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Entries about christmas

Canary Islands

The best way to end off a chilly winter vacation

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This was the most amazing place we’ve been to for sure. It was extra impressive though because it was my first beach vacation, and I think I loved it so much because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. We were lucky and got great weather the whole week and two of the most amazing hosts anyone could ask for. I’m starting to understand why people “snowbird”— this was a much needed escape from the grey, rainy winter in Europe this year. After spending the week lounging around beaches and getting to know some of the locals, I can safely say we chose the wrong major. I’m half kidding, but I’d really love to be able to speak Spanish! We had the most amazing hosts here who showed us around the island and took us to places we never could have reached on our own. We spent a lot of time on beaches, of course, but also took in a few sites like a salt museum by the salt flats, the island of Lobos, although that also just ended up being a beach day, and a trip to Timanfaya park on Lanzarote. The culture is great here and the island is beautiful. I don’t think we could have chosen a better place to end our trip.

The day we arrived our hosts, Julio and Isabel, picked us up from the airport and took us around the island to some places not accessible by bus. We saw a black sand beach in Ajuy and some caves there. I had fresh fish for the first time since we left home for lunch. Afterwards we went to Isabelle’s parents’ house and got to see the most typical lifestyle on Fuerteventura. They have a huge goat farm with about 300 goats, also lots of sheep and chickens and even a few peacocks! After tourism, goat farming is the main industry on the island. They took us to see the sunset at the Faro de la Entallada, near Gran Tarajal, which was unbelievable. We went back and got some rest, looking forward to the rest of the week.

The next few days we spent visiting all the beautiful beaches on the island. For a small island with relatively few inhabitants, there’s a great bus service for tourists. It runs the entire length of the island and you can get to all the main places with it for only a few euros. We spent some time in Peurto del Rosario, which is where we stayed, and visited the salt flats in La Salina on our first day. We walked up to Caleta and caught a beautiful sunset there. Over the next couple of days we visited Morro Jable and Jandia beach, Costa Calma and La Barca beach, Corralejo, El Cotillo, and the beaches around these popular resort towns. El Cotillo was my favourite one, and it’s slightly on the western side of the island, so we got to see the sun set into the ocean.

We also managed to get in a couple of day trips. We spent one day on the Island of Lobos, a tiny island only a 15 minute ferry ride off the coast near Corralejo. The entire island is a national park. There are couple of houses where people live on a temporary basis, I think fishermen, and one small restaurant which sells nothing bus fresh fish. There a couple of really amazing beaches on the island which we spent some time at, then we got some fish at the restaurant before catching the last ferry back to Fuerteventura. On Saturday we went to Lanzarote to see the volcano there. It erupted in the 1700’s, so a huge part of the island is still covered in volcanic debris. The earth is still extremely hot there – there’s a restaurant at the top of the volcano mountain where they cook the food over a giant hole in the ground where the heat comes up. There’s a very narrow, windy road which goes through the volcano park which you can travel through on a bus to see some amazing views. It was great to see a little highlight of Lanzarote; it definitely looks like it would be worth spending some time there to see the rest of the island.

On our last day we took an amazing road trip with our hosts. They took us along with their friends and family to Cofete, a remote part of the island on the northern edge of the very southern tip. The beaches there are unbelievable. They stretch for kilometres with the Atlantic ocean on one side and huge mountains on the other. It’s a gorgeous part of the island. It’s both a good bad thing that it’s only accessible by a dirt road – there are never very many people there, which would be really nice, but it’s also hard to get to, not the kind of place you just go to for the beach, I guess. While we were in the area we also saw the “Winter House” a former Nazi lair owned by general Winter during WWII. The history of that war spreads so far! You literally can’t escape it, not even on a remote island off the coast of Africa. The house is really, really interesting, and we were extremely lucky and got to see inside. There are all kinds of legends you can read about, some of them are likely true! We were so lucky to get to go with Julio and Isabel to this part of the island.

