German and English, which made ordering super easy. I guess we assumed that Burger King would be the same.

Nope.

The young female cashier at Burger King didn’t seem to speak English very well. Trying to make it as simple as possible, I told her I wanted a “number two” which was a Whopper Jr. meal on the menu. She said “Two?” and I’m like “Yep, two.” Then I asked if it came with a drink and she said, “Drink?” and I said, “Yes, a coke.” She obviously thought I wanted “two” of everything plus an additional drink, because when our food came out, I was mortified… here I was sitting in front of two Whopper Jr.’s, two fries, and THREE COKES (which, of course, came sans ice or lid). Talk about looking like a fat American. Jon and I just looked at all the food and cracked up. The burgers weren’t very good, unfortunately, so we left most of the food uneaten.

Anyway, back to Heidelberg. We decided to stay in the same little bar/inn called The Dubliner that we had stayed in on our honeymoon. In order to get your room key, you basically walk into the bar and the bartender checks you in and hands you your key. The best part about staying here is you actually get a discount at anything in the bar for being a guest!

We only had one night in Heidelberg, so Jon decided to meet up with an old work colleague who lived nearby. We filled our time between arriving and dinner by heading to another Christmas market. This market was beautiful simply because it had the castle in the background. They had an ice skating rink as well! It was very chilly that day, and I was beginning to feel what would end up being a terrible respiratory flu coming on. My bones felt sore and I just couldn’t get warm at all. I had a respiratory flu back in July and the symptoms were the same, so I knew I was definitely in trouble.

The restaurant we ate at was a really large brewery called Kulturbrauerei and was laid out in the traditional German style of long tables shared by multiple parties. I was an old lady and had a pot of tea instead of beer, and I ordered a delicious baked feta and risotto dish. It was nice to have Christian and his wife join us for dinner — having good company was nice for a change.

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December 30th: Cologne, Germany

Ah, back on the road again. I was smart enough to only pack up a backpack when we stayed in Heidelberg for the night (mostly because I already knew The Dubliner didn’t have an elevator for their third-floor rooms), so we got up and back in the car pretty quickly and began our journey to Cologne.

If you’re looking for an old, beautiful German town, Cologne probably shouldn’t be your first choice. It’s a relatively industrial-looking city, with plenty of large companies in the vicinity. What drew us to Cologne was, of course, their beautiful cathedral (Cologne Dom). According to Wikipedia, it is Germany’s most-visited landmark and the tallest twin-spired church.

After having an early lunch, we walked over to the cathedral to take a look inside. It was beautiful! We found out that you could even go all the way to the top, so we decided to buy tickets to do that. Unfortunately we realized that (unlike the St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna) there wasn’t an actual elevator to take you to the top — you had to walk. Ugh.

If you were not the religious type prior to visiting this cathedral, you would be about ten minutes into the ascent to the top. Why? Mostly because you were praying that you would only have a few steps left to go. What started as an innocent-looking spiral stairs turned into a dizzying, claustrophobic act of torture. The stairs could not have been more than six feet wide and contained very few tiny windows as you walked up and up and up. Keep in mind that you not only had people walking up, but people descending the stairs as well. It was terrifying every time you had to somehow make way for people to pass.

The stairs seemed to go on forever — the sign outside of the ticket booth said it was an estimated twenty minute ascent on foot. That doesn’t seem like much until you realize what a tiny, twisting space you’re in… not to mention there weren’t many breaks aside from about two quarters of the way up, where you could stop and look at the bell tower.

By the time we arrived in Cologne, I was developing a bad cough and still feeling pretty weak. I didn’t want that to stop me from seeing this beautiful cathedral that I had heard so much about from Jon. I tried… I really did… to complete that ascent. After fifteen minutes of climbing, in which i had to press my arm against the cold stone to keep myself from passing out, I decided that I couldn’t go any further. I stayed at the bell tower and put my head in my lap and tried to catch my breath, and I told Jon to go on without me. He didn’t come back for about twenty more minutes! I was glad I made the decision to stay where I was.

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Bell tower inside Cologne Dom
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Looking up

At this point in our trip, I knew I needed to find medicine to help bring up whatever was getting caught in my lungs before it turned into an infection. Here’s the fun thing about Germany: you can’t buy normal over-the-counter medicine in their shops. You have to visit their pharmacies, called an Apotheke, to get medicine. I was able to find one and luckily get some (admittedly WAY stronger than what the U.S. sells!) form of an expectorant. I was very thankful I didn’t need to see a doctor or get a prescription to get some kind of medication! We went back to our hotel, and I slept, all the while knowing in the back of my mind that we had an early train to catch to Amsterdam the next day.

The final stop: December 31st – January 3rd – Amsterdam, Netherlands

I’m a romantic – I was super excited about this train ride into Amsterdam. The Cologne Central Station was beautiful and bustling at 7:00 AM, with what seemed like endless platforms. I don’t know what it is about train stations or airports, but they always get me excited and energized (which is odd because, as an introvert, I’m not supposed to like crowds). I guess it’s the idea of exploration that I love: all of these people coming and going, announcements made in multiple languages, the steam rising from the platforms, and the bags under people’s eyes as they face the long journeys ahead of them.

It seemed like we waited forever for our train to come. We read the schedule screen on our platform incorrectly, and we missed our train — we had unknowingly watched it come and go! So, we had to go back to the kiosk and get new tickets. The next train was two hours away, and we were a little pissed that we had already checked out of our hotel and now had to find a place to pass the time (thank you, Starbucks!).

I was relieved when the train came. Usually I would have wanted to people watch or read a book, but the medicine I took was making me incredibly tired. I did something I usually find impossible to do — I slept the majority of the way! I did wake up in time, however, to get a little packet of Haribo gummy bears that they were handing out. Germans sure love their gummy bears.

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Amsterdam Central Station

We checked into our hotel at the Park Plaza Victoria, which was conveniently located right across the street from the train station. As soon as we exited the station, it was obvious that crowds were beginning to pick up for New Year’s Eve celebrations that night.

Although it is technically illegal to smoke marijuana outside of a coffee shop in Amsterdam, the scent of pot was pretty much floating around everywhere, and people didn’t seem too cautious about rolling joints for everyone to see. As we stopped and had lunch, we counted two different groups duck into the alleyway near the window to roll joints, and I kept seeing people walking by with ice cream as well. Ice cream in December? It seemed like an odd thing until we learned that they were cannabis-laced ice cream cones!

I had big plans for our New Years Eve: I had bought tickets to a huge event that included several DJ’s, plenty of alcohol and live entertainment. I continued to feel pretty sick, however, to the point where my body ached to even move around. I realized that I needed to be honest with myself and admit that I could not possibly stand around a loud, crowded area and party that night. Looking back, I’m still really mad about this… I was most excited to see Amsterdam, I wanted to go out and have a good time, and I wanted the energy to do it. We spent New Year’s Eve watching Harry Potter (seriously) on TV in bed, and we didn’t really get good sleep until about 4 a.m. due to the constant fireworks going off. I really do not think I will plan an action-packed trip like the one we had in the winter again, because apparently my immune system couldn’t handle it.

Feeling terrible and having absolutely no appetite left me weak, but I was determined to not let it stop me from seeing what I wanted to see in Amsterdam. One of our first stops was the Van Gogh museum. We got to see a great collection of Van Gogh’s work, but the main highlight of this museum was actually the interactive tour. We were given iPod-like devices that allowed us to navigate the museum on our own and listen to different information based on the pictures we were seeing. You didn’t have to go in order, and some of the artwork even had some interactive features on the device! I felt like I learned a lot more using this.

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I think I was about to pass out here.