This whole island is absolutely beautiful, and definitely my favourite place we’ve visited. It’s hard to compare it to city vacations in metropolitan Europe, but the whole experience was just unbelievable. I really love it here, too, because it reminds of home in a lot of ways. Life in Germany is very different. It’s a lot more stressed and rushed. I would also say people are generally more uptight there, understandably, but sometimes it seems excessive. People get antsy if the tram that comes every 6 minutes is 1 minute late, they’ll stand for 5 minutes at a cross walk with no cars if the light is red, it’s almost impossible to find someone who will take 15 seconds to give you quick directions, and waitresses get mad at you if you call them over to order something else after you get your meal. Here, it’s a lot more like home, and I love it. The people are unbelievably friendly and generous, they always smile and say hi, even if you don’t know them. There’s tons of fresh fish, but if that’s not what you like there are other options. The beaches are surrounded by cliffs, the cities aren’t crowded at all, the stores are open at least until 10, there are cafés everywhere and people drink coffee, which is delicious here, the beers are a manageable size, the busses are always late, if they come at all. There are also a lot of little, ridiculous things I really miss and have had a hard time finding in Germany, or Europe, like bedsheets, bathtubs, uncarbonated water, free bathrooms, garbage cans on the streets, and local music.

I think this would be an amazing place to live, if you can handle heat, but I can definitely say it’s a great place to visit. It would be well worth it to rent a car, though, because there are just so many places to see which you can only get to on roads through the mountains. Right now it’s the low season, so it wasn’t really crowded anywhere, even though the temperatures were up around 25° some days – definitely warm enough for the beach – but Julio and Isabel said the resort towns and beaches can get pretty busy in the summer. The smaller, more remote beaches are always relatively empty. You could easily spend a month here and probably never see the same beach twice, but I felt like we were rushed to see the main places with a week; it’s a place you would want to spend a lot of time in for sure. This was the perfect end to a wonderful trip, and a great “last hurrah” before we head back to Germany to buckle down for the rest of the semester. I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent the last week of our Christmas break, and the Canary Islands are definitely at the top of my “must return” list.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 19:28 Archived in Spain Tagged islands winter beach house villa christmas fuerteventura canary 2012 cofete Comments (0)

Munich

A very beautiful, very German city

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Our second last stop and the last city in mainland Europe we visited this Christmas break was Munich. I’ve really been wanting to see it, being so close in Freiburg, and this was perfect chance since it’s about half way between Prague and Freiburg. It’s a great city and very, very German. I guess most of the German stereotypes come from Bavaria. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I thought it was, but that ended up being a great thing since we had no problem getting around on foot. I guess it’s also one of the first cities we’ve been to in a while that doesn’t have two sides divided by a river, which makes it a lot more accessible for pedestrians. The city was really interesting and has a fascinating history. It’s very grim in a lot of ways, but nothing a few litres of beer can’t fix.

We did a walking tour on our first day, of course, and learned a lot about the city. The history goes way back to the Bavarian kingdom, but more recently it was the centre of the Nazi movement, being called by Hitler himself “Die Hauptstadt der Bewegung” – the capital city of the movement. He gave his inaugural speech as leader of the party in a beer hall here, he carried out the “beer hall putsch”, a first attempt to overthrow the government by force, here, he gave a speech every year on its anniversary here, and he opened the first concentration camp just outside the city in Dachau. Of course because of all this by the end of the war the city had been destroyed, but they knew it was coming and made a lot of effort to preserve original city plans and building blueprints. Because of this the city still looks quite beautiful compared to some other German cities, like Berlin, which were kind of just thrown up quickly according to the design of the time. Unfortunately 60’s and 70’s architecture is nothing special.

The nightlife in Munich isn’t exactly the liveliest, but we still had a good time at a couple of beer halls, which seems to be the thing to do here. We had a hard time finding cafés as always, but the drink of choice is definitely not coffee in this city. Our first night we went to the Hofbräuhaus, the royal brewery, which is where the stage Hitler gave his inaugural speech as leader of the Nazi party on is still standing. The beer was great, but the minimum litre you can order is a little much! The second night we went to the Augustiner Bierhalle and discovered why it’s the local favourite. The beer was probably the most delicious I’ve ever had, and even the pretzels were great.

There’s not a ton of stuff to see or do in Munich, but it’s definitely worth a visit and a few days is a great amount of time to see the main sites and discover the history. I’m glad we stopped over here, it was a great place to just take it easy with a few beers, but now we’re looking forward to getting some sun!

Here a few pictures of Munich.