I used to love Heineken in college, and I always thought it would be cool to get a tour of the brewery if I went to Amsterdam. We were planning on seeing if we could get tickets for this, but we ended up changing our minds after we saw the incredibly long line. After touring several small breweries, we agreed that we wouldn’t enjoy it if the brewery was completely packed with people. This is still on my list for if I ever get to go back, however! I think I would probably buy tickets ahead of time and do it on a weekday (not on a holiday weekend!).

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Next on our list to see was the Anne Frank house and museum. I have not quit many books halfway through, but unfortunately The Diary of Anne Frank was one of of them. I was worried that I wouldn’t appreciate this museum as much as others because of this, but I was wrong! This house is, obviously, incredibly small. Because of this, the museum only allows about 20 people to go through at one time, which then can create extremely long lines. I had booked our tickets a few months ahead, and even then they were selling out within minutes! We tend to be spontaneous on our trips, but I was very glad I at least planned this part ahead.

The one thing I never realized about Anne Frank was that the family actually had multiple rooms in the annex. I had always just assumed that they were crowded in this single room. They actually had a decent-sized kitchen and bathroom, and you could easily see how the room had been well-hidden. Another thing I never knew was that Anne went through multiple journals. Her original journal was plaid (this was on display and, again, I never had known what it looked like), but she continued to write in notebooks and scraps of paper afterwards. It’s incredibly sad that Anne and her family were shut out from the world for so long, and especially in such a beautiful place like Amsterdam.

As we were walking around the city, which was pretty cold and rainy, I saw many tour boats going around the canals. Yes, it seemed touristy, but it also seemed like a great way to see the city! The canal cruise we went on was wonderful because it allowed you to see the city in a different perspective. The slow pace allowed me to really take in the architecture of the houses (we learned that they were intentionally designed to lean in like they do), learn some of the history, and admire this amazing canal system that made the city so prosperous. One of the most interesting things that I noticed were the adorable boat houses all along the canals! These houses were pretty much just as expensive, if not more, than brick and mortar houses in the city. It reminded me of the children’s TV show PB & J Otter, which was about a family of otters living in a boat house. I think I have a new goal for where I want to retire one day!

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Waiting for the canal tour to start!
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Swimming in the canal! Kidding.

We ended up stumbling onto the famous flower market after visiting the Anne Frank museum. This flower market is floating on the canal, and they had tons and tons of beautiful tulips, tulip bulbs, seeds, and gifts. If going through customs wouldn’t have been an issue, I think we would have purchased some bulbs to plant at home!

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Tulips, tulips, and more tulips

So, how was the food in Amsterdam? I think it was certainly a more diverse cuisine than the other places we visited, and I was thankful for the variety. Holland is famous for cheese, so we decided to try out a fondue restaurant in the Red Light District (yes, they have awesome restaurants, yes, there were prostitutes, but not nearly as many as I thought there would be). The restaurant was called Het Karbeel, and the fondue was amazing! The best part, though, was the adorable little restaurant cat hanging out near the bar. She had her own seat and was sleeping peacefully despite the crowd.

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A very rough life for a fondue restaurant cat.

One other thing that anyone traveling to Amsterdam should know is that they LOVE Pringles. I’m not even kidding – they were everywhere, and were certainly the snack of choice at any bar we went to. Heineken in Amsterdam was also, of course, completely different. It lacked the skunky smell that you get when you buy it in the U.S. and was a lot smoother. I stuck to Coke, but I did have a few sips!

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Fun fact: apparently Rembrandt was buried here. There isn’t a marker of any sort for him because he was bankrupt when he died.

Overall, our trip was a great one. I am not sure we would travel during the holidays again, simply because of the crowds, unreliable attraction hours, and the weather, but we were able to see many cities in the small amount of time that we did. We picked up a few new German words, accidentally crashed a gay Meetup at a restaurant, had many people associate Lebron James with us being from Cleveland, and we made memories that will last us a lifetime. Next on my list is still Scotland, but I’m not sure when that will ever happen… here’s to hoping!

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