And a few of our tour of Dachau.

Posted by kmclean 20:27 Archived in Germany Tagged beer germany christmas europe german hall munich putsch stereotypes mainland Comments (0)

Kutná Hora

A day trip from Prague

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This is a really cute little town about an hour outside of Prague and a really great day trip out of the city. We went with a tour company during our stay in Prague and it was definitely worth it. The town itself is really interesting and has a great history, but the most famous site is the ossuary – the bone chapel.

It was definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a small chapel just outside the town which was built on the site of former mass graves from the plague and the Hussite wars. The bones were piled up and a few hundred years later a very eccentric German just had to organize them. The Sedlec Ossuary is the result. There are towers, chalices, coats of arms, pyramids, a chandelier, and all kinds of other religious symbols built entirely out of human bones. The whole thing is very creepy, but if you get the chance Kutná Hora is really worth seeing. There’s also a really beautiful gothic cathedral there.

Kutná Hora used to be the site of a massive silver mining operation, and of course most of the money went into the cathedral, so it’s very extravagant. Being in Europe, though, the construction was interrupted several times by various wars and by the time they finished fighting and had the chance to finish building the church, they had spent all the money on war, so it was cut short – literally. It’s very small, and there’s a huge open space behind it, which is now a park, where you can tell they probably had plans to continue construction.

Even if you’re not into all the weird religious things about Europe, the town has an interesting history and is a very idyllic taste of small-town Europe. It was really great for us since we’ve been spending most of our time in cities. There are lots of beautiful, old, buildings which are all very fancy because of the wealth brought to the city by the mines. One that was really interesting is a house where a guy had “private” mines underneath, so he could steal the silver and not pay any taxes on it. Because of all the mines under the city, it’s becoming a little unstable. One of the other main churches there is starting to sink into the ground, most likely because of the mines and tunnels underneath it. Also, a couple of years ago a huge piece of the ground in the main square of the city caved in. The open spaces which are now “squares” in the town are former entrances to the mines, so it was probably to be expected eventually. They’re glad it didn’t happen about 10 metres to the east, though, where there’s a huge monument.

All the history and architecture was really interesting, but the best part of the tour was the lunch break. We went to a restaurant call Dačicky and it was delicious. We’ve really been enjoying Czech food anyway, but here it was really, really great. Our tour guide grew up in Prague and he said it’s his favourite restaurant in the country. They have all the traditional Czech dishes and a really good house beer with the same name as the restaurant. Everything was pretty cheap and the service was great, which I’ve found to be quite unusual for Europe. Czech food is really delicious, which was a great surprise. It’s got a lot of meat but not just pork. Duck, goose, rabbit, venison, and even veal are pretty common, and there’s a lot less cheese and salty sauces than Slovak food. Unfortunately there’s still quite a bit of sauerkraut, but still less than in Germany and Austria.

Kutná Hora is a really nice town and being only an hour away from Prague it makes for a perfect day trip out of the city. It was a perfect way to get away from the crowds (which I’m still not used to) for a day, learn a lot about Czech history, and eat some of the best Czech food there is. Besides one other tour group there were only a few people out and about in the town, it was really peaceful. It would be worth the 2 hour return trip anyway, I think, just for lunch if you’re in Prague and don’t really care for creepy monuments built out of human bones. There are really great little towns like this one with a lot to offer all over Europe, but this is one that’s definitely worth checking out.


Here are the pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:26 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged food prague christmas czech chapel hora bone ossuary kutna dacicky Comments (0)

Prague

New Year's Eve and a wonderful week in a beautiful city

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This was another great city. We spent a week here over New Year’s; I can’t imagine a better place to have celebrated New Year’s Eve. It’s a really beautiful city and very European. Lots of character, old buildings, and history. Over the week I feel like we got a good feel for the city, having the chance to see most of it. We did a walking tour the first day to get oriented and spent some time at the castle and in each of the other quarters of the city. Each district has a unique feel with lots to offer. We enjoyed the Christmas markets and the concerts, and were pleasantly surprised by Czech food. We also took a day trip to Kutna Hora to see the ossuary. It was definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. Prague was an amazing city, with great food, beer, people, entertainment, and culture. So far it’s definitely up there as one of the best cities we’ve visited.

We arrived in the evening on boxing day and spent the next day touring the city. We did a general walking tour and walking tour of the Prague Castle. It’s the biggest medieval castle in the world and it has some great cathedrals and basilicas. I can’t say enough good things about these tours. It’s only a couple of hours and you get a great overview of the history and culture of the city, see the highlights within walking distance and can usually get some great recommendations for other things to do from the guides. Now it’s usually the way we start our visit to any city.

The second day we spent the day seeing more of the sites – the Charles Bridge, the oldest synagogue in the world, the New Town, and in the evening we saw the Nutcracker at the National Theatre. After seeing the highlights of Prague, we left for a day trip on our third day in the city. We went to Kutná Hora on a tour with the same company we did our walking tour with. It’s a really beautiful little town about an hour outside of Prague with an extravagant gothic cathedral and a really great restaurant, but what it’s most famous for is the “bone chapel”.

The next day we also spent just touring around the city. It was a Sunday so we didn’t plan to do much, but it turns out Sunday is just another day in the Czech Republic. The country is mostly atheist, so I should have figured, but everything was open and running as usual; the stores don’t even have reduced hours on Sundays. It was really nice change compared to Germany where you can’t find a coffee shop that’s open at 9:00 am on a Monday and entire cities shut down for an entire day every week. We ended up heading up past the castle and seeing a “miniature museum” in the monastery complex up there. It’s a collection of small – really small – artwork and objects made by a Siberian guy with a lot of time on his hands. There’s a picture of Jesus on half a poppy seed and a caravan of camels inside the eye of a needle, also the smallest book in the world is there, among other things. It was a fun way to kill some time during the day, and in the evening we went to see Carmen at the State Opera. So far that was the most beautiful performing arts venue we’ve been to. It’s very extravagant.

We saw a couple of other concerts the next day. It was New Year’s Eve, so during the day we went to a concert in a palace at the castle and then a show at the last minute inside one of the basilicas up there. Both were classical music. I love cities like Prague where there’s classical music playing anywhere, any time of the day, all over the city. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out around the castle before we went out to supper for New Year’s Eve. We spent the night at a restaurant called Lvi Dvur. The food was excellent but the portions were tiny, and it was rather expensive, but what can you expect on New Year’s Eve. It was definitely worth it, though; there was a band, fireworks from their terrace, and they gave us champagne at midnight. It was definitely a New Year’s Eve I’ll never forget.

We didn’t do a whole lot on our last day in the city. Just walked around, picked up some souvenirs, and saw the “official” fireworks show at 6:00 pm. I don’t know why the city had their fireworks show in the evening on New Year’s Day. I guess all the restaurants and people fire their own fireworks on New Year’s Eve, so this way it doesn’t get interrupted as much, maybe. Either way, we made it up to the castle just in time and saw a great show.

It’s sad to be leaving the city after such an amazing week, but there’s still a lot to see so I guess it’s time to move on. It’s nice to stay so long in one place once in a while, you really get a feel for the city and start to figure your way around. The only reason it’s not my favourite is that it’s very touristy. There are shops around every corner full of mugs, magnets, t-shirts, crystal, glass, absinthe, and everything else. It’s also very crowded, but that happens this time of year. It probably isn’t so bad most of the time.

Of all the cities we’ve been to so far, this one is probably the most “European”. It’s got great music and theatre, beautiful architecture, amazingly rich history, good food, and friendly people. On top of that it’s very cheap and well connected. It has some of the oldest and biggest buildings in Europe and the world and a lot of really recognizable sites. If someone could only visit one city and wanted to experience Europe, this would be the place to go. I hope we get the change to come back someday.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:24 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague eastern christmas castle europe czech concerts republic hora kutna Comments (2)

Christmas in Vienna

Gorgeous place to be this time of year

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After Bratislava we took the one our train ride to Vienna. It was a beautiful place to be at Christmas time, and a gorgeous city overall. It’s famous for its music and performing arts, so we took advantage of that and got to see some quite amazing shows. The food was alright, definitely a step up from Bratislava, and the desserts were of course the best part. We had a wonderful time. It was definitely weird being away from home this time of year, but it was still a Christmas we’ll never forget.

We lucked out and got an apartment through airbnb for an unbelievable price for our stay, which was great. The hostels we’ve stayed in so far were all wonderful, too, and they’re definitely a great way to meet some really interesting people. It was nice being able to settle down though, even if it was only for 5 nights, and have a place to relax at the end of the day.

When we first arrived our hostess showed us around the city a bit and we spent the evening walking around and enjoying one of the Christmas markets. There were a lot of those here, the whole city was decorated for Christmas. It’s an unbelievably beautiful city, but also very posh. I don’t think I’ve seen so many fur coats in my life. Most European cities have one or two beautiful, old buildings; always a cathedral and usually a palace, castle, bridge, or other such site. But in Vienna these gorgeous, old, massive buildings never end. Everywhere we looked every building was a massive, old-looking, very fancy piece of architecture. Every museum or library or concert hall was some former emperor or prince’s apartment or palace or “winter home”. The entire city is so elegant, I guess partly because everything was re-built in the old style after the war, but also because it was an imperial capital for most of its history. It’s kind of like in Freiburg. Most of the buildings are less than 60 years old, but they were all rebuilt after original plans, so it still looks like a very old city.

We spent a few evenings in these former apartments and palaces enjoying the music the city is so famous for. We saw kind of a variety show in the Auersperg palace with an orchestra and opera singers and ballet dancers that accompanied them from time to time. We saw a really amazing quartet play in Mozart’s old apartment, and the Vienna Boy’s Choir sing in the Habsburg’s former winter residence. We also got standing places to see The Nutcracker at the Vienna State Opera on Christmas day. That is a gorgeous building. Standing during the entire show and only being able to see about half the stage was still worth the €3 ticket.

Besides all the concert halls and opera houses there are a lot of other things to do in Vienna. We spent a morning at the military history museum, which was really interesting. Austria has a very long and interesting imperial history which was really neat to learn about, but there were also exhibitions about more recent times when Austria was a part of Germany. We also spent a rainy morning in the Natural History Museum here. We could have easily spent the entire day there, I would definitely recommend it. Other than museums and music, the thing we always try to do in a new city is try a couple of restaurants.

One great thing about having an apartment was being able to eat some meals at home, but we still got out a couple of times. There are a lot of very expensive places and a lot of really kitschy places, but Christmas eve we managed to find a really great Italian restaurant downtown. Christmas day we also went out and I copped out and got pasta again, although I should have had the Wiener Schnitzel, which Mike was smart enough to order. I think only the Italians can make a pasta dish worth $15. After 3 months in Germany, though, and knowing that that’s where we’re headed after this amazing trip, I wasn’t keen on another pork and potatoes meal. At restaurants in Freiburg you usually don’t get a menu, rather just the questions “how many schnitzels and what kind of potatoes do you want?”. We also tried the fast food, but that was nothing special. You might be thinking “of course it wasn’t”, but probably the best thing about Germany is the fast food, if you can find it. The döners in Freiburg make for the most delicious $4 meal you’ll ever have. We gave them a try in Vienna, but it didn’t turn out so well.

To compensate for all the Turkish and Italian food, we had to try our share of Viennese desserts. They were all extremely overpriced, but sometimes worth it. The cakes were expensive, but I think $5-$8 is a reasonable price for a really delicious slice. The real scam was the coffee. It was just as expensive or more than the cakes and not that great. After Milan, though, coffee has never been the same. I would go back there just for the cafés. We tried the infamous Sacher Hotel Sachertorte, which was great but I have to say not as delicious as the one a couple of German friends back home make. We also went to the Café Central and had a similar experience – good food, but probably not worth the price. I guess you also pay for the atmosphere in these places, they were very extravagant.

Our time in Vienna was amazing, and it’s definitely a city worth visiting, if only for the concerts and concert halls. It’s definitely worth seeking out some smaller cafés outside the old city because the cake will probably be just as good and you won’t pay a fortune. Five days was enough time to get a good sense of the city and try out a little bit of everything, and also a good amount of time in the winter to allow for a couple of rainy days. It was a beautiful place to be at this time of year, although it was really weird not spending the holidays feasting with family. I’m sure this was a Christmas we’ll never forget.

Here are some pictures.

Posted by kmclean 20:23 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna eastern austria christmas europe cafes Comments (2)

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